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Lois & Clark 4.11 – Twas the Night Before Mxymas

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.

Love,
Superman’s Pal,
Colonel X.

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What We’re Not Watching: Wallace Shawn as Mr. Mxyzptlk

We’re not watching the fine actor Wallace Shawn as that interdimensional pest Mr. Mxyzptlk, who makes life miserable for the Man of Steel every ninety days, because he never actually played the role. But in some parallel universe, I’m sure that he must have. For April Fool’s Day, I’m sharing a little oddball story about preconceived notions. Bear with me, if you will.

The time was 1996, and up to that point, a look at IMDB tells me that I had seen Wallace Shawn in a couple of parts that didn’t leave any impact on me. I’d seen All That Jazz a couple of times in college – it was a favorite of my film and screenwriting professor, Charles Eidsvik – but I didn’t remember Shawn. Where I did remember him was playing the recurring role of Stuart Best in the CBS sitcom Murphy Brown. The character’s name, if you know your Beatles history, is a clue. In the backstory of Murphy, Stuart Best had been one of the original anchors of the newsmagazine FYI along with Murphy, Jim, and Frank. He was dropped very early on for reasons that became obvious when we later met the character in an “anniversary” episode: Best was insecure, needy, whiny, and hopelessly wishy-washy: one more horrible irritant in Murphy Brown’s existence. He was an annoying pest, yes, but just so pathetic.

So in 1996, I was very, very active in the old Usenet, for those of you with long memories. I used the pseudonym Colonel X and got into lots of fun and/or dumb arguments about television, particularly Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which had recently begun its fourth and final season around the time of this story. Over the course of three seasons, the show was getting exponentially worse and more irritating as time went on, with its very good cast struggling with terrible scripts, unbelievable “threats,” and new producers/showrunners who didn’t know Superman’s mythology and honestly didn’t care. There’s a reason why everybody knows who General Zod is, and nobody, except the unfortunate audience of this show, ever heard of his TV counterpart, Lord Nor.

Anyway, for season four, the show had a new writer on staff, a fresh face named Tim Minear, who TV fandom may know from his later, acclaimed work on Angel, Firefly, Wonderfalls, and American Horror Story. Minear was willing to risk the pit of whining that was alt.tv.lois-n-clark and assure us that season four wasn’t going to stink like season three did. Once they got past the Lord Nor story, at least. He engaged with fans and was a great public voice for the ailing show. And season four was indeed a big improvement. Everybody was happy with Minear.

The writer told us they were working on a Mr. Mxyzptlk story for the first time, and even solicited casting suggestions. I’m sure he didn’t intend to get permission from that oh-so-critical “whining fanbaby” audience, but just sounding like somebody on the show cared what the audience thought, and knew what the heck they were doing, was amazing. People had lots of suggestions, but as soon as somebody offered up Wallace Shawn as Mr. Mxyzptlk, discussion ended. That was, in the eyes of that mob, the single greatest idea ever.

And I didn’t see it.

I only knew Shawn as a desperate and insecure pest. Mr. Mxyzptlk needed to be an incredibly confident, breathtakingly arrogant pest. It didn’t occur to me, because I was even more of an idiot then than now, that Shawn might have been perfectly capable of playing that prankster from the fifth dimension that way. I just couldn’t look past Stuart Best on Murphy Brown.

At any rate, we’d never know, because they cast Howie Mandel as Mr. Mxyzptlk instead. Mandel did a fine job despite a revamp of the character to fit in the lines of Lois & Clark‘s world. He was more like Q from Star Trek than the nails-on-chalkboard imp, but it was a good episode, as I recall, with Mandel reining in his trademark excesses and finding some unusual menace in the part. He was good, but a few people bemoaned what could have been.

Of course, what everybody on that newsgroup was thinking about was Shawn’s iconic character of Vizzini in The Princess Bride, which I hadn’t seen. Naturally, this is on the agenda for us to watch together, when our son’s a little older, but he actually caught a chunk of it on TV last month while visiting family in Memphis. In 1987, I was as far from being interested in the kind of fairytale airy-fairy fantasy that Bride appeared to be as you could possibly get. I didn’t even like Labyrinth very much around that age. I’ve still never seen Willow, but we’ll look at that together as well one day. Basically, that line of bright, glowy eighties fantasy movie just did not appeal to me in the slightest and I ignored it.

Over the years, people told me I needed to see The Princess Bride, and I successfully rolled my eyes for almost two decades. In 2005, though, in the immortal words of the Buzzcocks, I fell in love with someone I shouldn’t’a fallen in love with, and she made me watch the wretched thing, and it turned out to be the most expectation-defying movie I think I’ve ever watched. That film is darn near completely terrific.

And within about six seconds of Vizzini driving everybody nuts with his supreme overconfidence, a little fifth-dimensional magic happened and I saw a little purple hat materialize over Wallace Shawn’s head. Holy anna. I got it. What a missed opportunity! Wallace Shawn would have been completely amazing as Mr. Mxyzptlk. I don’t know whether the actor said no, or whether his agent laughed ABC and Warner Brothers out of the room, or whether Mandel was always in the producers’ minds and Tim Minear was just humoring us, but of all the what-ifs in Hollywood history, this just simply has to be up there.

Honesty compels me to add that shortly after the Mandel take on Mr. Mxyzptlk, the team behind the cartoon that’s laboriously called Superman: The Animated Series went all the way back to that oddball character’s original comic book look from the 1940s, and cast Gilbert Gottfried for the part. That whole cartoon series is completely great, and those two episodes with Gottfried as Mxyzptlk are high points. The villain has since shown up on Smallville and Supergirl. I haven’t seen those, and don’t care to, because, in another preconceived notion, I believe that Gilbert Gottfried owns the role and the voice of Mxyzptlk.

But boy, if Wallace Shawn had played that part, I might not be saying that.

Photo credit: the image of Mandel was taken from the Lois & Clark Wiki.

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