Eerie, Indiana 1.9 – The Dead Letter

In the previous episode, we learned that one of Marshall’s friends met a grisly accident when he was run down by a milk truck. And this evening, we learned that wasn’t the first time such a fate befell a young man in Eerie. In 1929, a kid named Tripp was on his way to deliver a love letter to a girl named Mary when he stepped in front of a milk truck. The letter was tucked into a library book which was never again checked out.

Sixty-two years later, the library sent a couple of shelves of books to the World o’ Stuff to raise some money. Marshall runs across the letter and opens it, releasing Tripp’s ghost. Tripp is played by Tobey Maguire. It’s an early role for the future Spider-Man actor, but he doesn’t get to shine as a fish out of water. The script, sadly, doesn’t address the situation of a ghost suddenly in the world of his future, or maybe I’m just thinking about that because we’ve finished watching Adam Adamant Lives! and miss it already.

Eerie, Indiana 1.8 – Heart on a Chain

Okay, sure, I could have actually illustrated this post with a photo from the actual plot of the story. “Heart on a Chain” is an old urban legend retold with an Eerie twist. Marshall and a buddy, Devon, both fall for the new girl in town. Her name’s Melanie, and she needs a heart transplant, and in a grisly turn of events, it’s Devon’s heart that she gets after he’s killed showing off on his skateboard.

The little love triangle is sweet and funny while it lasts, and Marshall’s family has too much fun at his expense when they realise he’s got a crush on somebody. That burnin’ love gets so hard to bear that when Marshall bumps into that guy from his paper route who looks like Elvis, sitting at the World o’ Stuff’s counter eating his weight in peanut butter and bacon sandwiches, he asks him for advice. The guy who looks like Elvis suggests that Marshall buy her a Cadillac…

“Heart on a Chain” was written by the show’s co-creator José Rivera and was the fourth story to be directed by Joe Dante, who had a ball with some quiet blink-and-you’ll-miss-them gags. There’s a tip of the hat to the original 1958 version of The Fly at one point, and a delightful little silhouette in the background of the local cemetery, which, to be fair, really does undercut the drama of the scene a little bit. But the most impressive thing about everybody’s work on this episode is that they sold the doomed romance so well that our son, probably for the first time ever, didn’t grimace and groan when anybody on screen smooches.

Eerie, Indiana 1.7 – Just Say No Fun

I realize there’s not a lot of room in a twenty-five minute episode to tell a full story and catch every possible subplot, but this episode begins with Marshall and Simon on the run from Syndi, who vows revenge after they’ve played a practical joke on her, and there’s no payoff! Where’s the fun in that?

Anyway, “Just Say No Fun” features the rules-obsessed Nurse Nancy, a villain in horn-rimmed glasses played by Lucy Lee Flippin. The only defense against her conformity-hypnotizing machine is a pair of Groucho glasses, and fortunately Mr. Radford at the World o’ Stuff happens to have a pair allegedly molded from the nose of the master himself, which is a little unlikely!

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?

Eerie, Indiana 1.5 – The Broken Record

The fifth episode of Eerie, Indiana was preempted by NBC at the last minute across most of the country. It was there in the newspapers that morning – you can check October 13, 1991 yourself at all sorts of sites – but I think that the football game ran late and it was skipped.

Conventional wisdom has it that the episode wasn’t screened for more than two years, when it showed up on a repeat run on the Disney Channel, which then led some well-meaning fans to call it the program’s nineteenth and final episode, which then led the good people at Fabulous Films, who put out the DVD, to stick it on the third disk instead of where it belonged. But conventional wisdom isn’t always accurate. There were video traders in 1992 who had copies of this episode. The big name blowhard trader that I mentioned back in this post? He had a copy. He claimed that it did air on one or two of the NBC affiliate stations as planned on October 13, which is where the VHS copies that made the rounds came from.

