|The last time
there was a TV Guide
Ads retrospective, I scanned in an ad for a show called Free
Spirit. I didn't know what the show was or had even
heard of it. Yet everyone commenting remembered it except
me, and it wasn't an age problem -- I watched wacky ABC
sitcoms all the time growing up. I remembered them all.
Except for this one. Somehow, it was completely new to
I thought hard on where I would have been on Sunday nights at 8 in the fall of 1989, and I realized at that time in history I would have been with my dad, in my grandmother's tiny rest home apartment, watching Looney Tunes. Looney Tunes had an hour block back then where half of it was on Nickelodeon and the other half was on Nick at Nite; the Nick at Nite half would show the cartoons with the content they couldn't show 30 minutes earlier (like ancient Buddy cartoons about getting drunk). I saw One Froggy Evening for the first time there.
The interesting thing is that technically, the show that replaced Free Spirit in January of 1990 is still on -- America's Funniest Home Videos (maybe if they ever cancel AFV, they'll bring it back). And once that show started, we never missed ABC on Sunday nights; it was a new concept at the time and we couldn't get enough of those videos.
Flash forward to last January. Someone contacts my YouTube channel asking if she can trade DVD-Rs with me. Tape-trading is the best way to build a stockpile of material to write about, so I'd done it before and I said yes. One of the first things I noticed? On her list was, somehow, every episode of Free Spirit. With ads.
I told her to send them over. She did. Now I suddenly had a brand-new 80's show to watch -- I hadn't felt like this since I discovered Labyrinth existed in 2002. I didn't have high expectations, though, given what I remembered about everything else ABC was running (The Wonder Years, Doogie Howser and Life Goes On being rare single-camera exceptions). I put in the first episode anyway, and I discovered.....yeah, it's pretty typical of what was on at the time. The characters were flat and undeveloped, the events took place in the entirety of two rooms, everyone was full of spontaneous corny one-liners....well, it'd make good site material at least.
But then something happened that made me like it. Like, really REALLY like it. When the episode ended I thought to myself "Okay, I gotta see the rest of these."
I didn't touch anything else the YouTuber had sent me until I had watched every single available minute of Free Spirit. And this was why: there's an exception to all the tropes I mentioned above. There is a character on this show who now happens to be one of the most entertaining characters I've ever seen. I mean, you have no idea.
The show's central focus and gimmick revolves around Winnie Goodwin, a witch who falls down from some ethereal world into the house of the three Harper children, whom she immediately develops a loving bond with. She becomes employed as their housekeeper by their father, who does not know the truth about Winnie (despite being given about twenty obvious hints per week). I knew that much already, but I figured Winnie would be some weak Mary Poppins ripoff. Guess what, she's not. She's awesome.
HOLY FREAKING WHIPPED CREAM DOUBLE CHUNKY SUPER-DUPER BAT OUT OF HELL, WINNIE IS AWESOME.
I've pointed out in the past that truly interesting characters never seem to be the focus point of TV shows. I always wind up attached to people who get four or five minutes of screentime per episode, while Stock Male and Stock Female walk around in suits solving mysteries while pretending to not love each other. Winnie is one of those characters that would get neglected normally -- she's like an Abby, or a Parker, or a Toph, only this time? She gets the whole show. She's the first person listed in the main title and there are very few scenes overall that she doesn't appear in.
She's hip, she's
intelligent, she's hilarious, she's sooooo likeable it
hurts. Plus, she's a magical character who -- whoda thunk
-- actually makes stuff happen! Frequently! And it's not
generic crap like fireballs or electricity (that makes
you a bender, not a magician) -- it's geniunely
unpredictable phemonena. Winnie needs some eggs, so she
opens the cupboard and there are suddenly rows of
chickens in there. That's called using your imagination;
why can't more writers DO THAT? Whenever I watch a show
with a supernatural bent, a character like Winnie is what
I'm most hoping for, and the kind I never get. There is
always some established disclaimer with magic that prevents anyone from having
fun. Harry Potter and friends weren't allowed
to do anything like what Winnie does every minute, or
some all-watching authority would punish them. I WASTED
MY TIME THROUGH EIGHT SEASONS OF "CHARMED"
WAITING FOR SOMEONE LIKE WINNIE. I don't get it. If
you're going to establish a force that can do anything,
then WHY DON'T YOU DO ANYTHING? Why handicap yourself?
Why does this forgotten show get it right and nobody else
Eventually I'd seen all the Free Spirits there were and I found myself in the position a lot of people do when they become a fan of a property of which not much material exists, and they're overcome with the irresistible urge to take matters into their own hands. The newfound uncontrollable illness I was now consumed with resulted in this thing being created, which I fear was plopped on the Electric Wonderland audience without much warning or explanation. There's no doubt in my mind a bunch of sloppily-drawn Winnie comics would have happened in an alternate childhood, because I feel like I have to make them NOW.
