There’s not much else to Rockford’s back story: we know that he did time in prison for a robbery that he didn’t commit, that he was pardoned for the crime but maintains a network of contacts from those shady days that help and more often hinder him in his work. Most memorably there’s Stuart Margolin’s Angel: squirmy, febrile, cowardly, honest about nothing except his own brazen self-interest, the venal Pancho to Rockford’s wearily forgiving Quixote. But Jim has a never-ending series of friends from the old days always coming out of the woodwork to provide plots and motivations deeper than the two hundred bucks a day (“plus expenses”) that he routinely demands and very rarely receives from his clients. More often than not, he gets emotionally invested in his cases, and he follows them through to the end, invariably outwitting the bad guys without ever lining his wallet in the process.
Jim’s capacity for friendship is emblematic of the most enduring of the old pre-cable network shows, before HBO turned scripted television dramas into serialized nineteenth-century novels, fundamentally literary in their storytelling resources and techniques. Don’t get me wrong, I like many of those shows: The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire form for me, as for many others, a profane trinity of high-quality storytelling, not least for their remarkable feel for language. And no one will ever compare The Rockford Files to Shakespeare or Dickens, as routinely happens with the three shows mentioned (though it’s worth noting that Sopranos creator David Chase cut his teeth as a scriptwriter on Rockford). But those shows’ unfolding intricacies of darkly thwarted patriarchies and institutions—the moral bleakness, the frustration of aspirations that inevitably spirals into gruesome violence—had little appeal for me during the sickness that knocked me down on my birthday. I lay in bed and watched episode after episode, becoming quietly addicted to the theme music (especially the bluesy harmonica bridge) and the square aspect ratio that fits an iPad perfectly. The Rockford Files is ghostly and homeless on a modern widescreen TV, with two black bars running down either side of it, as if parodying the horizontal letterboxed bars signifying that one is worshipping at the shrine of the dead god Cinema. That squareness extends to the show’s worldview: in spite of its veneer of post-Watergate cynicism, in spite of Jim’s willingness to bend and break the rules (most often by posing as some sort of businessman or official, usually with the help of business cards that he cranks out using a little printing press he keeps in the trunk of his iconic Pontiac Firebird), the arc of The Rockford Files bends always toward justice.
When I watch the show, I am comfortably enclosed in a decade that eerily resembles ours, with its breakdown in trust in public institutions, its vague guilty consciousness of environmental degradation, its retreat from political life into narcissism and navel-gazing. That feeling of regression is amplified by the show’s imagery, which recalls my 1970s childhood: the hairstyles, the clothes, the fragments of outdated slang, the gigantic boat-like cars that chase or are chased by Jim’s Firebird in seemingly endless, frankly boring sequences that serve now as tours of a seemingly pre-capitalist semi-urban landscape, devoid of product placement or corporate brand-names, long shots of empty sun-flooded boulevards and parking lots through which the essential dead desert of Los Angeles makes itself visible in winks and flashes. The desert of the present: sweating into pillows, the day and its business passing out of reach, my wife’s tightening face or my three-year-old daughter’s voice from downstairs asking how much longer Daddy will be sick. Steady on: here’s Jim tracking down missing girls, breaking a corrupt ring of truckers and unraveling insurance scams, and tracking down more missing girls, without ever losing his sense of humor. This isn’t the same as never losing his cool, because Jim Rockford is not cool, even in sunglasses: he lives in a trailer and drives a car the color of a polished turd and wears shapeless sportcoats and lives on tacos with extra hot sauce. Jim is warm: the character exudes compassion, cracks jokes at his own expense, bleeds when he gets punched, and has a capacity for enjoying life on and off the case that is so infectious that to me, ebbing on the bed, it felt like an almost adequate substitute for life itself.