In honor of today’s rumors that Scott Baio has died, something that happens now with some regularity, and with #RIPScottBaio trending on Twitter worldwide, it seemed like a good time to blog about the pilot of a beloved ’80s sitcom, Charles in Charge. Just the title conjurs the tinkly sound of the theme song in your head, doesn’t it?
This pilot is one that I almost didn’t need to rewatch to write about it, but it is free on Hulu if you want to check it out. The show is about Charles, a preppy college student working as a babysitter and housekeeper to an upper middle class family with three kids. Apparently 1984 was the year for mannies. (See also Who’s the Boss, debuting the same year.)
The first thing we learn about Charles (Scott Baio) and his best friend Buddy (Willie Aames) is that they lust after a girl named Gwendolyn Pierce. “When God made Gwendolyn Pierce that’s when he knew he was God.” Immediately after they spaz out about Charles having landed a date with this aphrodite, teenager Lila Pembroke (April Lerman) runs in spazzing out, in much the same way, about a gorgeous, popular 8th grade boy named Alexander.
This episode’s conflict arises when Charles, portrayed as a responsible, devoted caretaker to the Pembroke children, is stuck watching them on the same night as his Big Date. He reluctantly decides to invite Gwendolyn over to the house.
We’re soon introduced to Jill Pembroke (Julie Cobb), a theatre critic, and her husband, Stan (James Widdoes), and the three kids, Lila, Doug (Jonathan Ward), and Jason (Michael Pearlman). What’s fun to note here is that all three kids are geeks. Usually sitcoms parcel out personality traits amongst the children in a family (the rebel, the bookworm, and the prom queen, for example). But Lila is tutoring the popular kids, in math no less, and Jason, while enthusiastic about soccer (80s, 80s, 80s) speaks with a vocabularly beyond his 10 or so years.
Certainly Doug wears the nerd crown–as well as the alien mask–talking about playing Dungeons & Dragons (a controversial hobby in the ’80s) and refusing to eat meat way before vegetarianism was hip. He and Jason argue about Carl Sagan at the dinner table. It’s like they grew up to be the cast of The Big Bang Theory. (Actually, according to IMDB, none of these three kids has done anything for years.) Charles is pretty nerdy, too. For his date, he changes from a shirt, tie and sweater vest, to a different shirt and tie, with suspenders.
The evening unfolds with the expected network comedy conflict–misbehaving kids and a guy trying a little to hard to impress a hot girl… and a painfully racist portrayal of a Chinese restaurant delivery man. (Another 80s thing? Making fun of Asians? Think Long Duck Dong.) The dulcet Gwendolyn is kind of a bitch. “You haven’t been paying very much attention to me,” she says. Our sense of Charles’ work ethic is only made stronger by the way he makes the kids a priority.
The “twist,” if you think of it that way, is that the pretty, popular kids aren’t as happy as everyone thinks. Both college-aged Gwendolyn and high school student Alexander are tired of being objectified. Gwendolyn doesn’t take it too hard, though, as she winds up being a long-term love interest on the show.
Was this one of the first geek shows? Maybe. It is most assuredly a clear view into the decade of acid wash.
It’s worth mentioning that after the first season the family was completely recast. There was a flimsy excuse about how the Pembrokes sublet their house to another family, with slightly older, better looking kids. So maybe the world wasn’t ready for kids who played D&D.