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 70: One Day at a Time, Episode 121–“Merry Widow”

Original Airdate: December 14th, 1980 on CBS

Previously in this space we’ve discussed Norman Lear’s groundbreaking classic All in the Family. At the time I pointed out that Family was just the beginning of a cottage industry of sitcoms unafraid to probe political issues across racial, class and gender divides. He made sitcoms about working class white conservatives, rich white liberals, black families with newfound wealth and black families in the inner city. His next idea was to turn his attention to the newly relevant phenomena of single parent households—by 1980 nearly 20% of American children lived in such homes. This led to One Day at a Time, a sitcom about a divorcee raising two teenage girls. Lear had struck gold—Time was a huge hit and eventually ran for nine seasons. Some TV executive out there still thinks the show is relevant, because apparently it’s slated for a Gilmore Girls-esque reboot on Netflix. But is the original worth your time?

Strengths

  • Serious plot. This is one of the things that was refreshing about Lear—he wasn’t afraid to have a comedy deal with serious issues, even if that meant sacrificing opportunities for laughs. His legacy lives on in modern-day comedies like Transparent that relentlessly probe contemporary society while still managing to be funny, to the point where the legitimacy of that show’s Emmy nomination category is endlessly debated. In this episode, we have the protagonist’s mother, Katherine Romano (Nanette Fabray, The Band Wagon) trying to get back on the dating market in light of her husband’s recent death. It wouldn’t be a Lear sitcom if Katherine wasn’t treated as a sensitive, human subject.

Weaknesses

  • Missed opportunities. The problem is that the show doesn’t do anything interesting with what could have been really juicy material. After she makes a pass at wacky neighbor figure Schneider (Pat Harrington Jr.), he turns her down. He consoles her by telling her that now’s her chance to be alone and find out who she REALLY is on the inside. That’s it. That’s the whole show. Now I’m not saying that her self-actualization wouldn’t be interesting, but that’s not what we’re getting here. Instead, we get to watch her get prompted towards self-actualization with no payoff. This is a great example of where the writers could have followed the golden rule of improv: accept the premise provided by the script and expand on it, instead of shutting it down and trying to go in another direction. Why not let Katherine and Schneider have an affair? There’s several different ways that could go. Maybe Katherine’s daughter Ann (Bonnie Franklin) is grossed out by her mom’s newfound sexuality and has to come to terms with that. Maybe Katherine thinks Schneider is more serious than he is and winds up lovelorn. Maybe they discover a problematic incompatibility. Maybe she realizes she’s not really done grieving her late husband. Instead, we’re just teased with the possibility of what could have been.
  • Nanette Fabray. Fabray’s Katherine might be fine as a comedic foil for Franklin’s Ann, but she struggles to stand on her own as the centerpiece of this episode. She’s dealing with complicated emotions like loss, heartbreak and despair. She flirts, she dances, she’s meant to come across as vivacious, but by the end of the episode she’s proclaiming that she’s got nothing to live for. Fabray doesn’t have the range for this and comes across like a stiff product of mid-century vaudeville and musical theater.
  • Primitivist joke. Primitivism is a term most frequently associated with art, but it’s a useful shorthand for a variety of racist thinking not too distantly related to Orientalism. If Orientalism exaggerates and exoticizes Arabs and Asians under the guise of an artistic sensibility, Primitivism does much the same for people living in Latin America and Africa. It casts these people as savage barbarians who are nonetheless spiritually connected to the earth and primal forces of sexuality and magic. It’s one tool out of many that white viewers use to distance themselves from everyone else. Here, it’s deployed in the service of a profoundly stupid joke: Schneider tells an anecdote about dating a “Mayan lass” in the Yucatan who couldn’t participate in a human sacrifice ritual because, thanks to Schneider, she was no longer a virgin. Now, some seven million people still describe themselves as Mayan in the 21st century, and before the Spanish conquest the historical Mayans practiced human sacrifice. Of course, that stopped in the 17th century and no one was throwing virgins down wells in the first place, so this joke isn’t just offensive, it makes no fucking sense in light of the show’s otherwise studied realism. Is it really worth being racist to make another dumb joke about how Schneider is slutty?

