“The Nerd” (1989)

When watching shows for this blog, I try to abide by the five W’s of journalism, specifically “Who is responsible for this?”, “What were they thinking?”, “Where did this come from?”, “When is this over?”, and “Why did this happen?” To be fair, some of those are variations on the same question, but it’s really the most important one anyway. Television shows in particular don’t exist in a vacuum, and even just to get a pilot on the air requires a complete script, actors, crew, a shooting budget, and a network willing to give it a chance. Multiple eyes and hands fall upon something that is clearly a disaster from the get-go, and deem it worthy of considerable money and time. The process is fascinating, baffling, and horrifying all at once.

The Nerd, filmed in 1989 but not aired until nearly seven years later, is particularly puzzling, because it was the rare TV show based on a play. I’ve mentioned before that TV shows based on movies often fail because either they needlessly hit the reset button on the plot, or make so many changes that they no longer resemble the source material. The pilot for The Nerd somehow manages to do both, with the extra added complication of plays rarely having ambiguous endings. A modestly successful farce with a year long run on Broadway, The Nerd is about a man who believes that a stranger who shows up at his house one day (the titular nerd) is the same person who saved his life in Vietnam years earlier, and, driven by both gratitude and guilt, allows him to run roughshod over his life. As it turns out, the Nerd is an actor hired by the man’s best friend to compel him to stand up for himself and take chances. The plan is eventually a success, the ruse is revealed, all is forgiven, and everyone is happy at the end. There is absolutely nothing about the plot, or the characters, that lends itself to being stretched out for a punishing 20 episodes or more of network television.

And yet, here we are.

In comparing the plot of the original play to what the TV pilot looks like, I’m not sure “gutted” really covers it. It looks like someone wrote out the plot on a piece of paper, then eventually erased everything but the word “nerd.” One major character (in fact, the character responsible for the mistaken identity ruse in the first place) is completely omitted. The two other major characters, Willum and Tansy, just friends with feelings for each other in the play, are now a bickering married couple. Only “the Nerd,” a pocket protector wearing stereotype named Rick Steadman, remains relatively intact.

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The show opens with Willum (John Dye), an architect, about to host a prospective client in his home for dinner. Wait, scratch that, it actually opens with a one minute long “wacky” credits sequence in which Rick (Robert Joy) bursts into Willum and Tansy’s (Harley Kozak) home and they dance around. Rick, a poor man’s Ed Grimley, boogies with a tambourine as Willum and Tansy look on in amusement. The audience immediately gets that this quirky fella is about to turn an uptight couple’s life upside down.

Starting your show off with an awkward, incredibly Caucasian dance number is a bold move, and yet somehow it only goes downhill from there. Willum’s client, Mr. Walgrave (M. Emmet Walsh), is an obnoxious, sexist bully, while his wife is a kleptomaniac (none of these things are relevant except that it causes an immediate sense of hostility and discomfort, the oil and carburetor fluid that powers light, enjoyable sitcom television). In the middle of what will surely be an unpleasant evening, Rick shows up seemingly out of nowhere. As Willum explains earlier in the episode, Rick once rescued him from a house fire, and though Willum never saw his face, they’ve occasionally kept in touch over the years, with Willum promising Rick that, in return for saving his life, he’ll give him whatever he wants.

Rick has finally come to claim the reward for his heroism, which is apparently the right to be the most insufferable human being imaginable, doing poor impersonations of old Hollywood actors, forcing Tansy to cook him a separate meal, constantly demanding to be the center of attention, openly cheating in party games, and destroying Willum’s chances at landing an important job. In the play, Rick’s behavior was meant to instigate Willum into growing a pair and taking control of his own life; here it just seems to be for no other reason than to humiliate a perfectly nice guy he barely knows (if he knows him at all, though nothing in the pilot hints that Rick isn’t who he says he is).

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Meanwhile, despite his walking into her house and acting like he owns the place, Tansy indulges Rick’s behavior, often speaking to him as if either she’s his mother, or he’s mentally challenged. When he drags a steamer trunk into the house and begins unpacking it, evidently planning to stay a while, she barely blinks an eye. Why wouldn’t she let this man whose existence she was only made aware of a half hour ago take over her home, interfere with her husband’s career, and treat her like the hired help? Even Willum, despite losing a lucrative assignment thanks to Rick’s deplorable manners, warms up to his presence, immediately forgiving him after Rick gives him a Bible (don’t ask, it’s a call back to an earlier scene). The episode ends with Willum bidding goodnight to Rick, who pulls out a tambourine. What a nut!

I’ve not seen The Nerd as a play. I understand it’s an entertaining show. I do not understand how anyone thought its plot would successfully translate into a weekly series. Whether it would eventually come to light that Rick was an impostor, or if each episode just continued to pivot on Willum and Tansy’s failure to recognize the difference between gratitude and indentured servitude, it’s thin gruel that would require more and more water added to it. While the studio audience clearly delights in Rick’s antics, such as recreating “the miracle of birth” with a cooked chicken and a deviled egg, the last time any television program caused me to wince this much was when they used to show knee replacement surgery on The Learning Channel. St. Jude’s Christmas commercials are more fun to watch than The Nerd. I challenge you to watch it and then ponder that this was probably sold to NBC as “And it’ll be this…every week!

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Robert Joy, reprising his role from the play (suggesting that even he, incredibly, thought it could work for television), is still acting for the stage, with every line reading and gesture at 150% scale, while the other actors literally just stand there perplexedly staring at him. Perhaps if The Nerd had been rewritten as a psychological thriller, inspired by true stories about people who pass themselves off as adult versions of someone’s missing child, it might have worked. As it is, even in just one pilot episode, it’s an excruciating exercise in Hollywood ego, and the constant testing of viewer goodwill.

Original airdate: March 2, 1996 (filmed in 1989)

Watch it here

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