Shazam! 2.1 – On Winning

I’m more than just a little bit envious. I checked out seven episodes of 1977’s All-New Super Friends Hour for Daniel to watch. They’re terrible, of course, but those DVDs are as complete as can be, with all the interstitials, magic tricks, health tips, previews for the next week’s episode, and everything like that. Somebody hacked the end-of-show moral message from the master films of these episodes – many, if not all, are at least included as very low-quality bonus features – and the closing credits of this episode has an announcement about the episode of Isis that followed it. Except it’s an announcement about a totally different Isis episode than the one that originally aired as the season premiere… what a mess.

The episode is tame, safe, and dull. It’s about sibling rivalry, and all Captain Marvel does this week is fly the teens’ dad from the bottom of a ravine to join the others. Eric Shea plays one of the teens; nine years previously, he had been that kid who wandered through the first Shame episode of Batman yelling “Come back, Shame!” Daniel liked it at least. The teens ride dirt bikes.

Shazam! 1.15 – The Gang’s All Here

I’d be fibbing if I implied that the two-parter that ended the first season of Shazam! was some kind of undiscovered gem, or any less timid than the standard of the previous episodes, but it is the first one that feels like the show’s writers or producers had ever read a Captain Marvel funnybook. It does have an actual villain, a teen gang leader played by Jack McCulloch, and Billy does get tied up and gagged, keeping him from saying his magic word, which is an old, old trope from the comics. Nevertheless, our son was less engaged than usual, although he did declare this was “pretty cool.”

No, it’s really not very good, even by the show’s standards, and Carol Anne Seflinger has even less to do in part two than she did in the first half. The extras who make up the teen gangs include one fellow with a ’70s porn moustache who’s at least ten years older than the rest of the bad guy crew. The climactic fight takes place at an oil refinery, and the local police refuse to get involved because they can’t arrest anybody who “might” commit a crime. No, they don’t even send an officer to tell these punks to scram, so Mentor calls the highway patrol instead. I’m not sure they arrest anybody either, but at least they show up. Let’s hear it for CHiPs.

Shazam! 1.14 – The Past is Not Forever

This is an interestingly forward-thinking bit of kidvid. It’s the first of a two-parter; like the previous one in this series, it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, instead seeming to divide the action and problems into two separate stories with the same character. Yet I am interested in how Filmation chose to end the season with a larger-than-normal two-part story with bigger issues.

This one isn’t about being trustworthy or respectful or not telling lies. It’s one baby step up closer to a proper antagonist, and a problem that isn’t going to be solved in twenty-two minutes, with lingering distrust and bad feelings among two gangs of teenagers. It starts out with a more ominous warning from the Elders than the usual fortune cookie gibberish, and Billy and Mentor soon find themselves dealing with a reformed young crook who is immediately suspected of a gas station robbery.

The cast is larger than usual, too, with six speaking parts. Among them is Carol Anne Seflinger, and two seasons later she’d be a regular in Sid and Marty Krofft’s Wonderbug, one of the shows that would end up sinking this one. Oops!

Daniel was very attentive and curious about this episode. The plot of framing people for crimes they didn’t commit was a little confusing for him, but he was really interested in this and wants to know what will happen next. We’ll find out in a couple of days.

Shazam! 1.12 – The Delinquent

Recognize that kid on the right? It’s Jackie Earle Haley, who would play one of the Bad News Bears a couple of years later. Much, much later on, he’d make the rare transition from child star to grownup actor. He was Rorshach in the Watchmen movie, Freddie in a Nightmare on Elm Street remake, and he currently appears in the Preacher TV series. Well, maybe “grownup” isn’t quite the right word.

Daniel really liked this episode because, speaking of bears, a big brown bear shows up in this episode and Captain Marvel needs to chase it away. That’s pretty much it for the excitement this time out. Captain Marvel lands… and the bear walks away. My son was happy because bears are cool, and I suppose it would be asking a bit much, even with the surprising stunts this show pulled, to expect any kind of stuntman-bear wrestling.

For a few years in the 1990s, incidentally, this was the only episode of Shazam! to make its way around any of the VHS tape trading circles in which I moved. Others eventually joined it, mainly from the John Davey run, but for a while, this was most people’s only exposure to the show. Sadly, it’s easily among the weakest of the first twelve, without even a neat stunt, camera trick, or cool car to set it apart, and set the tone for all the mocking my friends and I ladled out.