Final Judgment: 3/10. Norman Lear’s work is always interesting, but this is not the best specimen. Hopefully Netflix can rehabilitate this apparently beloved IP for the 21st century.

NEXT TIME: Did you know that Eva Longoria had an original animated series for adults on Hulu? Come back next time as I review the unfortunately named Mother Up!

Case Study 70: One Day at a Time, Episode 121–“Merry Widow”

Case Study 68: Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere–“Episode 3”

Original Airdate: November 26th, 2004 on Channel Four

He’s not well-known in the US, but in Britain Peter Kay is a bona fide comedy star. His 2010 stand-up comedy tour holds the Guinness World Record as the most successful comedy tour of all time, with 1.2 million tickets sold, and he’s been the star of a staggering amount of television shows and specials, although since this is Britain we’re talking about, his total amount of air time is still dwarfed by something like Everybody Loves Raymond. Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere is a spinoff of Phoenix Nights, a sitcom about a working men’s club in Northern England. In the final episode of Phoenix, the club’s doormen go on the run in an RV after a wacky misadventure. If there’s one thing TV loves, it’s a wacky misadventure, so they continue apace in Nowhere.

Strengths

  • Peter Kay as Max. The show isn’t riotously funny, but I can understand why Peter Kay’s career has been such a success. Almost all of the laughs come from his portrayal of Max, a bumbling and oafish but well-intentioned lowlife. It’s the little things that do it—the affection when he calls Paddy a “melon,” the indignant squawks of “How dare you!?,” and the gormless look on his face when everything goes wrong. This episode contains an inexplicably serious storyline, and Kay does credibly well with the dramatic fare. At one point Max straight-up launches into song, and Kay’s singing voice isn’t bad! For Kay, it’s quite a tour de force for a 22 minute sitcom.
  • Restrained and reasonably sensitive portrayal of dwarfism. This episode deals with Max running into his ex-girlfriend Tina (Lisa Hammond,) and she’s a little person. For a show with a distinctly vulgar sensibility, this isn’t played for laughs. No one feels the need to remark upon it and there are arguably no jokes at her expense. I say arguably because at one point Tina tells Max that she’s secretly given birth to his child. Max blurts out, “How tall is he?” He quickly corrects himself. I think this is really more of a joke about Max being a dumbass, but I also don’t have dwarfism or, indeed, any physical disability, so feel free to contact me and tell me if you feel differently about this exchange or Tina’s portrayal in general. Either way, it’s a damn sight better than Life’s Too Short.

Weaknesses

  • Crass. It tells you something about a show’s sense of humor when the very first thing that happens in a given episode is someone farting. Shortly thereafter, Max accidentally soaks a traffic cop with a bucket of urine. Later, a party-goer sings an angry song about being pressured into a vasectomy. It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I don’t love this kind of humor. I prefer it when comedy reflects psychological, social and cultural foibles, or when it’s just flat-out absurdist surrealism. Everyone farts. Regardless of what Louis CK says, it’s not intrinsically funny. The piss joke is a little better because the director employs the classic comedy technique of conveying the awful situation (the piss-soaked bobby) and cutting away before we see the fallout.
  • Gay panic. I watched two episodes of this show and they both feature jokes about the protagonists cringing as people confuse them for lovers. Wikipedia tells me that this is also a central plot point in a third episode. Look, this wasn’t funny when it happened 9 million times on Friends and it’s not funny now. Maybe you could make a mealy-mouthed argument similar to the one I just made about Tina and say this is really a joke about their insecurity in their masculinity, but I’d just rather not have to spend the time making excuses.
  • Attempt at serious dramatic storytelling. The two episodes I watched were a study in contrasts. One was a shaggy dog story about trying to steal a plasma TV, and the other was about Max coming to terms with the fact that his ex has moved on—despite the fact that she secretly had his baby. It’s not a felicitous marriage of sitcom and soap opera. It doesn’t help when the show doubles down on this with a maudlin scene featuring Max singing the entirety of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” while giving Tina pointed looks. I mean, she could have left the room after the first verse. That would have given us more time for actual jokes. There is eventually a high comic resolution to this story when Max and Paddy abduct a school bus full of children in an effort to get closer to Max’s newfound son. Of course, the kid isn’t even on that particular bus. I’m not sure that’s worth trying to get the viewer invested in Max’s love life, though.

