This season a new private eye/enforcer has hit the airwaves, and he's a curiosity. There's McCall on "The Equalizer" and Spenser and Hawk on "Spenser: For Hire." Although the two programs are somewhat different in character, the men emerge from a peculiarly '80s sensibility.
Each man is an intriguing composite embodying some traditional romantic elements -- mystery, chivalry, rugged individualism and elitism. At the same time, each is a prototype of the New Male created by the feminist imagination. These men are sensitive, compassionate, literate, urbane and, perhaps most striking, devoid of racism and sexism.
In that sense -- and in that sense only -- they are true egalitarians.
Both "Spenser" and "The Equalizer" suffer from shortcomings and, indeed, are lagging in the ratings. Unclear story lines at times and characters often unaccounted for are among the problems. But the two programs are worth watching for their presentation of the New Male, a breed that may already be on its way out.
"The Equalizer's" McCall, played by Edward Woodward, is an ex-CIA type operative who works out of a New York City apartment as a benign enforcer. Spenser, Robert Urich, a former Boston cop, is now a private eye. Both men are Paladin's descendents -- with a difference.
Played by Richard Boone in the late '50s, Paladin was an ethical hired gun who came riding into Old West towns on his midnight black horse ready to help victims of injustice. Lean, tall, formidable, dressed in black and very male, he carried a business card that read, "Have Gun Will Travel." He belonged to the line of men that included Shane and the loners played by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.
McCall more closely resembles Paladin than does Spenser, but both are members of the family. There's something mythical about McCall. With no apparent means of support he is an elegant, cultivated well- dressed Englishman who lives in a handsome apartment, listens to classical music and plays the piano competently.
Having left the CIA for unexplained reasons, McCall is now dedicating his life to helping desperate people. "Got a problem? Odds against you? call the Equalizer," reads the ad he has placed in a New York newspaper.
His beneficiaries run the gamut of victimization: the mother of a kidnapped child, a woman harrassed by an obscene psychotic, a police officer surrounded by corruption, a teen-ager bullied by local thugs. McCall does not get paid for his services; that's a policy, and when one grateful client offers him $100, he says, "Give it to your favorite charity."
He has an extraordinary range of skills at his disposal -- he can track down anyone, disarm a bomb, outshoot the fastest gun -- along with a number of intensely loyal associates (from his old Agency days, it's assumed) whom he can call upon at a moment's notice for any worthy cause.
Like Paladin, McCall is a loner who stands outside his society. He's a guardian angel, compassionate and caring and personally invulnerable.
But unlike Paladin he is not simply Mr. Macho. In the '80s, this man has his demons too.
".>.>. I fooled everyone . . . They thought I was fearless .>.>.," McCall confesses to a distraught father whose daughter has been abducted. ".>.>. That was false .>.>. I was as frightened then as you are now .>.>. I was no hero .>.>. But then being a hero is not the most important thing, is it?"
This modern Paladin is a troubled anti- hero who is willing to talk about it. At the same time, he remains a mystery. These ambiguous revelations, frequently offered as pep talks to clients (something Paladin would never do), manage to evoke a sense of a dark and disturbing past. It seems significant that McCall has no present life to speak of. There are no close friends or steady lovers.
All the important events of his life have already taken place. He's been married, has a teen-age son from whom he's estranged. He lost a child in infancy. These are decidely contemporary themes, but the feeling is almost romantic. The power of McCall's past lingers: It has shaped and defined him, making him stronger, wiser and more sensitive.
McCall is also interesting politically. Quite a few of his targets come out of the Yuppie list of No-No's: corrupt union officials, civil servants, working class thugs. The point is not that corruption shouldn't be fought, but that somehow this kind of corruption is peculiar to the blue collar population in McCall's world. Although this is not leaned on, it suggests an elitism that is both outmoded and extremely current in feeling.
Critics of the program have focused on its pro-vigilante element. The fact is that McCall, like Paladin, is a vigilante. He takes the law into his own hands because, it's implied, someone has to do so: On many cases conventional law enforcement agencies simply can't cut it.
