Eerie, Indiana 1.19 – Reality Takes a Holiday

One sad night in April of 1992, NBC showed the last two episodes of Eerie, Indiana back-to-back. I had the habit, then, of occasionally taping the first or the final episodes of programs, figuring there might be some nostalgia value down the line. This lasted for a few years, but I unburdened myself of my thousand-some tape collection in the early 2000s. So much for nostalgia. Anyway, after the network finished up “Zombies in P.J.s,” I cued up the tape, sorry to see this cute show go, but it didn’t collect dust on a shelf. I showed this tape to everybody over the next couple of years. “This is what you missed,” I told all those people who couldn’t be bothered to watch. Everybody watched it with a big, big grin.

Vance DeGeneres had already written my favorite-so-far episode of the series, and he got to see it out with one of television’s most delightful series finales, “Reality Takes a Holiday.” They don’t have much time to explore the premise and still give all the actors a little spotlight, but basically Eerie collides with a parallel universe called NBC, where “Marshall Teller” is just a character played by a bound-for-trouble child star named Omri Katz, and who is being written out of his own show, killed off by the new character.

Marshall is astonished and repulsed to find that his family and best friends are just actors, that Mr. Radford is really good at improvising in character, and that the prop man – who looks an awful lot like Tee Hee from Live and Let Die – really wants to make sure his blood-pack squibs are set right for his death scene. And the director, Joe Dante, can only wince as Omri Katz goes all method acting and hopes for new pages to make it to the set. Incidentally, Joe Dante actually only plays the part of the director. The real director of this is Ken Kwapis, who also directed Vance DeGeneres’s previous script. Maybe there’s a third parallel universe where Eerie, Indiana was a hit, and they assigned DeGeneres and Kwapis seven or eight episodes in the 1992-93 season.

But no, as we’ve sadly discussed before, Eerie, Indiana was unfortunately a ratings bomb and this was its last hurrah. Our son wasn’t quite as thrilled with it as I am. He enjoyed it, and grinned as he realized where it was going, but many of the in-jokes (like the name of the “writer” and the length of the lunch break) naturally went way over his head, and he really got stuck on the DVD chapter menu calling some script rewrites “blue pages” even after I thought I explained it. Maybe he’ll come back to this one day and get a good giggle out of Mary-Margaret Humes attempting to commiserate with her young co-star by mentioning how she once got killed off Jake and the Fatman. Still, the prop man’s incredibly memorable. He’s Julius Harris, and maybe our son will remember him when we see him in a Hardy Boys a few months from now…?

Eerie, Indiana 1.18 – Zombies in P.J.s

I do love the recurring background gags in Eerie, Indiana. Once again, we find copies of Eerie magazine all over the place, but we also see that the town seems to have a favorite drink sold at the World o’Stuff: cornade. I tried ketchup slaw for the first time earlier this evening. Of course I’m interested in cornade. Can’t be any worse than Cel-Ray, and Dr. Brown’s sells gallons of that stuff, somehow.

Anyway, tonight’s episode sees Rene Auberjonois swinging through town with a devilishly good sales pitch for the World o’Stuff that has everybody in town shopping while sleepwalking. To combat the all-powerful subliminal advertising, Marshall and Simon stay up all night slapping each other in the face to stay awake. This was our son’s favorite scene by a mile, and he was very amused to see it reprised over the end credits.

Then I told him that the next episode is the final one, and I think his little heart broke in two. But don’t worry, readers, this show’s going out with a bang.

Eerie, Indiana 1.17 – The Loyal Order of Corn

Here’s another example of Eerie, Indiana acknowledging its roots. One of the characters in tonight’s episode is a space traveller who’s been disguised as an ordinary American since he showed up on our planet in Siberia in 1908. Who better to cast than My Favorite Martian star Ray Walston?

The Loyal Order of Corn is Eerie’s fraternal lodge, their version of the Knights of Columbus, Water Buffalo, or Stonecutters. I gave our son a quick introduction about these fellows (including Harry Goaz in his last fleeting appearance as the town cop) having fun and enjoying secret handshakes and making Steve Guttenberg a star before getting started. The episode gives Jason Marsden’s character a name, Dash-X, which he likes better than Plus-Minus, as those are the symbols on his hands. Unfortunately, the revamped title sequence that they introduced with episode 15 gives away Ray Walston’s character having the same symbols on his own hands, but happily he doesn’t reveal their meaning to Dash-X before departing.

Eerie, Indiana 1.16 – No Brain, No Pain

One of the many, many, many things that ring hollow about the Doctor Who segment that we finished watching last night is that the Time Lords completely freak out about a 24th Century scientist succeeding in what every 20th Century adventure program did about once a year: transfer minds between bodies. I didn’t realize that I’d scheduled them back to back, but it’s nice to see this done the way we’d all prefer it, with a playful spirit and a sense of fun, instead of the doom-laden horror of last night’s Who.

