Charles in Charge

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.) Continue reading

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The Middleman

On paper The Middleman sounds like an amazing show: young struggling artist and gamer girl gets recruited by mysterious crime-fighting agency to battle comic book-style villains. (So many words to love in that sentence.)

It’s based on a graphic novel by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClaine, and the production style echoes that origin. It’s got a Scott Pilgrim thing going on, but its tone also reminds me of Wonderfalls or Pushing Daisies. Yet, it only takes about five minutes of the pilot to notice that this show is terrible. That could be why it only lasted 12 episodes in 2008, but then, better shows have lasted even less (e.g. the aforementioned Wonderfalls). And, for all I know, there is a die-hard Middleman fan base out there cranking out fan fiction and tweeting to the network to revive it. So what’s wrong with it?

First of all, it was on ABC Family. ABC Family seems to think it has an audience for campy genre TV (Three Moons Over Milford) yet only succeeds with teen soap operas (Secret Life, Pretty Little Liars). They also tend to keep things in a safe-for-family-viewing zone that doesn’t necessarily work for genre TV.

Middleman banks on its audience’s existing knowledge of comics, gaming, sci-fi, and action movies. It packs in the references like digitally-added TIE fighters. Geeks love them some references (see Tropes are Not Bad), but personally I prefer my references baked into the plot (The Big Bang Theory) rather than flung at me like paper napkin fireballs (Breaking In).

So what makes this hour-long pilot feel like its the length of the bonus footage from LOTR? Let’s back up and look at the plot.

We start at A.N.D. Laboratories (tagline: We scramble your DNA. Get it?) A young dark-haired secretary (Natalie Morales, seen more recently on Parks and Recreation), sits flipping a silver lighter open and shut and chatting with her mother as things go haywire in the laboratory behind her. The mom conversation serves as exposition. The heroine, Wendy, who looks kinda like Hilary Swank, is an art school graduate with a boyfriend her mother disapproves of. Suddenly an amorphous monster with many eyeballs bursts through the glass windows of the laboratory and Wendy fights it off with a letter opener, dropping her lighter in the process.

A clean-cut man in a dated military uniform shows up, makes her promise not to tell anyone what she’s seen. He calls himself The Middleman (Matt Keeslar). Wendy’s lighter is blamed for the ensuing explosion, and she is unable to get another temp job, so winds up getting recruited by The Middleman’s shadowy employer. What we have here is a typical Hero’s Journey. The hero(ine) is seen in her ordinary world, meets her mentor figure, is called to adventure, refuses the call, accepts the call, then faces an ordeal*.

So here’s the problem. I don’t like the hero. Wendy moves through these stages way too easily, without any introspection or suffering. We don’t get to know her in the ordinary world (i.e. pre-hero) for long enough to give a Gungan’s ass about her. Then, when she’s called to join this crime-fighting task force, she doesn’t show anything other than vague annoyance. Is she surprised, honored, scared? Don’t know. The reason that she has a change of heart and decides to join is only that her loser of a boyfriend dumps her for completely superficial reasons. We’ve had no opportunity to see them together as a couple, so we’re not invested in the relationship to begin with. When he dumps her, we don’t know what she’s feeling; should we be sad that her heart is broken or cheer that she is free from a bad relationship? And is the end of this seemingly insignificant courtship really enough to send her running to join “the paramilitary version of Amway,” as she calls it.

As with the line quoted above, this pilot actually has a few nuggets of great dialogue. Unfortunately they’re buried under a pile of crap. I’ll leave you with one more, spoken by The Middleman in the climactic scene and arguably the best line of the whole thing: “The only thing I hate more than mad scientists trying to take over the world is mad scientists trying to take over the world and using the brains of innocent primates in order to do it.”

*If you’re into this sort of thing check out The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler.

The Guild

So I’m sitting at Comic-Con singing along to Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog and loving Felicia Day in spite of her questionable singing ability and thinking “How the hell have I not blogged about The Guild“? (Felicia even stopped by to say hi and thank the fans–she’s adorable.)

In case you’re not familiar, The Guild is a web series that’s been running since 2007, about a group on online gamers. It was created by Felicia Day, previously known in the Whedonverse as Vi on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

We meet our heroine as she’s having a bad Friday night. She’s sitting at home alone, unemployed, and having not left the house in a week and recently dumped by her therapist. What we quickly realize, though is this is pretty much a normal Friday night for her.

In this 4-minute episode, titled Wake-Up Call, we have just brief introductions to protagonist Codex and the other players in her guild. We flash back to the phone conversation Codex had wherein her therapist dumped her. As the therapist accuses her of lacking motivation to conquer her addiction, Codex fumbles with the computer, participating in a heated guild run. The game is not named but we assume it’s World of Warcraft. (It probably helps to be a gamer, but you don’t have to be one to get the show.)

