Case Study 66: The Scooby-Doo Show, Episode 5–“The Headless Horseman of Halloween”

Original Airdate: October 9th, 1976 on ABC

Out of all the entities in the intellectual property storehouse of Hanna-Barbera, the crime-solving Great Dane named Scooby-Doo has had the most staying power. There have been twelve different iterations of the animated series, including one that’s still on the air today, as well as countless feature-length animated movies, not to mention the live action movies with the hideous CGI dog. Seriously, Snoop Dogg turning into an actual dog in that music video looked more credible. There’s also the predictably large swath of merchandise and cash-in attempts, including actual Scooby Snack dog treats, a Scooby Doo-themed version of Clue, and for some reason a Scooby Doo stage play. Sadly, tonight’s case study demonstrates that a higher-profile Hanna-Barbera product doesn’t make for higher quality.

Strengths

  • Paying tribute to literary heritage. When I saw that this was going to center on the Headless Horseman, I felt confident that it was going to be a watered-down, half-assed public domain bastardization that would make Washington Irving spin like a whirligig. While Scooby is half-assed in all things, this was a surprisingly thoughtful adaptation of the classic story. The show makes an intriguing intertextual move by establishing that the Scooby-verse exists within the fictional context set up by “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The horseman’s story is traced not to Irving but instead to Ichabod Crane, the ancestor of one Beth Crane (Janet Waldo, The Jetsons), a friend of the Scooby Squad that only exists for the purposes of this episode and this episode only. Beth faithfully situates the Horseman’s origins within the Revolutionary War—as in the story, the Horseman is said to be a luckless Hessian decapitated by a stray cannonball, and this is almost certainly the only Hanna-Barbera program ever to discuss Hessians. Because there’s a glimmer of uniqueness and originality in this part of the storyline, Scooby viewers may be tempted to track down the source text. Of course, they might after doing that be tempted to never watch this show again, but either way, points for being bookish.
  • Sparingly amusing. Scooby is ostensibly a comedy, but the laughs are few and far between. Here are the three funny things that happen in this episode. Number one: We begin the action at a Halloween party hosted by Beth, who is dressed as Snagglepuss. Hooray for synergy! Number two: At one point, the characterically craven duo of Shaggy (Casey Kasem) and Scooby-Doo (Don Messick) faint due to fright. Scooby’s dimwitted country relation, Scooby-Dum (Daws Butler, The Jetsons), sees this state of affairs and also pretends to faint, appearing to think that this is what they’re all doing now. Ho ho ho. Number three: At various occasions, the dogs get their noses touched, bopped or poked, resulting in a comical honk sound effect. This concludes the list of funny moments in this episode of Scooby. You might be saying, “Wait, none of those were funny at all!” Well, now you can imagine what the rest of the episode was like.

Weaknesses

  • Scooby-Dum. I know some of you stopped paying attention the second I brought up this hick. Yes, that’s right—the good people at HB decided they needed to spice up the action by introducing another dog, even dumber and less articulate than the original dog. Clearly they didn’t learn from this mistake, as the execrable Scrappy-Doo was still three years away from being born into existence wet with the amniotic fluid of Satan’s bride. S. Doo is already hard enough to understand and his conversations with S. Dum prove nigh incomprehensible. Dum has little to offer besides hammy mugging and a bumpkin-ish approach to the unforgiving world of confidence men dressed up as movie monsters from the thirties. Wikipedia grimly notes continuity errors amounting to a “dubious lineage” for Dum, and I figured that these errors were born of a critical lack of interest on the part of the people who had written 40 episodes of this particular flavor of Scooby, but it turns out that there’s inconsistency even within this specific episode, with Dum being referred to as both Scooby’s brother and his cousin. I’m going to choose to interpret this as evidence that the Scooby line is rife with incest, which goes some way towards explaining why the Scoobies are critically stupid despite their sapience.
  • Flaccid “mystery.” Look, I love a good mystery. Even when I was a kid I loved a good mystery. Scooby acts like it’s going to present you with a mystery. They drive around in a goddamned Mystery Machine. What we get instead would make Agatha Christie vomit blood in an incendiary, gin-soaked rage. The minute we lay eyes on Elwood Crane (John Stephenson, The Flintstones) it’s obvious he’s the monster-impersonating douchebag we’re looking for, but we have to hang around for 15 minutes while the usual gang of idiots figures out that the seedy uncle who took the diamond necklace for “safekeeping” is actually the bad guy. They still don’t come to the natural conclusion even when the “Horseman” “steals” Elwood’s head. The really outrageous thing is that there’s only one other person the Horseman could possibly be, the Lurch-esque butler Tarlof (Alan Oppenheimer, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.) Tarlof is obviously a fake-out, seeing as he’s creepy-looking as hell. He also didn’t take any fucking diamonds!
  • Unconvincing action sequences. The episode tries to go out with a bang as Doo, Shaggy and Elwood wrestle one another for control of a speeding biplane mid-air. The problem is that the show has been taking advantage of cartoon physics all along, so it’s not like gravity is a serious threat. In fact, Scooby at one point steps completely out of the plane and walks several feet out on the empty air in the grand tradition of Wile E. Coyote. Next, they apparently crash through the back wall of an airplane hangar without damaging the plane. Shaggy falls through a mysterious hole in the seat and grabs onto the landing gear. Finally, the plane abruptly and inexplicably disintegrates. The end result is something neither thrilling nor comprehensible.

