We’ve come full circle. Last year, I felt like sharing the silly story about how some fans suggested the actor Wallace Shawn for the role of Mr. Mxyzptlk on Lois & Clark, and for our final selection from the series, that’s the episode we’re watching: the one that didn’t feature Shawn.
I did caution our son ahead of time that this program’s Mr. Mxyzptlk was not, perhaps sadly, a little guy with a purple fedora wandering around Metropolis bellowing “McGurk!” He’s a malevolent fellow with the dress sense of a dandy and the ethics of Q, the nigh-omnipotent recurring baddie in Star Trek. He doesn’t even have a girlfriend with an even weirder name! (Ms. Gzptlsnz.)
So this really shouldn’t have worked. Lois & Clark had a reputation of stunt-casting comedy stars as comic book villains and, I guess responding to a folk memory of the ’60s Batman, the directors had them yuk it up. This didn’t work because the first season of Lois & Clark established a world where the drama often had a light touch, but the stakes were high and the actors playing villains took things seriously. And so here we have a character called Mr. Mxyzptlk who doesn’t look or act like his comic book antecedent, and he was played by comedian Howie Mandel. And yet it’s great!
In Tim Minear’s “Twas the Night Before Mxymas,” Mxyzptlk’s big stunt is to trap the planet in a time loop that only Clark can detect, and when the loop resets after four hours, everything gets a hair worse as everyone’s despair grows. Some of the logic jumps necessary to make this work can be best chalked up to the baddie’s fifth-dimensional magic, but it’s a neat idea and our heroes’ clever solutions to the problem are really innovative.
There’s a justly celebrated scene in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s amazing comic All-Star Superman where the Man of Steel saves a young girl named Regan from killing herself, because he knows what has happened and is able to offer her a few words of compassion. That scene’s antecedent is here in this episode. Since the time loop has showed Superman how one fellow becomes desperate enough to rob a bank, he’s able to get ahead of him and find him another path and some badly needed hope. I love this scene.
And our kid was very pleased with the story, pronouncing it by far his favorite of the five we watched. There are some cute comedy moments and good one-liners and people talking at once and Perry White dressing as Santa Claus, and the poor schlub that the time loop has turned into the office drunk gets a face full of eggnog. But he loved Mr. Mxyzptlk’s tricks and stunts, and the inevitable scene where our heroes trick the imp into saying his name backward had him roaring. This version of the fifth-dimensional pest may not wear purple, but he’s all right with our kid.
Speaking of folk memory, as I did above, I think that Lois & Clark is remembered as a show that went downhill and crashed because they got married. I think that’s wrong. I think it went downhill and crashed and then they got married and the show improved. Most of season four was very watchable. There were some duds, and some episodes were better than others, and occasionally two writer cats who were nominally in charge of the production, executively, would script Lois as weak, sobbing, and unable to cope with anything. (I remember the beginning moments of episode 15 as probably the character’s lowest point.)
(Bizarrely, there were six or seven women in fandom who actually seemed to approve of Weak Lois. They were watching for the goo-goo eyes, believed Lois was incomplete without Clark, and they got so insufferable that I used a blank card in our game of Illuminati to mock them. That showed ’em.)
But overall, the show got a lot better, with more original villains, much better casting, and far more interesting stories. Even the episode which reeked the most of network promotional nonsense, featuring guest stars Drew Carey and Kathy Kinney taking a break from their popular sitcom, was full of surprises, and Kinney was excellent as the ghost of a murdered woman.
The improvements didn’t matter. The damage by the end of season three and all that amnesia nonsense done, the show’s ratings dropped like a rock. Murder, She Wrote had finally concluded after twelve years, but CBS had a new ratings powerhouse for the slot: Touched by an Angel. Lois & Clark was preempted for weeks at a time, kept off the air during sweeps months, moved an hour earlier, and finally dumped on Saturdays for the end of its run, where the last episodes were seen by fewer than five million viewers.
ABC had actually ordered a fifth season many months earlier, but reconsidered and paid Warners a hefty kill fee. For those of us who were ratings nerds in 1996-97, this was a wild surprise. All those Wednesdays looking over the Nielsens chart in USA Today and shrugging that the sinking viewers didn’t matter because the show had already been renewed… ah, well.
Lois & Clark was certainly a very, very flawed show, and more of it was bad than was good. But its first season was wonderful and its fourth was frequently very entertaining. I liked these samples better than our favorite eight year-old critic did, but I’m glad that the show’s on the DC Universe service for new fans to discover. Maybe you out there in TV Land will like it even more than I did.