RIP Eddie Jones, 1934-2019

As I mentioned recently, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman aggravated me more than it thrilled me, but that was due to uneven writing. Its cast was the best Superman cast of any film or TV treatment, and that included Eddie Jones as Jonathan Kent. Jones was better known in Los Angeles for all the live theater he did, but he appeared in dozens of films and TV shows, and was the best Pa Kent of them all. Our condolences to his family and friends.

Photo credit: Superman Homepage

Lois & Clark 4.11 – Twas the Night Before Mxymas

We’ve come full circle. Last year, I felt like sharing the silly story about how some fans suggested the actor Wallace Shawn for the role of Mr. Mxyzptlk on Lois & Clark, and for our final selection from the series, that’s the episode we’re watching: the one that didn’t feature Shawn.

I did caution our son ahead of time that this program’s Mr. Mxyzptlk was not, perhaps sadly, a little guy with a purple fedora wandering around Metropolis bellowing “McGurk!” He’s a malevolent fellow with the dress sense of a dandy and the ethics of Q, the nigh-omnipotent recurring baddie in Star Trek. He doesn’t even have a girlfriend with an even weirder name! (Ms. Gzptlsnz.)

So this really shouldn’t have worked. Lois & Clark had a reputation of stunt-casting comedy stars as comic book villains and, I guess responding to a folk memory of the ’60s Batman, the directors had them yuk it up. This didn’t work because the first season of Lois & Clark established a world where the drama often had a light touch, but the stakes were high and the actors playing villains took things seriously. And so here we have a character called Mr. Mxyzptlk who doesn’t look or act like his comic book antecedent, and he was played by comedian Howie Mandel. And yet it’s great!

In Tim Minear’s “Twas the Night Before Mxymas,” Mxyzptlk’s big stunt is to trap the planet in a time loop that only Clark can detect, and when the loop resets after four hours, everything gets a hair worse as everyone’s despair grows. Some of the logic jumps necessary to make this work can be best chalked up to the baddie’s fifth-dimensional magic, but it’s a neat idea and our heroes’ clever solutions to the problem are really innovative.

There’s a justly celebrated scene in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s amazing comic All-Star Superman where the Man of Steel saves a young girl named Regan from killing herself, because he knows what has happened and is able to offer her a few words of compassion. That scene’s antecedent is here in this episode. Since the time loop has showed Superman how one fellow becomes desperate enough to rob a bank, he’s able to get ahead of him and find him another path and some badly needed hope. I love this scene.

And our kid was very pleased with the story, pronouncing it by far his favorite of the five we watched. There are some cute comedy moments and good one-liners and people talking at once and Perry White dressing as Santa Claus, and the poor schlub that the time loop has turned into the office drunk gets a face full of eggnog. But he loved Mr. Mxyzptlk’s tricks and stunts, and the inevitable scene where our heroes trick the imp into saying his name backward had him roaring. This version of the fifth-dimensional pest may not wear purple, but he’s all right with our kid.

Speaking of folk memory, as I did above, I think that Lois & Clark is remembered as a show that went downhill and crashed because they got married. I think that’s wrong. I think it went downhill and crashed and then they got married and the show improved. Most of season four was very watchable. There were some duds, and some episodes were better than others, and occasionally two writer cats who were nominally in charge of the production, executively, would script Lois as weak, sobbing, and unable to cope with anything. (I remember the beginning moments of episode 15 as probably the character’s lowest point.)

(Bizarrely, there were six or seven women in fandom who actually seemed to approve of Weak Lois. They were watching for the goo-goo eyes, believed Lois was incomplete without Clark, and they got so insufferable that I used a blank card in our game of Illuminati to mock them. That showed ’em.)

But overall, the show got a lot better, with more original villains, much better casting, and far more interesting stories. Even the episode which reeked the most of network promotional nonsense, featuring guest stars Drew Carey and Kathy Kinney taking a break from their popular sitcom, was full of surprises, and Kinney was excellent as the ghost of a murdered woman.

The improvements didn’t matter. The damage by the end of season three and all that amnesia nonsense done, the show’s ratings dropped like a rock. Murder, She Wrote had finally concluded after twelve years, but CBS had a new ratings powerhouse for the slot: Touched by an Angel. Lois & Clark was preempted for weeks at a time, kept off the air during sweeps months, moved an hour earlier, and finally dumped on Saturdays for the end of its run, where the last episodes were seen by fewer than five million viewers.

