“Poochinski” (1990)

In the review of Laverne and Shirley in the Army, I discussed “high concept,” the fine art of encapsulating the plot of a movie or TV show in as few words as possible. I initially thought that LASITA, which explains the plot in its title, might have been the master of high concept. I now amend that to cartoons only–in terms of sitcoms it gets no more beautifully concise than the 1990 pilot for Poochinski, which can be fully, and accurately described in four words: “farting dog solves crimes.”

I probably could have added in one extra word: “talking.” The farting dog also talks. But I have the feeling that when this show was pitched to NBC, farting was deemed the more relevant detail. You’d think that, given that premise, this would be a show intended for children, and yet it also includes jokes about sexual harassment, and a scene in which a dog almost literally rapes a woman. The question here isn’t “How did this happen?” so much as “What did NBC turn down in favor of this?”

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Joan Crawford: “My Way of Life”

Image result for joan crawford my way of life

Sometimes the smallest, random thing can brighten a rotten day. After a few years of searching, I had given up on finding a copy of Joan Crawford’s 1971 book My Way of Life. A camp classic going for as much $450 on eBay, it had become one of my Holy Grails of out of print books. Then, with little fanfare, it was released in February as an ebook, for the much more affordable $6.99. Almost as if the fates had intervened, in the middle of a truly atrocious afternoon I received an email from Amazon letting me know it was available, and I have never clicked a “buy it now” button faster.

If you’re under 50, it’s likely that your first exposure to Joan Crawford was not by way of Crawford herself, but rather the camp-horror version played by Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. The movie that redefined what it means to be “so bad it’s good,” it was based entirely on Christina Crawford’s memoirs about life with a superstar mother who abused her children for the crime of not constantly expressing gratitude. Thanks to both the book and its film adaptation, a fictionalized version of Joan Crawford as a cold cream smeared gorgon has become a much more indelible part of the pop culture zeitgeist than any of her actual movie roles.

My Way of Life follows the grand tradition of celebrity autobiographies that tell you exactly two things: doodly and squat. Largely a collection of tips and anecdotes about the incredibly precise manner in which Joan Crawford does things, the only dish she offers here is of the chafing variety. While Joan does briefly touch upon a difficult childhood, it’s spun in positive terms. There is not a single adversity she is unable to overcome, better and stronger for it. Having to maintain four jobs to support herself as a teenager taught her the importance of a strong work ethic. A casting agent criticizing her weight (a whopping 130 pounds at the time) made her realize how much appearances mattered. She only has warm, complimentary things to say about her first three husbands. Not only did she spin these difficult experiences into gold, she never complained about it to anyone.

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“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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“The Death of Richie” (1977)

As we bring this installment of “Just Say No Month” to a close, we come to the inevitable “based on a true story,” 1977’s The Death of Richie, a grim account of a man forced to kill his drug crazed teenage son. How close to the true story does it end up being? Well, pretty close, surprisingly, or at least, close to the Thomas Thompson book upon which it’s based. The only difference is that the real Richie, a short, average looking high schooler with curly red hair, is played by dreamy Robby Benson, which makes his oft stated awkwardness around girls a bit implausible.

We begin with Richie’s funeral, and then learn how he got there. Like last week’s Not My Kid, the movie wastes no time in getting to a point where Richie’s drug problem is out of control–it’s already out of control, as Richie hangs out with a bad crowd, and spends much of his time in a secret black light poster decorated room in the back of his closet, where he trips on LSD and reads a book called How to Talk to Girls.

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“Not My Kid” (1985)

You know you had a mediocre public school education when the “health teacher” did double duty teaching another class. In my school, it was usually either a gym teacher or a football coach, and all you had to do to pass was show up. Despite the rise of HIV and ever increasing teenage pregnancy rates, virtually all of what we learned in health class was related to the dangers of alcohol and drug use, and most of that we learned by watching made for TV movies, while the teacher sat with his feet up on the desk reading about how the Eagles were doing that week.

A popular one with my health teacher was 1985’s Not My Kid. We watched it in seventh grade. We watched it in eighth grade. By ninth grade, we could all but quote along from it, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I’m not sure why my teacher liked it so much, when there existed far more grisly cautionary tales such as Stoned, in which a pot addled Scott Baio nearly kills his brother with a rowboat paddle, and Desperate Lives, in which an angel dusted Helen Hunt throws herself out a window. I can only assume that as an aged, bitter teacher, he enjoyed its frequent scenes of high school students reduced to blithering, tearful wrecks by adults who know better.

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“Small Wonder: Chewed Out” (1986)

The internet loves a good fan theory, especially when it’s connected to science fiction. Because it’s science fiction, any cockamamie scenario is possible, and it only takes a small amount of mental pretzeling to apply it. Thanks to its multiple ambiguous endings, a particularly popular movie for fan theorizing is Blade Runner. Deckard is a replicant! Deckard isn’t a replicant! Deckard has Gaff’s memories! It’s all a fantasy! It exists in the same universe as the Alien movies! It’s all inside the mind of an autistic child!

Even I have my own theory: in an earlier script for Blade Runner, it’s mentioned that five Replicants escaped to Earth from the Off-World Colonies–Roy, Pris, Zhora, Leon, and a third female whose fate was unknown. A later version of the script identified her as “Mary,” a Replicant designed largely for housework duties. Though a small amount of test footage was filmed using Mary, she was eventually dropped from the final script altogether. However, consider the idea that Mary fled the city, where she was found by an engineer/inventor who wipes her memories and resets her programming, so that she has to learn how to act like a human again. Then he changes her name and takes her home to his family, where she is treated alternately like a daughter and a servant, while her true identity is kept a secret from the outside world.

Now, that may sound ridiculous, but is it really any more so than the plot of Small Wonder, in which a man invents a child robot that can be taught to act, think, and feel like a human, then goes to extreme lengths to keep this astonishing advancement in artificial intelligence a secret, for no discernible reason?

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