“What Are Friends For?” (1980)

The 80s seemed to be a golden era for “that kid,” young actors whose familiar faces, if not particularly familiar names, always seemed to pop up on one TV show or another. There was Meeno Peluce (Silver SpoonsThe Bad News BearsThe Love Boat, countless other sitcoms), Ronnie Scribner (Fantasy IslandLittle House on the Prairie, Ralphie Glick in the TV movie adaptation of Salem’s Lot), Matthew Labyorteaux (The Love BoatLittle House on the PrairieAmazing Stories), among many other names that nowadays are only brought up in advanced bar trivia competitions.

Then there was Dana Hill, who appeared in neither The Love Boat or Little House on the Prairie. You might not immediately recall her name, but you’d definitely recognize her–her best known role was probably the second Audrey Griswold in National Lampoon’s European Vacation, but she also had memorable dramatic roles in Shoot the Moon and Fallen Angel, the first TV movie to address the scourge of child pornography. If Dana Hill seemed like a world weary adult in the body of a kid, she sort of was–type-1 diabetes stunted her growth, allowing her to play characters years younger than she actually was. Sadly, by the late 80s the illness began to take a toll on Hill’s appearance, limiting her to voiceover work, and in 1996 she passed away from a diabetes-related stroke. Unlike her male counterparts Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis, Hill wasn’t aggressively cute and cuddly, instead giving her roles, even in light comedies, a uniquely melancholy touch.

That melancholy touch is downright unsettling in 1980’s What Are Friends For?, one of the more bizarre episodes of ABC’s Afterschool Special. Essentially a cautionary tale for parents–don’t get divorced or your kids might lose their fucking minds–it’s about two mismatched young girls who (at least temporarily) ignore their differences and bond over their respective broken families.

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“The Orson Welles Show” (1979)

Thanks to the internet, it’s now easier than ever to follow a celebrity’s decline. Even celebrities no one cares about, such as Kardashians in-laws or former cast members of The Bachelor, get 24 hour coverage, and the more often that coverage catches them doing something undignified, the more entertaining it is. Britney Spears looking fit and happy at the People’s Choice Awards? Borrrrrrring. Britney Spears crying in a Carl’s Jr. parking lot while power eating a Thickburger? Now you’re talking. We’re nothing if not a bit sadistic, particularly when it comes to misfortune befalling the people we envy.

Though tabloid culture certainly existed sixty years ago, it didn’t have that play by play discussion of every failed relationship, coke binge, and nip slip that exists today. Without Perez Hilton around to draw spurting penises on their foreheads with MS Paint, yesterday’s stars fell a little more slowly and quietly, but with no less sadness.

Orson Welles’s career trajectory wasn’t so much sad as it was puzzling. How do you go from writing, directing, and starring in Citizen Kane to narrating a song on a Manowar album? Despite being one of the finest actors and filmmakers in the golden age of movies, Welles, particularly in later years, couldn’t get a nickel tossed in his direction for his projects, most of which, if they ever got off the ground at all, were never completed due to either lack of finances, interest, or both. It’s mind boggling to imagine Orson goddamn Welles having to scrape together his own resources to finance projects, when today producers continue to throw enormous piles of money at people like Adam Sandler, despite ever diminishing returns. Nevertheless, old Hollywood, while more glamorous, was also rather more cutthroat, and Welles, while a critically acclaimed auteur, was never a smash at the box office. If he wanted something done at all, he had to do it himself.

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“Don’t Touch” (1985)

If such a thing can possibly be “trendy,” there was a strange but necessary uptick in TV shows and movies about child molestation during the mid-80s. Like eating disorders and domestic violence a couple years earlier, it was a significant real-life issue that Hollywood just seemed to sort of discover one day. In addition to the critically acclaimed Something About Amelia, normally lighthearted sitcoms like Diff’rent StrokesWebster, and Mr. Belvedere all had episodes dedicated to a young person being sexually abused by an adult they’d learned to trust. Naturally there was an ABC Afterschool Special on the subject as well, as young people with problems to overcome were the very lifeblood of the series.

