Kolchak: The Nightstalker is a much better than average TV show from the seventies about a reporter who works for a newswire service. The episodes typically follow a standard format: Karl Kolchak is driving around in his yellow Stanger when a report of a murder or robbery comes over his bootleg police band radio. He then cuts the wheel, heads to the scene of the crime, and shows up, either brandishing his recording device or snapping photos.
A surly detective or harness cop at the crime scene tells Kolchak to take a hike. But Karl’s doggedness allows him to either snatch up some clues or secure the interview that gives him an angle on the crime, usually one overlooked by the cops. As the investigation deepens, Karl begins to suspect that more than foul play is at work. Something supernatural is afoot. His boss at INS (which stands for International News Service here, not Immigration and Naturalization Services) asks him how that article’s coming along. Karl rushes headlong into a description of how he thinks a mummy or vampire or killer robot or Aztec god has been unleashed on Greater Chicago. Karl’s boss, Tony Vincenzo, at this point will grab his stomach or chest, looking as if his ulcers are leaking acid. Of course, he doesn’t go along with Karl’s theory, and asks Kolchak if he maybe needs to take a vacation or spend a couple months in the bughouse. After doing his Italian version of the old Fred Sanford chest clutch, Tony tells Karl to scrap the mummy/killer robot angle and get down to some real legwork.
But Karl remains persistent, and at this point in the episode he goes to an expert in whatever esoteric lore relates to the murderer. He usually interviews a prim man with a tight suit and aquiline nose, who scoffs at the idea that the monsters of antiquity are real. But said-person still supplies Kolchak (for a nominal fee) with some info about what tradition tells us about the chink in said-monster’s armor.
Kolchak starts cogitating, usually in his office, seated at his desk across from a couple of other INS staff. One’s a blue rinse biddy who plans the paper’s crossword, and usually provides comic relief as well as a bit of info. The other’s a waspy, priggish foil with a sandy-brown mustache, and a simpering manner that, in previous times, served as shorthand for possible homosexuality. After reading and maybe gathering a totem or two, Kolchak goes to face the monster in its lair. This involves pulling aside some rotted boards over the window of a condemned house or lifting a manhole cover and literally descending into the underworld (or at least the Windy City’s sewer system).
He has a confrontation with said-beast, and sometimes even snags a photo or two of the monster before vanquishing it. After dispatching the monster, he clutches his camera proudly, believing the evidence will prove he’s not in fact certifiable, but was right all along. Alas, either the pictures come out blurry, or the monster, in its confrontation with Kolchak, slaps the camera away and destroys the film. If that doesn’t happen, the detectives or harness cops who previously hindered Kolchak show up at the last minute and wreck or confiscate his evidence.
The episode usually ends with Kolchak seated at his desk at the INS office. He breaks the fourth wall and stares out at the audience as he records some final notes and musings on the now-closed case. In essence, he says, “You can believe it or not, but it happened.”
It might seem like I’m being a little dismissive of Kolchak, treating it as a paint-by-numbers affair. But the truth is that it’s an enjoyable and intelligent show, with some fine performances and some genuinely frightening moments. That has more to do with the details, though, than the broader picture and the premise which really can’t work for long (more on that later).
Everything good about the show starts with character actor Darren McGavin. He was immortalized in the classic film A Christmas Story, in which he plays a quintessential fifties dad who’s gruff but genuinely loves his wife and kids. Contra Christmas Story, in Kolchak McGavin is not a gruff paterfamilias, but rather a squirrely, single, somewhat undersized reporter whose main asset is his determination. His greatest liability is his mouth. He can come close to charming or buffaloing someone, but just when he’s on the verge of getting over, he makes a cutting remark or ill-timed joke. He’s loveable, irascible, and immediately recognizable in his seersucker suit, straw porkpie hat, and white sneakers (wearing tennis shoes during workhours was considered eccentric in the Seventies).
All of the supporting cast members are also more than up to the task. Old TV acting warhorse Simon Oakland is especially sympathetic as the burly, longsuffering news chief. He happily trades barbs with Kolchak, muting his affection for the reporter beneath a gruff exterior, but it’s plain he ultimately respects and trusts Karl.