Final Judgment: 3/10. There are probably better episodes of Scooby. I know there are worse episodes, thanks to the aforementioned hell-spawn. Headless Horseman aside, Scooby and the gang can’t escape the stench of hackish mediocrity.

NEXT TIME: Gritty live action superheroes, anyone? I review Gotham!

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Case Study 66: The Scooby-Doo Show, Episode 5–“The Headless Horseman of Halloween”

Case Study 63: Kindred: The Embraced, Episode 7–“Bad Moon Rising”

Original Airdate: May 1st, 1996 on FOX

With a track record of shows like The Love Boat, Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, 7th Heaven and Charmed, Aaron Spelling is famous for producing television that strikes it rich with audiences and goes nowhere with critics, but his TV adaptation of the hit role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade flopped. What went wrong?

Strengths

  • Julian Luna. The protagonist of this show is ostensibly boring old human Frank Kohanek (C. Thomas Howell, The Outsiders) but the real star is Julian (Mark Frankel,) the vampire prince of San Francisco. It would be easy to paint the leader of an underground society of vampires as violent and mercurial, but Julian tries to take the high road, believing that the best way to keep the existence of vampires secret and thereby maintain “the masquerade” is to defuse conflicts and keep things peaceful where possible. This is another entry in a long line of shows about vampires, but at its best it feels more like a noirish political thriller than a supernatural horror/fantasy series.
  • Soap operatics. Of course, Aaron Spelling is involved, so it’s still a very sudsy soap opera. Luna leads a squabbling group of five vampire clans, each with their own “primogen” or representative with a private personality and agenda, which leads to typical sparks and tensions. Here, Lillie Langtry (Stacy Haiduk, Superboy) is the sultry primogen of the Toreador clan, and she’s conspiring to kill Caitlin Byrne (Kelly Rutherford, Gossip Girl), her rival for Julian’s affections. Elsewhere, Frank is a police detective determined to protect the city from a vampire menace only he knows about, and his partner Sonny (Erik King, Dexter) is secretly a vampire equally determined to thwart Frank. Any TV show with vampires had better have a flair for the dramatic, and as a soap opera, it’s even more satisfying than The Vampire Diaries.
  • Vampire-on-vampire combat. While any given episode of this show features power struggles and smoldering human/vampire romance, here all that tension boils over into actual physical combat. Generally the more genres a show is able to touch on the more successful it is, because that means it can please multiple audiences seeking a variety of pleasures. With combat sequences between Julian and two rogue vampires who seek to kill a baby in a sacrificial ritual to become more powerful, Kindred adds action/adventure to its already sizable roster of enticements. It’s even more thrilling because Julian personally steps into the fight out of an abundance of leadership and nobility. The stakes are high not just for him but for all of San Francisco’s vampires: if Goth (Skipp Sudduth, Third Watch) and Camilla (Patricia Charbonneau, Desert Hearts) complete the ritual, it will shatter the Masquerade and completely upend the vampire power structure.