Oh yeah, I guess Free Spirit has other characters too. Might as well get them out of the way.
THOMAS HARPER If Dr. Frankenstein cut up the three Full House dads and pasted them together into one body, it would look exactly like this actor. It's Bob Saget's face with John Stamos's hair on Dave Coulier's body. And given the time period, I'm sure this casting was intentional, but it's nightmare fuel now.
Where Winnie is carefree and fun-loving, Thomas is rigid and dull. The intended idea that he's supposed to be the opposite of Winnie, but intentionally making a character bland was not an idea that worked very well. Several times throughout the existing episodes they hint that a romantic subplot is going to occur between Thomas and Winnie, and...I just can't support it. Sticking the best character in the series and the worst character in the series together is a terrible idea.
As for the mother in this family, the circumstances of her disappearance were vague in the pilot, but later on confirmed as via divorce. It's an easy bet she would have returned in a future season to complicate Thomas and Winnie's "relationship," as forced as it would've been.
ROBB HARPER The eldest Harper kid is an egotistical skirt-chaser, but he can't catch a skirt to save his life. He remains oblivious to his shortcomings, though, and no calamity can shake him out of the belief the world revolves around him. Robb doesn't get much respect from anyone, not even from his own family -- his siblings constantly make snide remarks about him, and even Thomas and Winnie join in on occasion. One episode even opens with Gene and Jessie going through their photo album and removing every instance of Robb's face with scizzors while grinning evilly. Dude!
GENE HARPER Gene is one of those helium-voiced little kids that constantly say things twenty years too witty for their assumed knowledge level. This kind of character is groan-worthy now, but was all the rage in 1990. He could have been worse, though. Remember that the other popular alternative was to find some trollish-looking twins and make them say and do "adorable" things in every scene while the audience droned "AAAAWWWWW." We're spared that kind of thing here. Also, yeah -- every male character has a mullet.
JESSIE HARPER Jessie is played by a 13-year-old Alyson Hannigan, and.....did I mention she was played by Hannigan? That's all that's really noteworthy about her. Since she only got one episode as a focus character, she wasn't very fleshed out beyond being "the girl." Anyway, she's there. Let's get back to Winnie.
Free Spirit was produced on a cheap-as-dirt budget and scenes rarely took place anywhere outside the Harper stage set. As for the necessary special effects, TV was on the cusp of the computer revolution and this show contains the painful first steps. The pilot was done using the traditional jump-cut-to-make-stuff-appear trick from the vintage sixties, but for every episode afterward post-production gained the ability to add dissolve editing and pasted-on sparkles, as well as some double-image cropping to keep the actors from visibly changing position when an object was removed. The effects look embarrassing now, but in the eighties this stuff was new wave.
The Free Spirit pilot serves its purpose in establishing the status quo, but the emotional arc necessary to do this was very compressed. Winnie appears, resents the Harpers, grows to like them, is nearly fired, then is un-fired and decides to stay in 22 minutes. You feel like you're missing a few scenes in between, and you probably are.
As the series opens, Gene has a kids' bowling tournament coming up, but he's not that great at bowling and he's up against the toughest bowler in his neighborhood. Don't ask me why he entered in the first place; the show isn't clear about such questions. He thought his dad would teach him, but Thomas is too busy with his lawyer job. Neither of his siblings want to help him either. "I just WISH there was SOMEONE in this house who had time!" Gene frets out loud. This, of all things, summons Winnie Goodwin.
If you don't see a video, click here to force it.
Winnie explains begrudgingly that every 100 years, a witch has to visit the mortal world and do a deed for somebody. It's like jury duty; no one wants to do it but few can get out of it. Since Gene wished for help the precise moment Winnie's number came up, she appeared in his room. During her stay she's only allowed to share her secret with the children -- Thomas can never know. Good thing too; the show wouldn't work if that square buzzkill was in on anything Winnie was doing.
When Thomas enters Gene's room to check on the weird noises he's been hearing, there's some strange woman in there. "This is.....um, her," Gene explains.
As implausible luck would have it, there's an available housekeeper position and Thomas believes Winnie came to fill it. Winnie quickly conjures a resume (literally) and is granted free room and board. The next morning the rest of the family meets Winnie at the breakfast table, but neither Jessie nor Robb are believing the tales Gene is telling them about her.
After Winnie performs the previously mentioned chicken cupboard trick, Jessie becomes a believer, but Robb takes a little more convincing. With the limited prop budget Winnie can only do this with objects available in the room, so she mystically cements the chair to Robb's bottom until he gives.
