“Where’s Rodney?” (1990)

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.

And, oh boy, is it a weird premise. Rodney (Jared Rushton) is an ordinary kid who, on the eve of his fourteenth birthday, discovers that he has a unique ability. Is it predicting the future? No. Is it controlling the weather? Nope. Is it being able to take a woman’s blouse off with his mind? Alas, it’s really not anything that useful–Rodney has the ability to summon his hero, Rodney Dangerfield, like a genie from a bottle.

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It’s a tough call as to which aspect of the plot is more implausible: that a kid can will Rodney Dangerfield to just appear out of nowhere, or that a kid would idolize a 70 year-old comedian whose entire shtick is based upon being a sad sack who suffers from a medically inadvisable lack of respect. But idolize him young Rodney does, papering his bedroom walls with posters from Caddyshack and Easy Money, and wearing a Back to School t-shirt in one scene. He even has a picture of Dangerfield pinned up in his school locker, like a girl his age would do with a New Kid on the Block. It all seems rather unlikely, like hipster parents who dress their four year-old son like Andy Warhol for Halloween and claim it was his idea.

I mentioned that Dangerfield acts as young Rodney’s personal genie, and yet, he doesn’t seem to have any magical powers. Really, he’s more like a benevolent ghost, or a guardian angel, hovering nearby and unseen until he’s needed for advice. Considering the show has his name in the title, Dangerfield isn’t actually in it all that much, with the majority of the episode dedicated to young Rodney, who accidentally asks his school crush out on a date the same night his grandparents are in town. When Dangerfield does appear, the advice he offers to young Rodney isn’t exactly groundbreaking, and yet Rodney treats them as pearls of wisdom bestowed upon him from the Buddha himself, if the Buddha made cracks about how his girlfriend’s “been picked up so many times, she’s starting to grow handles.”

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This is all pretty blah stuff, with young Rodney acting as a Rent-a-Center version of Zack Morris, and yet, it was an easy, harmless twenty-five minutes to get through. I can see why it wasn’t picked up for series, but I can also see why the creators of it thought it could be. Most importantly, as opposed to the other three pilots I watched this month, it does what one should expect a pilot to do. It doesn’t rehash the show it was spun off from, like Coneheads, nor does it drop you in the middle of the proceedings with a broken compass and expect you to find your way out, like Starstruck. It sets up the plot, it introduces the characters (which include a young, bolo tie sporting Breckin Meyer, already with the dudebro act cranked up to MAXIMUM, as one of young Rodney’s friends), it gives the viewer a taste of what the series as a whole might be like. Compare that to The Nerd, which fails to establish any sense of style, setting, or tone, other than “irritating.”

Sure, most of the characters are paper thin (young Rodney’s sister seems to exist mostly for him to have an antagonist, because that’s inevitably how teenage siblings behave towards each other), and much of the potential plot developments are spelled out in large, easy to read type (one can guess the writers would have gotten maybe one season in, at the most, before young Rodney’s cute tomboy friend, played by Soleil-Moon Frye, would admit to having a crush on him). But who looks for rich characters and deep, complicated plotting in a sitcom anyway? Where’s Rodney misses the mark, but maybe not by much.

Original airdate: June 11, 1990

Watch it here

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