ABC had actually ordered a fifth season many months earlier, but reconsidered and paid Warners a hefty kill fee. For those of us who were ratings nerds in 1996-97, this was a wild surprise. All those Wednesdays looking over the Nielsens chart in USA Today and shrugging that the sinking viewers didn’t matter because the show had already been renewed… ah, well.

Lois & Clark was certainly a very, very flawed show, and more of it was bad than was good. But its first season was wonderful and its fourth was frequently very entertaining. I liked these samples better than our favorite eight year-old critic did, but I’m glad that the show’s on the DC Universe service for new fans to discover. Maybe you out there in TV Land will like it even more than I did.

Superman’s Pal,
Colonel X.

Lois & Clark 4.5 – Brutal Youth

Last time, I mentioned that the first fourteen episodes of Lois & Clark‘s third season were mostly terrible. They were I, Claudius compared to the unbelievable crap that followed. In February of 1996, the show indulged in a series of interlocking arcs that had Clark marry a clone of Lois, while the real heroine got amnesia and fell in love with her psychiatrist, and then General Zod showed up, only they called him Lord Nor instead and he took over that strategic epicenter of world trade, Smallville.

This went on for months. Fandom had long been split by some loudmouths who were tuning in to see Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher make goo-goo eyes at each other and some other loudmouths who were tuning in to see the Man of Steel do something super. The show wasn’t satisfying anybody. The romance fans were getting plots that wouldn’t pass on a bad parody of daytime soaps, and the superhero fans were getting… well, they were getting Lord Nor. By the time Lois and Clark finally got married in season four’s third episode – featuring sodding Delta Burke as the villain – the show had hemorrhaged a full third of its audience.

Why I stuck out – why anybody stuck out – was simple: Lois & Clark had started out wonderful and we badly wanted it to get good again. And then, when all hope was just about lost, we tuned in to see an unfamiliar name get the writing credit for “Brutal Youth” and marveled, because Tim Minear gave us the best installment – the only even remotely good installment – since the Baron Sunday adventure.

“Brutal Youth” didn’t just get the balance between Lois & Clark‘s three key plot strands (relationship drama, newspaper investigation, superhero stuff) in perfect sync for the first time in ages, it gave us a genuinely original and interesting roadblock in their happier-ever-after story: while investigating the strange case of a friend of Jimmy Olsen’s who has aged seventy years in just a few days, our heroes’ contact at STAR Labs mentions to Lois that Superman’s metabolism is so unlike that of Earthlings that he will still be in his prime long after everybody on Earth today is dead. Lois understandably is in a daze after that.

Their investigation brings them to this week’s villain, a discredited researcher played by Caroline McWilliams, but unfortunately, Jimmy got to her first and has been given the aging whammy himself. The older Jimmy is played by Jack Larson, who had been television’s original Jimmy on the syndicated Adventures of Superman in the 1950s. About the only complaint I can muster against “Brutal Youth” is that we don’t get a scene where we get to watch the aged Jimmy putting all the pieces of the puzzle together for his friends to find, but that’s just me wishing for a bigger part for Larson. As written, the construction of the sequence is actually superb, and I love the way that the audience follows Lois and Clark as they see the evidence that Jimmy left them, and then get shocked as they discover their friend, exhausted and older and collapsed under the conference room table.

But that’s my lone complaint. Our favorite eight year-old critic had all kinds of complaints about this story, mainly that it was far too kissy and too smoochy. I had forgotten that the episode opens the morning after our heroes’ long-delayed wedding night – not wishing to offend anybody in the audience, Lois and Clark had waited until their wedding to spend the night together – and they wake up on the ceiling in post-coital bliss and ready for more.

I introduced a distraction as soon as the camera started panning up from their vacant bed. “They’re SMOOCHING ON THE CEILING! Can you BELIEVE this?!” The kid promptly hid his face in his security blanket with an “ugggggh” and didn’t peek again until the story picked up two weeks later, and, back from their honeymoon, Lois and Clark are in the elevator up to the Planet’s newsroom and THEN THEY STARTED SMOOCHING AGAIN. Grownups! They’re so icky!

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!

