A brief intermission. Between “The Intruder” and the next episode, there was originally meant to be an episode called “The Rose of Yesterday”. That episode, along with one called “The Room”, were dropped when the episode count was cut during production. What I know about “The Room” is pretty vague; it was to involve Cap passing himself off as a refugee, faking a vague European accent and inappropriately asking his buddy Mark about his sex life before declaring that everyone betray him and that he’s fed up with this world.
“The Rose of Yesterday”, on the other hand, has the following capsule summary: “Lord Dread orders the destruction of all books. The Power team scramble to save all literary artifacts. Tank meets a librarian.” I am SO DISAPPOINTED this one got dropped. I mean, sure, yes, okay, that’s a massive tonal shift from the surrounding episodes. But to have such a straightforward kids’ show plot? I wish we could have one good, solid, traditional kid’s show episode. It would put everything in perspective. Besides, Post-Apocalyptic Library? Holy crap, Captain Power collides with Tomes and Talismans. I can’t even begin to codify how fucking awesome that would be. Mentor doing database searches for the Universal Being? Miss Bookheart explaining to Tank that Melville Dewey invented his decimal system to help people find things in a library? Hawk’s facial expression as he plants his underwear somewhere to attract a horse? Cap asking if biographies are a kind of fiction? Pure unbridled awesome. I would happily trade away “Pariah”, “The Intruder” and “The Mirror in Darkness” for “The Rose of Yesterday”.
And since it doesn’t exist, let’s talk about something else for a while.
So, a while ago, I said that sitcoms with outlandish elements to their premise were a sort of specifically late-80s-early-90s thing. This isn’t so much “true” as “nonsense I came to believe because of confirmation bias”. As it turns out, late-80s-early-90s is basically just when I was most aware of sitcoms, and thus most likely to notice.
The phenomenon I’m talking about excludes “Situation Comedies in a traditionally Science Fiction setting”, so things like Red Dwarf, Quark, and Homeboys in Outer Space don’t count (Not that I don’t find them fascinating, just a less specifically 80s trope); I’m specifically talking about “Contemporary domestic sitcom whose premise includes one major fantastical element.” As far as I know, the earliest example is 1953’s sitcom adaptation of Topper, which is kinda sorta like a more Eisenhower-era version of Beetlejuice if the Michael Keaton character hadn’t been in it. The seminal early example is probably 1961’s Mr. Ed (Which is the one with the talking horse, which if you aren’t familiar with it, then you are so TV-illiterate that it’s unlikely anything I say in these articles will mean anything to you. I don’t even mean that as an insult; there’s no shame in not having wasted your life learning trivia about the history of TV, but we’re kind of in the deep end of the pool here for someone who isn’t familiar with water), then you’ve got 1963’s My Favorite Martian, where Ray Walston plays the quirky alien houseguest (Think ALF but with Ray Walston with a TV antenna on his head instead of a penis-nosed furry. Also, for the kids out there, a “TV Antenna” is a pair of telescoping wire rods that used to stick up out of the back of televisions.) to Bill Bixby. The 60s also gave us the infamous Jerry Van Dyke vehicle My Mother The Car, about Jerry Van Dyke’s infamous vehicle, and The Smothers Brothers Show, an early vehicle for future-variety-show hosts Tom and Dick Smothers, wherein straight-man Dick struggles to help his deceased brother Tom earn his wings as an angel, The Second Hundred Years, about a 19th century prospector who gets Buck Rogers’d into the 1960s, and My Living Doll, where a psychiatrist struggles to teach a military android to be a “proper” woman, adhering to proper 60s gender roles land being obedient, subservient and submissive to men. So there’s that.
The big seminal ones from the mid-60s, of course, are Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, which are basically the same show only the former is a lot cleverer than the latter, about, respectively, a witch and a djinn who marry ordinary suburban men and have to avoid spooking the squares with their superpowers.
The ’70s gave us The Girl With Something Extra, which was just about ESP and not, as the title would lead you to expect, a shockingly early and misguided attempt to depict transgender people in mass media, Bewitched‘s short-lived spinoff Tabitha, and the ur-example of the 1980s-flavor, Mork and Mindy, which is another show about a Typical American Person who has a permanent houseguest from another planet, the houseguest this time being Robin Williams, [A joke has been deleted here in deference to the recent passing of the troubled but extremely talented comedian]. There was also a short-lived contemporary show about a guardian angel called Out of the Blue.
But the 80s is obviously where my knowledge of TV stops being hearsay and starts being first-hand. So when I was talking about a particular movement in “Sitcoms with Outlandish Elements to their Premise”, I was talking, really, about a particular little cluster of shows:
- Small Wonder (1985-1989), about a Typical Suburban Family with a robot daughter
- ALF (1986-1990), about a Typical Suburban Family with an alien houseguest. Who is a cat-eating muppet. Also, the last survivor of a destroyed homeworld. For Laughs! Also, dude’s nose is really phallic. Said family mostly just complains about him, never once expressing any sympathy for his loss, any respect for his dietary requirements, and refusing to even call him by his real name,
Kunta KinteGordon, instead only ever calling him by his slave name, “Alf”.
