Remington Steele was a lightly comedic detective procedural from the early 1980s. It had two gimmicks – front and centre is the conceit that Remington Steele is a fraud, an invention of the real detective, Laura Holt, who was not being taken seriously in the private investigation world because of her gender. Laura did all the real detection and puzzle solving, even as the greatest enigma eluded her: just who was that tall blue-eyed stranger who’d insinuated himself into the role of Remington Steele? Steele brought the second gimmick, which is that he would always try to solve their cases by finding a movie with an analogous plot. It’s a strategy which has fascinated me for virtually my whole life, and was in large part what lead to my interest in classic movies. I’ve never specifically looked for a film on the basis of it featuring in an episode of Remington Steele, but it did make classic movies accessible and familiar in a helpful way.
The explicit incorporation of genre precursors is the kind of highly literate referentiality that we have come to associate with post-modernism. I’ve previously looked at this purely in terms of my emotional response, but now I’d like to probe a little deeper and inquire why the show has adopted this strategy and how it affects the mechanics of the fiction. Why include older fictions? How does it affect the show’s sense of reality? How does it affect the story mechanics? Remington Steele uses film references in a number of different ways, for different effects. It is rare that a film’s plot does actually map perfectly onto the mystery of the week, quite often the film reference applies only to a particular clue or scene, so that the most complexly referential episodes can draw on a half-dozen films. Almost as often, the filmic reference has no real plot significance, but is used as a commentary beat.
What all of these uses have in common is that they provide a commentary on the action that’s unfolding, suggesting a future possible sequence of events, and most crucially, exposing the puzzle-solving process directly. Most detective fiction takes great pains to hide the process of solving a crime from the audience, from mystifying the ability of the detective to collate the clues and arrive at the correct conclusion. However, as Raymond Chandler observed, the clues never actually work once you start to really tear into the details – they are not in that sense “realistic”. What you see again and again in detective fiction is a series of seemingly arbitrary inquiries whose combined purpose is revealed as the story climax, though most televisual detectives keep their inquiries comfortably away from the truly esoteric. Despite Holmes’ dictum that you must have facts before theories, lest you twist your facts to suit your theories, most practical detection works on the more scientific principle of forming a theory and then searching for corroborating/eliminating facts, often culminating in one or more mid-story false accusations, necessary to elicit the crucial fact that will disprove a given theory. This process is at least a little at odds with the old idea that people read detective fictions as a battle of wits with the fictional detective – it’s far more like a magic trick, where I think we broadly don’t want to know how it’s done, we want to be amazed. In fact, the simplest way to solve almost all detective stories is via some or other process of meta-gaming the problem, eloquently summed up by the default position that it’s always the least-likely suspect. The way that the magic trick has to be structured is a little more sophisticated than that – the criminal must usually be someone seen only slightly, usually early in the drama, who appears unconnected to the crime at first glance. That simple rule will solve 95% of television procedurals, because the ergonomics of 40-minute shows means there will only be one or at most two viable candidates. The existence of clues themselves are inherently misdirections. What Steele’s references to films does is short-circuit this logic by directly meta-gaming the mystery at hand inside the fiction, and inviting the audience to do the same. What this referentiality creates then, is an entirely different way of thinking about detectives and detection, a way that is perhaps a little more honest about the way fictions are structured and consumed.
An important consequence of this change is that it directly responds to Chandler’s basic complaint about detective fictions, that they are completely inward looking, interested only in evaluating and solving the very specific problems that they themselves create. We could use Umberto Eco’s useful formulation here of the “closed” versus the “open” text – not that I think he really believes there is such a thing as a “closed” text. By explicitly becoming self-referential, Remington Steele actually opens the text to a wider array of interpretations, because not only do we have the closed system of mystery clues, but the richness of the associations created by the reference. We can use that reference to understand the show, or we can use Remington Steele as a prism for looking back at the original work.
One example is “Vintage Steele“, from the first season. The central mystery revolves around a mysterious body floating in a vat of wine, found during a press conference announcing the expansion of the vineyard. The body has an annoying habit of being stolen and then placed to appear when it will cause maximum disruption, and this habit causes Steele to dub the unknown corpse “Harry”, from The Trouble With Harry , one of Hitchcock’s comedies. The comedy revolves around the burgeoning romance between the not-terribly-grieved widow and a local painter, ultimately ending with a murder turning out to be natural causes and the successful consummation of the romance plot. Because The Trouble With Harry ultimately has no killer, it provides a schema for the incidental action of “Vintage Steele”, but not a conclusion; in fact, Laura is only able to actually solve the mystery after a string of false accusations leads to the last remaining suspect being found guilty, she then reconstructs the crime after solving it. The solution comes before the detective’s ruminations, a major destabilisation of business-as-usual for Great Detectives made possible by the reflexivity of the plot.
Aside from the effect on detection, explicitly referencing The Trouble With Harry allows Remington Steele to adopt a quite macabre plot device within its lightly comic tone through the establishment of that precedent. It’s the kind of navigation of genre conventions which enables Remington Steele to have different tones as required for the narrative. In making the audience aware that the show is aware of its own fictionality, it avoids any risk of being branded “realistic”, and hence any risk of being subject to the kind of critique Chandler delivers. It instead acknowledges the real process we use for watching and interpreting fictions, which is very heavily to use precedent and formula. In acknowledging this, Remington Steele invites the playful participation of the audience instead of trying to fool them, a process which Chandler showed can never be successful without the active goodwill of the audience in any case.