As is the case with a lot of old great shows (like Miami Vice) soon-to-be-famous actors pop up in supporting roles, usually as villains. Eric Estrada, of Chips fame, plays a playboy in possession of a magical Aztec flute. It’s one of the more preposterous episodes, but he brings sufficient menace to the role to overcome the script’s defects. Tom Skerritt stands out as a Satan-worshipping senator who has traded his soul for political power. Unlike most actors guesting on the show, Skerritt undergirds his performance with a subdued gravitas that works better than the hammier displays that usually get turned in. He plays the evil Senator as a man who regrets his terrible decision, yet knows he cannot unseal the bargain he signed in blood with Old Scratch. And when he offers a similar bargain to Kolchak—maybe a Pulitzer instead of a corner desk beneath a clattering El train?— we see Kolchak’s face go through the whole range of emotions. The scene shows not only McGavin’s range, but how unplumbed the depths of this character remained. One has to wonder, that if Kolchak’s conscience and his past—his life, for God’s sake!—had been better mined by the writers, if the show might not have lasted longer.
David Chase, who would later go on to great acclaim writing The Sopranos, supplied a bunch of story ideas and teleplays for Kolchak. Robert Zemeckis, of Back to the Future and Forrest Gump fame, also did some work on an episode about a headless motorcyclist from a defunct biker gang.
The City of Chicago in the mid-seventies is also character in its own right.
Some of Kolchak was shot on-location, other bits on Universal backlots. But the sweeping shots of Chicago’s Gold Coast and Magic Mile usually feature in the episodes, if only during credits sequences. Lake Michigan slapping against the coast’s white sands is majestic, looking strangely exotic for a Midwestern locale. From certain angles, and in a certain light, it could be confused with South Beach (if you cropped out the hideous Hancock Building and a couple other skyscrapers).
Kolchak was popular with audiences and critics, but actor Darren McGavin grew restless near the first season’s end, and asked to be released from his contract. Why?
Well, Kolchak had some problems, despite being a very good show, made even better by the nostalgia factor of these intervening decades (time sprinkles its fairy dust liberally upon our misremembered past).
Horror maestro Stephen King pointed out what he considered the show’s fatal flaw in his magisterial book-length treatise on horror, Danse Macabre. His gripe is that the show’s serial format strains the audience’s suspension of disbelief. It’s unfair to ask them to believe that Karl could encounter a new monster every week.
One encounter in a lifetime with a werewolf, a vampire, a killer robot, or a witch might be believable. How, though, in a mundane world, can we believe that a seasoned reporter for a small news service could keep encountering supernatural beings?
King’s beef was ultimately McGavin’s beef. The actor quit the show at the height of its success, initially citing restlessness and exhaustion with his workload on uncredited production duties. But when he put in his two weeks’ notice, he was more specific: he thought the show was devolving into a “monster of the week” thing.
The problem for me, though, isn’t so much the straining of audience credulity. It’s that none of these supernatural events seem to have a lasting effect on Kolchak or any of the people around him.
Karl, at the beginning of the series, is your typical grizzled beat reporter. We know little about his personal life (and learn little throughout the course of the series). But it’s safe to say that he does not believe in ghosts and goblins. He doesn’t even seem like the kind of guy inclined to admit their possible existence after having a brush with one. He’d be more likely to assume a Scooby-Doo-esque plot afoot, some guy with a grudge or an agenda wearing a rubber mask and trying to scare people.
But in the first episode, Karl has a confrontation with what is undeniably a monster, and he is subsequently forced to believe.
And in the next episode, he has another confrontation with another ghoul.
To give the makers of the Kolchakverse the benefit of the doubt, let’s say there are certain stories Kolchak reports on that don’t have a supernatural element. Between monster cases, Karl writes up pieces about tax-dodging businessmen, lovers whose simmering quarrels boiled over into murder-suicides, jewel heists, etc., only these stories don’t appear on The Nightstalker.
Fine, but even granting this, Karl is still encountering supernatural beings every other week instead of every week. At what point does Karl—busy and practical as he is—stop and ask himself what all this supernaturality means? When does he stop, however briefly, to ask how the impossible has not only become possible but routine?
He might start to question his sanity, or perhaps some alteration in the laws that govern the universe. He might consider that there had been some kind of leak in the membrane heretofore separating fantasyland from reality.
