Case Study 85: Pair of Kings, Episode 33–“Pair of Clubs”

Original Airdate: October 24, 2011 on Disney XD
When I was a kid I was a regular viewer of the Disney Channel, despite knowing that the material was often sentimental and nauseatingly family friendly. You were never going to find Ren & Stimpy on the Disney Channel. Sometime around the turn of the century, I stopped paying attention to what was happening on the network altogether, so I missed out on a parade of smash hit original live action programming that no doubt shaped the tender brains of many a millennial. Hilary Duff, Raven-Symoné, the Sprouse brothers, Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez all managed to crawl out of the primordial slime that was entertaining untold numbers of tweens after school and on the weekends and into the light of quasi-respectability in the world of adult celebrity. But is anything that’s happened in the world of live-action Disney original series worth paying attention to? I have it on good authority that it is not. Nevertheless, here is a review of Pair of Kings.

Strengths

  • One slightly charming joke. Okay, it’s not much, but here it goes. At one point in the story, we’re meant to understand that a week has passed, and we’re shown this information with the traditional image of a calendar’s pages turning. King Boomer (Doc Shaw) turns to King Brady (Mitchel Musso, Hannah Montana) and tells him “Close the drapes; the wind is blowing the pages off the calendar.” Yep, that’s the highlight. A tiny soupcon of postmodern self-awareness. By the way, does anyone reading this actually have a page-a-day paper calendar that shows nothing but the date?

Weaknesses

  • Unfunny. Always a bad way to start things off with a comedy. In case that gem with the calendar didn’t do it for you, here’s a couple other random gags. Boomer wants to open a nightclub in a disused library, which Brady disparages as entailing “storytime at club bookmobile.” Boomer tries to get customers to come to the club by offering visitors an opportunity to kiss him. Villainous cousin Lanny (Ryan Ochoa) receives commands from his talking pet fish Yamakoshi (Vincent Pastore, The Sopranos), causing him to marvel, “How can something that swims in its own toilet be so smart?” How, indeed.
  • What the fuck is even happening here? Just in case you’re as agitated and disoriented as I was when I finished watching Pair, let’s take a quick step back. Pair of Kings is about two brothers who look nothing alike and are also somehow the joint kings of the Pacific island of Kinkow. How can a place have two kings at once? Never mind, who cares. But don’t worry about remembering that bewildering premise, because being island kings has sweet fuck all to do with the story at hand, which is about nightclubs. Why are these teenagers running nightclubs when they’re not old enough to drink? Is it because they want to find people to fuck? No, don’t be stupid, this is Disney, no one fucks anything. So if there’s no drinking, no fucking and no recreational drug use, what’s the point of a nightclub? If you guessed Mitchel Musso singing, you’re in luck. Anyway, evil talking fish exist in this world and for some reason want to overthrow the monarchy. Yamakoshi convinces Lanny to try and trick the kings into…wait for it…raising the dead. Eventually zombies appear. Brady and Boomer come together to defeat them. I wonder if I’ve entered some kind of fugue state. Did I mention that there’s a little person with white guy dreads named Hibachi? (Martin Klebba, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales)
  • Cheap-looking. When I think remote Pacific island, I definitely think “soundstage.” When I think about the props in this show, I think “Dollar General.” When I think about the director (Adam Weissman, Liv and Maddie), I wonder if IBM has developed some kind of primitive AI for directing television aimed at America’s slack-jawed preteens. At no point does anyone involved in this show make an intriguing choice in terms of visual presentation and I’ve seen work in high school auditoriums with better production values.
  • Wanting it both ways. Look, I get it if you want to have some comedy violence, especially if the whole plot centers around those awful boys getting torn apart by the ravenous living dead. I also understand that they’re the protagonists and that it’s hard to come back from having your lead get disemboweled. At least tear someone apart. But there’s not even a glimpse of blood, even when Hibachi is turned into a zombie. Apparently it’s a painless transition. If you’re determined to be squeaky clean with this bullshit, maybe don’t raise the dead, especially if you’re raising them to kill people and then they don’t actually kill people. I realize some PTA member out there would be pissed off if there were bloody eviscerations being performed for the benefit of fifth graders, but walk the fucking walk.

Final Judgment: 1/10. By all rights, this should be a total zero, but there’s something hypnotic about the depths of the bizarre mediocrity on display here. It’s confusing, it’s bewildering, but it’s not boring. Family Ties is boring.

NEXT TIME: Let’s never speak of the Disney Channel again, and instead focus on The Six Million Dollar Man.

