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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…?

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Eerie, Indiana 1.8 – Heart on a Chain

Okay, sure, I could have actually illustrated this post with a photo from the actual plot of the story. “Heart on a Chain” is an old urban legend retold with an Eerie twist. Marshall and a buddy, Devon, both fall for the new girl in town. Her name’s Melanie, and she needs a heart transplant, and in a grisly turn of events, it’s Devon’s heart that she gets after he’s killed showing off on his skateboard.

The little love triangle is sweet and funny while it lasts, and Marshall’s family has too much fun at his expense when they realise he’s got a crush on somebody. That burnin’ love gets so hard to bear that when Marshall bumps into that guy from his paper route who looks like Elvis, sitting at the World o’ Stuff’s counter eating his weight in peanut butter and bacon sandwiches, he asks him for advice. The guy who looks like Elvis suggests that Marshall buy her a Cadillac…

“Heart on a Chain” was written by the show’s co-creator José Rivera and was the fourth story to be directed by Joe Dante, who had a ball with some quiet blink-and-you’ll-miss-them gags. There’s a tip of the hat to the original 1958 version of The Fly at one point, and a delightful little silhouette in the background of the local cemetery, which, to be fair, really does undercut the drama of the scene a little bit. But the most impressive thing about everybody’s work on this episode is that they sold the doomed romance so well that our son, probably for the first time ever, didn’t grimace and groan when anybody on screen smooches.

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Eerie, Indiana 1.4 – The Losers

I have to say… as wonderful as it is to have this fun show on DVD, I’m less than thrilled by the quality of the prints they used. I remember the series being much more vibrant and colorful when it was shown, and the prints, at least the ones of episodes three and four, have been cut by about thirty seconds. They lack the “Elvis / Bigfoot / man’s best friend” spoken section of the title sequence*. Perhaps these were copies prepared for syndication? Hopefully if some company ever decides to reissue this on Blu-ray, they can find the original masters and work from those.

Anyway, our son cheered when we told him we were watching another episode tonight. He really enjoys the young protagonists, but he simply sums it up by saying “It’s just so weird!” Joe Dante was back to direct episode four, and he brought along a pair of fabulous character actors: Henry Gibson and Dick Miller. Astonishingly, we’ve been doing this blog almost daily for close to four years and I don’t think that we’ve run into Miller before.

Gibson and Miller play employees of a top-secret government project called the Bureau of the Lost. They’re out to keep the economy stimulated by making sure people keep having to buy replacements for the things they misplace. But the hapless citizens of Eerie aren’t actually misplacing anything; Miller’s just creeping around swiping socks, lug nuts, pen caps, random pages from the phone book, and so on. The Tellers get selected for a run of bad luck, and Marshall’s dad’s briefcase vanishes. Dad’s in a state because it contains the formula for a petroleum-based banana flavoring, and Mom’s furious because he’s forgotten that it was an anniversary present.

Marshall and Simon’s scheme to deliberately lose something and see what happens leads them to Eerie’s bike gang, a laundromat stocked with the old Warren Eerie comic, and to the goofy bureau itself, where the word “found” causes Gibson’s character to get antsy. It reminded me of one of the lands from The Phantom Tollbooth! Our young heroes don’t quite save the day, the economy keeps ticking, and now we’ve got a very good explanation for the next time our son loses an important brick from a Lego set. Everyone wins!

*I might have got ahead of myself… the title sequence wasn’t quite formalized this early in the show, and later episodes on the set have the full version.

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Eerie, Indiana 1.2 – The Retainer

Last time, I was having so much fun talking about the experience of Eerie, Indiana that I didn’t have room to mention the cast. The show focuses on Marshall Teller and his buddy Simon. Marshall is played by Omri Katz, who audiences had seen growing up as JR Ewing’s grandson in Dallas. Simon is played by Justin Shenkarow, who would later work for several seasons on the cult hit Picket Fences and is still quite active today as a voice artist in cartoons and games. Their characters are part of a silly and proud line of children who know more than the grownups about creepy goings-on, and their investigations in Eerie would do the Goonies and the vampire hunters in The Lost Boys proud.

