Lois & Clark 3.12 – Never on Sunday

So season two of both Lois & Clark and its rival, seaQuest DSV saw both shows tumble in the ratings. That’s in part because Fox smelled blood and sicced The Simpsons on them, and in part because the first half of L&C‘s second year emphasized wacky villains of the week played by goofball celebrities instead of the heroes, the world of the Daily Planet, and the slow, satisfying burn of Lois Lane and Clark Kent falling in love.

By the end of the year, things had course-corrected somewhat, the show got renewed, and in the short term, things worked in the ratings. Season three was when Lois accepted Clark’s way, way, way too premature proposal, but only after telling him that she had deduced that he was Superman. The frisson of having the two on an equal footing and planning for a wedding did grow audiences, and the show was regularly in the top thirty. NBC had blinked and moved seaBore to another night, Murder She Wrote was finally showing signs of age, and things should have been good, except the show was just plain lousy.

If you want to do a show where Lois and Clark are the focus and Superman’s an incidental character, then the threat-of-the-week doesn’t have to be major or massive, which explains why the first season, as designed by Deborah Joy LeVine, was so satisfying. But with Superman given greater prominence in seasons two and three, then they needed to come up with interesting, unique challenges and take them seriously and they didn’t. In season three, they were still doing comical baddies of the week, played by the likes of Mac Davis, Dave Coulier, and the Joe Isuzu guy.

Worse, Lois Lane devolved. The tough, resourceful Lois from season one with a million connections, drive, and determination was certainly seen as vunerable when her defenses cracked, and her impulses sometimes got the better of her. But season three’s Lois was weak and stupid and bumbling. She whined, she broke down. She wasn’t in control of anything anymore.

The first fourteen episodes of season three were mostly terrible, but there were two that didn’t have me rage-posting to the newsgroup. “Ultra Woman” was another red kryptonite episode. It had another dopey sitcom villain, played by Shelley Long, but it did open Lois’s eyes to Clark’s responsibilities as Superman. Plus I like red kryptonite, and it had Teri Hatcher in a tight spandex costume and I’m only human.

But Grant Rosenberg’s “Never on Sunday” was the best story of the year by about ten thousand miles. It guest-starred Cress Williams, who is currently playing the other side of the superpowered law and order equation as Black Lightning on the CW, as a minor villain from the comics called Baron Sunday. For one shining moment, Superman had a serious, believable, and interesting threat, played by an actor who wasn’t doing this for laughs.

And all these years later, “Never on Sunday” is still an extremely good hour of adventure television, with a couple of familiar faces in the cast. Beverly Garland had a recurring role at this time as Lois’s mother, and there’s a cute subplot about her slowly steamrolling Lois and Clark’s wedding plans with her own, and Les Lannom has a small part as one of Baron Sunday’s victims. It must have been around the time this first aired (January 1996) that I finally landed eight or ten episodes of Harry O in a tape trade, but none of them had Lannom’s recurring role as Lester Hodges in them, so I probably didn’t connect the two back then!

And our son was pleasantly creeped out by bits of it. Baron Sunday is a sorcerer who uses voodoo to frighten people to death, and he’s having trouble killing Clark Kent for an old incident that our hero doesn’t really know all about. He’s able to give Clark a nightmare of being sealed in a steel coffin, and the combination of Dean Cain’s scared-to-death acting and the freaky images of the coffin with a horrible grinding noise gave our son the heebie-jeebies.

One final note: I’m not sure what he’s like in the funnybooks, but the TV Baron Sunday is a massively successful stage magician who quietly uses voodoo on the side, and his latest tour has brought him to Metropolis. His PR team announces him to the Daily Planet by way of an old-fashioned folder press kit, with some 8×10 color glossies in one pocket and typed copy in the other, along with a pair of comped tickets. When this aired, I collected press kits and I wanted that prop press kit so badly it hurt. (I still have two: for Jurassic Park and the godawful 1990s Land of the Lost remake.) Maybe I shouldn’t have been such a know-it-all jerk on the newsgroup and let all the producers know how many pillows I was throwing at the screen every Sunday. If I’d have been sweet and polite, maybe one of them would have let me have it!