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Case Study 85: Pair of Kings, Episode 33–“Pair of Clubs”

Case Study 84: Laverne & Shirley, Episode 5–“Falter at the Altar”

Original Airdate: March 2nd, 1976 on ABC

When sitcom fans in the 70s weren’t busy watching Archie Bunker yell racial slurs or Mary Tyler Moore throw her hat into the air, they were waist-deep in 50s nostalgia.* It all started with a weirdly successful rom-com anthology series. Love, American Style churned out more than a hundred episodes, which makes me wonder if Ryan Murphy is currently shopping American Love Story. One particularly well-received segment led to Happy Days, an omnipresent television juggernaut. It ran for eleven seasons and spawned a gob-smacking five spinoffs, and without it we wouldn’t have half of the best bit characters on Arrested Development. (In fact, Arrested may never have existed, seeing as how Ron Howard was an executive producer.) The ties between Laverne & Shirley and Days weren’t exactly bone deep—Laverne (Penny Marshall) dated The Fonz for a grand total of three episodes—but L&S was a roaring success in its own right, eventually airing 178 episodes. What works and what doesn’t?

Strengths

  • Cindy Williams. The entire cast does well here, but it’s really Williams’ episode. The premise is that her buddy Laverne has agreed to a hasty marriage proposal without really thinking it through, and Shirley’s conscience and sense of duty to Laverne obligates her to try and intervene. The show was renowned for its use of physical comedy, and you don’t really see too much of that here, but it’s the little moments that sell you. When Shirley finds out about the proposal, she chokes on her drink and Williams spins it into gold. Her chemistry with Marshall is perfect, even this early in the show’s run. There are emotional valences to the story that fail or succeed on their own merits (see below) but Williams credibly displays a range of emotion that you don’t always get in a standard sitcom.
  • Weddings. Shakespeare famously made weddings synonymous with comedy, and the tradition persists to this day. Why? A wedding is the biggest party most people will ever throw and it is ripe for disruption. There’s the solemnity of a church ceremony just waiting to be interrupted—in fact, a traditional ceremony has a moment specifically inviting interruptions, and of course L&S gleefully seizes the opportunity. There’s tons of family and friends mixing together who may not get along. There’s an expensive, ornate, top-heavy cake. While disrupting a funeral can also be hilarious, weddings are a naturally happier occasion and so everyone’s in a better position to laugh it off. We see Laverne’s wedding rehearsal, and while it’s not quite a debacle on the level of the pilot for The Brady Bunch, we at least get to hear greaser/wacky neighbor Squiggy (David Lander) respond to a request to give the bride away by saying “Okay, take her, I ain’t stoppin’ ya.” What are comedies good for if not taking the wind out of stuffy, nonsensical social institutions?
  • Strong character work. You learn something revealing about both of these women over the course of 22 minutes. Shirley cares enough about Laverne to risk a big fight by giving her a wheelbarrow full of wise yet unsolicited advice. I’d venture that most people in her situation would bite their tongue if their friend was considering a bad marriage. Play it out in your head—if I tell you your fiance is an asshole and you’d be a fool to marry him, what happens to our friendship after you go through with it? Not Shirley—she can’t stand the thought. She really does care about Laverne. And what does it say about Laverne that she’d consider this arrangement in the first place? You’d need to be a specific combination of insecure to settle so quickly and laid-back enough to accept the situation for what it is. The thing is, it seems more or less acceptable! Sal (Paul Sylvan, Busting Loose) isn’t an asshole. Laverne is quick to point out that he’s handsome and respectful and kind. She’s not wrong that it’s somewhat childish and unrealistic to expect fireworks and goosebumps to follow naturally along behind romance. You don’t have to have the love of a century to have a reasonably happy marriage that lasts a lifetime. Of course, Shirley talks Laverne out of it, but their conversations are revealing without painting either party as an asshole. It’s some pretty deft characterization, all things considered.

 
Weaknesses

  • Sappy moments. The show isn’t willing to accept that Laverne isn’t exactly wrong about marriage sometimes being a compromise. It tips its hand when we get treated to swelling violins beneath Shirley’s big speech about love and goosebumps and Laverne’s confession that she’s worried she’ll never hear another proposal. Look, I like these people but I don’t like them well enough to go on a Titus-Andromedon-grade face journey.

 
* Why did seventies audiences have such a hard-on for the fifties? A cynic might say that whitebread middle America missed the halcyon days before black people won a seat at the table, because there’s nary a black or brown face in the entire Happy Days expanded universe outside the occasional Very Special Episode.

Final Judgment: 6.5/10. I struggle with these pre-Simpsons comedies. They pre-date the days when a sitcom told five or six jokes a minute. The problem is that while L&S has a strong ground game and good fundamentals, no guts were in danger of busting. Nary a knee was slapped. I can’t really give a full-throated recommendation to a comedy that isn’t actually that funny, but that’s not because it’s badly-written witless tripe. When you’re waiting for the roars of laughter from the studio audience to subside between every wry one-liner you’re not left with much actual content at the end of the day. So I’m splitting a hair. I promise not to turn this into Pitchfork.

