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Retro Rewind

How Remington Steele Ruined Me for Adult Life

Try this for a deep, dark secret

Artwork by FanFare, original by NBC
Retro Rewind is a weekly series that reconsiders pre-2000 pop culture. More here.

“The great detective Remington Steele? He doesn’t exist.”

I heard those words for the first time in 1982, and I fell in love with a television show that changed my world. Little did I know then it would also ruin me for adult life.

It was 1982, and season one of the mystery/romance/screwball comedy series Remington Steele premiered on the NBC network. Although later seasons featured a sweeping theme song heavy on the strings and the horns, episodes in the first season opened with main character Laura Holt’s seductive voice-over:

“Try this for a deep, dark secret. The great detective Remington Steele? He doesn’t exist. I invented him. Follow…

I always loved excitement. So I studied, and apprenticed, and put my name on an office. But absolutely nobody knocked down my door. A female private investigator seemed so feminine. So I invented a superior. A decidedly masculine superior. Suddenly there were cases around the block. It was working like a charm.

Until the day he walked in, with his blue eyes and mysterious past. And before I knew it, he assumed Remington Steele’s identity. Now I do the work and he takes the bows. It’s a dangerous way to live, but as long as people buy it, I can get the job done.

We never mix business with pleasure. Well, almost never. I don’t even know his real name…”

The name of the show was Remington Steele, but the introduction let the viewer know that the real star of the show, or at least the real detective, was a woman: Laura Holt, played by Stephanie Zimbalist.

I was only nine or so when I saw my first episodes of Remington Steele, but watching the show was the beginning of all sorts of love affairs. It began my lifelong affair with television, which I love with the wholehearted and trusting and pure love that most people reserve for their children, but it also began my love affair with the idea of a life that looked nothing like the one I was living.

I grew up on a farm in the Midwest among decidedly Germanic people who owned televisions mainly to watch the news and the weather report. My dad indulged in Hill Street Blues (another, decidedly grittier cop/crime drama) and my mom watched the news program 20/20 while she folded the laundry, but basically television was viewed as an evil Time Waster.

I knew it. I loved it anyway. I’m pretty sure that’s WHY I loved it.

And then along came Remington Steele. The program itself was something not often seen on television at that time: there were thirty-minute sitcom episodes that were funny, and there were hour-long drama programs that were serious, but Remington Steele was all of that and more. It featured a woman detective solving crimes in Los Angeles, even if she had to do it while acting like her agency was run by a man, but the crimes weren’t really of the horrifying sort (think industrial espionage and fraud and mistaken identity cases). It was an hour-long drama, but it also featured strong elements of romance and wordplay and physical comedy. The writing was witty and Los Angeles was shown in all its breezy and highway-heavy and urban glory.

It didn’t hurt that the program also starred the delectable Irish actor Pierce Brosnan, who played the part of Remington Steele as a debonair and perfectly put-together Brit with piercing blue eyes and a penchant for quoting classic 1930s and 1940s Hollywood films.

My life in 1982 as a decidedly non-glamorous fourth-grader was all about farm work and garden work and doing my fractions and state capital homework. Remington Steele showed me what it was like to be an independent woman who wasn’t above engaging in a bit of deception to grow her business. It showed me life in a big city, complete with glittering restaurants, Laura’s and Remington’s sleek “Mid-century Modern with a Twist of 1980s Primary Colors” office, and the heady wonders of a gorgeous man wearing an excellently tailored suit and boasting a British accent to boot.

I still haven’t quite recovered.

So how did watching Remington Steele give me an impossibly ideal picture of adult life? Let’s consider the ideas about the adult world that I gleaned from the show.

Men and women always work together with mutual respect

Of course, Laura Holt only created the fictional persona of her male detective boss Remington Steele because no one was hiring her agency when it was led by a woman, but there Laura was, holding her own in the first season as another detective’s boss (Murphy, played by the not-bad-looking himself James Read) and running a successful business. When Pierce Brosnan showed up to assume the role of the great detective Remington Steele, it was understood that he was the lightweight who was mainly there to look good.

