Harts and Mine

On one recent night, I was up far too late.  I dearly wish that I could say that I was contemplating the state of our country in the Age of Trump and COVID-19. But the truth is that I was hungry and angry at myself for having hoovered all of the Fig Newtons in my secret stash (a.k.a. my nightstand).

Rather than heading for the kitchen, I decided instead to turn on the TV and see what gems FiOs had to offer at 3:00 AM.  After clicking through what seemed like a thousand channels, I landed finally on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, one of the networks belonging to the greeting card company’s media empire.  The mystery buffs and armchair detectives among you are undoubtedly familiar with the daily fare served on HM&M: classic TV mystery series and original mystery movies starring Hallmark’s own stable of contract players.  And according to the trusty channel guide, from 3:00 AM to 6:00 AM, HM&M aired one of the most beloved TV shows of all time: Hart to Hart

The creation of novelist and television writer Sidney Sheldon, Jonathan and Jennifer Hart were a charismatic, glamorous, and filthy rich White couple who traveled the world solving crimes, sometimes in the company of their faithful major-domo Max, who was also White.  The Harts did not set out to be crime-fighters, but somehow every week they found themselves in unlikely situations that pitted them against a motley assortment of scoundrels.  (The villain in one episode was – I am not kidding – a reanimated Egyptian mummy that believed Jennifer to be his reincarnated bride.  Look it up: “Murder Wrap,” Season 2, Episode 6.)   But thanks to the genius of Hollywood writers, the Harts would save the world – or at least their gated part of it – in a single hour (including fifteen minutes of commercials).

Hart to Hart was wildly popular escapist mind-candy, running on ABC from 1979-1984, and spinning off a series of reunion movies in the 1990s.  I admit to tuning in every week to follow the exploits of America’s favorite rich people.  It was impossible not to fall in love with the Harts.  They were perfect: clearly devoted and obviously sexually attracted to each other.  The Harts were charitable with their money; and they were nice.  Before marrying Jonathan, Jennifer, the daughter of a wealthy Maryland family, was an investigative journalist.  (Regrettably, in the show’s lead-in Jennifer’s pre-marital accomplishments were totally ignored, and she is described merely as being “gorgeous.”)  And Jonathan, of course, was a “self-made millionaire,” the very epitome of the American Dream.  He ran his global conglomerate, Hart Industries, like a giant, loving family, often inviting his employees to social events at the Hart mansion.

But on this particular occasion, my mind – in full-blown Fig Newton withdrawal – focused upon Jonathan’s company.  Specifically, I wondered how he was able to run a massive corporate enterprise while solving mysteries at the same time.  Did his Board of Directors know what he was doing?  Surely they would have been deeply concerned by his risky escapades in the cause of truth and justice.  Imagine the economic chaos that would have resulted if one of the Harts’ adversaries had fired a lucky shot and fatally dispatched the head of a Fortune 500 company.  But then I remembered the one thing that was as true in the fictional Hart universe as it is in ours: Jonathan Hart was a rich White guy; and everything would work out just fine for him.  It always had, and always would.

And then my musings took a particularly perverse turn.  What would have happened, I wondered, if Jonathan and Jennifer were a rich Black couple?  

Quite frankly, that show would never have been made.  In the 1970s the closest that Black America would come to the Harts were The Jeffersons, which aired on CBS from 1975-1985.  

George and Louise Jefferson were an upwardly-mobile Black couple who had survived being Archie Bunker’s nextdoor neighbors in Queens.  George owned a chain of dry cleaners; and his success had at last afforded him the ability to move his family into a high-rise apartment building in Manhattan.  Louise was a homemaker and community activist.  (She, like Jennifer Hart, also suffered a diminution in her individuality.)  Like Jonathan Hart, George Jefferson was a self-made man; but there the similarity between them ended.  Whereas Jonathan was urbane and confident; George was bombastic and frequently clownish.  Jonathan always seemed to have at his fingertips all of the capital he would ever need.  By contrast, George was endlessly pursuing the elusive White businessman H.L. Whittendale, who apparently could open the doors to the capital and connections that George needed to expand his business.  And perhaps most strikingly, George actually ran his business.  He had neither the time nor inclination to jet around the world and play amateur detective.  In fact, the Jeffersons rarely ventured far beyond the living room of their swanky apartment.

Indeed, given the oppressive weight of America’s history with race, the likelihood that George Jefferson would have been accused of a crime would have far outweighed the possibility of his solving one.  Sadly, Black people, even relatively well-off ones like George and Louise Jefferson, implicitly understand that their wealth provides only a thin tissue of defense against the metastasized racism that continues to rob people of color of their lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.  Every.  Single.  Day. Was Norman Lear, the creator of The Jeffersons, trying to tell us something by naming his scrappy protagonist after two of America’s slaveholding Founding Fathers?

Suddenly Jonathan and Jennifer seemed far removed from me.  Even if they were real, our paths would never cross.  We would never exchange pleasantries or stock tips over cocktails by their pool.  The words of F. Scott Fitzgerald seeped into my consciousness:

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”

I guess it would have been hard for even Sidney Sheldon to pitch that premise to the television executives at ABC.

I sighed and changed the channel, in hopes of finding an episode of Doctor Who on BBC America.  (In case you missed it, the current Doctor is a woman.  God save the Queen.)