1986’s Starman, which managed to survive one whole season, suffered both from being unnecessary, and being based on a movie that was hardly a cultural phenomenon in the first place. A touching but otherwise unremarkable sci-fi romance, the original Starman was only a modest box office hit, remembered today mostly as a cable staple of the late 80s, and probably the least John Carpenter-esque movie John Carpenter ever made. The movie ended with benevolent alien Jeff Bridges returning to his home planet, but not before impregnating co-star Karen Allen with a half-alien/half-human son. Bridges tells her the boy will grow up to be a teacher, and gives her an energy sphere to pass on to him later. It’s highly doubtful that audiences clamored to know what would happen to the baby, but even if they did, the movie clearly spells it out–he will grow up to become a teacher, and instinctively know what to do with the energy sphere gifted to him. Again, no loose ends, everything is fully explained.
Nevertheless, someone thought there was still an interesting story to be told about what happens to the baby before he grows up to become a teacher, and that’s how we ended up with Starman: the TV Series. Taking place fifteen years after the events of the movie, Jeff Bridges, who plays the alien with a charming, child-like sense of wonder, has been replaced with Robert Hays, who plays the alien as mildly brain damaged. Rather than taking the form of Karen Allen’s deceased husband, in this the alien takes the form of Paul Forrester, a daredevil ladies’ man photographer who dies in a helicopter crash. While not entirely discounting the events of the movie, the show does play a little fast and loose with them. Starman-as-Paul occasionally makes references to his previous visit to Earth, yet most of the humor in the show comes from him wandering around in wide-eyed bafflement, as though it’s the first time he’s been there. Also, it does away with a major dramatic plot point of the movie, in that if the Starman doesn’t return to his home planet within three days after his arrival, he’ll die. Here, he has all the time in the world to comically goggle at the marvel of miniature doughnuts.
Though in the movie the Starman declares that he will never return to Earth, the show drops that as well, having him come back so he can meet his son, Scott, now a sullen 14 year-old. Scott (played by C.B. Barnes), inexplicably abandoned by his mother, has recently lost his adoptive parents in a car crash, and is now living in an orphanage. The show suggests that the Starman has been watching over Scott for an indefinite period of time; why he doesn’t show up sooner and spare him the tragedy of losing the only family he knows is unclear.
Not surprisingly, Scott doesn’t believe Starman’s story at first, until a conveniently timed cassette tape from Scott’s long lost mother neatly explaining everything arrives in the mail, and convinces him otherwise. He also finds out that Agent Fox (Michael Cavanaugh), a government UFO investigator who’s been obsessively searching for Starman since his last visit, is closing in on them, with the single-mindedness (and predatory grin) of a great white shark. Scott asks Starman to help find his mother, and the two of them hit the road together, helping people with their personal problems as Starman learns what it means to be “human.”
Unlike the previously reviewed Ferris Bueller, Starman isn’t aggressively bad. It isn’t anything, really, other than a bland adventure show where most of the jokes come from Starman taking everything people say to him literally (i.e. Scott saying “I’m all ears” eliciting a puzzled stare from Starman, as if he’s wondering why Scott is not, in fact, made entirely of ears). If nothing else, it’s a softer, gentler The Incredible Hulk, right down to the nemesis who relentlessly chases Starman all over the country, convinced, despite ever mounting evidence to the contrary, that he’s a danger to society and must be stopped. There’s even an episode where, like David Banner, the selfless, now near-Christlike Starman saves Agent Fox’s life, despite the fact that his death would makes things considerably easier for everyone involved.
It’s also a family drama, with the B-plot in many episodes focusing on Scott struggling with his resentment over Starman not being around for the first half of his life, even though “I’m an alien” is a way better excuse for that than “I had to go out for a pack of cigarettes.” Not surprisingly, the show quickly moves away from its source material–after a certain point they might as well have called it Spacedad and tried to pass it off as an original story. Either way, it wasn’t able to sustain itself past the first season, but it certainly did better than other movie to TV spinoffs released during the same time period. Sure, that’s a bit like bragging that you got a D when everyone else sitting around you in class got an F, but it’s still something.
It’s been said that you know you’ve truly grown up when you watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and realize that Ed Rooney, while not necessarily the hero of the movie, isn’t exactly the villain either. He’s simply a put-upon public servant whose job is made difficult by a spoiled brat. Rooney, and the adults watching it, know what Ferris doesn’t yet, that while life does indeed move pretty fast, unfortunately you end up spending most of it doing stuff you really don’t want to do. If there’s any villain, it’s time, and its inexorable march to that point in our lives where we can mostly only fantasize about spontaneously shucking our responsibilities for the day.