And yet they got along. If Remington did indulge in any mansplaining, it was understood to be a joke that nobody had to take him seriously: He was an impostor being allowed to play a part by his much more able female boss. Remington did still bring something to the table; often he drew parallels to their cases from classic movies that helped Laura have the light-bulb moments that solved their cases. Both detectives fought physical battles and helped to protect one another.

Men and women and colleagues in general could have different strengths, and yet still get along and even tease one another. Laura and Remington (and to some extent, detective Murphy and, in later seasons, the agency’s secretary Mildred — played by Doris Roberts in a pre-Everybody Loves Raymond role that too many people have forgotten) looked like they enjoyed their work and they enjoyed working with one another.

Women could be physical in their jobs

Laura Holt was in the thick of things, physically. She ran down suspects, went undercover, and kept up with any and all of Steele’s thieving and sneaking hijinks. And she did it all while wearing stylish hats!

Laura was the brains of the business, and Remington definitely helped provide muscle. But again, they did a lot of the physical investigation work together.

They made everything look so easy

In later series both Laura and Remington drove their own cars, but through most of the show’s run they got around town mostly by calling for big 1980s town cars and being driven around. Uber and Lyft were nowhere to be found, nor were cell phones, and yet this dynamic duo made getting around in sprawling Los Angeles look effortlessly cool.

They also did not have cell phones, and periodically had to search for phone booths, but they even made those tasks look like fun adventures. They also had to use their ingenuity to get out of jams when they couldn’t speak with one another, rather than just texting “hey remmy pick me up, k thx.” And yet? It all looked so easy (and fun).

Men would cook for you (and could be sensitive)

Remington Steele was also unique in that it showed us the male lead’s apartment almost as often (if not more, in the early seasons) as the female lead’s. What’s more, it was a place where an adult clearly lived; there were framed classic movie pictures on the wall, Remington knew how to start a fire in his fireplace, and in at least one episode, he cooked for Laura.

Over the course of the series, the friendship between Laura and Remington deepened. Mostly it deepened into a will-they-or-won’t-they romantic relationship (see the next point), but both leads showed each other vulnerability when they discussed previous love affairs or experiences, particularly regarding Remington’s mystery-shrouded past.

Nothing is hotter than delayed gratification

The romantic relationship between the two main characters in Remington Steele was all about delayed gratification and innuendo. For five seasons Laura and Remington flirted and verbally sparred and even made out a little bit, and then they mostly retired to their own quarters. For a totally immature preteen, that was the most exciting type of relationship possible. Frankly, even for this old married woman, it still is.

I’m not that wide-eyed little farm girl anymore.

I’m a wide-eyed old city woman, who’s been luckier than she had any right to be. No, I didn’t grow up to work a dangerous or thrilling or important job; I don’t get to call ride services whenever I want and charge them to work; I didn’t even move to either coast to devote my life to a career; I didn’t meet the tall, handsome stranger with a mysterious past.

And it’s all okay. I’m so, so thankful for the life I have, even if adult life has turned out to be mostly about trying to stay employed to keep our health insurance, taking yourself and your loved ones to doctor visits, and calling the plumber/electrician/super/mechanic when something goes wrong with your house, apartment, or car.

Ironically, the stars of Remington Steele themselves could have told you their adult lives held distinctly non-glamorous problems. Even at the time the show aired, there were rumors that Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan did not get along. The show was also briefly cancelled after its fourth season, and Zimbalist and Brosnan tried to go on to even bigger and better things — Zimbalist with a role in the movie RoboCop and Brosnan as the new James Bond in The Living Daylights — but those plans were dashed when the show returned for a shortened fifth season and its stars were contractually obliged to return with it.

But I didn’t know any of that then. Sometimes, when you’re a little kid looking forward to growing up and getting off the farm, you just want the fantasy. You just want to think that life holds the possibility of work you’re good at, co-workers you enjoy and may even end up loving, fabulous locations worldwide (in addition to Los Angeles, Remington Steele filmed in London, Cannes, Mexico, and even Malta), and the ability to create your own reality just by using your imagination.

Maybe, deep down, I still harbor all those fantasies. And I have Remington Steele to thank for them.

With thanks to Raymond Chen for his handy Remington Steele episode guide.

We hope you enjoyed this edition of Retro Rewind! Come back next week as Simon Dillon phones home with his story about how ET changed his life. Check out our schedule for upcoming columns!
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