Shazam! 1.11 – Little Boy Lost

Another “memory cheats” moment: I swear that sometime in the late seventies, my mother made me sit down and watch an afterschool special or a TV movie or something called “Little Boy Lost” about a kid who ran away, but I can’t find any trace of it now, although I did find that David Janssen, Joanna Pettet, and Greg Morris made a charity short film for the United Way in 1974 with that title.

As for this episode, which was written and directed by Arthur H. Nadel and which guest stars John Carter (Lt. Biddle on Barnaby Jones), it’s a pretty treacly “kid-and-puppy go missing” segment, which Daniel really enjoyed most because of the puppy. It does, however, have a remarkably surprising visual effect. In a very, very contrived moment, the dad, having found his missing son, and the puppy, pauses on the drive home at some kind of “ghost town” tourist attraction, “for old time’s sake,” and, in the least surprising development possible, ends up trapped down a mine shaft so that the little boy has to then get help.

What nobody saw coming was this: the entire front of one of the fake abandoned buildings falls atop the hole to the mine shaft. I’ll give Nadel and Filmation total credit for that. The “trapped dad” angle would have worked just fine, in its low budget kids’ show way, without that very neat flourish. The full-size building collapses, and Jackson Bostwick has to haul it back into place before he jumps down into the hole to save the day. It’s always nice to have a surprise watching these shows, you know?

Shazam! 1.9 – The Doom Buggy

How’d this episode come about? Well, somebody said “Let’s see. Kids like dune buggies, and they should be reminded to stay in school, so let’s do a story where a guy with a dune buggy is thinking about dropping out. That’ll work!”

Trying to convince the guy with the buggy to stay in school is actress Lisa Eilbacher, who had lots of small parts like this in the seventies before getting some choicer roles in the eighties, chief among them the recurring part of Nicky in the NBC drama Midnight Caller. She doesn’t have a lot to do in this other than ride a motorcycle around the desert with Les Tremayne’s stunt double.

I am pleasantly surprised that this show resonates with Daniel. He really likes it, despite my mocking of it here, so never mind what I say. This was made for kids, and this one enjoys it just fine.

Shazam! 1.8 – The Boy Who Said “No”

I always say that you have to grade Shazam! on a curve, because the reason this show is so timid is the same reason that the very first season of Super Friends – the one with Wendy, Marvin, and Wonderdog – is so much worse than all the rest of that show. And true, Super Friends was a pretty lousy show, ripe for all the decades of mocking that it’s received, but by 1978, you at least had the Legion of Doom actually killing all the heroes and requiring some celestial intervention to bring everybody back to life. The original Super Friends hour didn’t have any villains at all, just “misguided scientists.” Hamstrung by the likes of Peggy Charren and the Action for Children’s Television advocacy group, the Saturday morning superheroes of 1973-75, whether animated or live action, didn’t have anybody to fight.

So you get completely antiseptic situations like the one in this episode, where the criminal succeeds in pushing his way around and even forces a hostage to fly him off in a helicopter without a weapon, without even making a fist. And at the end, he apologizes for all the trouble he caused; he just needed some money and made a bad decision. It’s pretty awful.

And yet… the things that Hollingsworth Morse and Filmation got away with making their star do are just eye-popping from a modern perspective. Following up some of the surprising crane stunts in the last few stories, Jackson Bostwick genuinely hangs from a helicopter several feet off the ground in this one. A Captain Marvel program made today would probably have the Sivanas and King Kull in it, but the producers would be a little less likely to dangle their star fifteen feet in the air without some safety equipment.

Shazam! 1.7 – The Treasure

The principal guest star in this episode of Shazam! was Ruben Moreno, who played native Americans in many westerns on TV or film in the 1960s and 1970s. The plot is a bit more interesting than some of the others. Adam and his grandson are frustrated by two punks who keep digging up native artifacts from the desert near their trailer and aren’t optimistic that the local police will do much about it. I appreciated the opportunity to pause at the commercial break and explain the situation a little more to my son. For all its dopey feel-goodness, this show’s brain was really in the right place sometimes.

What thrilled him the most was the climactic scene, in which Captain Marvel races after a small private airplane that the punks are attempting to use to get away. Adult eyes can certainly figure out how they accomplished the effect of Captain Marvel running with the speed of Mercury, but it really looks unusual and neat and sure wowed little kid eyes. Sometimes “practical” effects still work best.