McCall's producers have tried to counter criticism by showing how he's different. When McCall tracks down a Charles Bronson "Death Wish" type who kills hoodlums, the bad guy says, "I thought we were on the same side." "If you thought that, you were wrong. Quite wrong," McCall answers. The difference is that McCall has no vindictive or personal stake in eliminating the criminal. His interest is in protecting the victim.
If McCall is in some ways larger than life, Spenser up in Boston is no more than life-size. He is a tough, idealistic ex-cop who couldn't work within the system and has set up his own office in an abandoned fire house. Unlike McCall, whose life is mysterious and haunting, Spenser is up front. He lives in the here and now, in a clearly defined upwardly mobile world. He's a gourmet cook in a fully stocked kitchen, complete with herbs and spices and a selection of wines. Oddly enough, and this is very un-Yuppie, money is never referred to, as if the very concept is vulgar and soiling.
Spenser is also very macho. As an ex- professional boxer, he still works out at Cimoli's gym and has no trouble wasting the baddies. But he also has no hesitation about showing that he's read a book or two. He often quotes from Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Melville and, on occasion, the Bible in order to make a point. There's nothing new about the macho male who is also literate and sensitive. What's new is Spenser's revealing it by quoting poetry and alluding to philosophical works. The feminist influence has made this okay.
And unlike the traditional enforcer, Spenser has the peculiarly modern problem of making morally hard choices. When he kills a hit man who has been hired to rub him out, he temporarily adopts the hit man's orphaned children! He does more. He tracks down the man who hired the contract killer and forces him to support the children as the price of not being turned over to the cops. Spenser has done some fancy moral footwork here in answer to a dilemma: Should he hand over the contractor to the authorities or work out his own justice in a private deal? He opts for the latter -- the vigilante solution. McCall's kind of justice.
Spenser's moral awareness is important: He's Catholic and so is the Boston universe out of which he comes. When his Jewish girlfriend, school psychologist Susan Silverman (Barbara Stock), finds herself pregnant with his child and wants an abortion, Spenser is anguished, every moral fiber in his being repelled. He's willing to marry her, but she's not ready to give up her home, life-style and independence. Spenser accepts her abortion and makes an uneasy peace with himself and her. It is the '80s, after all.
So here is Spenser, the updated mythical loner, now domesticated in the realist setting of everyday Boston, complete with apartment and "meaningful relationship." He also has Hawk, played by Avery Brooks, a close black friend and a free- lance enforcer for the mob who occasionally works as Spenser's backup.
Hawk is the most self-conscious character on TV today. Always in control, he is fully aware of his effect on others. He's big, totally bald and menacing, smiling at carefully chosen, inappropriate moments. He mockingly plays the suave urbane black ganster. Intercepting a thug who is about to inject a witness with a lethal substance, he says, "Don't you know it's illegal to practice medicine without a license in the state of Mass-uh-chu-setts?"
Spenser accepts Hawk without guilt or anger or the slightest trace of discomfort. They're figures in an old myth -- men who live by traditional codes of justice and honor -- and they need each other. Survival demands mutual, unquestioning trust. Male friendship in the '80s transcends cultural, ethnic and even personal difference. The relationship is curiously old-fashioned, almost emerging from a Wild West sensibility, with a decidedly modern flavor.
Male, black-and-white friendship, equality between men and women, frank admissions of fear -- all of these mark the new and improved male enforcer as we've known him from the time of black and white movies to the video cassette. And the truth is, Spenser and McCall may be the first and last of their breed.
A new male type has already made his aggressive appearance on the TV scene and zoomed to the top of the ratings. Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas of "Miami Vice" are a far cry from Paladin and his modern descendants. In their cool, non-verbal detachment, their hipness, their trendy expensive clothes, their endless narcissism and smug assumptions of superiority, they exist in a world in which feminism has made no dent. It's a world devoid of real moral conflict. Johnson and Thomas reflect a growing audience for whom image is substance, words superfluous, issues irrelevant. Paladin and his descendents, whatever their many faults, are at bottom moral beings.
I'm sort of going to miss such old- fashioned males as McCall and Spenser. And compared to Don Johnson's glitzy outfits, I find Spenser's ski cap and pea jacket truly seductive.
Simi Horwitz is a freelance writer who watches television in New York.