Needless to say, Don’t Touch is a jarring change of pace from The Day My Kid Went Punk. It’s like eating a mayonnaise sandwich on white bread, and then the next bite has horseradish in it. But let us bravely proceed…

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“Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas” (1977)

In December of 2015, Netflix aired A Very Murray Christmas, an original holiday special hosted by enjoyable comedic actor turned inexplicable pop culture demigod Bill Murray. Not surprisingly, given Murray’s persona, it’s very sly and self-aware, where even during the meant to be sincere moments Murray makes it clear that he’s much too cool to be doing such a thing. That’s not to pass judgment on him, most programs like this are done with a broad wink at the audience these days, as if to suggest that the people responsible for them think they’re at least as corny as you do. Whether it’s because we’re living in the “Age of Irony” (or whatever Salon-appropriate term can be applied to it), or some other as yet to be overthought reason, 21st century TV audiences seem to reject overt displays of sincerity, particularly when it comes to Christmas.

If you genuinely love that kind of thing, then the 70s was your peak decade. It offered multiple specials by the Carpenters, the Osmonds, John Denver, and Bing Crosby, among others. Presenting the kind of Christmas celebration most viewers would never experience, with horse-drawn sleigh rides in the snow and singalongs around a piano, often the stars would include their real life families in them, as if to suggest that the shows were really more like a home movie than a TV program. Of course, hindsight being 20/20, it’s hard to watch a lot of these shows knowing the sadness behind the scenes. It’s heartbreaking to hear Karen Carpenter sing anything, let alone “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It’s difficult to see Donny and Marie Osmond lauding their parents for their traditional homespun values, knowing that they were the family’s primary source of income for many years, essentially missing out on their childhoods. It’s entirely possible that John Denver was sauced while filming his various specials. Then, of course, there was Bing Crosby.

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“A Christmas Dream” (1984)

“Teaching someone the meaning of Christmas” is probably my favorite genre of Christmas special. For one thing, it’s a situation that absolutely no one in real life will ever encounter. For another, they’re impossible to do without at least a small amount of, a shmear, if you will, of sap. Sometimes, as in 1984’s A Christmas Dream, it takes great, overflowing bucketfuls, enough to choke a reindeer.

A Christmas Dream stars Mr. T and Emmanuel Lewis, whom America had deemed among the “safe ones.” Despite looking and acting exactly like Mr. T, here he plays Benny, a street corner Santa who has a chance encounter with Billy (Emmanuel Lewis), a little boy wandering the streets of New York City by himself. Billy glumly informs Benny that he doesn’t believe in Christmas, and doubts Benny’s assurances that he can convince him otherwise. What’s got the wee lad so down, you might ask? Is he homeless? Is he an orphan? Has he been stricken with a terminal illness? No, he’s a latchkey kid, which Billy explains to Benny in a voice that suggests his parents keep him locked in a basement and feed him only bread and water.

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“He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special” (1985)

Christmas episodes of sitcoms and cartoons are almost never their strongest episodes, mostly because there’s something a little forced and rote about them. With only a limited number of plot variations (It’s a Wonderful Life redux, a character rediscovers the true meaning of Christmas, etc.), it comes off as insincere. Is it December? Time to have an episode of Mr. Belvedere that’s a take on A Christmas Carol. It’s long been as predictable as that one member of your family who insists on giving you a picture frame as a present every year.

Considering that neither show took place on Earth, the makers of He-Man and She-Ra should not have felt obligated to do a holiday episode, but they did, and that’s how we ended up with the charmingly corny He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special, airing in 1985. Similar to Die Hard, in that it isn’t so much about Christmas as that it just happens to take place at Christmas, it offers mermaids, metal dragons, robot dogs, “beast monsters,” a mindblowing original holiday song, and He-Man wearing a Santa Claus costume, complete with a white pageboy haircut.

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“Noel” (1992)

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite books was a collection of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. They were a bit toned down for a younger audience–the Little Mermaid’s feet didn’t bleed whenever she tried to walk on land, for instance–except for one, which maintained the relentlessly bleak tone of the original version. That would be “The Little Match Girl,” which I read once, but have never forgotten, largely because, at age six or so, I was shocked that a story about a child left penniless and alone on the streets didn’t end with a beautiful queen taking her home to a magical castle, where she would want for nothing ever again. That was how fairy tales were supposed to end, with the characters living happily ever after. What kind of sadist writes a story for children that ends with a child freezing to death, after she burns out all her matches trying to see the ghost of her dead grandmother?

Ever since then, I’ve had a dislike for children’s entertainment in which the specter of death lingers ominously in the background. Yes, yes, I realize that kids have to learn sometime, but there’s plenty of time for them to figure out that life is hard and unfair without a seemingly innocuous cartoon hammering it into them. This is especially true for Christmas specials–they’re usually maudlin enough as is, without inserting some sort of metaphor for the fleetingness of time. Nevertheless, get that spiked eggnog ready, because have I got a doozy for you–1992’s Noel, a heartwarming holiday special that teaches that time will have its way with us, leaving us abandoned and forgotten until we’re finally able to embrace the sweet release that only death can bring.

