Brian: Charles in Charge (1984) – Ah, the 80s. Every year, I find myself in front of my class bemoaning the fact that I had to live my formative years during this horrendous decade. While there is a certain pride to making it out of the 80s alive, or at least with a relative sense of normalcy, there are just as many cringe-worthy memories for the survivors.
Fashion, music, politics and pop culture were all sort of forsaken during the decade, and television was no exception. Now, on the surface, I’m sure CBS thought it had a cutting edge idea for a sitcom in Charles in Charge. Take a Happy Days reject (Scott Baio) whose own spin-off of Happy Days, Joanie Loves Chachi, failed miserably, add a well-to-do New Jersey family with more kids (3) than they could possibly handle, pepper in a sexually frustrated best friend (Willie Ames), and top it off with a sneaky hot girlfriend (Jennifer Runyon) and what could go wrong?
The premise, flimsy as any in sitcom history (all due respect to Alf), involved 19 year old Charles (Baio) moving in to the Pembroke household to care for their three tweener children while he went to school at a fictional college. Before the days of Chris Hanson and Dateline: To Catch A Predator, no one would bat an eye at a hormonally driven teenager moving in to a house that featured two young, hot daughters desperately in need of guidance from a savvy, wise-beyond-his-years college kid. Jokes about Charles moving in on either of the two daughters, one of whom was played by later Baywatch starlet, Nicole Eggert, were old before they were new, so I refuse to allow such triteness to ruin the show for me.
Ultimately, Charles in Charge was a quasi-heartwarming sitcom that allowed its teen stars to do the heavy lifting as they navigated their way through adolescence. Moreover, the theme song was one of the best of the 80s, covered brilliantly by Ted’s barbershop quartet on Scrubs, and its absurd premise only harkens us back to a time when we were innocent enough to buy it at face value.
Dave: Cavemen (2007) – This was one I was trying to avoid to do, but as I mulled over all the possible options, I really had no choice. Never before had someone tried to spawn a TV show off of a humorous TV commercial – and for good reason. In the fall of 2007, ABC aired a show about cavemen that was based on the Geico Insurance commercials. The show was created by a guy named Joe Lawson (and I use the term ‘created’ loosely because all he did was “improve” an already established idea). He took these funny characters from a car commercial, and tried to give them their own lives. Now the commercials were funny because cavemen were shown and mocked for all of a minute and a half – end of story. There wasn’t really enough time to diagnose it, so you just laughed and moved on.
This show failed because it took all of that humor and just buried it. They gave these cavemen real lives, real jobs, and real problems and defeated the whole purpose of the commercials. They took these three misunderstood cavemen (Joel, Nick, and Andy who are portrayed in the commercials as being smarter than your average caveman) and made them everyday people who just happen to look like cavemen – and that’s just not as funny. No one wants to get to know the cavemen, see them deal with real life, conquer modern-day problems, develop relationships, and just plain out live life…all you just want to see is a new way that Geico can cleverly plug the insurance while essentially calling the cavemen morons. Geico tried to save the commercials by making a new one that poked fun at the idea of creating a show about them, but I think I speak for everyone when I say after that show was made, the commercials just weren’t the same.
Sieck: Webster (1983-89) – Ah yes, the family sitcom… it’s a time-honored TV tradition that has seemingly been around forever, and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. As trite and lame as this concept may now be, there was a time during the ‘80s when this type of programming was very difficult to get away from, and over the years I’m almost ashamed to admit I’ve enjoyed my fair share of such shows, including The Brady Bunch, The Cosby Show, and even Family Ties. However, even as a kid there were some indiscretions that I would NOT sit still for. Sure, on the surface Webster sounds like a semi-decent idea: A cute, diminutive African-American child is orphaned and taken in by successful whites, and their differences call for hilarity and life lessons to ensue. Sound familiar? Well yeah, that’s because the show is actually called Diff’rent Strokes, and was started in 1978 and was done much better on another network (NBC).
Even as an 8-year-old, I couldn’t believe ABC had the audacity to run Webster while its predecessor was still enjoying its tenure. Yes, I know, this wasn’t the first or last time that television networks had ripped each other off, but listen: The creation of a show that deals with interracial adoption is (was) a novel concept and the writers of Diff’rent Strokes are to be commended. However, when show-business scum basically steals an idea like this, I’m afraid that it gets into a weird area of playing into stereotypes, and actually doing more harm to race relations than good. ABC execs would probably say differently, but I would just call them a bunch of tools. Look, I could discuss this all day, but the fact remains that Webster is a classic case of producers not using their brains and just trying to “keep up” with customs. I could never forgive the show for this and would scoff whenever it would foist its hollow morals on me, remarking, “Arnold (Diff’rent Strokes’ Gary Coleman) would do it better.” Couple this with the fact that the boy who played Webster (Emmanuel Lewis) suffered from some strange malady that never allowed him to grow more than 4’ 3” tall as an adult, and it somehow makes all this nonsense even more exploitative. That Lewis went on to become basically a living doll for the late Michael Jackson to play with is even creepier. Additionally, let’s not forget that Webster’s laughs were few. I especially liked the episode where Web caught his adoptive parents in an intimate moment… (Elbow in the ribs). The program also blatantly (but under thin veils) ripped off Diff’rent Strokes storylines, like when Web witnessed his teacher making inappropriate advances towards a classmate. The show managed to run for six seasons and Lewis became a household name so I guess the production had its moments, but it really only served as my first lesson that the entertainment industry was full of whores and rats.