Lois & Clark 2.20 – Individual Responsibility

Before we got started tonight, I gave our son a super-speed recap on some of the changes made between seasons of Lois & Clark, including mentioning that they found a new actor for Jimmy Olsen who was about ten years younger than the first guy. Marie said that our son doesn’t know who Jimmy Olsen is, and I said “He’s seen Jimmy Olsen in the Superman cartoons!”

And our son said “… who is Jimmy Olsen?”

* * *

Lois & Clark made it to a second season, but there was a “Sunday Night Massacre” behind the scenes. The ratings were, predictably, mediocre at best. I enjoyed learning that eight years previously, the same dumb ratings situation had already played out. CBS was ruling Sunday nights at 8 with Murder, She Wrote, and ABC launched an adventure show, MacGyver, while NBC went after the same audience with a show executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, Amazing Stories. And so in 1993, Lois & Clark split the same potential audience with Spielberg’s seaQuest DSV on NBC. L&C ranked in the 40s out of 100-odd shows each week, and seaBore in the 50s.

Neither network blinked, they just tweaked and retooled. ABC wanted the entire writing staff of Lois & Clark replaced. The new team was full of names familiar to anyone who watched adventure shows in the 1990s, and they decided to bring in several villains from the comic books.

This might have worked, but it didn’t. One problem: they chose to chase the “will they / won’t they” crowd first and foremost, emphasizing Lois and Clark’s growing romance, but they moved far, far too quickly. Suddenly they were introducing recurring roadblock boyfriends and girlfriends that viewers and fans loathed, because their relationship had escalated so fast that the writers couldn’t figure any reasonable way to either slow it the hell down or take some time and savor and enjoy those first few fun weeks of dating.

Another problem: almost all of the new villains were terrible. The network didn’t want character actors, they wanted showbiz personalities and sitcom stars, so we got Sherman Helmsley and Bronson Pinchot as the baddies. Metallo? He should be played by someone like Dick Miller. We got Scott Valentine.

The one place where they got the casting of the new villains brilliantly right was with Intergang. Okay, sure, they didn’t do Intergang itself right at all. You know Hydra in the Marvel movies? Intergang should be like Hydra with insanely powerful super-weapons smuggled to Earth through sound-barrier-shattering wormholes from a planet of ultimate evil to run underground clone factories, with Jimmy Olsen, a bunch of street urchins from the Bronx, and Don Rickles investigating it. I tell you, Jack Kirby could write some weird, weird, wonderful comics.

Anyway, the TV Intergang was just a basic organized crime outfit (they didn’t even emphasize the “Wal-Mart is run by evil rich people” angle), but they cast the great Peter Boyle as its boss for just one episode. Intergang was mentioned here and there afterward as a generic mob with informers and assassins, and when they circled back around to Intergang toward the end of season two, Boyle’s character had retired and his son, played by the equally great Bruce Campbell, took his place, and that’s where we come in with this morning’s episode, which was credited as co-written by Grant Rosenberg and Chris Ruppenthal.

Our son retains his youthful worry about his TV heroes, and not knowing what red kryptonite can do to Superman had him hiding behind the sofa immediately. So he missed the delightful revelation that this particular stone makes the Man of Steel incredibly apathetic, and not interested in stopping thieves from robbing the Daily Planet’s payroll delivery. (It was 1995; I didn’t have direct deposit then either.) He said that other than that scene, he enjoyed this one a lot, though I did laugh more than he did. The scenes where Superman is filling out paperwork in a psychiatrist’s office, and then lying back in her office to talk about why he’s so stressed that he’s started letting criminals escape are hilarious. The psychiatrist is played by Barbara Bosson, with the huge-framed eyeglasses common to the period (guilty).

But Bruce Campbell comes close to stealing the show, mixing marketing with malevolence with his captive, Perry White, and pleased beyond words that red kryptonite has such a convenient effect on the good guy. “That was the problem with that green kryptonite, it always ticked him off!” They really, really should have done more with Boyle and Campbell. They got one episode together in the following season and that was it for Intergang. Every minute they spent on other villains this year was a wasted minute.

But next season they came up with a very good one. I’ll tell you who on Monday.