NEXT TIME: Hey, it’s been awhile since we’ve gone digging around through the YA bargain bin, and fate has dealt us a Pair of Kings.

Case Study 84: Laverne & Shirley, Episode 5–“Falter at the Altar”

Case Study 83: 21 Jump Street, Episode 90–“Diplomas for Sale”

Original Airdate: December 8th, 1990 on Fox

Much like Mission: Impossible, 21 Jump Street was a TV show that made the jump to theaters decades after edifying the nation over the airwaves. The movies are fresh in the minds of the public while neither show is on Netflix. That’s important, because these days if you want to get into the zeitgeist on a streaming platform, Netflix is far and away the preferred option, with 75% of streaming customers in the US having a subscription. Jump is on Hulu, which enjoys a pitiful 17% of the market. Impossible is on CBS All Access, and that’s just too sad to talk about. Anyway, no one gives a shit about the original 21 Jump Street TV show now, but at the time it helped a burgeoning network establish itself with some of the members of their target demographic that don’t enjoy hooting at Christina Applegate. Is it worth revisiting? Look down. Does it say “Strengths” below this paragraph?

Weaknesses

  • Terrible acting from men in mullets. This cast of this show had a lot of churn for something that was only on the air for five seasons. Last time I promised you Johnny Depp (Edward Scissorhands) and I lied. Instead, you’ll have to settle for Michael Bendetti as Mac McCann. It’s okay, Benedetti’s cuter and wears less denim. Oh, and he probably doesn’t beat women. He’s also disappeared from the face of the earth, if his IMDb page is any indication. Which is a shame, because he’s not the problem here. That would be Peter and Michael DeLuise, who play goony brothers Doug and Joey Penhall, respectively. They’re obnoxious, their delivery is stilted and here they play undercover cops taking on an all-too-plausible assignment as frat jocks. Because there’s no justice in the world, they both went on to star in seaQuest DSV and Peter was on Stargate SG-1 and all good things in the world were sapped of energy and love.
  • The entire premise of this series is ridiculous and unrealistic. The people that write this show couldn’t even be bothered to set it in a real city, so it’s set in Metropolis. Yes, like Superman. I guess that tells you right there how much they care about realism, which immediately undercuts one of the more fundamental pleasures of a crime procedural. It gets worse, though. The idea behind the show is that the MPD has a special unit of youthful-looking cops who they use to secretly infiltrate the social circles of those rotten teenagers. At least, that was the idea originally. By this episode, everyone was so very tired that mission creep had set in and we lay our scene tonight at a college. Are crimes committed by the YA set so pernicious in Metropolis that there needs to be a special task force? Is this really the best use of everyone’s time and money? I suppose if it helps them solve murders…
  • Oh but wait, this individual episode is even stupider than that. So the death of one Steve Campbell (Noah Beggs, The Interview) instigates the events at hand, but it’s an accidental death. As in, not a murder. Well, but the accident happened right after a robbery! And it turns out Campbell had turned to a life of crime because he was being blackmailed! And he was being blackmailed because he had purchased a term paper and turned it in as his own work! That all adds up to something that should require five people ostentatiously wasting taxpayers’ money, right? At one point, the intrepid Captain Adam Fuller (Steven Williams) counsels his team that while plagiarism is a crime, selling gently used essays isn’t. Except there’s one problem: plagiarism isn’t a crime! Look, I realize it’s TV and I’m willing to forgive a certain level of enhancement but I really feel like “knowing what is a crime” is a bread-and-butter prerequisite for a show about crime-fighting.
  • And who the fuck cares about essay mills and academic dishonesty? I’m not saying they could never be an intriguing plot element, but they’re definitely not intrinsically interesting and you know that Jump isn’t doing anything unique with this material. Although there is one amusing bit—since this is before all 270 million Americans were waist-deep in AOL CDs, the essay mill has an actual brick and mortar location! McCann easily gets a job there, because that’s clearly how the world works. And the plot grinds on, having left us here.
  • But really there’s only maaaaaybe 20 minutes of plot, so we’ve got to pad this shit out. Two guys leave the essay store and McCann and Sgt. Judy Hoffs (Holly Robinson, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper) are supposed to each take a guy and follow them, which was a dumb plan from the start because McCann’s also supposed to be working the store, but whatever. He’s locking the door behind him when he’s waylaid by sexy blackmail victim Melinda Cross (Venus Terzo, X-Men: Evolution.) The tail is botched! Are there any real consequences for any of this? Nope? We were just filling out the hour? Later, the cops set up a sting where one of the mullets buys and hands in a phony term paper. He’s contacted by the blackmailer. They do the whole “leave a paper bag full of money beneath a park bench” thing. And instead some other dude sees a paper bag full of money, goes to take it and gets arrested. The story continues to go absolutely nowhere. I get that there are dead ends in police investigations, but I don’t know if that needs to be dramatized quite so extensively. In fact, I really don’t think the director (Randy Bradshaw, The Song Spinner) is asking himself  “How can we show the audience that cops need to try a few things before being able to close a case?” It’s probably something more along the lines of “How many more episodes of this crap do I have to shoot before we get syndicated?”
  • They assume the audience is stupid. Oh, god, I can’t believe there’s more. We reach our putative climax as McCann lurks in Cross’s closet, waiting for the blackmailer to arrive. He knocks. Cross opens the door. The blackmailer proceeds to announce, “That’s right! Gary Austin! The store manager!” I realize that the preceding 35 minutes had been eminently forgettable, but the bad guy (Cameron Mitchell Jr., Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days) doesn’t need to smugly declare his name and profession to help guide the slower audience members along.
  • A dumb closing scene to top it all off. Hoffs realizes she hasn’t had anything to do for the entire episode and goes to visit the storefront one last time, where she suggests that the owner (Alex Bruhanski, Bird on a Wire) get a cup of coffee with her so she can convince him to change his evil ways. He brushes her off and she’s says that at least she can sleep at night. And that works! He goes with her and has coffee! In what universe does a cliched lecture from a stern law enforcement officer convince a morally wayward adult to give up on a remunerative life of non-crime?  That’s the world of Metropolis, baby!

