Picture this: you’re the parent of one of the biggest child stars in the world, a kid with crack comic timing, and who, due to a medical condition, has been able to stay little and cute well into puberty. Nevertheless, time begins its inexorable march, and your kid, while still younger looking than other kids his age, suddenly starts looking a little less cute. His cuddly wiseass shtick is getting a little forced and stale, and ratings on his TV show begin to sag. How do you prepare him for the harsh reality of life in show business? Oh, and just to complicate matters, he’s the sole breadwinner in the family.
Well, if you’re Gary Coleman’s parents, you keep that gravy train a-rollin’ by pushing your kid into voiceover work, along with TV movies and the grind of carrying a sitcom entirely on his young shoulders. For one short, unremarkable season, Coleman voiced the lead character in The Gary Coleman Show, a cartoon about a dead child who must do penance on Earth before he can receive his full reward in Heaven. You know, for kids.
I was pretty sure I came up with a word for what I do here, and that word is “nonstalgia,” looking back on something from my youth without any particular fondness, but rather a grudging “Yeah, that happened, I’m not going to pretend I don’t remember it.” It seemed like such a clever word, maybe not necessarily the next “humblebrag,” but certainly something close to it.
Then, of course, I Googled it and found a listing for it in Urban Dictionary, because any word you could possibly make up, even your own name, will have a listing in Urban Dictionary already. Nevertheless, I’m keeping it, because I can’t think of a better word than “nonstalgia” for how I feel about, say, New Kids on the Block, one of (if not the) biggest pop acts of my late teen years. I wasn’t cool enough to like New Kids on the Block. I wasn’t cool enough to not like New Kids on the Block. I had no strong feelings one way or another about New Kids on the Block, and believed that if I tried to pretend as if I did, I would be sniffed out as a traitor in the midst, a poseur, and shunned for my efforts. This manner of thinking ensured that I was very popular in high school, and had many dates.
Somebody had strong feelings about New Kids on the Block, however, and that led to a Saturday morning cartoon named for them which, despite their stunning popularity, sank without a trace after just one season. A shabby mix of animation and live action clips, it looks like something that should have been included as a bonus on a music video collection, viewed once and then fast forwarded past to get to “Cover Girl.” See how much I remember about New Kids on the Block, without having to look them up, without even particularly liking them? I can’t even remember my family’s phone numbers.
How ya doin’, kid? You’re looking a little pale, you gettin’ enough sunshine? The missus and I, we have a little weekend place out in Palm Beach, maybe you can drop by some weekend. You’re workin’ too hard, eh? So you’re in here because I wanted to talk to you about the script you brought me. Now, before we go any further, I love it. I think it’s the greatest thing I’ve read in months, we might be looking at the next Gone With the Wind here. But I can’t sell it to the boss. It’s too…complicated, y’know what I mean? The boss gives everyone exactly thirty seconds to pitch a story, otherwise it’s back to the ol’ drawing board.
You gotta be able to sell your idea in two sentences or less, that’s called “high concept.” Think of Jurassic Park: you think Stevie Spielberg had to go any further than “dinosaur amusement park” when selling that picture? The studio heads practically gave him a blank check and the deeds to their houses! Or Planet of the Apes: the plot is right there in the title! Simplify, simplify. You got something good here, kid, but you need to get to the essence, the heart, the dinosaur amusement park of your plot, and be able to explain that in one sentence. Y’know what I’m sayin’?”
This is how I assume all conversations between cigar chomping Hollywood honchos (who invariably look like Michael Lerner in Barton Fink) and beleaguered screenwriters take place, particularly when it comes to the notion of a “high concept” story pitch. But really, neither Jurassic Park or Planet of the Apes are the best examples of “high concept.” For that matter, nor is Passenger 57 (“Die Hard on a plane”), Speed (“Die Hard on a bus”), or Speed 2: Cruise Control (“Die Hard on a boat”). No, that dubious honor goes to a cartoon, 1981’s Laverne & Shirley in the Army.