Final Judgment: 5/10. It turns out there’s a reason Nowhere fever hasn’t spread around the globe.

NEXT TIME: On the one hand: Pirates! On the other hand: A Starz original series…I review Black Sails.

Case Study 68: Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere–“Episode 3”

Case Study 61: All In The Family, Episode 25–“Cousin Maude’s Visit”

Original Airdate: December 11th, 1971 on CBS

Back in the 1970s, All In The Family was a big deal. It wasn’t just because it was a ratings smash, though it was the number one show on TV for five years running. It was incredibly controversial in an era when any individual television show had a much larger slice of the zeitgeist. Sure, shows like Game of Thrones and True Detective get a lot of buzz, but consider this: the most recent season finale of Thrones enjoyed the highest ratings pull the series has drawn in its history with nearly nine million viewers. During the season this episode of Family aired, it was averaging 34 million a week. Take all the hype you heard about the Red Wedding and imagine four times that many people talking about Archie Bunker’s toilet. The show’s astronomical success made Norman Lear the de facto king of the 1970s sitcom, and he became known for a slate of hilarious sitcoms that took on social issues from varying sides of class, racial and gender divides. Sanford and Son, One Day At A Time, The Jeffersons and Good Times were also big hits, and as it happens, this particular episode of Family was the jumping-off point for another successful spinoff in the form of Maude.

Strengths

  • Strong characters. At first blush, the cause for controversy is obvious. Family patriarch Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) was a TV antihero before it was cool. He comes across in 2016 as the raging id of a Trump supporter. Still, even in 1971, people were understandably uncomfortable about having people yell racial slurs in a primetime sitcom. But Archie isn’t a Cartman-esque sociopath. He’s a three-dimensional character who displays real depth and humanity alongside knee-jerk bigotry and reactionary vitriol. Here we get to hear about his typically crude courtship of his wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton.) It involves, among other things, Archie putting straws up his nose and pretending to be a walrus. Sure, he’s mean to Edith and he yells at her and calls her names…but he makes her laugh. It definitely doesn’t excuse his behavior, but it does make him seem like a real person.
  • Great cast, especially Bea Arthur. O’Connor and Stapleton are gems as always—I challenge you not to laugh at the sequence where Edith is timing a minute by counting 60 Mississippi’s, loses count, and starts to sing the Minute Waltz—but the real star here is Maude, as played by the indomitable Arthur (The Golden Girls.) Her dynamic with O’Connor is perfect, and I love the role Maude plays in the story as well. Not many people can successfully hold their own up against Archie’s endless supply of bluster, but Maude shuts him down, and it is perfect. She makes a pointedly menacing comment about Edith—”I’d kill for that girl”—and O’Connor’s reaction is spot on. Ever the asshole, he eventually comes back with a deliciously nasty comment about how she already buried two husbands, but despite the fact that he always needs to get the last word, the real reason he spends so much of the first act fulminating about Maude’s impending visit is that he knows he’s met his match, and Arthur is more than up for the job.
  • Funny. The comedic genius of this show is such that it’s not exactly easy to point to a handful of lines or gags out of context that make it solid gold material. It’s a holistic experience. So much of the comedy comes from a stellar cast performing well-written characters in an interesting dynamic. When Maude rouses Archie by cheerfully singing “Good Morning” from Singin’ in the Rain, it tells us something about Maude’s unique variety of passive-aggression, and it’s also funny for three different reasons: Archie’s miserable reaction, the fact that Maude is being a dick but has plausible deniability because she’s being jaunty about it, and because Bea Arthur sells the hell out of the bit. The strength of the comedy is only enhanced by the fact that the writers aren’t afraid to have the characters openly adhere to distinct political viewpoints. In the third act Archie and Maude have a climactic argument about Maude’s beloved Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Of Eleanor, Archie fulminates that “she was the one who discovered the coloreds in this country. We never knew they was there!” This line is great because in addition to exposing the foolishness of its underlying ideology, it’s entirely plausible that the inarticulate Archie would say this without realizing how ridiculous it sounds. Archie genuinely believes that the world has been made a worse place thanks to women and minorities creating a culture of grievance, and while William F. Buckley might agree, it’s clear that the emperor has no clothes when Archie puts forth the issue in his inimitable style.
  • Politics. And let’s all just take a moment and appreciate the fact that this sitcom spends a full three minutes of its runtime on a heated shouting match about FDR’s legacy. These days television shows are mostly apolitical. Producers want characters that “everyone” can relate to, so those characters don’t have weird sexual, religious, political, ethnic, national or gender identities, unlike the people you probably know in your real life. Of course, the end result is very few people can actually relate. In real life, political beliefs are a core aspect of most people’s identity. The FDR argument is entertaining, but it also provides refreshing insight into Maude and Archie’s respective worldviews. It’s also quite novel. Part of the reason this show was such a hit was because it was unlike anything else on TV. Nobody was talking about the Yalta Conference on Mister Ed.

