I wrote last week about the Canadian DVD release of the ’80s cult show Stingray, so here’s an excerpt from the pilot episode (filmed in Los Angeles, unlike the series, which moved to Canada to accommodate Nick Mancuso) introducing Ray (Nick Mancuso) and his unique method of payment. You can tick off all the ’80s stuff: Phil Collins on the soundtrack, a mysterious hero who drives a cool car, a spunky lady lawyer, a bizarre plot. (You don’t see the villain in these excerpts, but the villain is a Mexican Mafia boss who’s trying to take over organized crime in L.A. by having an evil doctor fry his enemies’ brains with electroshock.) And of course the look of the show is totally mid-’80s: a car photographed from different angles just to make it look cooler, lots of softly-colored light in every shot, lots of big close-ups. All meant to make you forget that the show’s premise is essentially an update of an old TV western like “Have Gun, Will Travel.”
What makes it work is that Mancuso brings a sardonic edge to the character and Stephen J. Cannell, one of the best TV writers when it comes to injecting humour into unlikely places, brings his own brand of Rockford-esque humourous edge to the character and the situations. (“Do they call you Stingray?” “I hope not.”)
This show would actually have worked better if it had come along a few years later, when action shows had ongoing stories and arcs (influenced in part by Cannell’s own Wiseguy). Watching it through today’s eyes, you expect Ray’s mysteries — what did he do before, what’s his name, why doesn’t he take money — to be explained or at least expanded upon. But because every episode is totally self-contained (though in one episode, Ray did collect a favour from the female lawyer from the pilot),we’re no closer at the end than at the beginning. It’s a reminder of how the arc format, though it may sometimes get out of hand, has enriched action shows and given them more depth.