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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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Eerie, Indiana 1.6 – Scariest Home Videos

In tonight’s brilliantly funny episode, Simon’s little brother manages to zap himself into a cheesy 1940s mummy movie, while simultaneously zapping the mummy into the real world. At least that’s what everybody initially thinks in Karl Schaefer’s delightful script. The mummy isn’t a mummy, it’s a long-suffering and long-dead actor, played by Tony Jay, who somehow found his afterlife consisting of an endless repeat of the same dopey film.

Our son completely loved it and howled with laughter at the midpoint revelations of what the heck is going on. Afterward, he told us how he’d love to zap himself into the original Godzilla. We asked why in the world he’d want to go someplace so remarkably unsafe. To ride Godzilla, of course. Why didn’t we think of that?

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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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