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“3’s a Crowd” (1979)

I enjoy people who wax nostalgic for the sophistication of the 50s and 60s, when country clubs were appropriately segregated, women were expected to wear gloves and pearls to go grocery shopping, and children were discouraged from expressing their wants and needs. It was also a time when men were truly men, and not just encouraged, but expected to have mistresses. Often, their mistresses did double duty as their secretaries, back when “maintaining one’s figure” was considered as essential a secretarial skill as typing and shorthand.

By the 70s, thanks largely to the equal rights movement, men indiscriminately sleeping around on their wives was considered less a right than a burden for women to quietly bear until either they developed a crippling Valium habit, or filed for divorce. Still, there remained one horrifying reminder of such a dark period, 1979’s 3’s a Crowd, a “game show” of sorts that ran in syndication for five mind blowing months.

3’s a Crowd was basically The Newlywed Game, with a twist: instead of just husbands and wives being asked questions about the most intimate details of their lives (particularly how often and in what places they made whoopie) to see if their answers matched, there was the added element of the husbands’ secretaries. “Who knows a man better, his wife or his secretary?” was the salacious tagline, one that promised all sorts of shenanigans, catfights, and men sheepishly shrugging, as if to say “Hey, you know how broads are when they get jealous.”

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“The Neighbors” (2014)

Normally this blog is reserved for 70s and 80s television, but when an opportunity arose to watch Tommy Wiseau’s “sitcom” The Neighbors, I took it, figuring that, while it would be undoubtedly terrible, it would also be harmlessly amusing, and make for an entertaining post here.

Reader, I think it broke me.

Allow me an explanation: while I don’t spend nearly as much time as I used to indulging in bad movies, I do enjoy The Room. If you haven’t seen The Room by now, it’s probably not your thing anyway, and that’s okay. I was a latecomer, and I’ve only seen it at audience participation theater screenings, which seems to be the optimal setting. I would never watch it at home by myself, because in addition to being ineptly written, directed, filmed, edited, and acted, it’s also boring, as most movies about love triangles are. In an audience setting, though, with people dressed up like the characters, throwing plastic spoons, and clapping along to the R&B slow jam played during the interminable sex scenes, it’s a lot of fun. Hey, you have your pleasures, and I have mine, no shame.

Greg Sestero, Wiseau’s one time best friend and co-star, wrote a book about the making of The Room that was both entertaining and unsettling. I say unsettling because by the time we reach the end of the book, we don’t really know anything more about Wiseau than we did at the beginning. That’s not due to any lack of insight on Sestero’s part–it seems like he revealed as much as he actually knew about Wiseau himself, which proved to be very little. All that can be gleaned about him is that he’s not fooling anyone with that accent into thinking he was born in the U.S., as he steadfastly claims, he funded The Room by selling irregular jeans and dealing in real estate (not to mention probably shilling horny old ladies for cash, like a greasy, charmless Max Bialystock), and he really does believe he’s a tremendously talented filmmaker and actor.

Interviews with him shed no insight as to whether or not he gets that people love The Room because it’s awful, or in spite of it. More than a decade into The Room becoming an odd pop culture touchstone, Tommy Wiseau still comes off as a creepy cipher, and the suggestion that he may have simply fell to Earth one day from a planet somewhere west of Jupiter doesn’t seem so odd.

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“Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again” (1990)

I may have miscategorized this. It’s easy to see how Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again happened. It rode the tide of wildly successful feature length “reunions” of 60s TV shows, like The Andy Griffith ShowLeave it to Beaver, and The Many Loves of Dobie GillisArchie may have never been a live action show, but it was still a benchmark moment in Baby Boomer pop culture, so why not give it the same treatment? What is baffling are the numerous decisions that were made to turn an innocuous comic book series about small town teenagers into an insufferably smug, occasionally downright seedy comedy for grownups.

The movie opens on the weekend of Archie and the gang’s fifteen year high school reunion. I don’t know that people often celebrate their fifteen year high school reunion, nor do I think many high school principals get involved in the planning of said reunion, but for Mr. Weatherbee it’s clearly the event of the year, as he promises “field trips, parties, a carnival, and a concert featuring Riverdale’s biggest band…the Archies!” I got stuffed shells at a catering hall hosted by a DJ wearing a Hawaiian shirt at my reunion, but perhaps your experience was different.

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