It’s November 22 or 23, 1987. Billy Idol’s cover of “Mony Mony” has unseated Tiffany on the Billboard chart. A pirate television signal in Chicago, IL interrupts the local public television station’s broadcast of reruns of a British Science Fiction show I used to like, to show a few minutes of obscenity from a man in a Max Headroom costume. On the other side of the pond, said show turns 24 with the first part of “Dragonfire”, introducing Sophie Aldred as Ace, the last of the classic-series companions. “Hell Week”, my all-time favorite episode of MacGyver, airs. Star Trek the Next Generation airs “Hide and Q”, the first step in the evolution of John DeLancie’s character from “Otherworldly existential threat” to “Picard’s wacky omnipotent uncle”, as he’d describe himself at a con I attended years later. Captain Power airs one of its better episodes, “Wardogs”.
Oh dear. We’ve done that one already. This is one of the dangers of talking about a show that was filmed in one order, written in another, aired in a third and put on DVD in a fourth, especially when you don’t plan the whole thing out ahead of time. Well okay then. You know what we’re going to do? Since it’s Doctor Who‘s birthday, let’s celebrate by hopping back in time a bit, to talk about something kinda weird that’s going on in the next universe over. It could not possibly be more disappointing than Day of the Doctor.
It’s some time near the end of 1979. M, the Eagles, the Commodores, Styx and Rupert Holmes are duking it out in the charts. Ronald Reagan has announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. Ayatollah Khomeini takes over Iran and declares the US the “Great Satan”. Robert Guillaume’s character from Soap, Benson DuBois, gets his own show, Benson, following his exploits as the only sane man in the staff of the scatterbrained governor of an unspecified midwestern state that looks like suburban California. Seven seasons will see him rise through the ranks from head of household affairs to state budget director, to lieutenant governor, ending with his bid at the governorship. It’s widely understood that if the series had continued, Benson would lose to his friend and incumbant Gene Gatling, but be appointed to fill an open seat in the Senate, I’m guessing because they wanted to title an episode “Mr. DuBois Goes to Washington.”
We seem to have gone back too far. This isn’t right; I’m only a baby at this point; this just doesn’t work as part of my television history. What are we doing here?
Ah. There it is. Benson is known for his trademark snark, and here in one of the early episodes, he drives home a point by comparing someone unfavorably to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. A handful of years later, between three and five, a little boy in Maryland is going to catch a rerun of this one, and it’s going to be the first time he’s ever heard that name. Let’s see if we can get back on track and hop forward again…
It’s July 29, 2011. LMFAO is in control of the charts with “Party Rock Anthem”. US courts uphold the patentability of DNA. We’re in the thick of a series of uprisings in Africa and the middle east collectively referred to as the “Arab Spring”, and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi dies.
Wait, that’s not right either. It’s too soon for that. What’s going on here? Something is very wrong. History has come off the rails. We seem to be in several places at once. Start again.
It’s September 26, 1987. Whitney Houston tops the charts with “Didn’t We Almost Have It All”. Over the next two days, Captain Power will air “The Abyss”, and then any chance of that promo narrator being right about it being “The Science Fiction Event of the Year” will be cut down when “Encounter at Farpoint” airs.
But it’s also 2011. How can this be? Where are we? I see pearly gates. That ain’t good. We are at the threshhold of the afterlife — a place I always knew I must come to if I was going to talk about Captain Power. But I didn’t expect it so soon. We aren’t in heaven yet, though, nor in hell. Not as above, not so below. No, we’re just in the antechamber. And here is St. Peter. A figure perhaps more comforting to middle America in 1987 than Anubis, but reduced to the same role: he will weigh your heart against a feather, and determine your ultimate fate. A vapid but kind and caring beauty queen steps onto the pedestal. It glows gold she is sent up to paradise. Colonel Gaddafi steps up and the pedestal glows again, red this time. His fate is less pleasant: to live out the final experiences of a suicide bomber every two minutes for the rest of time. St. Peter beckons; it is your turn.
The mind is its own place, Milton said, and can make a hell of heaven or a heaven of hell. Which is a weirdly observant thing for a Calvinist to say, but there you go. St. Peter has a problem. He doesn’t know what to do with you. His pedestal has turned blue. Somewhere else, in the 1987 around us, the video game console wars are ascendant, and their influence has intruded here as well. A thousand years of subtle nuance and theology went into the western conception of how the worth of a human soul is judged, but here, at the 2011 that exists in the eye of this storm, all that is discarded in favor of a point system: this afterlife may have unambiguously Christian trappings, but they’re only skin-deep: Gaddafi was condemned specifically (and explicitly) for his use of bombs against civilians; his choice of religion doesn’t enter into it. Do good things, acquire Blessing Points, do bad things, acquire Damnation Points. If your BP exceeds your DP, the light turns gold and you go to heaven. If your DP exceeds your BP, the light turns red and you burn.
But the light has turned blue. HP=DP. Does not compute. Abort, Retry, Fail. What is St. Peter to do with us? What does one do in a video game if you reach the end of the level without enough points to achieve a victory condition? Try again.
