Let’s face it, before the DVD and Amazon, if you had fond yet hazy memories of a four-decade-old TV show, they would stay just that, particularly if the show only lasted a season. I just learned that can be a good thing.
One of my TV touchstone memories was of the 1974-75 series “Kolchak: The Nightstalker.” I can honestly say—though probably should do so with some embarrassment—that watching “Kolchak” was the event that made fourteen-year-old me want to be a newspaper reporter. Not the exploits of Woodward-Bernstein. No way. I wanted to be Karl Kolchak. This reporter in rumpled twill suit and straw hat didn’t pursue the President. Nope. He went after real stories: the vampires, mummies, zombies and aliens haunting Chicago.
Armed with a giant cassette recorder and Instamatic camera, Karl chased the stories believed by no one else, including his hard-bitten (naturally) editor at a third-rate wire service with offices next to the El tracks. (Journalistic footnote: Kolchak’s employer was likely modeled on the late lamented City News Service, though the real one never got near vamps or witches, covering only simple murders and robberies.) To my teenaged mind, here was newspaper reporting. Imagine my disappointment when my first zoning board meeting didn’t turn out to be the zombie board meeting. I wanted Karl’s suit. I wanted his hat. And I never reconciled any of this with the fact the show scared me behind our rec room couch every week. I’d always be the first one running screaming out of the haunted house.
Eager to return to those memories, I bought the series on DVD to watch with my 11 year old. It scared him. Some. Okay, a little. And me not at all. The stories were slow, the frights not frightening and the effects oh so cheesie. Watching the DVD erased my golden memories of the series. Damn the digital world!
But give credit where it’s due. Shows that scare us now, or did recently, owe a huge debt to one-season-wonder “Kolchak.” All the series set in a realistic world but actually about monsters and the paranormal—”The X-Files,” “Fringe,” the whole urban fantasy genre. The one thing I still enjoyed about the series was Daren McGavin’s sharp portrayal of Kolchak. He delivered the cynical reporter lines with real panache. And it was a sweet twist that though he was cynical, he believed in things that go bump in the night. He was Fox Mulder’s great uncle. And I still want that suit.