The thankless roles of Marshall’s clueless family go to Mary-Margaret Humes, Francis Guinan, and Julie Condra as big sister Syndi. They’re joined in this afternoon’s episode by Vincent Schiavelli, that guy with the beard who was always playing mobsters, as an orthodontist, and Patrick LaBrecque, who was only in the business for a few years, as a kid with a retainer that picks up the brainwave patterns of dogs.

“The Retainer” has the feel of an episode that was written before everybody working on the show really nailed down what they wanted to do with it. It’s considerably more grisly than any other episode – while not stated, it’s strongly implied that the city’s dogs actually maul two people to death – and the whimsy doesn’t have the feel of black comedy, just oddly bolted-on Saturday morning humor. Our son enjoyed it nevertheless, in part because our kid likes dogs a whole lot, and perhaps in part because a scene where the kid with the retainer and Marshall – listening in by way of a Walkman – overhear some dogs singing “Dem Bones” was a lot like a similar singing scene in a classic episode of The Goodies.

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Eerie, Indiana 1.1 – Forever Ware

One thing was always true in the television world of the eighties and nineties: CBS ruled Sunday evenings, which led the other networks to come up with some unusual and interesting attempts to dislodge Grandma and Grandad’s control of the TV during 60 Minutes and Murder, She Wrote. One of my favorite oddball examples: the fall of 1991, when NBC put a pair of very mismatched half-hour programs together in the 7 pm slot: The Adventures of Mark and Brian, an arguably ahead-of-its-time reality show starring a pair of Los Angeles deejays, and the absurdly cool Eerie, Indiana.

Created by José Rivera and Karl Schaefer, and with lots of creative contributions from Joe Dante (who directed five episodes), Eerie, Indiana is kind of an anti-Wonder Years, or a far less horrifying Twin Peaks. It’s set in a town which is – allegedly – the statistically most normal place in America, but that’s only because our thirteen year-old hero, Marshall Teller, has discovered that it’s actually the center of weirdness for the entire planet. It’s where Elvis has retired and Bigfoot eats out of garbage cans, and where, as we learn in this terrific pilot, five housewives lock themselves in vacuum-sealed plastic every night for decades to keep from aging.

I didn’t think anything of the skippable Mark & Brian at the time, and NBC’s idea to match a pair of half-hour shows may have been sparked by Sunday football games running late. If a 4 pm game went into overtime, they could just shelve the 7 pm show and start the 7:30 show on time. But I rarely ran late getting back to my dorm to catch Eerie, Indiana. That was the stupid year I spent almost every weekend in Atlanta because of some blasted female, but my Sunday departure time, depending on how many other people I’d given lifts needed rides back to Athens, was set to ensure I’d be back in time for this show.

(Not that many people in the dorm were keen to see what I was making a fuss about. People of undergraduate age aren’t exactly known for wanting anything like a less horrifying, kid-friendly version of something like Twin Peaks!)

The region 1 release of Eerie, Indiana was only available for a short while, but Fabulous’s Region 2 edition is still in print. The picture quality isn’t what I remember from its run on NBC – surely they didn’t shoot this on 16mm? – but then again, this was a show that I mostly watched live and didn’t keep to rewatch. There’s one exception that I’m really, really looking forward to seeing again.

As for the kid-friendly factor, I’m really pleased that our kid enjoyed the heck out of this. The mild frights and fun cinematography, with camera decisions that evoke the look and feel of black-and-white horror and sci-fi in a cute suburban cul-de-sac, are just perfect for seven year-olds. I just love the way the camera tells you that a happy woman who wears the same clothes that were in vogue when Jackie Kennedy was in the White House is a threat and menace.

Our son was babbling about Forever Ware with real excitement, saying that the inanimate plastic containers were a great and weird villain. He was disappointed when I told him that there’s only one season of this show – no, the lame spinoff on Fox Kids seven years later doesn’t count – because the ratings were terrible and nobody watched it. “That’s too bad,” he said. “Everybody should have watched this show, because it’s a great show!”

Ah, but everybody who did watch it… there weren’t many of us, but we’ll always enjoy returning to Eerie.

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