A Salute to Barney Rubble, Master of Disguise (Part 1)

When you think “master of disguise,” you might think of Sherlock Holmes, or Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible movies. You may even think of Dana Carvey as Pistachio Disguisey, the hero of The Master of Disguise, which someone on the internet right now is swearing is an underrated comedy gem.

But what of Barney Rubble, who’s dedicated more than forty years of his life to creating elaborate disguises for the sole purpose of relieving his best friend of his ample supply of breakfast cereal? Barney could have put his skill for costume design into show business, or more nefarious endeavors, such as robbing the First National Bank of Bedrock, but no, it’s Pebbles he wants, Cocoa or Fruity, it matters to him not. He could just ask Fred “Hey, man, think I can have some of that cereal?”, but that would be too easy. For Barney, the pursuit of cereal has become a quest, a challenge, the sport of kings. The Pebbles would taste less fruity if they were simply given to him; stealing by way of deception is what gives them their zest.

With that, let us now remember some of the most notable of Barney’s disguises, as we ponder how it was possible that he had plenty of money to spend on wigs and props, but not enough to buy his own goddamn cereal.

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“Summer Girl” (1983)

In addition to dance schools, sextuplets, old fashioned romance, the state of New Jersey, and basic human decency, another thing reality television ruined is the trashy made for TV movie. Oh sure, Lifetime still serves up some piping hot slop every now and then, but the golden age was on network TV in the 80s, when movies existed with such titles as The Hustler of Muscle Beach, The Making of a Male Model, and Beverly Hills Madam.

Despite its innocuous title, Summer Girl is some premium gar-bahge. A cautionary tale about why you should only hire ugly old women to watch your children, Summer Girl is about Gavin and Mary Shelburn, and their disastrous decision to take on some extra help at their vacation beach house, which they’ve rented for some much needed family time. Their marriage is strained due to financial issues and an unexpected, complicated pregnancy, which Mary (played by Kim Darby) is clearly more excited about than Gavin. In fact, Gavin (Barry Bostwick) almost immediately comes off as a selfish jerk, complaining about how “trapped” he feels in the situation, even though it’s Mary who’s stuck at home all day with their two school-age children.

It’s a situation just ready and waiting to be complicated by a ripe young babe, and they don’t get much riper than Cinni, whom Mary, ordered by her obstetrician to get some rest, hires as a babysitter. Cinni is played by Diane Franklin, whom you’ll recognize as Monique in Better Off Dead, and possibly the love interest in The Last American Virgin, which I’ve previously noted as being the bleakest teen sex comedy of all time. Fans of godawful B-horror, such as myself, might also know her from Amityville II: the Possession, playing a character who’s disturbingly eager to strip naked and have sex with her older brother. That’s only slightly more creepy than what happens in Summer Girl. Read More

“Starman” (1986)

As mentioned before, the common thread in all failed movie to TV adaptations is that they’re completely unnecessary. Unlike M*A*S*H*, which provided a bottomless plot well to dip from, the movies with unsuccessful TV spinoffs all told complete stories, with not a single loose end to be found. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off ended with Ferris having a successful day off, Cameron growing a backbone, and Ed Rooney rendered a broken, defeated shell of a man. Dirty Dancing concluded with Baby’s father quietly accepting his teenage daughter’s relationship with Johnny Castle, even though Johnny is a goyische who’s at least a decade older than her. Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 9 to 5, and Animal House all literally had on-screen text explaining what happened to the characters after the events of the movie took place. Everything was neatly wrapped up, nothing more needed to be said. It was a bit arrogant to assume that audiences would demand to hear more about these characters, played by different, usually lesser actors and often existing in an alternate universe that suggests the events in their original movies never occurred, and, unsurprisingly, each spinoff died fast, unloved and unwatched.

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.

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Starman possesses the useful ability to generate a conveniently placed tree

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.

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“I put this…where, now?”

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.

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“I put this…where, now?”

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.

“Ferris Bueller” (199o)

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.

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An unreasonable facsimile

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!”).

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Jennifer Aniston knows a sociopath when she sees one

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!

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Typical principal-student body language

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.

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The  smile of a guy with a pocket full of roofies

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.

 

“Fast Times” (1986)

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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.

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“That was my skull! I’m so wa…cky!”

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.

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Patrick Dempsey, king of the food court

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.

“Obsessive Love” (1984)

Once upon a time, before the internet, it was weird, and even a bit scary for someone to be obsessed over an actor. That was something sad little people did, when they couldn’t find someone real to love. Now, of course, it’s become a normal thing, even over fictitious characters, and spending much of your free time, reading, talking, and writing about your favorite stars is how a lot of people find their tribes, as it were. The 1984 TV movie Obsessive Love, however, is Easy Cheese for the eyes, from back when that kind of behavior was still creepy.