Shazam! 1.5 – The Road Back

Holy moley! So this is the second part of the story where two troubled teens in denim are trying to do the right thing where great big packages of baking soda – I mean, drugs – are concerned. Christopher Stafford Nelson and Derrell Maury are back as the teens, and I was expecting their pusher to be a typical Hollywood “youth” baddie, but it turned out to be actor Ron Soble, who played several small roles in shows of the day like Mission: Impossible and The Streets of San Francisco, looking for all the world like he wished Filmation would have given him a yellow jacket so he could cosplay as Howard Cosell. As “Brok,” he runs an import-export business which is pretty clearly somebody’s regional sales office being used on a Saturday. I was seriously expecting: a) a younger actor, b) in a leather jacket, c) working out of a bar.

Daniel remained impressed by Captain Marvel’s amazing strength when he blocked the road with some huge boulders. To Filmation’s credit, these actually looked like real boulders, and Jackson Bostwick genuinely acted like they were a chore to move. That sounds like a very, very minor thing to praise, but I can’t help but think how fake and silly this would have looked had Sid and Marty Krofft done it on The Lost Saucer.

Shazam! 1.4 – The Lure of the Lost

I’ve tried to schedule multi-part stories so that Daniel doesn’t have to wait for the cliffhangers for very long, but I honestly had no idea that there were any two-part episodes of Shazam! and already made the calendar, so he’ll just have to wait a few days to see whether the nasty unseen drug pusher from whom these two boys are fleeing will be brought to justice. I’m guessing probably.

The guest stars in this episode were all pretty familiar faces on seventies TV: Christina Hart, who’s best known today as a playwright and stage director, Christopher Stafford Nelson, who did a bit more work for Filmation and was later Doug in the ill-advised Co-Ed Fever, and Derrel Maury, who was Mario in Joanie Loves Chachi. And all three of them were upstaged by that awesome VW Thing, which Nelson and Maury drove at unsafe speeds down a pretty amazingly curvy mountain road to get away from Captain Marvel. We’ll come back to part two in a few days.

Shazam! 1.1 – The Joyriders

I thought that I’d reassure Daniel before we began watching Shazam! that there were no supervillains and no deathtraps. There are, however, kids in some kind of easily-rescued danger in most of the episodes, which might end up presenting a problem sometimes…

In 1973, DC Comics / National began publishing new adventures of Captain Marvel, a hero from the 1940s who predates the comic book company called Marvel. During the two decade gap between the end of Fawcett, his original publisher, selling Captain Marvel comics and DC’s purchase of their catalog and rights, Marvel created a completely different character with that name, the first of several, and have maintained a trademark on the name. So DC’s comic, which became a Filmation live-action show for Saturday mornings in September 1974, has always been called “Shazam!,” which is the magic word that Billy Batson uses to become Captain Marvel. This has allegedly led to so much confusion about what the World’s Mightiest Mortal is called that five years ago, they renamed him simply “Shazam.”

Me, I never had any trouble understanding that Captain Marvel is the fellow in the red pajamas and “Shazam!” is his magic word, but I did have a lot of trouble enjoying this show as a kid myself precisely because it doesn’t have any supervillains and deathtraps. It’s a gentle moral adventure about doing the right thing, unthreatening to the point of being boring. I won’t defend it, but I think it’s an interesting little curio and period piece. It would have been a billion times better if he was fighting IBAC, Aunt Minerva, Dr. Sivana, and Black Adam every week, of course.

The show stars Michael Gray as a much-older-than-the-comics Billy Batson, and he’s traveling “the highways and byways” of southern California in an RV with a guy named Mentor, played by Les Tremayne. Every week, they run across some young people making some poor decisions and, with a little help from the barely-animated “Elders” (Solomon, Hercules, Achilles, Zeus, Atlas, and Mercury), Captain Marvel sets the kids on the path of doing the right thing. There are a few merciful deviations from this format, but not enough of them. Captain Marvel is played by Jackson Bostwick in the first season and part of the second.

So tonight we watched the first episode, “The Joyriders,” in which some kids “borrow” cars – leaving keys in the ignition was apparently the thing to do in Los Angeles, 1974 – even when one of them tries to talk the others out of it. Fleeing from Captain Marvel, they drive into a junkyard and hide in a van which gets hooked by the crane and bound for the car crusher.

I had no idea that would frighten Daniel so badly, but he just about passed out with terror. We had to reassure him that, in addition to no costumed bad guys, nobody ever really gets hurt in this show either. The first episode is one of many that was written by the kidvid team of Les Janson and Chuck Menville, who wrote for just about everything in the seventies and eighties, and was directed by Hollingsworth Morse, who had directed all of H.R. Pufnstuf five years previously. We’ll be watching the first season of this show in rotation over the next couple of months, provided we can stay awake. Zzzzzzzzzz.