Joining the nonsense this time, it’s guest stars Anita Morris, who sadly passed away about two years after this was shown, and Friends and Lovers‘ Paul Sand. He plays the smartest man in the world and she plays his conniving wife, who our heroes coin “Mrs. Terminator” and “Grandma Schwarzenegger.” The smartest man on Earth downloaded his brain onto an eight-track of Get the Knack to stop his evil wife from using his brain-swapping machine. Naturally, by the end of the half-hour, everybody’s mind is in the wrong body.

The whole thing is ridiculous and wonderful, but the very best part is the downright dumb sense of pride that Marshall’s dad has about his son being old enough to shave for the first time. Francis Guinan honestly glows when he tells a houseguest about this exciting development.

Eerie, Indiana 1.15 – Mr. Chaney

To absolutely nobody’s surprise – unless you’re seven and don’t know who Lon Chaney Jr. was yet – there’s a character in this story called Mr. Chaney, and he’s a werewolf. Chaney is played by Stephen Root, who’d co-star in the hilarious NewsRadio for NBC a couple of years after this, and he’s part of an old city conspiracy to look the other way every thirteen years when a new Harvest King is crowned, and the new king becomes werewolf food.

We think this was the first time that Eerie, Indiana actually frightened our son. He denied it, of course, and it was the good kind of frightened, but the animatronic werewolf mask was really quite good, and when the beast starts to creep up on Simon, our son turned completely around and hid his head in the sofa. It’s an entertaining episode, but the best part is when our triumphant heroes decamp to the World o’Stuff, and Mr. Radford mixes up an anti-wolfman potion and serves it up in a milkshake glass with whipped cream and an eyeball.

Eerie, Indiana 1.14 – The Hole in the Head Gang

As I planned and pencilled the schedule for this blog, I certainly didn’t intend to replace a program that our kid is mostly ambivalent about with one of his absolute favorites, but I did. I told him the other night that we were shelving Barbary Coast for a few weeks and resuming Eerie, Indiana and he’s been hopping around like Santa’s on the way. He appeared at the top of the stairs this morning and asked “Is it time for Eerie yet?” And good morning to you, too, son!

When Eerie was first shown in 1991-92, and when 22 episodes was the standard number for a season, networks would often start an order for a new program with 13, and then, if it was successful, order what was called “the back nine” to bring it to 22. This is the only show I’m aware of that had an order for a “back six.” The timeslot was terrible and the ratings were just about at the bottom of the Nielsens, but the show had its champions at the network and among TV critics, and it wasn’t like NBC had very many other programming options other than more news shows, so the show lucked out.

There are a couple of small, but neat cast changes in the last six. Perhaps most obviously, Jason Marsden joins the cast as a weird, gravel-voiced, amnesiac kid who acts as antagonist to Marshall and Simon. The character doesn’t know his own name, but he has a minus sign tattooed on the back of one hand and a plus sign on the other, which will lead to him getting a name of sorts. But I like the other change even better. Our young heroes get to see the character they thought was Mr. Radford getting dragged out of the World o’Stuff by the cops. It turns out Archie Hahn had actually been playing the role of a “compulsive imposter” named Suggs who had the real Radford tied up in the basement. And the real Radford is played by the mighty John Astin, and he’ll take a little larger role in the show for the last few segments.

“The Hole in the Head Gang” was written by the series’ co-creator Karl Schaefer, and it guest stars Claude Akins as the ghost of an incompetent gunslinger who haunts his old gun. It’s got the return of Forever Ware, a nun with a million dollars, a new job for Suggs, and a reference to Shrimpenstein. It’s completely delightful and our son was as happy as a kid can be to back in his favorite weird town.

Eerie, Indiana 1.13 – Tornado Days

NBC originally ordered thirteen episodes of Eerie, Indiana. If they hadn’t extended the show with a late order for six more, then the series would have ended with this magnificently silly installment. Most right-thinking people agree that Eerie‘s eventual final episode would be as triumphant as a final episode can be, but had it ended here, I’d still argue in its favor. “Tornado Days” is incredibly fun and weird.

The story’s built around a local superstition that a tornado that tends to spring up every year like clockwork is in fact the same tornado. Its name is Old Bob. Further, local lore has it that Old Bob won’t actually strike Eerie if everybody attends the annual Tornado Day Picnic. But Marshall decides to buck the trend because he thinks it’s stupid. And because he’s been afraid of tornadoes since he saw The Wizard of Oz as a child.

But the superstition is true. Old Bob is alive, and Old Bob really gets pissed off by Marshall skipping out on his picnic. So when Matt Frewer, playing one of those roles that Matt Frewer was born to play, gets dumped into Eerie with a recording of Old Bob’s winds translated into speech, everybody’s in for a big surprise.

Everybody else in town gets ushered into the World o’ Stuff as the storm looms. This is the final appearance of Archie Hahn as Mr. Radford, and he gets a last gag with Sgt. Knight, wondering whether they might appease Old Bob by sacrificing Syndi! Fortunately, it doesn’t come to that.

Much to our son’s displeasure, we’re going to pause there for a few weeks to keep things fresh, but we’ll be back in Eerie, Indiana in April for the last six episodes. Stay tuned!

