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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 1.18 – 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Twilight Zone 2.23 – A Hundred Yards Over the Rim

And then there was that time that Batman’s enemies Shame and the Riddler teamed up and got lost in Arizona.

How funny! I picked some of these episodes because of the guest stars, and as you may know, I have a fondness for the actors who would later play Batvillains on ABC. I didn’t expect to run into two of them together! Cliff Robertson, on the right above, has the lead role in this time travel tale by Rod Serling, but John Astin, who played the replacement Riddler in season two when Frank Gorshin wasn’t willing to return, also has a small part in this story. Familiar sixties teevee faces John Crawford and Ed Platt also appear.

Stories that are set in the past are a stumbling block for our son. I think this is because the reality of modern television means that kids have 24/7 TV intended for them, and made within the past decade, and set in a contemporary or futuristic world. If you remember when we were kids, there was only a small window of children’s programming each afternoon, and a chunk of that was probably an hour of Tom & Jerry and Woody Woodpecker shorts made for audiences in the 1930s and 1940s that were set all throughout history.

If we were watching TV outside that window, we’d see things like The Rifleman or The Big Valley or Bonanza because there were a thousand episodes of westerns available, cheaply, to small TV stations, and kids could follow these simple and straightforward stories. Sure, we’d rather be watching Star Blazers or The Space Giants in the afternoon, but in the seventies, there was a whole lot less programming available. So if any of us, then, were to tune into this Twilight Zone, we’d have enough background to understand what this wagon train was doing in the desert.

Our son had absolutely no idea. He interrupted very early – before Rod Serling’s introduction in fact – to say “Wait. I don’t understand what’s happening.” I stopped and gave him a quick history lesson about the dangers of crossing the desert in the pre-railroad days, so he got that this took months and was incredibly risky. He really enjoyed this episode, in large part because Cliff Robertson is completely excellent and convincing as a stranger in a strange land. It still blew our son’s mind to imagine a world before power lines, but he learned a little bit. It’s always nice when TV’s actually good for something. Idiot box, my eye!

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Freaky Friday (1976)

Wow, is this movie ever dated! Smoking moms, electric typewriter class, male chauvinist pigs… was this really made forty years ago, or four hundred and forty? It’s really entertaining, but is it ever a time capsule, and not just in society’s attitudes toward women, but back to those days when men’s careers in TV and movie entertainment were forever on the brink of disaster for fear of blustery, easily-displeased clients and bosses. You recall how every single episode of Bewitched featured Derwin – I mean, Darrin – perpetually skating between a successful sale and Larry Tate spontaneously combusting? The dad in this movie, played by John Astin, is similarly between the Scylla and Charybdis.

And with that world of crazy white-collar suburbia comes the life where Dad needs a new freshly-pressed suit for three important gigs a day and Mom is scrambling between catering for two dozen at no notice, pressing silk shirts (with Jon Pertwee-frilled fronts), and seeing that the drapes and curtains are regularly cleaned by professionals. The oil change and detailing place does to-your-garage delivery for $14.50 (about $63 in today’s currency, but this was California, after all), but at least you don’t have to drive your thirteen year-old daughter to the orthodontist, because she goes there herself on the city bus.

And looking back, yes, I do kind of recall the 1970s being kind of like that for my parents. Mom’s days included constant trips to the dry cleaners because men wore three-piece suits in every profession the other side of soda jerk, and I swear we must have had an expense account at the package store for all the evening entertaining they did. So yeah, once she got done ironing blouses and shirts, and having conferences at the school, she’d enjoy a quick break with Days of Our Lives before heading to the cleaners and the salon and probably the package store before taking my brother and me to the pediatrician or the dentist or the barber shop, and really only somebody as naive as a thirteen year-old could possibly want to swap places with a “stay-at-home mom” in the 1970s.

As a teenaged actress, Jodie Foster was omnipresent in the 1970s. This was the first of two Disney live-action films that she made, and far better-remembered than Candleshoe, which is also really entertaining. Astonishingly, she made Freaky Friday the same year that she made Taxi Driver, which I expect the PR people at Buena Vista did not mention. She’s fun as Annabel, but she doesn’t seem to be having half the fun that Barbara Harris, who plays her mother Ellen, does. Harris gets to chew gum and skateboard and dance and own the neighborhood baseball diamond and throw boomerangs while making goo-goo eyes at teenaged neighbors.

The water skiing stuff is all stunt doubles and rear-screen projection, of course, but the fun comedy of errors, which mainly involves lots of slow-burns in the classroom as Mom-in-Jodie Foster’s-body has no idea how to fit in, slowly gives way to more slapstick and a car chase happening at the same time as the water skiing tomfoolery.

Daniel was kind of restless during the movie, but did he ever come alive at the climax. It’s really entertaining, with Harris’s stunt double creating all kinds of skiing chaos while Foster leads police on a wild chase across Los Angeles landmarks. I’m almost positive they take the family’s red VW bug down the same staircase that David Janssen’s stunt double went down on a motorcycle in the Harry O pilot a couple of years earlier. Then they invariably end up in the concrete-channeled Los Angeles River, where they successfully avoid running into any model shoots or giant ants and the funniest thing that Daniel has ever seen happens: one of the police cars gets squashed triangular by one of the tunnels.

Almost immediately, this gag became the second-funniest thing he’d ever seen, because the final remaining police car gets cleaved in half when it runs into a concrete fork in the river, the driver’s side running up the left channel, and the passenger side running up the right. I have never heard this kid laugh so hard. When he’s old enough for me to let him hear Jackie Gleason swearing for a hundred minutes, he is going to die laughing over Smokey & the Bandit.

Perhaps it’s a bit wrong for Foster, Harris, and Astin – never mind a pretty deep bench of recognizable supporting players including Ruth Buzzi, Sorrell Booke, Marc McClure, Dick Van Patten, Alan Oppenheimer, and Al Molinaro – to get totally upstaged by stunt drivers and gimmick cars, but he is only four, dear readers!

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Batman 2.46 – A Riddling Controversy

Well… this was not as good as I remembered it. It’s still pretty good, though. There are worse Riddler episodes than this.

The story draws elements from the very first Riddler adventure by Bill Finger and Dick Sprang, which was originally published in Detective Comics # 140 in 1948, and it returns the character to his comic book roots, where his riddles are really word games, like the “banquet” / “bank wet” sequence from part one. The story is much truer to the character as he was originally scripted than anything with Incan treasure maps or silent movies, anyway.

While this adventure has a totally different plot, some of the set pieces are drawn from the original comic. Most obviously, there’s the bit where a millionaire named Eagle is caught in a trap of interlocking steel bars, which Batman and Robin have to disassemble. At the last minute, however, the producers decided that the millionaire should be a doppelganger for Fidel Castro named “Aquila,” necessitating some rather poor dubbing of new dialogue over what had been recorded in Commissioner Gordon’s office!

John Astin never really did seem comfortable as the Riddler, and the gorgeous Deanna Lund, who would would have a co-starring role a couple of seasons later on ABC’s Land of the Giants, is completely wasted in her part here. It’s all a shame and a missed opportunity, because the script, with its dense, cerebral word games and puzzles, wasn’t a bad one. It’s unfortunate that Frank Gorshin refused to come down on his price. His dangerous, unhinged edge would have elevated the story.

Daniel didn’t seem to enjoy part one much at all, but liked this a little bit more. The extra fight this time around probably helped. I was impressed that he was able to spot that the Riddler was played by a different actor. I can’t swear that I noticed that when I was a kid.

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