Weaknesses

  • Bathroom humor. Okay, a big part of what makes Archie Bunker who he is is that he’s unapologetically crude. It’s in the show’s DNA. That still doesn’t make it particularly funny when we’re all meant to enjoy a good laugh when Edith gives Archie Milk of Magnesia instead of Kaopectate. You get it?! Because it’s going to make him shit more! And he’s already got diarrhea! That’s not to say this sort of thing is entirely hopeless. It can work if it’s reasonably well-integrated into the story. Maude gives Archie a delicious breakfast of cream of wheat with cheese (“It’s light, but it binds,” she reassures him) but it doesn’t help. He angrily declares that Maude was wrong again as he rushes to the bathroom. It’s pretty choice that he’s making it a point to one-up her in the middle of his intestinal distress, and the fact that he’s a jerk makes his mild suffering funnier, and “it’s light, but it binds” is an intrinsically amusing phrase, especially coming out of Bea Arthur. Nevertheless, I could have done with less about Archie’s bowels.

Final Judgment: 9/10. Family is unquestionably classic television. It lands comfortably in any top ten list of the best shows of all time, and “Cousin Maude’s Visit” was the entry TV Guide chose for Family’s ninth-place berth on their Top 100 Episodes list. Nevertheless, much like Don Draper, Sterling Archer or Frank Underwood, Archie is decidedly an acquired taste.

NEXT TIME: I cover our first Australian offering when I review the YA hit Dance Academy.

Case Study 61: All In The Family, Episode 25–“Cousin Maude’s Visit”

Case Study 56: The New Statesman, Episode 18–“Let Them Sniff Cake”

Original Airdate: January 20th, 1991 on ITV

Politics is an intriguing and underexposed subject for television shows, and the British have proven extremely adept at generating high-quality political fiction like Yes Prime Minister, The Thick Of It and The Politician’s Husband. But The New Statesman is something of an odd duck. In terms of political tv shows, the cheerfully scheming immorality of its characters reminds me of House of Cards, while its sense of humor calls to mind Married…With Children. If you think that sounds like a bizarre combination, you’d be absolutely right.

