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!

The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries 1.12 – The Mystery of the Ghostwriters’ Cruise

Well, I knew this would be a show with its ups and downs, but after five incredibly implausible but entertaining and cute installments, man, did we ever hit a turkey. “The Mystery of the Ghostwriters’ Cruise” is terrible. Characters don’t know things about their own pasts they should definitely remember, other characters have utterly astonishing technical skills that border on the supernatural, and other characters are just plain annoying. The direction and editing are unbelievably clumsy, too. In order to keep conveying a sense of mystery and keep everybody a suspect, the camera lingers on everybody way too long. It’s a very annoying hour of television.

A couple of interesting cast notes, though. David Wayne plays the famous mystery writer John Addams, who is retiring and taking a cruise, but somebody plans to kill him, and TV’s first Captain America, Reb Brown, is one of about six people set up as suspects. Les Lannom, who had been so entertaining as Lester Hodges in several episodes of Harry O, gets to play the ship’s entertainment director, who is pretty much the only man on the ship who doesn’t seem to want to kill Addams. Sadly, he’s so incredibly creepy and pushy and touchy in that seventies way that he’s more troubling than a potential murderer.

Also, the wannabe killer misspells “you’re” as “your” in the first threatening note. I thought that Nancy would say something about that. I’m not sure what prison sentence awaits the would-be assassin, but because of that note, I hope they threw away the key.