"All right, let's
say you are a witch. Then if you are, why don't you magic
Dad into letting us go to the concert tonight?" says
This is one reason why she's one of the coolest characters ever. When you approach Winnie and make a request like "I want to go to the moon," she doesn't say "no, it's a school night." She doesn't say something about personal gain or pull out Da Rules and explain why you can't go to the moon. She doesn't even hesistate, she SENDS YOU TO THE FREAKIN' MOON. Of course, there are consequences, but it's more entertaining for the people onscreen to suffer them. In this case, Winnie doesn't realize that when two tickets appear for the same seat, it has to be assumed that one of them must be counterfeit. Robb and Jessie are sent home in a police car. (Off-camera, because the show can't afford a police car.)
Meanwhile, Winnie is teaching Gene how to bowl. Her bowling shirt has a different name on it -- something like "Liz" or "Lucy," but it's never close enough to be clear. A beta name for Winnie? When the show comes back from break the nametag is covered up with her hair, so that's when they apparently caught it.
It isn't that complicated a task, and soon enough Gene is knocking down all ten action figures with one throw. But then the ball keeps rolling, breaks the leg of the hutch at the end of the living room, and sends the whole thing crashing down. An easy cleanup for Winnie, but just as she's starting to wave her hands, an already-angry Thomas comes through the front door dragging along the embarrassed Robb and Jessie. The sight of the state of his house sends him into a rage. Then Gene tells him they were bowling in the living room, which doesn't help Winnie's case at all.
Thomas pulls Winnie into a private room and tells her it's not working out. Winnie spins it back around and points out if Thomas paid any attention to his own children, she wouldn't have needed to show up. She's right, of course, Thomas sucks -- but he'll never figure that out. "I already have three children, I don't need a fourth," he retorts.
Gene's bowling tournament scene is around 30 seconds long, just enough time to check off the cliches....Gene doesn't think he can do it because Winnie's not there, and he doesn't think she's coming, but despite Thomas's demands she shows up anyway and he wins the trophy in the end. "You can do it, it's as easy as knocking over a hutch!" she said as encouragement, followed by Thomas giving her the dirtiest glare. Heh.
Winnie has now
completed her assignment and is due back to wherever she
came. Now, of course, she doesn't want to leave, and the
Harper children don't want her to either. Gene pleads,
"Can't you do something with your magic to fix
By the way, for those who weren't there, emotional depth for 1980's sitcom characters was normally handled methodically. The promotion department often highlighted these episodes as "very special episodes." What the "very special" system meant was that nobody was allowed to show any depth or emotion unless a specific episode was designated for them to do so. It was either entirely jokes or entirely drama, no in-between. Between that, the laugh track, and the inability to see the other side of every room, the television machine seemed especially cold in these days. YOU WILL LAUGH WHEN WE TELL YOU TO LAUGH. YOU WILL CRY WHEN WE TELL YOU TO CRY. YOU WILL RESPOND TO OUR STIMULI IN THE DESIGNATED ZONES, FOOLISH MEAT PUPPET.
Winnie rushes to the guest room and hurriedly packs her bags, but this time, it's Thomas who doesn't want her to leave. "You're right," he confesses, "I'm not that good a parent...you seem to have a connection with the kids that I don't; I think you should keep the job." Quite the 180; we just saw him saying the opposite two minutes ago. There's hardly been enough time for a guy like him to change his mind, but like I said, this story's compressed.
The show appears to "end" after that with no resolution, but it comes back with a short segment before the credits, as was standard for sitcoms at the time. It's the following morning and the kids are sitting around depressed. Winnie walks in behind them and announces to Robb, "You're in my seat." Happy hugs all around, laughter.....what, no thirty-second PSA afterward? Knowing is half the battle.
A much better button for the episode happens a few moments later when Thomas wanders in wearing stupid bedroom attire. They stop laughing, take a glance at him, and then the whole gang of four explodes into head-bobbing, table-slapping hysterics while Thomas stands around peeved. This little moment, more than any canned literary device they tried, was most successful at illustrating the bond that Winnie and the Harper kids had formed.
The repercussions from the first episode had to be dealt with in the second episode. ABC aired the pilot on a Friday evening as part of a "sneak preview" for their fall season and counted this one, the first in its regular timeslot, as "the premiere." Not the brightest of ideas, as it just dropped you into the middle of things.
Thomas is entertaining a client of his who's seeking property rights to create a strip mall for yuppies; he's built a scale model complete with little figurines of "Jason and Jennifer." Thomas's office is actually behind a partition in the living room, to save the expense of another set. It's common now with modern technology to see people work from home, but it's harder to believe this would work in 1989. Meanwhile in the kitchen, Winnie is distraught because she knows her supervisor will come after her now that she didn't return home the previous night. This supervisor is named "Bill." I would have chosen something like "Zortra" or "Xandros the Magnificent," but no.....it's a "Bill."