Yvette Mimieux plays Linda Foster, a mousy (by Hollywood standards, meaning she wears glasses and sensible shoes) travel agent leading a lonely existence. Entering middle age, her life seems to be void of joy and meaning, save for Savage Hills, her favorite soap opera, and its star, the devastatingly handsome Glen Stevens (Simon MacCorkindale). Her drab little apartment is a veritable shrine to Glen, and the highlight of her day is watching his show during her lunch hour.

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Who let this monster out of her cage?

After a disastrous blind date, Linda decides to start living her best life, emptying her savings account, buying a plane ticket to California, and treating herself to a posh hotel suite. She tells her mother that she’s going there to spend a few days with her boyfriend, a man who, by Linda’s description, sounds an awful lot like Michael, the character Glen plays. Once she gets an extravagant makeover (and you know what that means–so long, glasses!), Linda sets about tracking down her man.

Suddenly and bafflingly cured of her shyness, she cons her way on to the set of Savage Hills, then later tricks Glen into believing that she’s a journalist. He agrees to let her spend the whole day alone with him for a supposed “interview” on his boat–hilariously, it’s suggested that Linda spends the night beforehand studying up on boats and sailing, as if they’re going to take an exam to join the Coast Guard instead of just sitting around drinking white wine and talking about Glen’s acting career.

It’s already established that Glen is unhappy with his role on Savage Hills, and the stress of it is causing a strain on his marriage. Linda, who found out about the latter literally by standing outside of Glen’s house and eavesdropping on an argument between him and his wife, focuses right in on this, playing him like a handsome, ascot wearing fiddle. Even after admitting that she’s lying about being a journalist, Linda claiming that she understands how hard it is being a beloved millionaire TV star is enough to put Glen under her spell, and it’s not long before they’re passionately tussling on the beach.

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“I loved you in Jaws 3D.”

Red flags go up almost immediately, however, when, the very next morning, Glen overhears Linda telling her mother on the phone that they’re going to get married (not to mention that she also calls him “Michael”). Unsurprisingly, Glen is not amenable to this, and tells Linda that, while he surely did appreciate all the boning, it didn’t really mean anything to him. Unsurprisingly, Linda is not amenable to that, and she sets about stealing Glen (or Michael, rather, it’s the fictitious Michael she really wants) all for herself.

Convincing everyone Glen knows with startling ease that they’re madly in love and planning to marry, she forces his wife to leave him, and even encourages Savage Hills‘s head writer (Lainie Kazan) to write their love story into the plot! The only person who sympathizes with him initially is a private detective friend who does a little digging around and finds out that Linda was once locked up in a psychiatric hospital and is believed to be an “undiagnosed schizophrenic” (back when “schizophrenic” was a lazy, catch-all term for “really fucking crazy”).

Eventually, Glen decides that the only way he can free himself from Linda’s clutches is by destroying the man she really loves. He talks the head writer into writing Michael out of Savage Hills forever–by having him killed off on screen! Linda is devastated, but when next we see her, in another psychiatric hospital, she seems to be doing a lot better. She’s even fallen in love with someone new–another character on a different soap opera.

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Linda and Glen enjoy their casual, relaxed relationship.

Despite Glen’s clever solution, the results are disappointingly anticlimactic. Linda just cries, and then it cuts to her sweetly talking to a television. Undoubtedly giving in to public demand, Obsessive Love was released on home video in 1988, and the commercial for it pushes hard its similarity to Fatal Attraction (it also laughably mentions its “terrific low price” of just $59.98). Despite its promising premise, however, Obsessive Love never really gets down to the level of entertainingly sleazy trash that it’s supposed to be. Everything is very subdued–even Glen and Linda’s love scene just consists of them kissing on the beach before the camera discreetly pans away. Though references are made to Linda’s supposed volatile temper, she barely even raises her voice at any point. Where’s the knock down, drag out fight at the end? How did Glen’s private eye buddy not end up a corpse hidden in the trunk of Glen’s car? Where’s the goddamn saxophone music?

It does take one interesting step, in initially making Linda seem sympathetic. It’s no wonder she absorbs herself in a fantasy world, considering that everyone in her real, pre-makeover life is kind of awful, from her overbearing mother to a pushy co-worker who sets her up on a blind date with a slimeball. Even strangers either ignore her or treat her with a withering pity that borders on contempt. Giant, unflattering glasses or no, Yvette Mimieux is simply far too attractive for people to be treating her character like a bug on their windshield. If anything, once she starts looking like a generic 80s soap opera villainess (big hair, bigger shoulder pads), her character, and the movie, suddenly gets a lot more boring.