Well, I’d never seen it before tonight, anyway. “The Broken Record,” written by the show’s co-creator José Rivera, was inspired by the Satanic panic of the eighties and the mad parental fear that heavy metal records had subliminal messages in them. As it turns out, the Pitbull Surfers – who are two weeks away from playing an allegedly history-making show in Indianapolis – do have a subliminal backwards message in their LP, but it’s not at all what the stressed-out dad in this adventure thinks it is. Tom Everett, who’s made a career of playing high-ranking government officials and military officers, plays the high-strung father in this episode, and I was struck by how unlike Mark Metcalf in the Twisted Sister videos he was.

Our son enjoyed some rather obnoxiously loud belly laughs over things that he found funnier than anybody else did, especially an accident on Main Street involving a stolen milk truck. He was also guffawing over bits that made me chuckle, without understanding what was actually funny about them. There’s a classic running gag about Simon being so out of tune with Eerie’s rock-loving teens that he’s singing Carpenters songs while they’re headbanging. You be yourself, Simon. Thurston Moore says the Carpenters are all right, and he’d know.

Eerie, Indiana 1.4 – The Losers

I have to say… as wonderful as it is to have this fun show on DVD, I’m less than thrilled by the quality of the prints they used. I remember the series being much more vibrant and colorful when it was shown, and the prints, at least the ones of episodes three and four, have been cut by about thirty seconds. They lack the “Elvis / Bigfoot / man’s best friend” spoken section of the title sequence*. Perhaps these were copies prepared for syndication? Hopefully if some company ever decides to reissue this on Blu-ray, they can find the original masters and work from those.

Anyway, our son cheered when we told him we were watching another episode tonight. He really enjoys the young protagonists, but he simply sums it up by saying “It’s just so weird!” Joe Dante was back to direct episode four, and he brought along a pair of fabulous character actors: Henry Gibson and Dick Miller. Astonishingly, we’ve been doing this blog almost daily for close to four years and I don’t think that we’ve run into Miller before.

Gibson and Miller play employees of a top-secret government project called the Bureau of the Lost. They’re out to keep the economy stimulated by making sure people keep having to buy replacements for the things they misplace. But the hapless citizens of Eerie aren’t actually misplacing anything; Miller’s just creeping around swiping socks, lug nuts, pen caps, random pages from the phone book, and so on. The Tellers get selected for a run of bad luck, and Marshall’s dad’s briefcase vanishes. Dad’s in a state because it contains the formula for a petroleum-based banana flavoring, and Mom’s furious because he’s forgotten that it was an anniversary present.

Marshall and Simon’s scheme to deliberately lose something and see what happens leads them to Eerie’s bike gang, a laundromat stocked with the old Warren Eerie comic, and to the goofy bureau itself, where the word “found” causes Gibson’s character to get antsy. It reminded me of one of the lands from The Phantom Tollbooth! Our young heroes don’t quite save the day, the economy keeps ticking, and now we’ve got a very good explanation for the next time our son loses an important brick from a Lego set. Everyone wins!

*I might have got ahead of myself… the title sequence wasn’t quite formalized this early in the show, and later episodes on the set have the full version.

Eerie, Indiana 1.3 – The ATM With the Heart of Gold

Our son is loving this show, and tells us that every episode is better than the previous one. He particularly loved this installment, in which an ATM with an interface that’s somewhere between Max Headroom and Steve Urkel gives all the money from every account in the Eerie Savings & Loan as a gift to his “friend,” Simon, which causes instant bankruptcy for everybody in town. The episode actually makes a passing reference to the then-ongoing Savings and Loan Crisis, but Eerie’s so weird that not even the FDIC will insure the bank’s depositors.

This episode is the first one to visit Eerie’s general store and soda fountain, the World o’ Stuff, and introduces a recurring character, the shop’s proprietor Mr. Radford, played by Archie Hahn. Or at least we think he’s Mr. Radford. He might be in the witness protection program… or he might be something even stranger.

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.

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.