It’s not just Karl, though, who should eventually start asking these questions and being changed by these events.
His boss, Tony Vincenzo, despite all his grimacing and ulcerated grumbles, sometimes makes minor concessions to Kolchak’s pet theories, crazy as they might seem. He wavers enough, in fact, that even he should eventually start to either question his perception or alter it to fit this new reality.
Kolchak, ultimately, would have had to become a magical realist show to survive. The mounting case files on vampires and werewolves would eventually have had some spillover into Greater Chicago, and then to the rest of the world. Even with the cops gainsaying Karl’s word and smashing his cameras on a biweekly basis, someone would eventually see what Kolchak saw. And be unable to dismiss it.
Well, then the seam torn in our reality by monsters would get ripped into a gaping hole. And we would be faced with a Chicago that would require some hard worldbuilding. David Chase would have to take a turn toward the Tolkienian.
Everyone would come to not only accept werewolves or vampires, but view them with the same exasperated disdain and contempt they had for muggers or rapists.
The episode would start with Kolchak in his yellow Mustang, as per usual. Only now, the police band would feature banter like: “We got two vamps trying to rob a blood bank on the South Side. Tell SWAT we need ‘em here pronto. And bring plenty of stakes and garlic.”
Karl would cover the case, then head back to INS to file his report. He’d sit down at his desk, and, with the El clattering on the tracks outside his window, crack his knuckles before attacking the Underwood. All of a sudden, Tony would burst through the pebbled glass door and start barking: “Karl, did you read that report yet about the hair samples on that open mauling case? And are you aware that they are lycanthropic in nature? Then why did you let the Tribune scoop us on that one!”
Would it work? It might.
On the other hand...
Some people would argue that this change to magical realism isn’t necessary. They’d also argue vehemently that Kolchak never should have been cancelled. They might even have the temerity to suggest that McGavin should have gotten over himself and sucked it up in service to the fans. Kolchak, they would say, worked just fine in its originally-premised form, notwithstanding what King wrote and what McGavin said.
Years ago I read this book about creating characters, which explained the difference between flat characters and round characters. In brief: flat characters exist mainly to propel the action. They react, especially to dangers, but they don’t reflect. They can’t. The nature of the format won’t allow it.
Indy in the Indiana Jones films is a flat character. He literally has an encounter with the Ark of the Covenant in the first film. Granted, he averts his eyes, but he can still feel the ghosts susurrating around him, and hear their forlorn and bedamned howls. And he sees the effects of the carnage after the Nazi esoterics get their faces melted off.
But rather than finding his hair turned white and seeking solace in a hermitage, Indy goes on being a badass and brandishing his whip. In a sequel he finds the Holy Grail, having another transcendent experience which somehow fails to allow him to transcend anything.
There’s an argument to be made in favor of the flat character, especially in adventure stories. And there’s also an argument to be made that some real people are, in essence, flat characters.
This isn’t an insult. Someone, in answering criticism lobbed at Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, pointed out there was a perfectly good reason the astronauts didn’t seem like deep people. Candidate selection for such jobs filters out those who don’t have a hardnosed, unflappable disposition. A poet sent into space on a tough mission might be tempted to stare out the ship’s window and wax about the Earth’s beauty, rather than focusing on the task at hand. A reflective Indy wouldn’t be able to run fast enough to escape the boulder hurtling toward him.
A Kolchak who pored over books for any reason except to find the monster’s weakness would, once he started reading, never cease. He’d end up cloistered away in some wainscoted library, a bibliophile or maybe even bibliomaniac, stroking the covers of vellum tomes like a lover’s cheek.
I know nothing about acting, but think that most actors find flat characters unsatisfying to play for any length of time. Once every few years in a feature film sounds doable. Every week for years on-end might become a slog through the mire that no amount of money could make easier to navigate.
Kolchak becoming “round” might have been interesting, and it might have solved the problem posed by the show’s internal contradictions. It definitely would have allowed McGavin to take his character in a fresh direction. The idea might have even been enough to tempt him into returning for a second season.
But ratings would have tanked. And people’s fond memories of the show would have been soured by what they perceived as pretentious attempts to elevated Karl to more than a monster hunter.
Maybe it was best left with its internal contradictions unresolved. As the sages of the ages say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”