It is April 9, 2011. The US congress narrowly avoids a government shutdown with a temporary agreement to fund the government for a bit longer. This is pretty much how the country limps along until 2013, when they finally fail to keep the god damned country running for several weeks. Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” is unseated in the charts by Katy Perry’s “ET”. This is pretty much how the country limps along until the middle of May. In a bar in Ellicott City, twenty-several teams are in a tight competition for Trivia Bowl XXVIII. Very few points separate the top-ranked teams, and we’re nearing the end of the game. One question could make or break a team here. The category is television. Give either of the two names of the 1987 show which was Matthew Perry’s first leading role as a regular cast member in a sitcom. I remember. No one else does. The team is awfully good at this game, and those eight points are enough to break the logjam among the top four and ensure that no one can catch us. We take home the trophy.
The answer I gave, because I wasn’t sure of the other one, was Boys Will Be Boys, a bog-standard sitcom about a teenage boy, his mildly delinquent friends, and his family. It was okay, nothing noteworthy, except that Matthew Perry played a guy named “Chazz,” which was a thing that could happen in 1987. It died a merciful death within a year. But Boys Will Be Boys wasn’t where the show started, and it’s not what sucked us back and forth from 1979 to 2011, then back to 1987. Because Boys Will Be Boys was what the show became after a heavy retool. When the show first aired, on September 26, 1987, it wasn’t Boys Will Be Boys, but Second Chance. It was still about a teenage boy and his mildly delinquent friends, but it wasn’t just about that.
2011 seems to be the crux here. We have been to it twice now, but the two are strangely different; April and July are separated by more than the two months they usually get. The premature death of Colonel Gaddafi I can understand; in April, the cards were already on the table. But here in July, there are hovercars, and hover-freeways. And people are impressed by furniture made of wood. John Travolta is on the fifty dollar bill. And business attire is a blue Nehru-inspired polyester suit that wouldn’t look out of place in either Star Trek the Next Generation or Captain Power. With blue slippers.
We are back in July, in the first scene of the first episode of Second Chance, and after sending Miss America and Colonel Gaddafi to their respective fates St. Peter’s next guest is a man who looks a lot like Mitt Romney, who has just died by crashing his hovercar on the Santa Monica Hover-Freeway while wearing a blue Nehru-inspired polyester suit. This is Charles Russell, and he sets off the blue light. Not good enough for heaven, not bad enough for hell. The karmic equivalent, St. Peter explains, of the music of Barry Mantilow.
Charles Russell is therefore transported to Venice, California, September 26, 1987, to become a lodger at the home of his struggling mother, where he can act as a father figure to his own past self, then incomprehensibly using the nickname “Chazz”, in order to steer himself onto a slightly more virtuous course. This mostly takes the form of painfully unfunny jokes like Chazz claiming he “Wouldn’t be caught dead” in a blue polyester Nehru-inspired suit, and President Travolta being on the fifty. Chazz, along with his friends Nerdy Eugene and 50s Greaser “The Booch” (Because it’s the 80s and you can apparently be named “The Booch”) has been driven to petty larceny in an attempt to forestall the pending foreclosure on their home.
Fortunately for Chazz, his older self is the attendant at the convenience store they attempt to rob, and talks them out of it, which is, as I said, fortunate for Chazz, but apparently doesn’t cut it with St. Peter, as he “changed the circumstances” rather than teaching his younger self the difference between right and wrong. This comes as a great disappointment to Charles, who, having spent a day in the 1980s, is now understandably very eager to get on with being dead. So Charles is ordered to remain in 1987 for as long as it takes to teach his younger self to make sound moral decisions.
Which is apparently four months. It is November 28, 1987. Almost back where we started. Where everything went off the rails. Edmondton beats Tortonto in the Grey Cup. Jennifer Warnes and Bill Medly knock Billy Idol out of the top spot on the Hot 100 “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”. Episode 9 of Second Chance airs, and the show goes on hiatus for the Christmas holiday season, which, this being 1987, has the decency not to start until after Thanksgiving. If I’ve got my years right, this is one of my favorite childhood Christmases. But don’t get comfy; we’re not staying.
It is January 16, 1988. We’ve hopped over “Heaven is a Place on Earth”, “Faith”, and “So Emotional” to find George Harrison at the top of the charts with his cover of “Got My Mind Set On You”, a song with a catchy enough tune, but which only had about thirty words in it when James Ray sang it back in 1962, and Harrison leaves one of the verses out. (The missing lines, in case you’re wondering, are “Everywhere I go, you know / Bad luck follows me / Every time I fall in love / I’m left in misery”). All this hopping around in time has broken something. History has changed. Second Chance returns to the air, but things have changed. Now, it’s called Boys Will Be Boys and is about the continuing exploits of Chazz, Eugene and The Booch — with no time traveling dead future-selves.