Strengths

  • Edgy. Shows like Married lay claim to edginess by wholeheartedly embracing vulgarity and coarseness, and shows like Game Of Thrones reach for the ever-popular audience of easily titillated man-children by stabbing pregnant women in the baby and chopping horses in half, but I can honestly say I’ve never seen a sitcom whose plot revolved around cocaine purchases and car bombs. Perhaps it’s because the British have more creative license than censorious Americans. I don’t want to make the mistake of identifying mere novelty as quality, but these elements are at the very least attention-getting.
  • Rik Mayall. The main character has the on-the-nose name of Alan B’Stard (Mayall, The Young Ones), which gives you an idea of the level of humor we’re dealing with here, but Mayall sells the material. He goes from preening cockiness to pitiful obsequiousness very smoothly, and he makes a cartoonishly evil character seem real. Given his obvious talent, it makes sense that he’d be offered the starring role in a sitcom in light of his work in cult classics like Young and The Comic Strip Presents.

Weaknesses

  • Three different flavors of unfunny. There’s always the risk when you’re mocking a conservative character that you’re inviting the viewer to laugh with their despicable comments about the world instead of laughing at them. Shows like this one, All In The Family, Will & Grace or South Park all have character-based jokes that embrace this ambiguity. It can be done well, but one important caveat remains salient. In the wake of controversies brought about by things like greasy sewer clot Daniel Tosh wishing rape on his hecklers and Jerry Seinfeld whining about how you damn college kids can’t take a joke, it’s important to remember that a big reason why shitty jokes about rape victims and gay people are shitty is not just because of their politics but because it’s also hack material. A creative comedian can respond to a female heckler with something other than rape threats, and a creative comedian can critique a fickle, callow youth culture without relying on tired gay stereotypes. So I’m not exactly inclined to roll in the aisles when B’Stard makes a joke about how women’s pussies smell weird, even if the joke could remotely be construed as being about his own sexual repression. Then there’s every first-grader’s favorite: bathroom humor! At one point B’Stard’s long-suffering office mate Piers Fletcher-Dervish (Michael Troughton) is doing toe touches while bemoaning a mung bean casserole he was compelled to eat, and of course he farts right in B’Stard’s face. Yeah, yeah, Shakespeare and Aristophanes both used fart jokes, but you’ll forgive me for not jumping off that particular bridge. The third cardinal sin of comedy on display here is one that makes a lot of sense in context but is still unlikely to whet the appetite of the contemporary viewer: extremely dated political humor. At one point, Alan is on the phone with Salman Rushdie, who is bemoaning his ill fortunes: “First The Satanic Verses, then you poured all your royalties into Polly Peck shares!” When was the last time you heard a good joke about Enron? Or how about this gem: when confronted with a £40,000 ransom to call off eco-terrorist attacks on his office, Alan exclaims “that’s more than John Major charges for a peerage!” This stuff may have seemed like cutting political commentary at the time, but it’ll have today’s viewers struggling to remember what was going on in the news in Britain back in the early 90s.

Final Judgment: 4/10. This show has potential, but a comedy can have a great cast and original ideas and it’s all worthless if it’s not funny.

NEXT TIME: I continue my coverage of the deep cuts of British television by reviewing the mid-seventies short-form cartoon Roobarb!

Case Study 56: The New Statesman, Episode 18–“Let Them Sniff Cake”

Case Study 53: Marvin Marvin, Episode 4–“Ice Pop Pop”