You don’t have to have watched a single episode in The Simpsons‘ robust 47 season run to be familiar with some of its best bits. You know about Sideshow Bob and the rakes. You probably know who shot Mr. Burns. And you almost certainly know who Poochie was. As a refresher, though, Poochie was a rapping dog with an attitude, designed solely to draw a new, hipper audience to The Itchy and Scratchy Show. Despite Poochie hitting all the marks that supposedly appeal to young viewers–sunglasses, backwards baseball cap, heavy metal guitar riffs–he proved to be an immediate failure with Itchy and Scratchy‘s loyal fans, and was killed off in the next episode.
Though the episode was inspired by a FOX executive’s suggestion that Simpsons writers bring in a new character to freshen things up in its eighth season, I can’t imagine they didn’t lift a bit of it from 1989’s Rude Dog and the Dweebs, a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon meant to appeal to kids who were just too cool for Muppet Babies. Rude Dog, initially the mascot for a brand of surfer wear (worn largely by adolescents who had never been anywhere near a surfboard), was eventually brought to life and given his own TV show, wedged in between Garfield and Friends and The Adventures of Raggedy Ann and Andy. Everything you need to know about Rude Dog is right in the opening credits: he’s a super cool dog who’s “coppin’ a major ‘tude,” while wearing wraparound shades and driving a pink Cadillac.
For nearly two decades, the ABC Afterschool Special was the number one source for Young People With Problems. Anorexia, teen pregnancy, suicide, child abuse, dyslexia, drunk driving–all of it was covered at some point, and almost always wrapped up with a neat bow at the end. Occasionally, though, the episodes were light-hearted from the start, addressing teens who want to become professional gymnasts, teens going back in time to meet younger versions of their mothers, teens who switch identities with movie stars, and, of course, teens who go punk.
Can a Guy Say No?, which aired in 1986, attempts to strike a balance between both light and serious, but mostly falls on the side of light. Based on a book called A Very Touchy Subject, the episode focuses on Scott, a soon to be high school senior. Scott is played by Steve Antin, best known for playing smarmy jerks in such 80s classics as The Last American Virgin and The Goonies. In a full 180 from his role in The Last American Virgin (notorious for being the most depressing teen sex comedy of all time), here he’s a naive goofball who just can’t seem to get laid. As per Wikipedia, Antin was 27 when he appeared in this, and looks it, thus unintentionally lending the scenes where he laments his virginity an air of creepy tragedy.
I had mentioned in a review a few months back that I miss the days of melodramatic made for TV movies. Lifetime picked up what network television left behind, but there’s a distinct sense of self-awareness to their movies, not quite parody, yet still with a clear message: “We know this is corny, you know this is corny, let’s just accept that and have a good time.” And yet, the seriousness was what made those old movies so much fun! A movie like The Babysitter wouldn’t have been nearly as enjoyable if it came off like it was poking fun at the slasher genre. Cloris Leachman was 100% sincere when she performed the theme song for Someone I Touched, which makes it far more of a good time than stuff with titles like From Straight A’s to XXX or Stalked By My Doctor (let alone its sequel, Stalked By My Doctor: the Return).
Never again will we see anything as earnestly hokey as 1976’s The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. Starring John Travolta in one of his first major dramatic roles, it was loosely based on the true stories of David Vetter and Ted DeVita, both of whom suffered from illnesses that so severely compromised their immune systems that they had to permanently live inside sterile isolation tents. Though Vetter was barely five and DeVita an adolescent when the film was made, Travolta’s character, Tod Lubitch, is seventeen, presumably so much of the plot could focus on an interminable love story.