Lois & Clark 2.20 – Individual Responsibility

Before we got started tonight, I gave our son a super-speed recap on some of the changes made between seasons of Lois & Clark, including mentioning that they found a new actor for Jimmy Olsen who was about ten years younger than the first guy. Marie said that our son doesn’t know who Jimmy Olsen is, and I said “He’s seen Jimmy Olsen in the Superman cartoons!”

And our son said “… who is Jimmy Olsen?”

* * *

Lois & Clark made it to a second season, but there was a “Sunday Night Massacre” behind the scenes. The ratings were, predictably, mediocre at best. I enjoyed learning that eight years previously, the same dumb ratings situation had already played out. CBS was ruling Sunday nights at 8 with Murder, She Wrote, and ABC launched an adventure show, MacGyver, while NBC went after the same audience with a show executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, Amazing Stories. And so in 1993, Lois & Clark split the same potential audience with Spielberg’s seaQuest DSV on NBC. L&C ranked in the 40s out of 100-odd shows each week, and seaBore in the 50s.

Neither network blinked, they just tweaked and retooled. ABC wanted the entire writing staff of Lois & Clark replaced. The new team was full of names familiar to anyone who watched adventure shows in the 1990s, and they decided to bring in several villains from the comic books.

This might have worked, but it didn’t. One problem: they chose to chase the “will they / won’t they” crowd first and foremost, emphasizing Lois and Clark’s growing romance, but they moved far, far too quickly. Suddenly they were introducing recurring roadblock boyfriends and girlfriends that viewers and fans loathed, because their relationship had escalated so fast that the writers couldn’t figure any reasonable way to either slow it the hell down or take some time and savor and enjoy those first few fun weeks of dating.

Another problem: almost all of the new villains were terrible. The network didn’t want character actors, they wanted showbiz personalities and sitcom stars, so we got Sherman Helmsley and Bronson Pinchot as the baddies. Metallo? He should be played by someone like Dick Miller. We got Scott Valentine.

The one place where they got the casting of the new villains brilliantly right was with Intergang. Okay, sure, they didn’t do Intergang itself right at all. You know Hydra in the Marvel movies? Intergang should be like Hydra with insanely powerful super-weapons smuggled to Earth through sound-barrier-shattering wormholes from a planet of ultimate evil to run underground clone factories, with Jimmy Olsen, a bunch of street urchins from the Bronx, and Don Rickles investigating it. I tell you, Jack Kirby could write some weird, weird, wonderful comics.

Anyway, the TV Intergang was just a basic organized crime outfit (they didn’t even emphasize the “Wal-Mart is run by evil rich people” angle), but they cast the great Peter Boyle as its boss for just one episode. Intergang was mentioned here and there afterward as a generic mob with informers and assassins, and when they circled back around to Intergang toward the end of season two, Boyle’s character had retired and his son, played by the equally great Bruce Campbell, took his place, and that’s where we come in with this morning’s episode, which was credited as co-written by Grant Rosenberg and Chris Ruppenthal.

Our son retains his youthful worry about his TV heroes, and not knowing what red kryptonite can do to Superman had him hiding behind the sofa immediately. So he missed the delightful revelation that this particular stone makes the Man of Steel incredibly apathetic, and not interested in stopping thieves from robbing the Daily Planet’s payroll delivery. (It was 1995; I didn’t have direct deposit then either.) He said that other than that scene, he enjoyed this one a lot, though I did laugh more than he did. The scenes where Superman is filling out paperwork in a psychiatrist’s office, and then lying back in her office to talk about why he’s so stressed that he’s started letting criminals escape are hilarious. The psychiatrist is played by Barbara Bosson, with the huge-framed eyeglasses common to the period (guilty).

But Bruce Campbell comes close to stealing the show, mixing marketing with malevolence with his captive, Perry White, and pleased beyond words that red kryptonite has such a convenient effect on the good guy. “That was the problem with that green kryptonite, it always ticked him off!” They really, really should have done more with Boyle and Campbell. They got one episode together in the following season and that was it for Intergang. Every minute they spent on other villains this year was a wasted minute.

But next season they came up with a very good one. I’ll tell you who on Monday.

