Wednesday, September 17, 2014

LIVE-ACTION TV REVIEW: Weird Science (1994-98)

From my heart and from my hand,
Why won't people understand
My intentions?

We talked about the Napoleon Dynamite cartoon and the missteps that led to the cancellation button: hit the airwaves too late and tended to ignore stuff while being a continuation.

On the flipside, we have Weird Science: another movie-to-TV adaptation.

This 1985 John Hughes comedy was about high school nerds Gary Wallace and Wyatt Donnelly (Anthony Michael Hall and Ian Mitchell-Smith, respectively), who -- inspired by Universal's Frankenstein movies -- create a woman using a computer and whack-off magazines. The end result, the cyber-genie Lisa (Kelly LeBrock), tries to save the two from being easily-intimidated social outcasts through a mixture of reality-warping magic and a wild house party of her own design. In the end, Gary and Wyatt land their own girlfriends and Lisa, succeeding in improving her creators' lives, goes off to become a gym coach.

There was also had a Popular played by a young Robert Downey, Jr., who didn't amount to much after this movie. I mean, sure he went on to play some obscure superhero a few times, but I don't think anyone saw those movies! =/

There would be no way a movie like that could be continued through a sequel or TV series... yet it got a small-screen treatment in the following decade.

Keep in mind that there was an eight-year gap between Napoleon Dynamite the movie and Napoleon Dynamite the cartoon. The movie-to-TV transition for Weird Science lasted one extra. Irrelevance did in the aforementioned cartoon... and the gap was bigger here.

Yet, a way was found. Rather than being a continuation of the movie, the show would be a reboot. Same characters, different continuity.

Speaking of the characters, let me introduce our core players:

The first of our nerdy duo is Gary, played by John Mallory Asher. His hairstyle is based on that of Dr. Pretorius from Bride of Frankenstein, the movie that inspired the creation of Lisa.

Why am I bringing this up? It's funny because Pretorius was supposedly gay (at least as far as 1935 would allow)... but of the two, Gary is the one most obsessed with landing babes! Wyatt may have been after girls every now-and-then, but most plots about landing a girlfriend put Gary in the role of the wannabe ladies' man.

...speaking of Wyatt, he's played by Michael Manasseri and originally based cosmetically on Colin Clive as Frankenstein before getting a perm in Season Two. He's a lot more grounded in reality than Gary, but noticeably more timid. This is partially due to the fact that his parents are only occasionally home and his heinous brother's always on his case.

This is Wyatt's aforementioned heinous brother, Chett (Lee Tergesen). He's this beefy and somewhat simple-minded ex-Marine who's moved back in with his parents and little brother. Rather than go out and look for a job, he spends his days terrorizing Wyatt and Gary. He also has his moments of cowardice as well.

His archenemy: the boys' principal, Mr. Scampi (or as Chett calls him "Assistant Principal Scampi"... despite Scampi's promotion after he left high school).

His bullying often results in him becoming a karma magnet during the first four seasons, mostly due to the collateral effects of Lisa's magic.Toward the end of Season Four, his memory had been erased by Lisa so many times that he became immune to it; because of this, he got a bigger role in the final season.

Chett was originally played by frequent James Cameron collaborator Bill Paxton in the movie. Paxton's Chett was a lot more intense... but Tergesen's is so much more fun to watch!

Finally, we have Lisa (Vanessa Angel). Like in the movie, she was created by the duo to be the perfect woman... but came with reality-altering powers that make the plots possible. 

She may be a natural at magic (she IS a genie, after all), but on the occasions where she's separated from her powers and has to live like a normal human, she's a fish out of water.

Stretching out the plot of the movie to fit (presumably) one season with loads of filler would be a kiss of death, but no perfectly good plots were wasted here! The first season might have been hit-and-miss at times, but writing really began to pick up in the second and knock it out of the park in the third and fourth; season five was unable to match it... though it DID have Bruce Campbell as a guest star once!

It wasn't always perfect, some of the production values could only go but so far (you only briefly see "Human Teen Nerd Lisa" and "Rule 63 Gary and Wyatt" in their respective episodes) and the special effects can come off as a little dated. But for the time, it was pretty good.

One thing that this show did excellently (above all else) was steering clear of "They Wasted A Perfectly Good Plot". Lisa, being magical, sets all the unusual events of the show in motion:

Chett landing a date with a major babe (a feat that Lisa secretly had a hand in)? Uh oh! She's really an ugly alien!
Wyatt and Gary interacting with ghosts at school? All because Wyatt wanted to say goodbye to his dead hamster.
There was even an episode where Lisa takes the two to meet Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster!

You know something, to heck with this!

Just giving a few statements about some random episodes isn't doing this show's writing justice! I'm going to give you something with more meat to it. Here are my TOP SEVEN EPISODES OF WEIRD SCIENCE

Airball Kings

After Wyatt and Gary are pushed around by a bunch of jocks, they get the idea to try out for the school basketball team (though it's entirely Gary's idea). Lisa pulls some strings and gets them on the team... by brainwashing the coach into thinking they're the best players he's ever seen! The thing is, they have zero aptitude when it comes to basketball. Things get really sour when the coach makes Gary the backbone of the whole team ("Give it to Gary! Give the ball to Gary!"), a decision that costs them a game. While everyone else demands that Gary steps down, the coach threatens to quit if the boy resigns.

