As we bring this installment of “Just Say No Month” to a close, we come to the inevitable “based on a true story,” 1977’s The Death of Richie, a grim account of a man forced to kill his drug crazed teenage son. How close to the true story does it end up being? Well, pretty close, surprisingly, or at least, close to the Thomas Thompson book upon which it’s based. The only difference is that the real Richie, a short, average looking high schooler with curly red hair, is played by dreamy Robby Benson, which makes his oft stated awkwardness around girls a bit implausible.
We begin with Richie’s funeral, and then learn how he got there. Like last week’s Not My Kid, the movie wastes no time in getting to a point where Richie’s drug problem is out of control–it’s already out of control, as Richie hangs out with a bad crowd, and spends much of his time in a secret black light poster decorated room in the back of his closet, where he trips on LSD and reads a book called How to Talk to Girls.
You know you had a mediocre public school education when the “health teacher” did double duty teaching another class. In my school, it was usually either a gym teacher or a football coach, and all you had to do to pass was show up. Despite the rise of HIV and ever increasing teenage pregnancy rates, virtually all of what we learned in health class was related to the dangers of alcohol and drug use, and most of that we learned by watching made for TV movies, while the teacher sat with his feet up on the desk reading about how the Eagles were doing that week.
A popular one with my health teacher was 1985’s Not My Kid. We watched it in seventh grade. We watched it in eighth grade. By ninth grade, we could all but quote along from it, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I’m not sure why my teacher liked it so much, when there existed far more grisly cautionary tales such as Stoned, in which a pot addled Scott Baio nearly kills his brother with a rowboat paddle, and Desperate Lives, in which an angel dusted Helen Hunt throws herself out a window. I can only assume that as an aged, bitter teacher, he enjoyed its frequent scenes of high school students reduced to blithering, tearful wrecks by adults who know better.
The internet loves a good fan theory, especially when it’s connected to science fiction. Because it’s science fiction, any cockamamie scenario is possible, and it only takes a small amount of mental pretzeling to apply it. Thanks to its multiple ambiguous endings, a particularly popular movie for fan theorizing is Blade Runner. Deckard is a replicant! Deckard isn’t a replicant! Deckard has Gaff’s memories! It’s all a fantasy! It exists in the same universe as the Alien movies! It’s all inside the mind of an autistic child!
Even I have my own theory: in an earlier script for Blade Runner, it’s mentioned that five Replicants escaped to Earth from the Off-World Colonies–Roy, Pris, Zhora, Leon, and a third female whose fate was unknown. A later version of the script identified her as “Mary,” a Replicant designed largely for housework duties. Though a small amount of test footage was filmed using Mary, she was eventually dropped from the final script altogether. However, consider the idea that Mary fled the city, where she was found by an engineer/inventor who wipes her memories and resets her programming, so that she has to learn how to act like a human again. Then he changes her name and takes her home to his family, where she is treated alternately like a daughter and a servant, while her true identity is kept a secret from the outside world.
Now, that may sound ridiculous, but is it really any more so than the plot of Small Wonder, in which a man invents a child robot that can be taught to act, think, and feel like a human, then goes to extreme lengths to keep this astonishing advancement in artificial intelligence a secret, for no discernible reason?
When you think “master of disguise,” you might think of Sherlock Holmes, or Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible movies. You may even think of Dana Carvey as Pistachio Disguisey, the hero of The Master of Disguise, which someone on the internet right now is swearing is an underrated comedy gem.
But what of Barney Rubble, who’s dedicated more than forty years of his life to creating elaborate disguises for the sole purpose of relieving his best friend of his ample supply of breakfast cereal? Barney could have put his skill for costume design into show business, or more nefarious endeavors, such as robbing the First National Bank of Bedrock, but no, it’s Pebbles he wants, Cocoa or Fruity, it matters to him not. He could just ask Fred “Hey, man, think I can have some of that cereal?”, but that would be too easy. For Barney, the pursuit of cereal has become a quest, a challenge, the sport of kings. The Pebbles would taste less fruity if they were simply given to him; stealing by way of deception is what gives them their zest.
With that, let us now remember some of the most notable of Barney’s disguises, as we ponder how it was possible that he had plenty of money to spend on wigs and props, but not enough to buy his own goddamn cereal.
Nobody was put through more shit in the 70s than Linda Blair. While other young actresses got to do movies about the joys and pains of first love, or pursuing their dreams of stardom, the cherubic Blair, in a four year stretch of unrelenting misery, played an abused runawaywrongfully sent to reform school and sexually assaulted (Born Innocent), a gravely ill teenager trapped on a plane in danger of crashing (Airport 1975), a semi-illiterate farm girl kidnapped by a mentally ill man (Sweet Hostage, and if you think TV movies of today are too tawdry, it was marketed as a romantic drama), a hijacking victim (Victory at Entebbe), and a young woman tormented by her evil cousin (Summer of Fear). All that, plus starring in Exorcist II: the Heretic, which is enough suffering to endure for an entire decade on its own.
Thanks to 1975’s Sarah T.–Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, Blair became the poster child for troubled teen made for TV movies. Though not the pioneer in the genre (that would be 1973’s Go Ask Alice), it was among the first to take both neglectful parents and irresponsible advertising to task for the growing problem of teen substance abuse. The movie opens with a spot-on parody of a beer commercial, where attractive young people joyously toss brewskis around like frisbees, intercut with a somber voiceover rattling off statistics about alcoholism and high school students.
If this month taught me anything, it’s that cartoons don’t exist just to sell toys. That’s a sour, cynical viewpoint, and I apologize for it. They also sometimes exist to make more money from an already established TV show. Quality doesn’t matter, what matters is how much more juice you can squeeze, how much more space on a network programming schedule you can take up. Selling toys on top of that would be great too.
Though it ended up a huge part of the 70s zeitgeist, The Partridge Family both as a band and a TV show was nearly finished by the end of 1973. Worn down from near constant touring, performing, and recording as both himself and his fictitious counterpart, the show’s biggest star, David Cassidy, wanted out. Knowing that the audience wasn’t likely to stick around for the continuing adventures of Laurie, Danny, Who Cares, and Nobody Remembers Partridge, the producers made the wise (and let’s face it, shocking) decision to cancel the show while it was still relatively popular. Given that it took just six months until an animated spinoff premiered, it would seem they had seen the writing on the wall (or more specifically, the infamous Rolling Stone interview two years earlier in which Cassidy talked about how much he hated being a teen idol), and already had a contingency plan in mind.
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.