If you thought the movie would have been better had it been stripped of its more profound concepts, leaving only the most irritating aspects behind, then perhaps you would have enjoyed Ferris Bueller, the NBC spinoff that ran for four unremarkable months in 1990. It’s one of those shows where its very existence is baffling. Airing more than four years after Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was released, it bears only the most tenuous connection to the movie, in that it features a character named Ferris Bueller, and changes virtually everything else, even his age (he’s now 16 instead of 17) and the setting (Santa Monica instead of Chicago). One gets the sense that the original draft for the pilot had nothing at all to do with it, but was changed as a cynical cash grab.
The show opens with a self-aware twist, as Ferris, now played by Charlie Schlatter, explains that the movie was based on his life. He then goes on to dismiss it, claiming that Matthew Broderick was “too white bread” to play him (mind you, Schlatter himself looks like he was genetically spliced with a J. Crew catalog), and destroying a cardboard cutout of Broderick with a chainsaw. Opening a TV spinoff by more or less giving the finger to the movie that inspired it leaves a sour taste in the viewer’s mouth, but one hopes that it gets better as it goes along.
It does not.
Though you’d think it’d be a big deal for a hit movie to have inexplicably been made about your life, after the opening sequence it’s never mentioned again. This is just a D-grade teen fantasy sitcom about an insufferable, privileged young asshole who does things like show up for the first day of school in a limousine, and is always able to pull a fast one on the clueless adults in his life. Backed up with an endless supply of funds and vague connections that are never explained, Ferris spends most of his days hacking the school computer system to change classroom assignments, giving out passes for students to park in the teachers’ lot, and even changing the lunch menu. He’s constantly one step ahead of the incompetent Principal Rooney, setting elaborate traps to embarrass him over and over (you can probably guess that Rooney greets these traps with a bellowed “BUELLERRRRRRR!”).
Much of the pilot is devoted to Ferris trying desperately to get the attention of transfer student Sloan (Ami Dolenz). Never mind that it wouldn’t make any sense to have Sloan appear as a character in the movie about Ferris’s life if he hadn’t met her yet–in fact, let’s just forget the movie entirely at this point, because the writers certainly did. Sloan will only agree to go out with Ferris if he has a car, so he helps himself to the one belonging to his sister Jeannie, driving it right out of the school parking lot. It’s probably worth mentioning that Jeannie is played by a pre-Lephrechaun Jennifer Aniston, and she’s alright. In a show populated entirely by awful characters, she’s probably the least awful.
Though Rooney snags Ferris for cutting class (Rooney pursues Ferris with a creepy single-mindedness that suggests his basement walls are covered with pictures of him) and attempts to expel him, Ferris pleads down to detention with the help of Alan Rachins, pretending to be his L.A. Law character. Even then, Ferris can’t be bothered, substituting a mannequin for himself in the detention hall. The episode ends with the now besotted Sloan agreeing to carry Ferris’s books when he claims to have a bad back, and Jeannie getting mistakenly arrested for stealing her own car. Ferris instantly hacks into the police station database and raises her bail to $250,000. Comedy!
In the third episode, Ferris, after finding out that a tough new dean of students is about to come to the school, reroutes the dean’s plane to New Zealand and convinces the school janitor to impersonate him. How this would work doesn’t make sense, and isn’t worth explaining. The B-plot concerns Sloan, who, despite displaying no discernible talent for it, wants to be a professional ballet dancer. Though Ferris tries to prevent her from transferring to a performing arts school by hacking into the school’s computer system and moving her further down the waiting list, her admission is fast tracked thanks to Mr. Rooney. It’s not as a favor to Sloan that Rooney does this, though, but because he knows it will make Ferris unhappy. The time Rooney expends on interfering in Ferris’s life makes one fear that eventually he’ll be found hiding in his bedroom closet one night, wearing a long blonde wig and saying “I’m your girlfriend now, Ferris.”
Ferris’s janitor scheme backfires at first, but eventually works out to his advantage, because everything works out to this horrible little pissant’s advantage, often to the humiliation of someone else. How America didn’t embrace this delightful television program with open, loving arms, I have no idea.
While it’s true that Matthew Broderick played Ferris Bueller with a self-assurance that occasionally veered into obnoxiousness, it was never without an impish charm that kept him likable. Charlie Schlatter plays him with a smirking insincerity that makes the character off-putting before he even gets a chance to speak. That impression does not change; in fact, by the end of the first episode you realize that, had just the setting been changed, you could easily be watching The Young Robert Chambers Chronicles. The smarmy phoniness of his interactions with the other characters, particularly his parents, is more unnerving than funny. Always with a fake smile and a glib lie at the ready, this Ferris comes off more as a frat house date rapist than a harmless teen prankster.
A competing show premiering a couple weeks later, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, was blasted for being a ripoff of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, yet maintained the charm and spirit of the movie far better than the television show named for it, and ended up being the more successful of the two. The titular character was still a twerp, but at least he wasn’t a twerp that you never wanted to stop punching.