Original Airdate: December 15th, 2012 on Nickelodeon

Everyone loves a good fish-out-of-water story, so the “mild-mannered humans hide a secret space alien” trope is one we’re apparently destined to return to again and again. Every generation has its own version of this: My Favorite Martian. Mork & Mindy. ALF. When I was in my teens, I got to personally witness the straight-faced dramatic interpretation, Kyle XY. By now, those returns have aggressively diminished into the form of Marvin Marvin. Instead of Robin Williams, we have the equally manic and overbearing YouTube celebrity Lucas Cruikshank (Fred: The Movie.) Cruikshank is one of legions of teenagers and young adults who have become the Tiger Beat set for the 21st century while you weren’t looking. The reason you weren’t looking is because this all happening on YouTube, whereas you can’t even keep up with The Americans and Transparent. No shade intended: you probably also don’t listen to One Direction records, either. Teenyboppers gonna bop. But Cruikshank briefly was able to translate his YouTube success to actual TV shows and feature films centered on his character Fred, who is meant to be an obnoxious six year old. If you’re like me, obnoxiousness is not one of the traits you look for among the fictional characters to spend your vanishingly rare leisure time with, and many adults did not find Fred especially endearing. Nevertheless, Nickelodeon gave Cruikshank another show, one that the usually fannish TVTropes notes “gained negative reviews from critics and viewers alike.” Marvin ended after one season and Cruikshank was shown the door by Nickelodeon. It may or may not be a coincidence that he came out of the closet shortly thereafter. The queer leftist in me wants to make the case that he’s gotten blackballed because of his sexuality, but the TV critic in me looks at this show and has some real fucking doubts, let me tell you.

Strengths

  • Decent child actors. Let’s give some credit where credit is due, here. Usually child actors are terrible, as the Mary-Kates and Beavers of this world can attest. It would seem that the people doing the casting at Nick managed to avoid this pitfall. Marvin the alien’s host family includes a young son named Henry (Jacob Bertrand, Rise of the Guardians,) who is very believable as the scheming younger brother, and while his sister Teri (Victory Van Tuyl, Magic In The Forest) is played unremarkably by Van Tuyl, Teri’s friend Brianna (Camille Spirlin) is also a treat. Marvin is a comedy with absolutely no funny moments, but Bertrand and Spirlin come closest to successfully selling ice cubes in a volcano, especially when compared with the adults in the cast, who miserably phone it in and mentally update their resumes as they watch the sword of cancellation dangle above. Kids are just more innocent, I guess. Falling somewhere between is Cruikshank. His performance is the same one-note hyperactivity you can see in any of his videos, but his energy could theoretically work with even remotely amusing material. It’s a shame the writing is so terrible, because “high-energy, goofy space alien” is the role he was born to play. Most normal sitcoms would require too much range and depth, but this could have been his sweet spot.

Weaknesses

  • Dreadfully unfunny. Generation War was funnier than this. Hopefully, we can find something instructive in its profound lack of humor, though. You see, all of the alleged merriment stems from that classic staple of comedy, the Wacky Misunderstanding. Hey, if it’s good enough for Shakespeare, Neil Simon AND Three’s Company, it should be good enough for me, right? Well…Good comedy can come from lots of places. Observation. Commentary. Strong characterization. Slapstick. Absurdism. Sheer novelty & originality. And, yes, sometimes comedy can arise out of a wacky situation. Without those, we wouldn’t have “situation comedies.” But the wacky situation can’t be so wacky that it takes us out of the action entirely, and that line is already getting pushed with the whole undercover space alien premise. The wacky misunderstanding we’re confronted with here involves Marvin learning what an expiration date is, seeing an expiration date on the driver’s license of Henry and Teri’s grandfather Pop-Pop (Casey Sander, Grace Under Fire) and assuming that Pop-Pop will get moldy and have to be discarded. Because Pop-Pop is an asshole, he takes advantage of Marvin’s confusion and extracts favors and free labor accordingly. Because this is Marvin Marvin, no comedic dividends are forthcoming. (Sample: Pop-Pop makes Marvin cart him around in a rickshaw. “I always wanted to see the top of that mountain.” Hilarity, thy name is Pop-Pop.) But I wonder if there’s any possibility that this tired-ass setup could ever have been funny. It’s possible that all those other sitcoms I mentioned already extracted the meagre laughs available from this dumb premise. Maybe they could have leaned harder on “expiration as death” and had Marvin start digging a grave? Or some kind of Logan’s Run thing? Or maybe the writers of Marvin Marvin were just doomed from the start. The really crazy thing is that this is only one of three Wacky Misunderstandings in this episode. Teri and Brianna get romantically involved with a pair of twins and everyone ends up covered in purple paint. Look, just because Shakespeare did it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for basic cable. The third misunderstanding comes into being when Marvin realizes what Pop-Pop is up to and devises a revenge scheme whereby he tricks Pop-Pop into thinking he’s brought Marvin to death’s door, with the payoff being that Pop-Pop drinks a milkshake made of disgusting foods. This show makes a New Yorker cartoon look like a George Carlin routine.
  • Out-of-touch. There’s just one example of this, but it’s gratuitous. Teri and Brianna approach Henry to help them devise a scheme to get back at those two-timing twins (Josh & Caleb Pryer, Future Problems.) Henry will help, but his fee is “$20 in arcade tokens.” Whaaat? He explains that “They’re untraceable! And because I’m a kid.” Yeah, a kid in 1985, apparently. I like to imagine that this was a Bitcoin joke in the original draft. It wouldn’t be any funnier, but at least it wouldn’t have unmasked the writers as childless fifty-somethings. Did they transfer over from Grace with Casey Sander?