Final Episode Judgment: 0/10. Do you a remember a time before Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Sopranos when sophisticated urbanites sneered at anyone who owned a television because they assumed it was full of vacuous nonsense with no substance? This is why.

NEXT TIME: Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hassenfeffer Incorporated! That’s right, baby–Laverne & Shirley! I don’t know why I’m so excited, but anything’s gotta be better than this.

Case Study 83: 21 Jump Street, Episode 90–“Diplomas for Sale”

Case Study 82: Mission: Impossible (1966), Episode 106–“Flip Side”

Original Airdate: September 26th, 1970 on CBS

Those of you born after the turn of the century may be surprised to learn that before it was a series of action movies starring a closeted Scientologist, Mission: Impossible was a long-running crime procedural. Much like La Femme Nikita, it deals with the activities of a vaguely defined governmental crime-fighting agency. Our heroes work for the “Impossible Missions Force.” Before you ask, yes, the International Monetary Fund did exist in the sixties, but I guess globalization wasn’t on the radar of the nice people at Desilu. No, the geopolitical crisis of the moment was the Cold War, and while many episodes of Mission immerse themselves in that milieu, tonight’s episode is a treatise on the scourge of illegal drugs.

Strengths

  • The best title sequence of the 1960s.  Sure, Green Acres may have land spreadin’ out so far and wide, but you can’t deny that the Mission theme song is quintessentially exciting and suspenseful. Even if you’ve never seen the show, Lalo Schifrin’s iconic opener sounds perfect for espionage adventures. There’s a reason he had such a long and successful career. The score in general is everything you’d want in TV music and makes the show feel very crisp and modern. It gets out of the way when it’s not needed and it subtly raises the emotional stakes when things start to heat up. This is a solid ground game and it makes the viewer feel like they’re in good hands.
  • Compelling concept. As the title suggests, every week the IMF has to handle a seemingly impossible mission. When the rest of law enforcement has thrown up their hands, Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) gets a self-destructing audio tape giving him some Herculean assignment. It’s up to him and his operatives to figure out how to solve the problem, and inevitably this involves going undercover, sneaking around and scheming. And I love a good scheme.
  • Complex. Something like NCIS pads out the hour with incoherent plot twists and innumerable narrative blind alleys. Mission sets itself apart by presenting us with a scenario that is satisfying complex while still being a unified whole. Here, the IMF are trying to take down not one scuzzy drug dealer but three. C.W. Cameron (Dana Elcar, MacGyver) is a titan of industry legally manufacturing delicious, intoxicating pills in St. Louis. He exports his pills across the Mexican border to Diego Maximilian (the decidedly non-Mexican Robert Alda, Imitation of Life). Maximilian turns around and smuggles the drugs back across the border to kingpin/record producer Mel Bracken (Sal Mineo, Rebel Without a Cause.) Taking down all three of these jerks requires intricate, lovingly-designed skullduggery from our friends in the IMF. There’s plenty of room for a plot this byzantine to get weighed down by contrivance and bullshit, but miraculously it doesn’t happen.
  • Suspenseful. It’s always rewarding when a show pulls me out of my disinterested critical pose and gets me emotionally invested. I was genuinely fascinated by the question of whether or not the IMF could pull this off, even though I knew it was extremely unlikely that they’d totally fuck everything up and all the drug dealers would ride off into the sunset. That’s when you know you’re watching well-designed television. 99% of TV shows are deeply invested in maintaining their own status quo. For every Game of Thrones there’s 50 shows that definitely aren’t going to arbitrarily kill off main cast members. The genius happens when you know in the back of your mind that of course the Enterprise is going to get out of this one but you’re actually nervous anyway. Mission makes a hefty withdrawal from the Bank of Suspense by regularly using the time-honored classic of letting the viewer know there’s some big plan but not letting us hear the whispered plotting until it’s unfolding in front of us. It’s a cliche, but it’s naturally intriguing, and I was as surprised as anybody when Dana (Lesley Ann Warren, Victor/Victoria) faked an overdose. Of course, now you’ll be less surprised, but the statute of limitations on Mission: Impossible spoilers expired sometime around the Carter administration.