Will Farber High forfeit its chance at the championship because of Lisa's reality-warping?
Or will that same magic plus a SEGA Game Gear provide the solution to the problem?


Costumer designer: Vanilla Ice.

Gary, after witnessing a classmate play a guitar, wants to become a rocker... but he and Wyatt turn out to be complete garbage in that regard. Through Lisa's magic, they find their musical style and the trio becomes a super rock group overnight: Megahurtz! Unfortunately, they turn out to be a one-hit wonder and subsequent songs are just rehashes of their single hit. While Lisa and Wyatt accept that they've become faded stars, Gary refuses to quit.

Can Gary salvage his career?
Will people only remember him as "that hemorrhoid guy"?
No spoilers here.

Sci-Fi Zoned

I've said that "friends no more" plots have been done a million times... but here, they try to put a twist on the whole thing.

With Wyatt and Gary's friendship on the rocks, Lisa attempts to salvage it by sending the boys into the very show that made them friends in the first place: The Twilight Zone The Sci-Fi Zone. Lisa figures that if they can survive an episode, they'll patch things up. Talking candy bars, giant doll houses, evil dolls -- can the duo survive without being reduced to skeletons through sheer paranoia? Watch and see!

Also, Lee Tergesen channeling Rod Sterling sells the whole thing! 

Hot Wheels

Wyatt talks to his father about letting him get his own car (because, as Gary puts it "no wheels, no squeals"). Mr. Donnelly agrees, but his son gets saddled with a 1971 Ford Pinto!

Lisa, acknowledging what a travesty the car is, replaces it with a souped up little number of her own creation called Nadine. It soon turns out the car is sentient and gradually lulls Wyatt into fawning over her. Gary confronts Wyatt about his behavior after finding him writing a love letter to the vehicle... but the power of Nadine makes Gary (and later Chett) obsess over her once he gets behind the wheel. This leads to the two boys quarreling over who gets to be the car's true boyfriend.

What is the key to a resolution? I won't tell!

Gary Wallace: Boy Reporter

Gary and Wyatt become part of the school newspaper staff. Gary wants to impress his editor (who is in a singled-minded quest to find out why the fish sticks in the cafeteria contain no fish), but needs an edge. Enter Lisa with a magic pen that makes whatever Gary writes happen, from UFO sightings to two-headed Scotsmen. All the while, Wyatt shows off his inability to take pictures. Will he ever pull it off? Will the riddle of the ersatz fish sticks be answered? Will Gary kiss his editor? Will said editor appear in any future episodes (hint: negative continuity)?

Not sold? How about this: Chett the Yeti!

Bikini Camp Slasher

Gary and Wyatt get sucked into a slasher movie and have to avoid a psychopath called Mittface. Fortunately for the duo, Gary is a walking encyclopedia of horror cliches.

That's one thing I love about this episode: the spoof of all the horror tropes.

Women wearing high-heels that always break.
Recycled sets.
An unkillable villain.
Stripping in front of a window attracting said unkillable villain.
Weapons in improbable places.
They even crank the dial up to twelve and bring in one-dimensional, bikini-clad bimbos (who can't keep track of who's who) and a bunch of jocks with unhealthy levels of testosterone... and they all like to do stuff that can get idiots killed in these types of movies.

Keep in mind: this aired before Scream.

While the boys have a fun romp with Mittface, Chett tries to pass himself off to his date as a high-ranking officer and not an unemployed slug leeching off his parents.

Wyatt has the male lead in the school play, but Jessica (his female co-star) isn't thrilled about acting alongside him, despite their chemistry. Lisa successfully attempts to make Jessica act like her character offstage, but winds up turning a bunch of dressmaker's dummies into singing pirates that run amuck at school (thanks to a distraction from Gary)! They take Scampi as prisoner -- his impromptu song about wishing that his mother could save him spared the principle from being skewered -- and make Chett their new captain after he KO's the old one. Eventually, the pirates escape from Farber High and rampage through town.

The solution to this chaos comes in the form of... well, I won't say. But keep in mind that these dudes love music, regardless of how arcane.

This was the first episode I ever watched. If there's any one episode that's almost guaranteed to seal the deal on watching this show, this is it. It's got a good number of out-of-left-field moments. How can you not laugh at a villain song about attacking a petting zoo and Pirate!Chett blasts out "Perhaps I'll get a pony ride!" at the end?


I just can't stress it enough: if you get a chance, watch this show. You can easily Hulu most of it here. That's pretty much all I have to say.

It's a gem that's worth your time.

But on the other end of the scale, come back next time when a friend of mine will join me in taking a look at how many corners you can cut in the making of a cartoon.

I'm DLAbaoaqu. Full-on!

Weird Science (1985) is owned by Universal Pictures.
Weird Science (TV) is owned by the USA Network.