Lois & Clark 1.16 – The Foundling

I thought a lot about whether I wanted to show our son Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and blog about it. Once upon a time, it was a show that meant a tremendous amount to me, and I loved – loved! – being part of the online fandom. The first season was great fun, and revisiting tonight’s episode left me nostalgic and happy. That first season was just something else. Then it started sliding. About half of season two’s episodes were pretty good. Exactly two stories from the third year didn’t have me screaming bloody murder and throwing pillows at the television. Season four was all right, thanks to a new writer on the show, but they strangled that golden goose to death first. I decided against buying the DVDs, even used. It might hurt too much.

Lois & Clark is currently streaming on DC Universe, and since I’ve ponied up a subscription so we can watch Doom Patrol after our son goes to bed – it’s fantastic, and Diane Guerrero deserves every available award – I decided that a five-part “best of” over the course of the next week would be a cute kiss to the past without dredging up too many painful memories of how this wonderful show fell apart. I hope that the episodes that I selected will be as good as I remember them, and also leave a few readers saying “Huh? That one?”

This was, infamously, not a Superman show in its first season. Dean Cain put on the costume in every episode that year for at least one scene – I think he’s only in the pre-titles opening to “Green, Green Glow of Home” – but this was a show about Lois Lane and Clark Kent. I mention this because our son was actually a little more taken than I expected since he’s been on a steady diet of Marvel movies, with something amazing happening every six minutes. Clark doesn’t put on the super suit until the very end of the episode. In the story, he gets robbed by some new-to-the-cast recurring character, a street kid called Jack, and a globe from Krypton is lost. This happens the day after the globe starts delivering Kal-El’s history, and his name, to him. Until this episode’s first minute, our hero did not know his birth name.

I picked “The Foundling” because I remembered it being a good story that drives a wedge between our heroes and leaves Lois, unfairly, not willing to trust her partner for a time. I think the one thing we missed was any interaction between Luthor and the heroes; Lex and Nigel don’t actually share any screen time with the good guys. I almost picked “Fly Hard” for the jealousy and for Lex really getting under Clark’s skin, but “Fly Hard” was the season cheapie, and I don’t know that it would have been the best introduction to the show.

This episode, which was written by Dan Levine, also has some very good guest stars. Tony Jay and Richard Belzer had recurring parts in the show’s first year, and this one includes the wonderful David Warner in flashbacks as Jor-El. And as for the regulars, as far as I’m concerned, every other Superman cast is miles behind Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher, with Lane Smith and John Shea as my favorite Perry and Lex as well. (Though, as I’ve mentioned before, all credit to Tyler Hoechlin and Elizabeth Tulloch in the Arrowverse; I thought they were great fun!) As for our favorite eight year-old critic, I won’t lie and say that he was thrilled, but he enjoyed watching it, and says he’s looking forward to tomorrow morning’s example from season two.

But not half as much as I am.

What We’re Not Watching: Wallace Shawn as Mr. Mxyzptlk

We’re not watching the fine actor Wallace Shawn as that interdimensional pest Mr. Mxyzptlk, who makes life miserable for the Man of Steel every ninety days, because he never actually played the role. But in some parallel universe, I’m sure that he must have. For April Fool’s Day, I’m sharing a little oddball story about preconceived notions. Bear with me, if you will.

The time was 1996, and up to that point, a look at IMDB tells me that I had seen Wallace Shawn in a couple of parts that didn’t leave any impact on me. I’d seen All That Jazz a couple of times in college – it was a favorite of my film and screenwriting professor, Charles Eidsvik – but I didn’t remember Shawn. Where I did remember him was playing the recurring role of Stuart Best in the CBS sitcom Murphy Brown. The character’s name, if you know your Beatles history, is a clue. In the backstory of Murphy, Stuart Best had been one of the original anchors of the newsmagazine FYI along with Murphy, Jim, and Frank. He was dropped very early on for reasons that became obvious when we later met the character in an “anniversary” episode: Best was insecure, needy, whiny, and hopelessly wishy-washy: one more horrible irritant in Murphy Brown’s existence. He was an annoying pest, yes, but just so pathetic.