One my least favorite well worn movie and TV tropes is the love triangle. You want to lose my interest almost immediately? Have a couple of characters pretzeling themselves into all sorts of humiliating poses for the love of a third person, who rarely seems worth the effort. It’s the lazy writer’s tactic for injecting some extra drama into his or her script, despite it being a situation in which very few people in real life will find themselves. At least when a movie is entirely about a love triangle, as is 1983’s Baby Sister, you can revel in the inevitable melodrama and delicious cheese.
Some fine aged Gouda is served up right at the beginning, with the fantastic Laura Branigan-esque theme song, which goes “When the pressure is rising/and the heat comes down/it gets too sticky/to stick arooooooound/when it gets too hot/I gotta cool down/when it gets too hot/I gotta cool down/when it gets too hot/I gotta cool down/I gotta cool down/I gotta cool dowwwwwwwn/when it gets too hot.”
If you’ve been following my writing here long enough, then you’ll know that I often enjoy mocking people my age who wax poetic, to an absurd degree, about their childhoods, insisting that they were far better than the selfie and participation trophy laden childhoods of the present. Why, we drank filthy creek water and bought cigarettes for our parents, and it was great! Who needed the internet when you had a stack of ten year-old National Geographics in the back of the library?
It’s a little hard to maintain the illusion of goodness and purity of Gen X childhoods when you consider teensploitation. Teensploitation is exactly what it sounds like, a thankfully brief film genre of the late 70s-early 80s in which young people, usually girls, found themselves in dangerously adult situations. Sometimes they were runaways, sometimes they were prostitutes, sometimes they were runaway prostitutes. Sometimes they found themselves in prison, or stalked by a murderer. Whatever it was, two things always held true: the girls were always very innocent, and always wore very skimpy clothing, acting as both a cautionary tale for young female viewers, and wank fodder for male viewers of all ages.
Though Linda Blair in Born Innocent is probably the best remembered example of the genre, Eve Plumb had a good run at it too, with 1976’s Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway.Dawn was such a hit that it got a sequel just a year later, Alexander: the Other Side of Dawn, focusing on her kind-hearted boyfriend.
I didn’t expect that a month devoted to failed sitcom pilots would end up being such an endurance test. I expected some dull but inoffensive comedy that I would forget about as soon as it was over, which would explain why they didn’t get picked up. Instead, each show was an increasingly unbearable slog, a shameful waste of time and money that shouldn’t have gotten past the script treatment process, let alone committed to television.
The final entry in the theme, 1990’s Where’s Rodney?, is a breath of fresh air, without actually being any good.
Where’s Rodney? has at least one thing over each of its predecessors. Unlike Coneheads, it has a clear target demographic. Unlike The Nerd, it’s not populated entirely with insufferable characters. Unlike Starstruck, it has a coherent plot. If anything, it plays it a little too safe. While Starstruck took a simple premise and turned it into a “no soap, radio” Dada experiment, Where’s Rodney takes a weird premise and turns it into bland, safe family comedy.
If you’re reading this right now, there’s a better than 65% chance you’ve seen Rogue One, a “midquel” of sorts that takes place shortly before the events of episode 4 of Star Wars. We’ve barely just begun a revival of the series, with at least two more movies continuing the plot of the original, plus a standalone Han Solo film, plus undoubtedly many more sequels, spinoffs, and tie-ins to come. There’s some grumbling already about oversaturation, but think of it this way: we know the series reached its lowest point a long time ago, early in the game, with the legendary Star Wars Holiday Special. And now, we know that even the rip-offs and “homages” already hit rock bottom, with the 1979 CBS pilot Starstruck.
Starstruck starts with a simple premise–a sitcom set in an environment similar to the Mos Eisley Cantina–and almost immediately becomes something so incomprehensible that it feels like English badly dubbed into Swedish, and then badly dubbed again back into English. It would be charitable to guess that it was a series of sample clips cobbled together and accidentally aired as a single cohesive episode, but considering it was written by playwright Arthur Kopit, whose specialty is weird for the sake of being weird (I direct you to read the baffling Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad), it’s possible that its off-putting incoherence was intentional.