- The Charmings (1987-1988), which I described last time this came up, about Snow White, the prince, their kids, the witch, the magic mirror, and one dwarf moving to suburban 1980s California.
- They Came From Outer Space (1990-1991): Alien teenagers go on a road trip in California to pick up chicks.
- Out of this World (1987-1991): About a typical suburban California teenage girl who is half alien and can stop time.
- Hi Honey, I’m Home (1991-1992): About a typical suburban California family whose next door neighbors are Witness Relocated characters from a 1950s Leave It To Beaver-style sitcom. Who have to use a device called a “Turnerizer” to transform themselves from their natural Black-and-White state.
- Harry and the Hendersons (1991-1993): Adaptation of the 1987 film about a typical suburban family with a houseguest who is a Sasquatch.
- Dinosaurs (1991-1994): A traditional sitcom where all the characters are animatronic dinosaurs.
- Herman’s Head (1991-1994): A work-com told from the point of view of a sort of Greek chorus personifying the title character’s four dominant personality traits.
- Woops! (1992): About the six survivors of a global thermonuclear accident. For laughs!
There’s another little cluster in the late 90s, with Third Rock from the Sun, Sabrina, Meego, and the like, but after that, I think the balkanization of television started to become an active force against this sort of thing — all the post-2000 examples I can think of aired on The Disney Channel (Speaking of The Disney Channel, one I left off that list as a marginal case: Kids Incorporated (1984-1992): a show about a tween pop band that dealt with things like bullying, graffiti, after-school jobs, aliens, robots, and time travel.), unless you count the Geico Cavemen, about which the less said, the better. Another factor you got, moving into the late 90s, is that shows like The X-Files and later Buffy the Vampire Slayer laid the groundwork for a renaissance of high-concept hour-long action/adventure/drama, and caused a resurgence of what we’d more comfortably call “proper” speculative fiction. By 1999, if you wanted to do a show about Ordinary Teenagers Who Are Also Aliens, you had options other than doing a sitcom about an Ordinary Family in Suburban California With Permanent Houseguests From Alpha Centauri; you could make Roswell instead.
This sort of show fascinates me enough that they’ve stuck in my head for decades despite the fact that most of them were failures and few of them have been rerun since I hit puberty. A big part of the reason is that it’s so rare to see a TV show incorporate Science Fiction or Fantasy elements without becoming just straight-up Sci-Fi/Fantasy. See, only a few years ago, I finally came to understand that “Science Fiction” is not actually a genre (More accurately, there is a “genre” which is properly called “Science Fiction”, but that genre is a subset of the thing we generally refer to as the genre of “Science Fiction”); look at how other genres work: mystery; romance; action; adventure. Those genres work differently than “Science Fiction.” When a story is a “mystery” it is obliged to be about a mystery; there has to be a thing which is unsolved at the beginning, and the story has to follow the process of solving. Mysteries gotta be mysterious; a mystery that isn’t mysterious fails at being mystery. A comedy that isn’t comical fails at being comedy. You can’t make an action show about two people having a quiet discussion over cucumber sandwiches and tea (Which is why my Knight Rider fanfics always ended up sucking). But Science Fiction doesn’t work that way. There is absolutely no level of lack-of-“Science” that will cause a piece of Science Fiction to stop being Science Fiction. Science Fiction is less of a genre and more of a set of tropes and motifs — it’s something more akin to a desktop theme. It sets how the buttons look and what color the UI is, but it doesn’t actually specify what applications you’re running. (Science Fiction is not the only genre that is like this. See also “Western”). And yet, most of the time, the inclusion of a science fiction element exerts a kind of irresistible marketing gravity that “marks” the whole thing as going on the shelf with Orson Scott Card and Ray Bradbury.
I mean, think about this: the following shows are generally considered “Science Fiction”:
- Star Trek
- Quantum Leap
- Red Dwarf
- The Twilight Zone
- First Wave
And these are not:
- The A-Team
- Monty Python’s Flying Circus
- Tales from the Darkside
- The Fugitive
How is it that we can seriously say that Red Dwarf is more similar to Star Trek than it is to Monty Python? Or that two shows which are about men walking the earth to try to avenge the murder of their wives while on the run from the law which has falsely accused them are fundamentally different because in one of them, the real killers are aliens and in the other, the real killer is just a dude with a prosthetic arm? And what do we do with something like Knight Rider? There’s no sensible categorization of shows that makes Knight Rider more like Doctor Who than Airwolf, except that Knight Rider has a talking car.
So I’m very interested in these things which somehow managed to avoid genre-gravity and remain in orbit around “Normal ordinary mainstream non-genre sitcom about a typical suburban family, probably in California” despite having alien houseguests or supernatural creatures, or robots. How did that happen? How did formula-obsessed Hollywood allow it? And is there something about the period from 1985 to 1992 that made these things more likely to make it to air, or is it just that the ones from earlier are too obscure for my googling to turn up? Why did audiences give four years (Which is, I believe, the legal definition of “A successful run”) to Evie Garland, VICI, and Gordon Schumway? How did The Charmings get a second season, when Captain Power didn’t?
This was all meant to segue into something, but I see now that I’ve just about hit two thousand words, so hold that thought.