 
Weaknesses

  • Drug hysteria. We don’t need to look farther than America’s ever-widening Vicodin Belt to know that drugs can ruin lives, but we also don’t need primetime programming on CBS reinforcing tropes fresh out of Reefer Madness. The cold open is somewhat less than promising, as it features a drug-addled tricked out hippie girl overdosing on the floor of an overstated psychedelic dance club. Dana’s faux-verdose is intriguing from a narrative perspective but ridiculously over-the-top in the moment. And then there’s the oh-so-trenchant stinger at the end of the hour: it turns out the alter ego that Dana adopted in order to get into Cameron’s pants is an identity copped from some other lady that OD’d in a Summer-of-Love-induced revelry. You walk away with the distinct feeling that no one involved in the production of this program has ever taken anything stronger than a Benadryl. Even Leonard Nimoy won’t admit to it.
  • Lesley Ann Warren singing, for some reason. Yes, yes, she and Paris (Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek, doy) pose as a Marnie & Desi-esque singer/songwriter duo in order to infiltrate various shadowy underbellies. So there was going to be some singing. I’ll always have a spot in my heart for Warren thanks to Clue and her acting is credible if not award-worthy, but her singing leaves something to be desired, especially because it sounds like she’s improvising intentionally terrible songs. Random sample: “So take this flower that’s growing here/and always keep it very near/as proof this magic place is really real…”  Look, the time period offered fertile fields for self-important doggerel coming out of the mouths of earnest folk singers, but this makes “At Seventeen” look like Sonnet 17. I realize the people who made this decision are probably dead, but next time, license something. Yeesh.

 
Final Episode Judgment: 8/10. With a few cosmetic upgrades and a quick rewrite, this could easily serve as an installment of a high-end crime procedural on CBS today. Maybe that doesn’t speak well of the level of innovation happening at CBS, but Mission is surprisingly rewarding despite having aged about as well as Reaganomics.

NEXT TIME: I review the blissfully Channing-Tatum-free 21 Jump Street. Although it does have a young Johnny Depp, so you can’t win them all.

Case Study 82: Mission: Impossible (1966), Episode 106–“Flip Side”

Case Study 81: Brides of Christ, Episode 1–“Diane”

Original Airdate: September 4th, 1991 on Australian Broadcasting Corporation

You’ll have to forgive me, because going from schlocky family sitcoms to prestige dramas for serious Australian grown-ups induces a certain amount of whiplash. Brides of Christ is a six episode miniseries depicting a convent of Catholic nuns in 1960s Sydney. It’s a historical drama and there’s unlikely to be much chance for sex and violence? We’re in Masterpiece Theatre territory here. It’s probably not as much fun as Call the Midwife but it’s also hard to believe it shares a medium with Family Ties.

