The Forsaken

The Forsaken: It’s Your Move

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As hard as it is to deny that cultural gatekeepers from Hollywood to Doubleday screw up and pass on or outright kill a good project, there are few gems in the cultural landfill. This is even true in the notoriously cutthroat world of network TV. For every Profit or Firefly or Korgoth of Barbaria, there’s at least three Heil Honey I’m Home!s. And if a show is acclaimed but wound up in the slaughterhouse before its second season, it usually ends up a cult classic with more acclaim than even shows that had much longer runs. For an obvious example, it’s a safe bet that people won’t stop hailing Firefly and whining about its treatment by the network until the Earth is consumed by the expanding, dying sun.

So it’s always a rare and wonderful hipster-y thing when you know of a show that’s genuinely very good, never met cult hit status, and yet had its life cut short by executive decree. My own cherished diamond in the rough is It’s Your Move, the entire first, last, and only season of which can be viewed (as of this writing) on YouTube thanks to the Internet’s tireless pop culture preservationists. The show was the second brainchild of producer duo Michael G. Moye and Ron Leavitt, conceived between The Jeffersons and Married…With Children (I bet you – yes, you – didn’t know that, did you? Now that episode of Married… where Peg and Marcy try to drag Al and Jefferson (get it?) to a Jeffersons nostalgia stage show makes more sense!).

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Oh, and the star of the show is a 15-year old Jason Bateman, of “Totally ducking the child star curse” fame.

But besides the element of hindsight what still makes this show stand out is its premise. Matthew Burton (Bateman) is a juvenile con-artist who sells term papers among other things, but covertly gives all the money he illicitly makes to his struggling single mother Eileen (Caren Kaye). Matthew hopes that his mother will marry Mort, a sleazy lumber magnate who will nonetheless keep his mother set for life, and has been driving away all of her less financially secure suitors. Unfortunately for Matthew, an unsuccessful writer named Norman Lamb (David Garrison, whom Leavitt and Moye would bring with them to Married… as Steve Rhodes) has just moved into their apartment building. What Norman lacks in published works he makes up for wits, and proves a match for Matthew’s schemes to drive him out of his mother’s life.

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In a medium and a genre mocked for reheating old premises ad nauseam, it’s a really clever concept for a show, albeit one that might have been hard to sustain for more than a few seasons. The jokes might not seem all that noteworthy today, but in a time oversaturated with family-friendly sitcoms they had that edge that would later carve out a special place for Married…With Children. You can see the resemblance in dialogue like this:

Eli (a friend of Matthew’s): Gee, I wish I had a sister to torture.
Matthew: Ah, use your imagination.  You got a grandmother!

Matthew: Hey, guys today wouldn’t know class if it came up and bit them.
Eileen: I’ve tried.
Matthew: Huh?
Eileen: Nothing.  Nothing.

Matthew: How about calling Mort?  You got his number?
Eileen: Oh yeah.  He makes it very easy. You just dial ZOOLIFE and there he is.

That’s right, two sex jokes in a conversation between a woman and her teenage son!

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Besides the fact that I do think the show is genuinely funny, if perhaps not as distinctive now as it was in 1984 and 1985, it’s really well acted with fleshed-out characters who manage to leave an impression even in the span of 24 minutes. David Garrison is admittedly more or less playing Steve Rhodes here, but his rivalry with Matthew clicks, even if by necessity it and his interest in Eileen are rushed a bit. Matthew himself is a strong center, who gives the show more of a heart than you might expect, more so than Married… anyway with the exception of a few episodes. He goes from conning people to gently urging his mother not to be down herself, showing compassion without losing his core as a genius grifter-in-training.

Speaking of which, it’s the relationship between Matthew and his mother that’s really the most interesting part of the show, at least in the pilot. Without getting too unnatural or precocious, the two have a relationship of familial equals that promised to be a core of the show. The exception is Julie, who is a bit too much the “bossy older sister” archetype, although she too gets a moment where she shows she genuinely sympathizes with Matthew’s motives, just not his methods.

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Fans of Married…With Children might catch glimpses of the show to come, aside from a proto-Steve Rhodes in the spotlight. Eileen’s life of financial and romantic desperation and even the clever Norman Lamb’s status as a failed writer-in-denial are all part of a “comedy of failures” that’s similar to the Bundys’ universe. Matthew and Julie’s interactions are Bud-and-Kelly-esque, but on a slightly more subtle level there’s the underlying idea of streetsmart teens heavily armed with a very adult cynicism.

So why didn’t It’s Your Move get a second season?  The Wikipedia oracle claims it was largely if not entirely because the show was put up against Dynasty. That may very well be, but I suspect its premise was too much to carry. Even the great sitcoms have premises you can spell out in a tiny blurb; not so much with It’s Your Move. It’s tempting to say that this show was before its time and might have thrived in our current “golden age” of television, but I can’t easily imagine it working as a sitcom on a network even today, unless it was put on as “prestige television” on HBO or Showtime, or got retooled as a comedrama.

But luckily, especially if you’re a Married…With Children or a Jason Bateman fan, you can and should dig out this gem for yourself.

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The Forsaken

The Forsaken: Life With Lucy

The first two Forsaken installments were about things I really like, so I think it’s past time that I focus on something that isn’t all that good, and arguably deserves to be known as truly Forsaken.  I’m talking about…

…the Lucille Ball sitcom you may not have heard of, Life with Lucy from 1986!