This is basically the weirdest damned thing I have ever heard of. It’s like if for the second season of The Incredible Hulk, they’d fired Lou Ferrigno and said, “Y’know what? Let’s just make it a drama about David Banner going back to work as a scientist and never mention the period of his life when he occasionally turned green.”
It didn’t save the show. Of course it didn’t. The problem with Second Chance wasn’t its outlandish premise. It was the fact that it wasn’t very good. Matthew Perry is basically just charisma and one-liners, the jokes are predictable and forced, and they decided to include a character called “The Booch”. And for some reason, half the cast have very forced-sounding Brooklyn accents. I can’t tell you with any certainty, because this week I am a time traveler and am dropping anachronism bombs everywhere, whether it was especially bad compared to other sitcoms of the time. It’s clearly trying too hard, but remember, one of the places we are today is 1987, and TV hasn’t adopted the pseudo-naturalistic frame it has in 2014: we expect our sitcoms to be broad caricatures, trading on one-liners and catchphrases: “Did I do that?”; “Of course not, Cousin, don’t be re-dick-a-loose”; “I HEAR you!”; “Don’t have a cow, man”; “Whatchu Talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”
What I can tell you is that over the past few years, I have gone back and re-watched big chunks of Benson, One Day at a Time, The Facts of Life, Punky Brewster, Out of this World, The Torkelsons, and a handful of other sitcoms. And they’re all still funny. The first three of those at least have some serious problems that are really grating today: Benson is clearly trading on the joke “He’s black, but he’s more competent than the white people!”; The Facts of Life is clearly trading on the joke, “They’re girls but they think they’re people!”; One Day at a Time keeps playing, “Their landlord is really REALLY rapey” for laughs. But they’re all still properly funny. Out of this World is a little bit harder to watch. Its humor is all one-liners and funny walks. It’s clever enough that it’s still enjoyable, though, and it doesn’t have the same kind of problematic concept at the core of its premise the way those (otherwise better) shows do; yes, it occasionally has elements of gender essentialism, and it’s got a whole tanker truck full of fat-shaming, but it’s much more “This is the way TV works in this imperfect world we live in” and not “The fundamental idea of our show is based around reinforcing an ugly stereotype.”
Second Chance is not as good Out of this World; the jokes aren’t as good, the characters aren’t as good, and like shows that are far its superior, it’s got a baked-in problematic premise: the implication that single mothers don’t cut it and a boy needs a Real True Father Figure, even if it’s his own temporally-displaced ghost-self (Act 2 is basically the characters shouting at the camera that Chazz has been driven to amorality specifically and entirely because his estranged father won’t pay child support). And this show isn’t good enough for me to forgive that. The Facts of Life is funny enough for me to bracket (not overlook) the gender essentialism; Second Chance is not.
They probably shouldn’t have played it for laughs. If you wanted to do a show about a guy sent back in time to put right what once went wrong, who is assisted in his journey by someone only he can see and hear, you probably want to make it a drama. And get Scott Bakula.
It is October 20, 2011. Adele, who had unseated Katy Perry back in May, has returned to the top Billboard position by unseating Maroon 5 with “Someone Like You”. The two have been duking it out since September. In Libya, Colonel Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi dies. Again. In Baltimore, a man who recently helped his friends win a trivia bowl gets the first season of Benson from Netflix. Huh. That’s funny. There’s a reference to Gaddafi. Weird how the more things change, the more they stay the same. I thought this was supposed to be the future. I want my hovercar.
Did I do it, Al? Is history back on the right track?
I think so, Sam. Ziggy’s saying that the Arab Spring happened the right way, and Miss America didn’t die in 2011. On the down-side, it looks like you set flying cars back about twenty years. And for some reason, an episode of Captain Power ended up in the wrong place on the DVD.
All that just by retooling a sitcom? How about Matt? Did his career ever recover?
He made out great. Ziggy says he goes on to star in one of the biggest sitcoms of the ’90s. Oh. That show kept the Nice Guy character archetype alive for another century. Can’t have it all I guess.
It is July 12, 2014. Iggy Azalea is on top of the charts with “Fancy”, a song I don’t like, but I can at least respect the craftsmanship. I’m about three quarters of the way through writing this article. I am almost certainly writing it months in advance since I know chronologically, it falls another four or five articles down and I’m not even finished with The Mirror in Darkness yet, but I wanted to get it written down before I forgot. I pull out my tablet and check NewsBlur. I’m following a handful of blogs that have, like my own Captain Power articles since the hiatus, adopted (ie. “stole”) some stylistic conventions from Philip Sandifer’s Tardis Eruditorium, a blog I no longer follow because something happened in my head and now I find its subject matter sends me into a recursive obsessive bad-head-place. A cat named Frezno has posted to The Nintendo Project Resumed (A successor to Sandifer’s now-defunct Nintendo Project) about Metroid. Crap. He’s doing the whole “Bouncing around to different time zones” thing, and he’s obviously beaten me to it. I’m going to have to write a whole extra paragraph at the end to acknowledge that so that no one thinks I’m ripping him off.