Strengths

  • Fresh subject matter. Have there ever been any other shows about nuns? As near as I can tell the closest things are The Flying Nun, which was clearly not intended to be taken seriously, and the aforementioned business about midwives, which has nuns but is primarily about, you know, midwives. Plus, those nuns are Anglican.
  • Insight into Catholicism. So I was raised Roman Catholic but I’ve never been a nun, and I’ve never had much interaction with them outside of pissing them off in Sunday school. A lot of this was new even for me, and this effect was made more pronounced by the temporal remove. Brides chronicles one of the more tumultuous moments in recent Church history, rivalled only by a certain spotlight-worthy story that broke in Boston around the turn of the century. While child molestation was definitely happening in the church in the 1960s, fresh-faced postulant Sister Catherine (Josephine Byrnes, The Matrix Reloaded) is out of the loop. She’s more interested in tensions in the church between conservatives and disciples of the reform-minded Pope John XXIII, or “Johnny X-X-one-one-one,” as Catherine’s goofy friend Sister Paul (Lisa Hensley, Dating the Enemy) calls him. Johnny was famous for Pacem in terris, an encyclical inveighing against nuclear proliferation, and for calling the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II wasn’t finished and implemented until the papacy of Johnny’s successor, but it would bring about major changes in the church. Catherine and I were both raised in the church, but all the church services of her childhood were in Latin. Nowadays the pope is another reformer in the spirit of our Johnny, and activists within the church call (optimistically) for female priests and a wholehearted embrace of gay marriage, both ideas that would cause the stately senior nuns of 1963 Sydney to burst into unholy fire. It can be hard to keep your eye on the future in a religious tradition steeped in ancient ritual—when Catherine and her colleagues are shrouded in black veils and crowns of thorns during their initiation, they look like they have more in common with moondrunk pagans than with respectable Sunday churchgoers. Recent movies like Spotlight, Philomena and Calvary do a good job dragging the Roman Catholic Church to hell and back, and Brides is much more even-handed—Catherine and the other nuns are for the most part sympathetic, though their faith is not always easily comprehensible. That’s not to say that the Church as an institution comes off well, even if no one gets molested. It’s just as infected by sexual repulsion and mindless embrace of authority as always. Catherine is eventually sent off to the provinces to get her away from Paul and their “particular relationship.” She’s also forced to burn her private journals after setting off the Independent Thought Alarm one too many times.
  • Catherine. So why does she put up with this shit? She’s clearly too smart to be mouthing empty catechisms, even if older nuns like Sister Attracta (Melissa Jaffer, Mad Max: Fury Road) offer encouraging, laid-back role model vibes in contrast to Sister Agnes’ (Brenda Fricker, My Left Foot) tight-assed bitter old martinet. Before Sister Catherine was Sister Catherine, she was Diane, a dewy-eyed girl fresh out of a lengthy college career and ready to earn her MRS degree. After her father dies, she undergoes some weird religious epiphany. It’s  worth taking a moment here to praise the director (Ken Cameron, The Umbrella Woman) for conveying something as abstract as a religious epiphany in a legible if abstract and impressionistic manner. He even managed to resist using hokey period special effects! Anyway, it’s compelling to watch Catherine strive to reconcile her liberal upbringing with the decidedly staid and orderly intellectual environment where she finds herself. She may be an inquisitive free-thinker, but she doesn’t have a mean-spirited or sarcastic bone in her body. She earnestly engages a peevish Agnes on the topic of nonsensical medieval thought experiments. She knows Paul isn’t on her intellectual level, but she never lets Paul see this for a moment; we get the sense that Paul would be interested in taking the relationship deeper into the heart of particularity, and it seems Catherine is inclined to discourage this, subtly, gently, so as not to call attention to it or hurt Paul’s feelings. Here is where I wish that we could see an alternate reality where the two young women aren’t separated and this issue eventually comes to a head, but I’m sure Catherine would be a goddamned class act about it. 

Final Episode Judgment: 10/10. Television execs are historically timid about touching on anything having to do with religion or spirituality. It’s a shame, but that scarcity creates openings for fresh stories that offer probing explorations of deep and rich thematic material. This episode is well-acted, well-written and well-shot. Based on the strength of this premiere, Brides would have made an excellent TV series. It could have been the Mad Men of Catholicism. Instead, it was a miniseries before its time plunged into inky black obscurity. It’s moments like this where I feel vindicated by my drive to unearth the pearls and truffles of forgotten TV (along with a lot of stinking refuse.)

NEXT TIME: I review the blissfully Tom-Cruise-free Mission Impossible (1966).

Case Study 81: Brides of Christ, Episode 1–“Diane”

Case Study 80: Family Ties, Episode 30–“Batter Up”

Original Airdate: November 30th, 1983 on NBC

The family sitcom is the last refuge of the scoundrel of TV mediocrity. If you have airtime to fill and no interesting ideas to fill it with, give us cute kids, some tame humor and the barest shred of novelty. It’s hard to enjoy the anodyne domestic stories of years gone by in a post-Simpsons world, but it does make it easier to understand why that show made such a splash and why Married With Children might have seemed like a breath of fresh air. Of course, everything old is new again. At this point, arch depictions of dysfunction seething beneath conformity are boring (F is for Family, anyone?) and an old-fashioned goofy family sitcom like Modern Family has a wheelbarrow full of Emmys, despite not really being as modern as all that. Which is all well and good: if it’s funny, it doesn’t need to be groundbreaking. Family Ties is self-evidently not groundbreaking. It centers around the political conflict between liberal parents and a conservative son, an empty mirror image of the much more interesting All in the Family. But is it funny? Well-l-l-l….

Strengths

  • Hilarious 80s fashion. Nothing says style like a fuschia vest over a dark purple sweater, worn with panache by the inestimable Tina Yothers as eleven-year-old Jennifer. Meanwhile, teenage Mallory (Justine Bateman) is headed off to school in inexplicable Laura Ingalls Wilder cosplay. And I realize that annoying neighbor Arlene (Tanya Fenmore, My Stepmother is an Alien) is supposed to be nerdy, but all the lace ruffles are a touch extra even for her.
  • One mildly amusing line. Laughs and even smiles are few and far between in this joyless “comedy,” but there was one tiny moment. Loathsome teenage Republican Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox, Back to the Future) is coaching Jennifer’s softball team with a decidedly Malthusian philosophy. All of the other girls start to back out so as not to have to deal with him, and we hear one side of his phone conversation with a truculent mom. I’ll pause here to say that a one-sided phone conversation is always an easy way to get a laugh. Some of the most potent comedy asks us to rely on our imagination of offscreen reactions and events. We see him saying, “Ms. Scofield, be reasonable…this is the championship game and we’re going to forfeit without Charlotte…We can give her her medication between innings!”

