“Life With Lucy” (1986)

Far more often than any other, the question that comes to my mind when watching programs for this blog is “How did this happen?” It is remotely possible to make and release a movie with a small crew, and no studio interference. You might end up with a hilarious disaster, a la The Room, or Neil Breen’s Fateful Findings, but it can, in the most basic sense of the phrase, be done. Short of finding a slot on a public access network, however, launching a TV show requires multiple hands on deck, every step of the way. It’s a long, elaborate process to pitch, write, film, produce, and air a show. There are numerous opportunities in that process for someone to say “Wait, that’s not a good idea,” or “Perhaps we should try something different,” or “This is a fucking nightmare,” and yet, as numerous failed sitcoms have illustrated, either nobody speaks up when those opportunities arise, or no one listens to them.

On paper, Lucille Ball making a TV comeback was a perfectly fine idea. It had been more than ten years since Here’s Lucy ended, and she had spent much of that time mostly just appearing on talk shows, sharing tales of old Hollywood in her signature raspy voice. Thanks to The Cosby Show, sitcoms suddenly meant big bucks for television producers again, and Aaron Spelling, despite having already earned enough money to build a 123 room house for four people, wanted a piece of that for himself. He proposed a new sitcom to Ball, who was initially reluctant, until Spelling agreed to give her complete creative control over it. What did that mean? Exactly what it sounds like–Ball’s husband, Gary Morton, despite knowing nothing about television production, was given an executive producer credit (and paid $50,000 more per episode than Ball for his questionable services). In addition, Ball brought in her own writing crew, and demanded that Gale Gordon, her comic foil since The Lucy Show, be added to the cast (Gordon himself refused to come on board until he was promised to be paid for a full 22 episode run, even if only one made it to air). She even insisted that the network hire her sound man from the I Love Lucy days, even though he was nearly 80 years old and hard of hearing.

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“Mazes and Monsters” (1982)

When compared to the panic over chatspeak and sending nudes via text messenger, a similar fear over teenagers pretending to fight dragons and cast protection spells only a few decades ago seems almost quaint. Nevertheless, it’s true–back in the early 80s parents fretted over Dungeons and Dragons, buying into a media hyped belief that players could get so deep into the game that they became delusional, with occasionally tragic consequences.

The alarm was triggered by the 1979 disappearance of 16 year-old James Dallas Egbert, who wandered into the steam tunnels near his college and disappeared. A private investigator hired to locate Egbert wove a gripping story about Egbert becoming so obsessed with an ongoing Dungeons and Dragons campaign that he lost touch with reality, and was perhaps lost forever inside the tunnels. It was a great story, and it was also 100% bullshit. James Egbert was just an ordinary, depressed kid who probably played Dungeons and Dragons so he wouldn’t have to think about how depressed he was for a little while. He went to the tunnels to try to commit suicide, and when that didn’t work he hid out at a friend’s house, and then ran away to work at an oil field, finally ending his own life in 1980.

It didn’t stop the media from capitalizing on Dungeons and Dragons as the next big thing parents should worry about, however, and it didn’t stop author Rona Jaffe from cranking out a “fictionalized” version of Egbert’s story, calling it Mazes and Monsters. It was then almost immediately adapted into a TV movie, starring Tom Hanks in his first feature starring role.

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“Mary” (1978)

Even if she hadn’t passed away earlier this year, I would not say anything bad about Mary Tyler Moore. A feminist pop culture icon, she played perhaps the mother of all hardworking single women who put up with the follies of men with humor, dignity, and spunk, no matter how much Lou Grant hated it. I get why, despite ending The Mary Tyler Moore Show on top, Moore felt she had to return to television barely a year later. She was 40 by then, and we know how Hollywood treated (and continues to treat) actresses that age and older–that’s when the “mom” roles start coming in. That’s when you stop getting considered for characters who get to be sexy, or whom someone may find physically appealing. That’s when you’re forgotten, pushed to the side, written out of the script in favor of someone younger, fresher, better.

Mary Tyler Moore couldn’t risk being forgotten, so after mere months of relaxing after seven years of starring on an award winning sitcom, she was back and trying something a little different–a variety show format. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know there’s been a whole month dedicated to variety shows, a genre that peaked in the 1960s, and died a hard, ugly, unlamented death by the early 80s. Variety shows existed for one purpose–to prove that the star (or stars, if you were Donny and Marie Osmond) was multi-talented. They weren’t just actors, they were great singers! They could dance! They could do slapstick comedy! They could grimace their way through scripted banter with a guest star they never met until three minutes before taping began!

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“The Renegades” (1983)

I miss extended opening credit sequences. In most modern network shows, you get a cold open, followed by a title card, followed by the cast names running over the next scene. Though nothing would ever top the acid blotter for the eyes that was Lidsville‘s opening, credit sequences of the past were nearly two minutes long, introducing all the characters, and acting as a mini clips episode of sorts. Some, like Bosom Buddies and Knight Rider, even had voiceovers explaining the plot, for the benefit of anyone who would just decide to start watching the show somewhere in the middle of the third season.

One that far outlived the TV show it introduced was 1983’s The Renegades, a crime drama starring Patrick Swayze, in one of his first starring roles. It is glorious 80s cheese, more so when you realize that it was completely earnest. This was meant to be a hip new show made for the youth, competing with boring soap operas like Dallas and Falcon Crest. The generic synth rock, the dark, foggy alley, the simmering attitude of the young actors, all of it was meant to evoke the gritty, edgy look of a music video, which was probably more effort than required for a modern take on The Mod Squad, but goodness knows I appreciate it.

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“Working Girl” (1990)

It’s interesting to see a TV show or movie an actor appeared in early in their career, and they’ve already latched onto the character archetype that would later make them famous. Bosom Buddies was only the third screen appearance for Tom Hanks, yet he had already perfected the charming everyman role for which audiences would quickly come to love him, with very few deviations. Winona Ryder is still playing the edgy, misunderstood rebel, nearly thirty years after Beetlejuice. Nobody plays the cute, plucky, girl next door like Sandra Bullock, who has honed that role with the precision and attention to detail of Hattori Hanzo.

Because Bullock was (and remains) so effective at playing the regular gal who is just awkward and insecure enough that neither men or other women will feel threatened by her, she seemed to be a curious choice to play the role originated by Melanie Griffith, the 80s answer to Marilyn Monroe (blonde, baby voiced, overtly sexy), in the TV adaptation of Working Girl.  Nevertheless, she was (or rather, she was second choice, when The Facts of Life‘s Nancy McKeon, an even less suitable replacement for Melanie Griffith, turned the role down), to decidedly unspectacular results.

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