By Joshua Corey | Press Play September 25, 2013 at 9:10AM
Nostalgia encased me and buffered me from the ravages of my infection, and protected me for a while from something even more irresistible: the reality of aging. I never watched The Rockford Files when it was originally on the air: my parents only let me and my sister watch a little PBS, though when I was a little older I snuck episodes of Knight Rider and Airwolf and the Tom Baker Doctor Who whenever I could. I guess I’ve always been susceptible to stories of lone investigators and solitary knights (though they rarely lack female company). There was an odd purity to my nostalgia in watching the show, then, since nostalgia is always a longing for something fundamentally imaginary. The show had formed no part of my real experience. And yet lying there watching it through my haze of antibiotics and prescription painkillers was a real experience: there was a halo, a boundary, surrounding the washed-out colors flickering across the screen, and I was all too conscious of what that boundary was keeping out. In my vulnerable state I feared the future as I never had before: it was not just my own aging that worried me, but what seemed to be the rapid aging of the world: the ever-accelerating Rube Goldberg machine of climate change was often on my mind, and in my fever dreams I could see the desert of Jim Rockford’s Los Angeles growing and spreading and rippling outward to cover the earth. To a hallucinatory synthesized bluesy beat, the gold Firebird wove its way through the empty, sunbaked streets as if it were tracing a mandala, past poker-faced houses and burnt umber hills, a vast landscape made tiny and inconsequential. Then Jim’s face again, that grin. Action: a fist to the jaw, a hail of harmless bullets. Another case closed. Another fit of banter between Jim and his companions, his friends, of whom I was one.
That’s what a certain kind of television can do at its best: scripted series television, not reality shows or intricately plotted season-long plots or funny cat videos on YouTube. The Rockford Files, Taxi, Barney Miller: the old shows characterized by their smallness of scale, their putting plot in the service of characters or a mood. These shows weren’t Seinfeld; they weren’t “about nothing,” not exactly. They function, strangely, like poetry. In its very inconsequence, its mere being, The Rockford Files makes nothing happen:
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
It survives, a way of happening, in the face of James Garner in the years 1974—1979, a man in his forties rueful, grinning, scolding, surprised, sly, smiling. Perpetually unattached to any woman, perpetually childless, yet saved always by his relationships: with his father and with Beth and with Angel and with Sergeant Dennis Becker, the irascible but upright policeman who is Jim’s only friend on the force. Wise to the ways of the world, yet capable of being shocked: Jim’s fundamental innocence (he is, remember, that rara avis, an innocent jailbird) is the show’s hallmark: the hallmark of a decade whose pervasive cynicism is rendered moot by the simple fact of its being encased impregnably in a past that looks less fundamentally damaged, more reparable, and more fun than our present. The Seventies has become a small town, populated by familiar faces, an object of nostalgia, a homeland that never was. MeTV, indeed.
Yet Rockford’s unglamorous Los Angeles is also a raw town, and in every episode he encounters the desolate inhabitants of “ranches of isolation” with their “busy griefs.” There’s real darkness on the edges of some of the early episodes. Season One’s “Slight of Hand” presents us with a tale of Jim’s disappeared girlfriend, who vanishes from his car after a trip up the coast with the woman’s daughter, who hauntingly murmurs the phrase, “Mommy didn’t come home with us last night.” Jim solves the case but it leaves him bruised, bitter, and as close to noir as The Rockford Files ever comes. In Season Three’s “The Family Hour,” Jim and Rocky get mixed up with a twelve-year-old girl who has seemingly been abandoned by her father, played by the ubiquitous Burt Young (the sweaty cuckolded husband in Chinatown; the sweaty brother-in-law of the title character in the Rocky movies, the sweaty trucker Pig Pen in Convoy, etc., etc.). In a wrenching confrontation late in the episode, Young’s desperate father challenges a drug-dealing federal agent to kill both him and his daughter, who’s standing right there. The bad guy flinches and the day is saved, but the raw anguish on the father’s face stayed with me long after the smirky or sentimental freeze-frame that ends every episode and which, by freezing on a single image, usually of Jim’s grin, separates this universe from the universe of future episodes.
These fragments of real terror, real feeling, are hermetically sealed off from each other, and so we are shielded from the full impact of the sunlit noir that may be the decade’s most enduring contribution to pop culture. The Conversation, Night Moves, The Long Goodbye, The Parallax View, Chinatown: the great neo-noirs of the Seventies always end in the corruption, if not the outright destruction, of the hero, whose personal code proves to be no match for the systemic pervasiveness of the evil that he confronts. Jim is saved in part by not having a code: only warm responsiveness, and wisecracks, and a network of relationships that never really let him down: even Angel is reliable in his venal unreliability. But what really preserves him is the show’s illusory continuity, fundamental to the form of episodic television. There are recurring characters and very occasional references to past events, but it’s as if the show and its characters were created anew each time the credits roll. That’s the nature of nostalgia: we never play, we re-play. And I’ve seen enough episodes of The Rockford Files to feel like each new one I see is something I’ve seen before. The déjà vu is built in.
I got over my infection and got over turning forty, but I never did get over Jim Rockford. He’s still out there, somehow, waiting for the call of imaginary friendship. When you’re finished watching you may feel the chill of the twenty-first century, of real relationships rendered somehow intangible by social media or distraction or sheer carelessness. You might remember the news, or Mad Men, or the weirdness of the weather, and be impelled back toward—or father away—from what we’ve agreed to call reality. But if you’re like me you’ll also remember friendship: how fragile it is, how necessary. Nostalgia can be self-indulgent and escapist, yes. It’s also a form of friendship with the self. So the next time you’re feeling low, defenses down, the world too much with you, spend an hour with Jim Rockford. You’ll be glad you did.
Joshua Corey has two books forthcoming in 2014: Beautiful Soul, a novel (Spuyten Duyvil); and The
Barons and Other Poems (Omnidawn Publishing). Author of the poetry
collections Severance Songs (Tupelo Press, 2011), Fourier Series
(Spineless Books, 2005), and Selah (Barrow Street Press, 2003). With
G.C. Waldrep he edited The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern
Pastoral (Ahsahta Press, 2012). He is Co-Director of Lake Forest College
Press / &NOW Books and lives in Evanston, Illinois. He tweets here and blogs here.