TV shows spun off from popular movies tend to be strange, disappointing messes, mostly because their plots suggest that the events in the movie never happened. For instance, in the short lived sitcom version of 9 to 5, Violet, Judy, and Doralee are back working for the insufferable Franklin Hart, who apparently was never sent to Brazil, making it just a standard workplace comedy. The even shorter lived spinoff of Dirty Dancing offers the audience an unasked for do-over on Johnny and Baby’s romance. The show based on Fame allowed its teenage characters to exist in an alternate timeline where they never had to struggle with their sexuality, or confront serious matters like illiteracy, rape, and abortion.
With the exception of Fame, which lasted a respectable six seasons, most of these pale imitation were canceled after a handful of episodes. As it turned out, audiences didn’t want to see community theater versions of their favorite movies.
If you watched Fast Times at Ridgemont High and thought “Well, that was fine, but what I really want is the same characters, but blander and with no mention of sex or drugs,” then CBS really came through for you with Fast Times, which aired for seven glorious weeks in 1986, a full four years after the original movie was released. Though it boasted a theme song by Oingo Boingo, actual popular music of the day on the soundtrack, and Amy Heckerling directing the pilot episode, everything that made the movie special was removed, leaving just a dull, family friendly half hour of contrived hijinks in its place. This Fast Times is light and carefree, where no one gets caught jerking off by his sister’s best friend, or has unsatisfying sex with a stereo salesman.
Though Ray Walston and Vincent Schiavelli reprised their roles as teachers Mr. Hand and Mr. Vargas, respectively, all of the younger characters were recast with watered down facsimiles. Brad Hamilton (originally played by Judge Reinhold in the movie, James Nardini in the TV show), a smug, officious overachiever, was now a likable, all-American dude. Without Jennifer Jason Leigh’s interesting melancholy edge, Brad’s younger sister Stacey, here played by Courtney Thorne-Smith, was just a typical sunny California girl. Stacey’s best friend, Linda (originally Phoebe Cates, here Claudia Wells), sassy, sexy, and worldly, became the icy class princess. Damone, an unrepentant scumbag who knocks up a sophomore and then abandons her, was softened to a nerdy, wannabe ladies’ man, played by Can’t Buy Me Love era Patrick Dempsey with a rockabilly haircut.
As for Spicoli, he was played by Dean Cameron, best known as Chainsaw in the video store classic Summer School. Though he was a delight in that role, here he comes off not as playing Spicoli, but rather doing a third-rate imitation of Sean Penn playing Spicoli, right down to wearing a shabby blonde wig. Also, because this was primetime family television, it’s suggested that Spicoli isn’t constantly baked so much as just kind of stupid, much to Mr. Hand’s chagrin. Mr. Hand’s cynicism about Spicoli and his intellectual abilities is balanced by the ever optimistic Ms. Mellon (Kit McDonough), a character created for the show. Ms. Mellon is a bottomless, wildly irritating font of encouragement, because one thing the movie really suffered from was a lack of inspiring platitudes about believing in yourself and reaching your potential.
The first episode I watched was the pilot, which mostly concerns Brad wanting to ask Linda out on a date, even though, as it’s mentioned numerous times, she only dates older men. Linda agrees, though she insists that Brad tell no one about it. Because this is television, high school popularity is confused with being a celebrity, and their date is the talk of the entire town. Not letting a little thing like her being embarrassed to be seen in public with him get in the way, Brad does his best to continue wooing Linda. In the B-plot, Mr. Hand and Ms. Mellon wager that Spicoli won’t show up to do a presentation for Ms. Mellon’s class, which, of course, he does at the last minute.
The second episode I watched was the last episode in the series, and this one mostly concerns Stacey going out on a date with an older man. We know how this plays out in the movie (poorly, and set to a Jackson Browne song), but here he just ends up being a boring dud who’s never heard of the Thompson Twins. Elsewhere, Mr. Vargas considers quitting the teaching profession, but is talked out of it by Ms. Mellon, who basically acts as a human motivational poster, and Mr. Hand, now the vice-principal and a benevolent grandfather figure to students and staff alike.
If I expended just one paragraph on each specific episode, yet five on the lead-in material, it’s because I really didn’t have anything to work with here. Other than the most gossamer connection to the original Fast Times at Ridgemont High, there is not one single thing worth commenting on about this show. Neither episode I watched was good, or bad, they were simply there, and based on the descriptions of the other episodes, “there” was about the best it got–Brad has to balance his job with performing a lip-sync routine in the school talent show, Stacey is insecure about Linda’s new friend, Spicoli is challenged by his friends to make Mr. Hand laugh. This was a boring show about boring characters, made by people who thought simply using the same names and setting as the movie was enough to grab audiences on its own, without understanding what made it such compelling viewing in the first place. As the saying goes, they knew the words, but not the music.