Weaknesses

  • Stilted dialogue. This show has a lot of ideas and robust worldbuilding, which makes sense, seeing as how an entire company of writers and game designers had been generating Vampire stories for years. Suffice it to say that this creative energy didn’t make it to the script. One scene opens with Julian and Caitlin making goo eyes at each other. “I’m afraid there’s no dessert,” she says. “It depends what you call dessert,” he replies, going in for a kiss. Their dessert will be SEX! Get it!? Does anyone actually talk like this? Ruth Doyle (Maureen Flannigan, Out Of This World) is the hapless teen mom whose baby gets stolen for the blood ritual. At one point we see her forlornly wandering through the park, calling out to the empty air, I guess in the hope that the baby will come crawling amiably out of the bushes, or that whatever perverted murderer who stole her baby will hear her sad cries and be like, “Oh, when I went to steal this baby, I didn’t think that anyone would actually be upset about it!” Anyway, Ruth says, “Please! I want my baby back. Her name’s Jessie. She’s a good baby.” Surprisingly, no one responds. Later, Caitlin enters the lair of the evil vampires who stole Jessie, where she encounters Camilla. Caitlin decides it’s the perfect time to open up to someone about her regrets over giving a baby up for adoption. An interesting, thematically appropriate snippet about the character’s background, revealed at a completely nonsensical moment in the story. In some ways it’s more painful to watch a show like this attempt to do something laudable and fail spectacularly than to watch shows where nothing goes right and no one involved gives a fuck.
  • C. Thomas Howell and Maureen Flannigan. You know who definitely doesn’t give a fuck, though? These two. Howell spits out all his lines like he has somewhere better to be (he probably does) and maintains the same facial expression whether he’s watching a man get burned alive, watching his lover throw herself over a bridge or consoling a grieving mom. Yes, he gets to share several scenes with tonight’s other least valuable player, Maureen Flannigan. As mentioned, she was the star of Out of This World, which sounds like exactly the sort of dreck that’d fit in well with the shows discussed on this blog, but apparently her star turn did not prepare her well for convincingly playing a mother who watched a freakish looking monster snatch her baby out of a public park. She never seems genuinely terrified, and even her desperation rings hollow. That baby’s probably going to get snatched at least three more times before coming of age.

Final Judgment: 6/10. It’s now all too clear why this flopped—viewers that might have been interested in the knotty storytelling and the well-developed mythos would be put off by the terrible scripts and performances, and viewers looking for another bubblegum soap opera in the vein of Melrose would quickly change the channel after encountering a boatload of Vampire-specific terminology and five separate factions engaged in internecine squabbles. TV viewers got off easy, though—in the role-playing game, there are thirteen clans.

NEXT TIME: I return to my long lost and forgotten coverage of anime by looking at Michiko & Hatchin!

Case Study 63: Kindred: The Embraced, Episode 7–“Bad Moon Rising”

Case Study 46: Wayward Pines, Episode 3–“Our Town, Our Law”

Original Airdate: May 28th, 2015 on FOX

Hey look, I’m reviewing a show from this century! The executive producer of Wayward Pines is M. Night Shyamalan, which is somewhat ominous considering the quality of his last eight movies, but thankfully he didn’t write any of the episodes. Pines is based on a trilogy of novels by Blake Crouch. This appears to be one of those situations where the entire enterprise was meant to be contained in the first 10-episode season, but the show evidently did well enough in the ratings to merit a second season despite the fact that they’ve run out of novels to adapt. (Game Of Thrones syndrome?)