Each of the other four players is seen in turn, and the show does not shy away from gamer sterotypes. There’s an overweight woman who’s neglecting her kids, an unattractive guy who eats constantly, a skeevy younger guy who weaves sexual innuendo into all conversation, and a perky Asian girl accessing the web on multiple devices at once. One guy, however, is missing, and we’re about to find out why.

It doesn’t take long to realize that this group of disparate warriors is closeknit in a way that only people who have never seen each other can be. “I hear them. It’s good enough for the blind,” Codex tells her therapist. This is the perfect example of this show’s wry style of humor.

However, the line that really sums up our heroes’ situation comes a couple of episodes later: “You can’t log off of your own life.”

The Guild, in many ways, set a precedent for web TV, employing strong writing, production values, and acting, while catering to a niche audience. Here’s an interview Felicia did about the show early in its run.

Breaking In, or Trying to Speak Geek

Some pilots want nothing more than to convey to the viewer what the creators imagine to be the unique style and tone of the show. Breaking In, which debuted last night on Fox, wants you to know it’s for geeks. They really, really want you to know it. I can just hear the pitch meeting: “It’s a show about smart geeks who work together to foil security systems and have a crazy boss. It’s like Chuck, meets Archer, meets The Office! With a dash of The Big Bang Theory!”

I won’t rehash the entire plot since there are any number of reviews out there. Basically, a smart but understated guy named Cameron (Brett Harrison of Reaper and The Loop) is not so much recruited by as coerced into working for a security company. The gang at the company, led by Christian Slater as Oz, pull off creative and highly challenging heists for a living.

Star Wars references seem to pop up in everything these days. How I Met Your Mother and Bones incorporate them really well, making you believe the characters think of Star Wars as part of their lives. (Marshall will cut a Thanksgiving turkey with a light saber one day.) In Breaking In, the character Cash (Alphonso McAuley) is introduced wearing a Han Solo costume. His first joke wraps up a nerd joke with a race joke–about how black guys don’t always have to play Lando. It would have been funnier if he just went around dressed as Han Solo with no explanation, leaving it for the audience to notice. (Does it matter what race he is? Meg played a freaking worm in Family Guy’s Star Wars universe.)

That bit is quickly followed by one in which Cash references Avatar then asserts that he speaks Klingon. We get it-you’re a geek!

As the New York Times points out, Christian Slater’s leering coercion of Bret Harrison looks an awful lot like the goings-on on Harrison’s previous geek-friendly show Reaper. Another more subtle geek reference, and one of the episode’s bright spots, was the appearance of the nearly-unrecognizable Michael Rosenbaum (Smallville’s Lex Luthor) as Dutch. He is hilariously doofy in his trailer trash-duds and monster-sized truck. When this show crashes and burns, he could have a future on Raising Hope.

It’s not that this pilot wasn’t entertaining or have it’s funny moments. It just seems like it’s trying way too hard to tell us what it is and what it is not, without allowing us to figure it out over a few episodes. It wants geeks to know they’re the intended audience, but it doesn’t know how to talk to them.

I feel pandered to. Raise your hand if you feel pandered to.

Square Pegs

Sarah Jessica ParkerGiven the current surge in nostalgia for the 80s, it’s a good time for Hulu to reintroduce the world to Square Pegs. From 1982, the show centers around two geeky high school girls trying to fit in. It stars Sarah Jessica Parker, even before Footloose and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. Her co-star is Amy Linker who, according to IMDB hasn’t done anything since 1985. What I remember about this show is that the two lead actresses were on the cover of Dynamite magazine. Anyone? Dynamite magazine?

The show begins with the two of them talking, in voiceover, about their intentions to infiltrate the right cliques. “This year we’re gonna be popular,” the one with a slight Northern accent declares, “Even if it kills us.”

The pilot opens, as you might expect, on the first day of school. As the opening scene unfolds, at a pep rally, we learn that the one offering popularity instructions was braces-wearing Lauren (Linker). Glasses-wearing Patty (Parker) is her willing follower on the road to coolness. (See that? Glasses and braces are universal shorthand for geeky. Apparently Linker was also wearing padding to make her look fat, but she is only Hollywood fat, if anything.)

Lauren’s superior knowledge of who’s who gives the audience a chance to learn some names and ranks. The dreamiest guy in school is Larry Simpson. The most popular girl is Jennifer (Tracy Nelson – one of those Nelsons), who has a Princess Diana thing going on. Being popular also means talking with a Valley Girl accent, peppered with ‘like’s and ‘ya know’s. “Gross me out the door” she declares in once scene, prompted by nothing.