So in 1996, I was very, very active in the old Usenet, for those of you with long memories. I used the pseudonym Colonel X and got into lots of fun and/or dumb arguments about television, particularly Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which had recently begun its fourth and final season around the time of this story. Over the course of three seasons, the show was getting exponentially worse and more irritating as time went on, with its very good cast struggling with terrible scripts, unbelievable “threats,” and new producers/showrunners who didn’t know Superman’s mythology and honestly didn’t care. There’s a reason why everybody knows who General Zod is, and nobody, except the unfortunate audience of this show, ever heard of his TV counterpart, Lord Nor.

Anyway, for season four, the show had a new writer on staff, a fresh face named Tim Minear, who TV fandom may know from his later, acclaimed work on Angel, Firefly, Wonderfalls, and American Horror Story. Minear was willing to risk the pit of whining that was and assure us that season four wasn’t going to stink like season three did. Once they got past the Lord Nor story, at least. He engaged with fans and was a great public voice for the ailing show. And season four was indeed a big improvement. Everybody was happy with Minear.

The writer told us they were working on a Mr. Mxyzptlk story for the first time, and even solicited casting suggestions. I’m sure he didn’t intend to get permission from that oh-so-critical “whining fanbaby” audience, but just sounding like somebody on the show cared what the audience thought, and knew what the heck they were doing, was amazing. People had lots of suggestions, but as soon as somebody offered up Wallace Shawn as Mr. Mxyzptlk, discussion ended. That was, in the eyes of that mob, the single greatest idea ever.

And I didn’t see it.

I only knew Shawn as a desperate and insecure pest. Mr. Mxyzptlk needed to be an incredibly confident, breathtakingly arrogant pest. It didn’t occur to me, because I was even more of an idiot then than now, that Shawn might have been perfectly capable of playing that prankster from the fifth dimension that way. I just couldn’t look past Stuart Best on Murphy Brown.

At any rate, we’d never know, because they cast Howie Mandel as Mr. Mxyzptlk instead. Mandel did a fine job despite a revamp of the character to fit in the lines of Lois & Clark‘s world. He was more like Q from Star Trek than the nails-on-chalkboard imp, but it was a good episode, as I recall, with Mandel reining in his trademark excesses and finding some unusual menace in the part. He was good, but a few people bemoaned what could have been.

Of course, what everybody on that newsgroup was thinking about was Shawn’s iconic character of Vizzini in The Princess Bride, which I hadn’t seen. Naturally, this is on the agenda for us to watch together, when our son’s a little older, but he actually caught a chunk of it on TV last month while visiting family in Memphis. In 1987, I was as far from being interested in the kind of fairytale airy-fairy fantasy that Bride appeared to be as you could possibly get. I didn’t even like Labyrinth very much around that age. I’ve still never seen Willow, but we’ll look at that together as well one day. Basically, that line of bright, glowy eighties fantasy movie just did not appeal to me in the slightest and I ignored it.

Over the years, people told me I needed to see The Princess Bride, and I successfully rolled my eyes for almost two decades. In 2005, though, in the immortal words of the Buzzcocks, I fell in love with someone I shouldn’t’a fallen in love with, and she made me watch the wretched thing, and it turned out to be the most expectation-defying movie I think I’ve ever watched. That film is darn near completely terrific.

And within about six seconds of Vizzini driving everybody nuts with his supreme overconfidence, a little fifth-dimensional magic happened and I saw a little purple hat materialize over Wallace Shawn’s head. Holy anna. I got it. What a missed opportunity! Wallace Shawn would have been completely amazing as Mr. Mxyzptlk. I don’t know whether the actor said no, or whether his agent laughed ABC and Warner Brothers out of the room, or whether Mandel was always in the producers’ minds and Tim Minear was just humoring us, but of all the what-ifs in Hollywood history, this just simply has to be up there.

Honesty compels me to add that shortly after the Mandel take on Mr. Mxyzptlk, the team behind the cartoon that’s laboriously called Superman: The Animated Series went all the way back to that oddball character’s original comic book look from the 1940s, and cast Gilbert Gottfried for the part. That whole cartoon series is completely great, and those two episodes with Gottfried as Mxyzptlk are high points. The villain has since shown up on Smallville and Supergirl. I haven’t seen those, and don’t care to, because, in another preconceived notion, I believe that Gilbert Gottfried owns the role and the voice of Mxyzptlk.

But boy, if Wallace Shawn had played that part, I might not be saying that.

Photo credit: the image of Mandel was taken from the Lois & Clark Wiki.