 

Weaknesses

  • Terrible acting. There’s a reason most of these people didn’t have much of a career outside this show. Fox was the breakout star, and he’s more or less inoffensive here, if a bit whiny. This episode is really a showcase for Jennifer, and Yothers handles herself with surprising competence, though we’re still grading on the child actor curve. Everyone else might as well be extras at a midwestern dinner theatre. Thankfully, the worst-in-show award goes to someone who’s not a part of the main cast: Marc Price as Skippy, Arlene’s equally annoying older brother.
  • Learning a valuable lesson. One thing I’ve learned writing this blog is that while overcooked melodrama is tedious, nothing is as intolerable as bad comedy. I was wrong. There is one thing more intolerable: bad moralistic comedy. I realize that 20th-century family sitcoms are notorious for this, but it’s very hard to do well. It takes someone like Norman Lear to be able to take an ethical dilemma and make it funny as well as thought-provoking. Needless to say, he didn’t work for Family Ties. In tonight’s episode, we learn that while winning is nice, it’s not worth damaging your friendships or brutalizing little girls. Well, except that…
  • There are no real consequences. Guess what happens at the end of this trifling nonsense? It looked like Alex wouldn’t have enough players to field a team due to his and Jennifer’s sociopath-adjacent behavior. Then Arlene and the girls on the team forgive them and they all run off to play in the game after all. What the hell was the point of all this if the Keatons get away with their bullshit anyway after a few half-hearted apologies?
  • Ableist humor. You know what this episode needed? A throwaway joke about “midget kickboxing.” Okay, so this might be unfairly applying the political standards of 2017 to 1983, but either way it’s not funny. Find a way to make your shitty jokes without mocking people because of their medical conditions or don’t make them at all. I mean, they might as well have not made any jokes at all judging by the humor of the end product.
  • Sexual harassment. Again with this bullshit. Hey comedy writers: stop sending the message that refusing to take no for an answer is funny or charming or endearing. It’s creepy and women have to deal with this behavior constantly. Part of the reason for that? Media that makes it seem innocent and acceptable. Honestly, I feel bad for Mallory! She exhibits remarkable restraint by ignoring Skippy instead of telling him to go furtively masturbate in his mother’s closet, and Elyse (Meredith Baxter) still chides her for being rude. Pretty sure that Skippy is the rude one, since he’s practically dry-humping the furniture. Quit perpetuating patriarchal hegemony, Elyse.

Final Episode Judgment: 0/10. Hey, it turns out the things I said were strengths were kind of backhanded compliments at best! Would you look at that.

NEXT TIME: I review Brides of Christ, an Australian miniseries about nuns possibly having fun in the 1960s. It’s not a comedy, but it’s still probably funnier than this horseshit.

Case Study 80: Family Ties, Episode 30–“Batter Up”

Case Study 79: Lou Grant, Episode 27–“Murder”

Original Airdate: October 30th, 1978 on CBS

You may not care that much about TV shows from the seventies, but if you were asked to name three, there’s a good chance you’d say All in the Family, M*A*S*H and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary won a staggering 29 Emmys. It coronated the title actress as comedy royalty. It eventually gave us 30 Rock. It also generated a flock of spinoffs rivaled only by Norman Lear, Happy Days and Star Trek. Rhoda made a modest splash in the sitcom world—it even inspired an inexplicable animated pilot about Carlton the doorman, as voiced by the inimitable Lorenzo Music—but the most successful Mary spinoff was actually an hour-long drama. Mary’s gruff boss, Lou Grant (Ed Asner), evidently made the move from Minneapolis to Los Angeles and left TV behind for a good old-fashioned newsroom. The end result was Lou Grant, a socially conscious melodrama that proved to be another successful entry in James L. Brooks’ resume. Is it worth your time in 2017? Of course not. But it wouldn’t be any fun to leave it at that, would it?