The pep rally scene also introduces Jami Gertz as Muffy Tepperman, the Patty Simcox of the group, and the token black student, L.D. The latter performs a song-and-dance number with the hideousness only the 80s could conjure.

For some reason the kids are dressed like it’s February, but forgetting that, the fashion paints us squarely in the 80s. Not in the send-up way that shows depict the 80s today, but realistically. )Seriously, we didn’t wear Madonna gloves and stirrup pants every day.) There are some really specific references to pop culture of the time too, like to a particular Budweiser commercial.

It takes a few scenes to get a feel for the tone of this show. Although it’s a half-hour comedy, it doesn’t feel like a sit-com. It’s single camera, with a lightly used laugh track. There’s a weightiness to it that would be seen in later shows like Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life, and still later, Glee. It’s nice to see high school girls drawn as intelligent and articulate, even if they do still turn to butter in the presence of dreamy senior boys. Although Patty is heartbroken to learn that Larry isn’t into her, she responds with, “Larry, you needn’t reproach yourself.” Actually, much of the episode’s humor derives from her intense seriousness.

Oddly, we never see any of the characters’ home lives. In a show of this kind, we expect to see fights with parents, rule breaking and groundings. The pilot takes us from the pep rally, to lunch, to gym class, and finally to a school dance. As a side note and further sign of the times, the Waitresses appear as the band playing the school dance. It’s as if the writers are letting us know that school is these characters’ whole world, which is how it often feels at age 14. “My life is over,” Patty observes at the end. And we know her life will end in some little way every week, because that what happens in high school.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

“Welcome to the Hellmouth”

There have been numerous articles in the last few years declaring that geeks are now cool. Shows like Big Bang Theory and Glee are held up as proof of this trend. It’s not the Marcia Bradys or the Mike Seavers we want to root for anymore. We love outcasts and braniacs. ComicCon isn’t just for Trekkers anymore. When did the tide turn? My first answer would be with Veronica Mars. But thinking back, there was Freaks and Geeks—short-lived as it was. But, wait. Even before that, there was Buffy. She may have been the original cool social reject; it helped that she was hot.

So imagine it’s 1997. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a campy film starring Kristy Swanson that you may remember from earlier in the decade. Joss Whedon is not a name you hear regularly, if at all (did you know he was a writer on Toy Story?), and you’ve certainly never heard of a Whedonverse.

The stage, complete with eerie horror movie music, is set when a horny teenage couple break into the high school, apparently to get it on, but—oops—the perky blond chick is a vampire who changes and brutally kills the guy. (Sucks to be that actor. Congratulations, you landed a part in what promises to be a hit teen drama. But you die in the first two minutes.)

For those not familiar with slayerism, the opening credits and voiceover give the gist; in every generation, there is a chosen one, etc., etc. Here, Buffy is the fresh-faced Sarah Michelle Gellar, known mainly as a soap actress.

Buffy’s mom drops her off at her new school in fictitious Sunnydale, CA, where she has apparently transferred following the events of the film. And wouldn’t you know it? Sunnydale is smack on top of the Hellmouth, a portal to all things occult. On Buffy’s very first day, a body turns up in a locker with telltale bite marks on its neck. But we’ll get back to that…

In addition to introducing Hellmouth-adjacent life, the pilot takes as its storyline a typical teenage tale; Buffy’s attempt to fit in with the cool crowd, only to find that she is destined to walk among the outcasts. She approaches her new school with hope for normalcy, but nevertheless carries a sharpened wooden stake in her bag. (“Pepper spray is just so passé.”)

She first befriends the self-centered beauty queen Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), who picks on the brainy Willow (Alyson Hannigan). Meanwhile, charmingly awkward Xander (Nicholas Brendon) can’t keep his eyes off of Buffy. Willow likes Xander. Mr. Giles (Anthony Head), new librarian in the apparently deserted school library, seems to already know all about Buffy’s slaying ways. So she goes to him when she learns about the locker body.

Vampires live under the city and are gearing up for some huge revolt, called The Harvest. So Buffy’s going to have a busy sophomore year, what with cheerleading, homework, and ass-kicking.

Oh, and I did I mention there is a dark and mysterious, and ridiculously hot guy trailing Buffy around town? We don’t get a name, or much information at all, except that he knows what’s up with the Harvest.

So the pilot gets us off and running with plenty of action, love triangleism, and more on the mysterious guy (who will, of course, be introduced later in the series as Angel), to look forward to. It’s a bit dark, often funny, and has enough eye candy to get addictive. And this is all despite the fact that, objectively speaking, it’s kind of bad. The acting, the dialogue… but stuff can be bad and still plenty entertaining. Just look at the original Star Wars.

For added fun, there is an unaired version of Welcome to the Hellmouth floating around the ‘net.

Memorable quote: (Said all SoCal bitchy) “God, what is your childhood trauma?”