Strengths

  • Intriguing. Pines owes a suspiciously large amount to Lost and Twin Peaks, and while it manages to set itself apart during its later episodes, the burden of derivativeness looms large over the first few. Anything operating out of the Lost playbook risks suffering from the same ill that plagued that show–lots of mysterious things that promise an interesting story dangled in front of you without any payoff. Thankfully, Pines overcomes this potential flaw and by the fifth episode we’ve got a pretty solid idea of what’s going on without having sacrificed any suspense. In the meantime, the intrigue of the decidedly weird town of Wayward Pines is delectable. Agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon, There’s Something About Mary) travels to the secluded Idaho hamlet on an investigation for the Secret Service, but when he tries to leave he discovers that all the roads out of town circle back around. He sets off into the forest, only to find a giant electric fence with a sign warning him to return to Wayward Pines, and that “beyond this point you will die.” He even realizes that there are tiny speakers planted everywhere outdoors to simulate cricket song. Part of the reason mysteries and science fiction have proved themselves to be such enduring genres is that humans have a natural curiosity. If you present us with a set of unusual circumstances, we want to know what’s going on. Even if the explanation is ultimately unsatisfying, the very wonder of the intrigue itself is a pleasant sensation. Problems only arise when you try and prolong it indefinitely.
  • Creepy. Pines starts as a mystery and is eventually revealed to be full-blown science fiction, but it consistently offers the rewards of horror fiction. Imagine finding yourself trapped in a town that looks perfectly normal on the outside but which operates on a set of unknown principles, controlled by unknown actors. The consequences of trying to escape are dire: episode 2 ends with a brutal public execution. There’s also plenty of more traditional horror film elements–in this episode, Ethan finds his way into a mysterious storage facility. He’s searching the interior of a car when he’s abruptly interrupted by someone smashing through the window with a syringe full of sedatives. That’s right, a good old fashioned jump scare. Hell, at the end of the episode we get our first glimpse of the hideous, carnivorous monsters that live outside the fence. Strong horror fiction often melds mundane fears with extreme consequences. Here, a fear of nonconformity or malicious nurses and cops gets parleyed into a violent, high-stakes environment. It’s very effective.
  • Melissa Leo and Terrence Howard. Melissa Leo (The Fighter) and Terrence Howard (Empire) are good in everything, but they especially shine here as the banal faces of evil in Wayward Pines. Leo plays Pam, the nurse at the local hospital. When Ethan wakes up there after the car accident that brought him to Pines, she’s all benevolent smiles, and Leo masterfully manages the transition into creepy insistence that Ethan follow doctor’s orders and then into outright menace as she threatens to give Ethan the incorrect amount of anaesthesia, ensuring that he’ll wake up during brain surgery, unable to move but feeling every cut of the knife. As the first half of the series develops, her aura of veiled menace is pitch-perfect. Howard also displays excellent modulation as the smarmy yet intimidating Sheriff Pope. His character also starts out on the ambiguous side, but even after it’s revealed that, why yes, he DOES slit people’s throats in the town square, Howard’s performance remains captivating and the sheriff seems entirely real–and entirely unpredictable.
  • Raising the stakes. So resolving the mysteries at hand and having Ethan escape the trap of Wayward Pines would give the show plenty of material. By the end of episode 3, the viewer is operating under the assumption that the real world is just on the other side of the fence. It’s tantalizingly close but hopelessly inaccessible, and some unknown evil is controlling the denizens of the town. Then the show tosses us a curveball–Ethan gets the upper hand on Pope in a fight and kills him. After Pope’s been incapacitated but before Ethan finishes him off, Pope murmurs, “You think you want to know the truth, but you don’t. It’s worse than you could ever even imagine.” His claim is immediately proven true. Ethan uses Pope’s keys to open a gate on the fence–and a barely-glimpsed monster emerges to steal Pope’s corpse. I liked Pines quite a bit, but even if it had been terrible I would still have wanted to see Episode 4.

Weaknesses

  • Matt Dillon and Charlie Tahan. This show’s single biggest deficit is the gaping black hole where the personality of the main character should be. Dillon’s emotional range as Burke appears to have “stony” at one end and “slack-jawed” at the other. In the first three episodes, he discovers the dead body of one of his colleagues. He witnesses the execution of his erstwhile co-conspirator (Juliette Lewis, Natural Born Killers) after they botch an attempt to escape the town. He’s confronted with the news that his wife (Shannyn Sossamon, Sinister 2) and son (Tahan, Charlie St. Cloud) will also be trapped with him in Wayward Pines. Burke’s reaction? Just another day at the office! This is more of a detriment in any given episode the more heavy lifting that Dillon has to do, but it’s never a good look when your lead actor is lousy. Tahan’s performance as Ethan’s son Ben is one note played over and over again on a poorly tuned and possibly rusty saxophone, and that note is “sulky teenager.” But he’s a child actor. Matt Dillon is a 35-year Hollywood veteran. What’s his excuse?

Motivation: It’s a mix of knowledge (who makes the mysterious phone calls that tell the townspeople what to do?) and survival (Why is this weird, aggressive sheriff in my house all of a sudden?)

Final Judgment: 8/10. This was very good, if somewhat light. One wonders what they’re going to try in the hastily conceived second season. I’d also give an 8/10 to the season as a whole, though there are ups and downs.

NEXT TIME: I travel to a steampunk version of the 16th century as I review The Mysterious Cities Of Gold!

Case Study 46: Wayward Pines, Episode 3–“Our Town, Our Law”