Final Judgment: 2/10. It was certainly a joyless 22 minutes, but it wasn’t an active affront to the senses, so it’s not quite eligible for the Hall of Infamy. Sometimes I wonder if I’m too nice.

NEXT TIME: I continue my coverage of space aliens by reviewing Roswell!

Case Study 53: Marvin Marvin, Episode 4–“Ice Pop Pop”

Case Study 38: Petticoat Junction, Episode 167–“Cannonball For Sale”

Original Airdate: March 9th, 1968 on CBS

Nowadays, TV fans are intimately familiar with the creators and personalities behind their favorite shows. Shonda Rhimes, Dan Harmon, Joss Whedon, JJ Abrams, Aaron Sorkin—they all have dedicated followings, people who are fans of not just specific shows but the entire body of work. We tend to think of this as a relatively recent phenomena, dating back perhaps to David E. Kelley’s reign of mediocrity in the 1990s. But Paul Henning gives lie to this theory. He created three of the most memorable and long-running sitcoms of the 1960s, all of which aired on CBS. In the 60s, CBS had a reputation as the “Country Broadcasting System” for its surfeit of rural sitcoms and westerns. In the 1960s, CBS was home to Lassie, The Andy Griffith Show and its spinoffs Gomer Pyle USMC and Mayberry R.F.D., Gunsmoke, Rawhide, The Wild Wild West, The Real McCoys, Hee-Haw, Mister Ed, and of course, the Henning suite of countryfied juggernauts: The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and today’s offering, Petticoat Junction. Very few of these shows made it past 1971, thanks to what’s now known as the “rural purge.” It sounds like something that might have happened in Stalinist Russia, but Green Acres actor Pat Buttram aptly described it as “the year CBS cancelled everything with a tree.” One widespread theory as to why this was the case is that it was around this time that the all-important Nielsen ratings began to break down audiences into more fine-grained age segments, birthing the holy grail of TV marketers everywhere—18 to 34 year olds. And CBS was aghast to discover that hip young urbanites no longer cared about Mayberry. If you’d like to read hundreds of pages about analysis about rural sitcoms on CBS, check out historian Sara Eskridge’s dissertation on the subject, but if you haven’t got the time for that, you’ll have to settle for the patented Oryx & Cake Boss approach to Junction.