Eerie, Indiana 1.12 – Marshall’s Theory of Believability

There’s a delightful in-joke in this episode. A con artist calling himself Professor Zircon brings his traveling Museum of the Parabelievable to Eerie and boasts that among his other accomplishments, he has regularly appeared on The Tonight Show. It’s true that Johnny Carson did have a number of… well, let’s just call them flim-flam men on his program, Uri Geller possibly being the highest profile one. And Carson would give them enough rope to hang themselves. More often, Carson would invite James Randi on his show to debunk the claims of so-called psychics and magicians. Professor Zircon wouldn’t last five minutes against the Amazing Randi.

Naturally, Zircon has a con in mind for Eerie, a scheme involving some space junk crashing in the woods outside town. But the “professor” hadn’t reckoned on Eerie being a little more weird than he had in mind!

Eerie, Indiana 1.11 – The Lost Hour

So the other day, we watched a Twilight Zone segment about people displaced in time, and here’s the Eerie, Indiana equivalent. The state of Indiana, sensibly, didn’t observe Daylight Savings Time in the early nineties. They finally stopped fighting the good fight in 2006, sadly. Anyway, Marshall, demanding his extra hour, sets his watch to what he considers proper New Jersey time anyway in protest, and wakes up almost totally alone. The only people in Eerie are some strange, violent removal men, a 105 year-old milkman driving one of those accident-causing Eerie Dairy trucks, and a 13 year-old girl who ran away from home a year ago.

“The Lost Hour” is absolutely excellent, and it introduces a wonderful concept or three that make the show’s early cancellation even more regrettable. It’s the first episode of the show written by Vance DeGeneres, better known as the guitarist in Cowboy Mouth, and better known still as Ellen DeGeneres’s older brother. The girl who is also trapped in the other time zone is played by Nikki Cox, who later starred in a couple of long-running sitcoms on the WB and a show called Las Vegas that suggests I wasn’t paying a lick of attention to American TV in the early 2000s, because I had no idea that James Caan starred in a prime time drama for four years on NBC.

Anyway, our son completely loved it, although the main point of comment was a strange visual effect when Marshall is running up his staircase as the lost hour is almost up and the roof of his home has vanished, leaving a music-video-looking weird sky. He couldn’t quite explain what about the shot seemed unreal to him, so he could only say “they did that in a studio because those aren’t real clouds.” But honestly, for a show with a small budget for special effects, the integrated animation of Marshall calling Simon from the missing child panel on the side of a milk carton is really excellent!

Eerie, Indiana 1.10 – Who’s Who

Back to the normal routine and rotation here at our blog… well, as “normal” as it ever gets in Eerie, Indiana. One of the many great things about this show is that the producers decided early on that their show wasn’t weird enough, and so it ramps up the strangeness and the humor almost every week. It’s one of those very rare series that gets better as it goes on.

In “Who’s Who,” Marshall and Simon meet an exasperated young artist called Sara Bob and her three godawful younger brothers, Lou Bob, Moe Bob, and Bob Bob. Sara Bob is very lonely and is expected to do all the work in her horrible house, but she dreams of a perfect family and wonders what the mother that she never met might be like. Then she gets a special Eerie No. 2 pencil from the World o’ Stuff and every sketch that she signs alters reality and comes true. She does Marshall’s chore of having to paint his garage for him in exchange for a heavy price. She wants a mom and is envious of Marshall’s.

It’s curious that we should watch this the night after a Twilight Zone with a similar plot about reality being altered around the characters. Our son adored last night’s Zone and he also thought this was terrific. They pulled off a couple of neat visual effects for a low-budget show, but it’s all carried by the hilarious dialogue and acting. There’s one moment where Dad Bob starts bellowing about one of the boy Bobs running around naked thanks to Sara Bob’s art and my son and I about passed out from laughing.

Another note about the recurring cast: we’d seen Harry Goaz once before, in “The ATM With the Heart of Gold”, but he’s back as Sgt. Knight in this episode, and he’s in three more after this one. Goaz is best known as Deputy Brennan in Twin Peaks.

Eerie, Indiana 1.9 – The Dead Letter

In the previous episode, we learned that one of Marshall’s friends met a grisly accident when he was run down by a milk truck. And this evening, we learned that wasn’t the first time such a fate befell a young man in Eerie. In 1929, a kid named Tripp was on his way to deliver a love letter to a girl named Mary when he stepped in front of a milk truck. The letter was tucked into a library book which was never again checked out.

Sixty-two years later, the library sent a couple of shelves of books to the World o’ Stuff to raise some money. Marshall runs across the letter and opens it, releasing Tripp’s ghost. Tripp is played by Tobey Maguire. It’s an early role for the future Spider-Man actor, but he doesn’t get to shine as a fish out of water. The script, sadly, doesn’t address the situation of a ghost suddenly in the world of his future, or maybe I’m just thinking about that because we’ve finished watching Adam Adamant Lives! and miss it already.