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.