Strengths

  • Funny. Okay, so it’s not The Simpsons, but the whole point of the rural era on CBS was safe and gentle, and Junction is a reasonably good demonstration that safe and gentle can still be funny and entertaining. Early in the episode, Hooterville denizens Joe Carson (Edgar Buchanan) and Sam Drucker (Frank Cady, Green Acres) are playing horseshoes, and Joe settles a dispute about whose shoe is closer to the stake by chucking Sam’s into the bushes when he’s not looking. It’s not exactly gold, but the performances really sell it. Like many episodes of Junction, this installment deals with an existential threat to the Cannonball, a neglected and ill-starred railway spur that only provides service to Hooterville. At one point, hotelier Kate Bradley (Bea Benaderet) tricks miserly railway executive J. Homer Bedloe (Charles Lane, It’s A Wonderful Life) by flirting with him and fondling his decidedly unimpressive old man biceps. The scheme to save the Cannonball culminates in Joe and Sam posing as captains of industry in Chicago. To bolster their deception, Joe urges retired conductor Floyd Smoot (Rufe Davis) to call during the meeting with a “big, important” message—the actual message doesn’t matter as long as Floyd conveys how big and important it is. At just the right moment, the big, important message is delivered—they found the missing horseshoe. Reader, I chortled.
  • Engaged with economic realities and the absurdities of finance. Too many sitcoms—particularly the so-called “classics”—rely on contrivance and artificially prolonged treatment of social faux pas that could easily be resolved with a quick conversation. Staples like Seinfeld, Friends, Sex and the City and How I Met Your Mother are famous for blithely ignoring the economics of urban life in a quest for a blandly hip series. Junction definitely isn’t hip, but you can’t say it’s not thoughtful about the livelihood of its characters. They all know that without the Cannonball, the town will undergo complete economic collapse. There won’t be enough income to support hotels, general stores and a crop-dusting business, and even when everyone takes out loans against their assets, they can’t match the price offered for the Cannonball by a junk dealer. This is one of many episodes dealing with a potential threat to the Cannonball, because it’s the fulcrum of financial precarity for the entire community. Much of the humor here also deals with the radical inaccessibility of financial arcana for the folks in Hooterville. Crop-dusting pilot Steve Elliott (Mike Minor) condescendingly explains to his wife Betty Jo (Linda Kay Henning) that she can’t boycott the railroad’s parent company because they only sell stocks and she isn’t planning on buying any stocks. Wackiness ensues when the relatively esoteric finance term “combine” is confused with the farm machinery. Joe produces a financial statement listing coat hangers as assets. I was worried that Junction was going to be little more than an exercise in mocking slack-jawed yokels but in reality many of the jokes are about how the world of high finance is inaccessible and irrelevant to regular people despite the fact that their fortunes depend on it.
  • Frank Cady. Frank Cady is awesome. There’s a reason that Sam Drucker is the only constant in all three of the Henning-verse sitcoms. The entire third act of this episode consists of the caper in Chicago and Cady is pitch-perfect accompaniment to Buchanan’s bluster. The fine art of being a comedic straight man is highly underrated and Cady does more with a dubious expression than can be accomplished with 10 lines of repartee.

Weaknesses

  • Lazy, implausible ending. Sure, they need to wrap it up to 22 minutes and hew to the status quo. It’s not like Hooterville can actually undergo complete economic collapse. We’re not going to see the characters scatter to the four winds because the show isn’t called Petticoat Diaspora. But it does seem a bit unlikely that the wealthy industrialist would forego thousands of dollars in profit out of the goodness of her heart because a couple of rubes tried to fleece her in a comically incompetent fashion. She’s a railroad magnate. Surely she closes down railway lines all the time. It’s her job. Every one of those closures is going to bring financial ruin in its wake. Why is this one any different? Because some bumpkins tracked mud all over her carpets? Wouldn’t it be much more satisfying if Sam and Joe managed to pull it off and maybe get Henrietta to invest in their non-existent corporate empire? Admittedly, having the Hooterzens commit fraud and get away with it also stretches plausibility somewhat, but if you’re going to paint yourself into a corner you might as well climb out a window instead of knocking down a wall.

Motivation: Anything that involves a wealthy industrialist can safely be categorized as being about money.

Final Episode Judgment: This provided satisfactory proof that not all goofy 60s sitcoms are created equal and books shouldn’t be judged by their petticoats. 7/10.

NEXT TIME: Ironists, take note–I’ll be reviewing Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos.

Case Study 38: Petticoat Junction, Episode 167–“Cannonball For Sale”