I Love Lucy is usually the go-to reference for anyone wanting to invoke television’s “golden age.” It’s also a testimony to the enduring power of Lucille Ball;  in ironic contrast to the retrograde gender politics of I Love Lucy and the very fact that the premise was centered around a woman who just can’t break into entertainment, Lucille Ball exercised a degree of clout in the industry that’s unimaginable for any woman even today.  And that influence came in no small part from Lucille’s own fantastic instincts for what audiences would like.  While today she is mostly known for  I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball’s production company Desilu also helped bring Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Andy Griffith Show to the small screen.  Besides her behind-the-scenes victories, Lucille also headed a couple of pretty successful sitcoms post-I Love Lucy:  The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy.  By any standard, she had a great run, but that perfect record was spoiled by her last project, Life with Lucy.  

Generic ’80s Sitcom Family Life with Lucy

Now you’re probably already comparing it with other projects made by celebrities at the end of their careers:  Bette Davis in Wicked Stepmother, Mae West in Sextette, and – hell, let’s not be sexist – Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.  Luckily for Lucille Ball, Life with Lucy is nowhere near the tragicomical catastrophe that Sextette was.  At least Lucille Ball didn’t have to be guided around the set by stage hands like the mostly blind Mae West.  But one can’t really get away with honestly describing Life with Lucy as a misunderstood triumph either…

Problem#1 is that the entire show is really not even a standard-issue Reagan era family sitcom with Lucille Ball injected into it;  it’s just Lucille Ball with a flimsy standard-issue Reagan era family sitcom built around her.  The entire premise is that Lucy has inherited co-ownership of a hardware store from her late husband.  Since her co-owner Curtis (played by Gale Gordon, who was Lucy’s co-star in her last two sitcoms) happens to also be the father of her daughter’s husband,  they all end up moving in together with their children and grandchildren.  Naturally, the uptight Curtis quickly gets frustrated with Lucy’s well-meaning but inept attempts to run the store.  So basically it is just like I Love Lucy, but with a hardware store instead of a band.  Intrigued?!

You can already hear the “harrumph harrumph.”

The characters – or maybe I should say “characters” – drag an already lackluster premise further down.  Granted I am talking mostly about the pilot, but you never get the sense that the family is anything more than set-pieces for Lucy and Gale Gordon to act around and occasionally react to.  The father’s entire personality is Constantly Mildly Befuddled and the mother’s characteristics are as much of a mystery as Atlantis with just about as much of a chance of being discovered.  Worst of all, the show gives us not one, but two obnoxious cute kids who apart from their genders are completely interchangeable.  Sure, we’re still not anywhere near toxic Full House levels, but it’s still a lot to cope with from a pre-Michelle Tanner sitcom.

Even the name of the actor playing the dad is generic!

Problem #2:  You know the “hip grandparent who’s more with what the kids are doing than the boring middle-aged parents” cliche?  Depending on your age, probably not, because The Simpsons mocked that trope so brutally with the mere presence of Abe Simpson that it collapsed into a quantum singularity and vanished from pop culture existence (well, more or less, maybe).   Well, it’s in full force here, culminating in Lucy, sporting jogging gear and a brick-sized mid-’80s headset, breaking out into a dance for no reason aside from a possible “mixing booze with pills” situation.

“I’m hauling ass to Lollapalooza!”

And that brings up to problem #3.   I said before Lucille Ball really isn’t as badly aged as Mae West in Sextette, and I meant that.  Plus  Betty White among others have, of course, shown once and for all that someone in their 80s can still hold up to the demands of being in a TV show’s regular cast, but the type of physical comedy that Lucy still obviously wants to make the centerpiece of this show…well, it’s not painful to watch her go through the motions by any stretch, but it doesn’t exactly come across as well-advised for Lucille Ball personally either.  Even then, that’s nothing compared to another issue coming out of Lucille Ball’s physical characteristics at the time this show was filmed.  See, a lifetime of smoking had made Lucille Ball’s voice sound like this…

On the show, one of Lucy’s characteristics is that she’s a health nut – between the jogging and the health drinks (which, of course, taste bad and is the set-up for something like five minutes of jokes) – and she strongly objects to other people smoking.  Now maybe it was deliberate, an attempt by the real-life Lucille Ball to atone for her lifestyle, which is possible considering that Lucille Ball was given massive creative control over this show, but even if it was it comes off as more than a tad disconcerting, hearing a woman with a voice so raspy it would take decades to perfect lecture her employer on the evils of smoking.

Admittedly, once we’re introduced to the set pieces and Lucy gets to show off a character trait here and there, the show does pick up a bit, but it does so by just giving us I Love Lucy:  Lucy Goes to a Hardware Store.  It doesn’t help that Lucy and Bob get into a lengthy exposition fest over a giant fire extinguisher…

If you were raised in a bio-dome you may not have seen this joke coming…

For all the poor writing and the rather desperate attempt to call down the spirit of I Love Lucy, Life with Lucy isn’t…terrible, mostly because even in less than optimal conditions first-rate talents like Lucille Ball and Gale Gordon can still shine through.  Still, in its own way it’s as tragic as other doomed comeback attempts by talents in the twilight of their careers.  After decades of starring in hits, this show proved to be Lucille’s only major flop, getting cancelled before the first season was even finished, which devastated her and depending on who you ask contributed to her death three years later.

It’s especially tragic because Lucille Ball may actually have had one more hit in her.  With the Reagan era family sitcom already slipping away into the cultural void and the way being paved for the late 80s/early 90s sitcom revolution, perhaps her fourth sitcom would have made more of an impression if it had a more daring – or even just a slightly more distinctive – premise.  After all, that very thing worked for Bea Arthur and Betty White just one year before with the Golden Girls.  As it turned out, however, even the all-mighty power of nostalgia couldn’t save Lucy and her legendary entertainment instincts from the slow death of a decrepit genre.

 

 

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