Strengths

  • Politically engaged. I’m always going to like anything that challenges conventional wisdom about TV being vapid and pointless, especially old-school Silver Age fare like this. Lou was a valuable precursor to more memorably woke dramas like St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues, which were also productions of MTM Enterprises (guess what the MTM stands for). Each episode features the intrepid reporters of the LA Tribune wading into a hot topic ripped from the headlines of Time magazine. This episode confronts an issue that we’re still lamenting nearly 40 years later—the disparities in the way the media treats white crime victims and victims of color. I recently saw two salient examples of this phenomenon. I live in a part of the city that’s mostly non-white and afflicted by violent crimes. A few weeks ago, someone was stabbed to death and left to die in the street. There were two paragraphs about this in the newspaper. I don’t know for sure that this person wasn’t white, but I have absolutely no way of knowing for sure since the paper didn’t even print his name. A few weeks before that, I saw Jon-Benet Ramsey on the cover of Globe in line at the supermarket. In June of 2017. These two victims lived maybe 30 miles from one another, but they might as well be on separate planets. This episode is all about the same issue—a young black mother gets senselessly murdered the same day that some old dowager gets robbed, and our heroine Billie Newman (Linda Kelsey) has to fight tooth and nail to get the Tribune to devote any resources to covering the murder. The news media landscape in 2017 would be unrecognizable to the folks at the Tribune, but chances are they’d find modern-day media racism all too familiar.
  • Underused institutional setting. Why aren’t there more TV shows about the media? Clearly the issues are still relevant and it’s an unfamiliar setting for most people. Is it because The Newsroom has irretrievably poisoned the well? That’s probably why, isn’t it? God, that show sucked out loud. (I was about to write a sentence calling Aaron Sorkin out as one of the biggest hacks in television, but there are just so many hacks that my sentence would have buckled under the weight of qualifiers.) Nevertheless, one of the more interesting things that TV dramas can do is to pull back the curtain on the institutions that drive our society. It’s what made The Wire a masterpiece and it’s why I’ll gladly sit still for Frederick Wiseman’s 3-hour-long documentaries. Lou offers some of these pleasures. We get to see editorial meetings about what’ll make it on the front page. We see Lou giving guidance to young reporters. It’s not Spotlight, but it’ll do, I suppose.

Weaknesses

  • Over-the-top direction. We open on the gruesome murder of Marla Evans (Gail Cameron, Another You). Of course, we’re given a little slice of Marla’s life in the minutes before the murder in order to humanize her and emphasize the terrible tragedy of her death, and that’s all well and good, if a little obvious. The thing is, when it comes to larger-than-life drama, a little goes a long way and the director would be well-advised to use a light touch. The director, one Mel Damski (Yellowbeard), does not use a light touch. Instead, there’s a soaring soundtrack worthy of Michael Bay and sweeping, erratic camera movements. It’s meant to be thrilling. Instead, it’s cheesy melodrama.
  • Maudlin. Billie’s trying to convince the cops to let her examine the bloody crime scene when Marla’s seven-year-old daughter, Lisa (Alene Wilson, Battered) comes skipping down the hallway, singing a merry little song. The cop stops the little girl from going into the apartment, picks her up and carries her away. She cries out for her mother. Is this really necessary? Do we really have to attend Marla’s funeral? If we do, do we have to spend five minutes there? We get it. The lady’s dead. It’s sad. It doesn’t make it more sad if you turn it into a tragic anecdote from “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” 
  • A thirsty eagerness to call attention to moderate character work. So the whole deal with Lou Grant as a character is that he seems like a crotchety old man but he’s got a heart of gold. His gruff mannerisms keep people at arm’s length but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t care. It’s kind of a cliche, but it is what it is. So we get a scene where Lou seems like he’s discouraging Billie, but he’s really motivating her to try harder to write a compelling article about Marla. It was reasonably deft and I would have praised it, except it’s immediately followed by Art Donovan (Jack Bannon) coming up to Lou and congratulating him on understanding human psychology while still seeming like an old curmudgeon. For chrissakes! Just let the moment breathe! We get it! Why do the writers of Lou Grant think the audience are a bunch of fucking idiots?
  • Too much time spent with the dowager. If this episode of Lou has one fatal flaw, it’s a total lack of subtlety, but if it has a second fatal flaw it would be that there’s not enough of a story here. Everyone wants a happy ending, so Billie has to come up with a great article for the paper, and sure, that means spending some time in the community and getting to know Marla’s milieu. So far, so good. Then we spend an eternity at her funeral, which, teary but okay, I guess. Then Billie helps catch the murderer. Okay, pretty unrealistic, but whatever, we’ve all learned a valuable lesson about how every human life deserves the full consideration we give to blonde children and how it’s silly to spend all our time focusing on cute old white ladies foiling a robbery attempt. So what happens next? Oh, of course the show spends more time focusing on the cute old white lady. There’s this whole b-plot about hotshot young reporter Joe Rossi (Robert Walden, All The President’s Men) covering the hell out of the robbery story. He also helps catch the robbers. Why does Lou Grant think all reporters also fight crime?

Final Episode Judgment: 4/10. It’s definitely not the nadir of hour-long dramas, but it just can’t compete in a world where there’s something light years better airing for the first time somewhere on TV every night.

NEXT TIME: I continue to explore alleged TV classics as I review Family Ties!

Case Study 79: Lou Grant, Episode 27–“Murder”