* And....I'm gonna have to explain for the younger readers what a yuppie is, aren't I? The word "yuppie" is derived from the acronym YUP, for Young Urban Professional. It meant someone in their twenties who was incredibly successful in business on a level normally seen by someone who had climbed the ladder for a long time. The media commonly stereotyped them as shallow and materialistic (see Family Ties for what a yuppie was perceived to be like). In other words, the job market for young Americans in the 80's was obscenely healthy, AND THEY WERE COMPLAINING ABOUT THAT.
Winnie tells Jessie that Bill is a shapeshifter and could show up at any time, in any form. "He could be a bird, or a frog, or a beetle..."
Winnie re-enters the dining room to find that Bill is indeed there, and he's taken the form of.....the guy Thomas was entertaining. Turns out the producers wanted to save a few bucks by having one actor play two roles. It's not that confusing, as the actor is able to interpret both characters differently enough. And no, it's not the same man, there are just two identical people now in the same house, but Bill is careful not to let them run into each other. On second thought maybe it is that confusing...oh well.
Bill scolds Winnie, saying that if you hang around humans too long, you develop human emotions. "Compassion, sympathy, ((brrrrr)) love!" Winnie doesn't care and plants herself on the sofa, arms folded, refusing to leave her new friends. But Bill is willing to make a bet: if Winnie can go one week without using her magic for anything, he'll leave for good. Otherwise, she has to go with him. Winnie thinks it's an easy bet and makes the deal.
Of course, just because she can't do anything doesn't mean he can't, and soon he's taunting her constantly by making her housekeeper chores as hard as possible. Winnie's determined not to let it bother her that much, but then a problem arises that involves a loved one: Gene has been waiting all week for his coach to let him on the baseball team. It turns out he hasn't heard anything because STUPID THOMAS didn't even turn in the poor kid's permission slip. Winnie finds it in Thomas's pants while ironing. "Potential love interest," ladies and gentlemen.
Winnie goes to the school directly and pleads with the coach, but if he never got the slip, there's nothing he can do. Staring at Gene still waiting by the phone in anticipation, and faced with no other options, she takes a deep breath and poofs the slip away to the coach's desk. Gene is pretty excited when he finally gets the call, but Winnie swallows hard when she realizes she's about to let him down a lot worse.
Winnie slowly plods
into the living room, where Bill is waiting with her
Maybe Winnie can really screw up and get herself fired, so the blow won't be quite as painful. She marches into Thomas's office, where he and the Client Who's Not Bill are talking, and starts noisily vacuuming. Then she takes the attachment hose and ruins the mall model, vacuuming up the Jason and Jennifer figures as a capper. Client is incensed and storms away. "What? It's my job! Unless you don't want it to be my job in which case I would understand completely and not even ask for severance pay," says Winnie without a pause of breath.
Strangely, for the first time ever, Thomas is slow to anger and isn't an unbearable jerk. "Why? Don't you like it here?"
Winnie drops the act and breaks down crying. Bill enters the room, this time pretending to be Mr. Client. "I've never felt so insulted as I was by this woman, and I demand she be let go! You've got to choose between your crummy housemaid, or my deep pockets!"
Without hesitation, Thomas walks to the other side of the room and stands beside Winnie. "Then you can take your business elsewhere." He's known her for, like, a day. The devotion shown here feels more illogical than it does touching. Yet somehow, this even moves Bill, who's now remained among humans long enough to become emotional. He can't take any more of this sap and leaves immediately.
The real reason I typed up a synopsis for this episode was to get to this moment: Winnie looks at Thomas with tears welling in her eyes and whimpers the single best line in the series:
"I'm sorry I sucked up your yuppies."
Like most proper shows with a cast of characters, some episodes involve everybody while others focus on individuals. Sometimes the show tries to focus on Thomas, and I have to laugh when it's pretending it's not a children's program. There's nothing really wrong with that anyway. Winnie is centuries old, but in terms of development by human standards, she's in her early twenties -- in looks and in attitude. Not only does she understand the Harper children in a way most grown-ups fail to, she often has the same wants and desires. Gene put it this way: "She's like a grown-up AND a kid. Like Pee Wee Herman, only better, because we can have her all week long!" Winnie is the adult you once wished all adults were like, but you never got to meet. Add to this the fact that she can do ANYTHING, and you have a tantalizing recipe for some Goonies-esque adventures.
This is the element I feel wasn't fully exploited, and I also feel is a big key to the concept's potential. I really want to mine that potential. I WANT TO GO TO THERE. I hate that I can't recommend Free Spirit to anybody else because most people would just see a dumb sitcom, and "you wouldn't enjoy it on as many levels as I do, GUH-HAY-VEN!"
Winnie's too good to let rot for eternity in an obscure show like this. You know, there's a recent trend of cancelled shows being resurrected as comic books, and more appear every month. They're making Saved By The Bell and Punky Brewster comics now, and if we've gotten to the point where they're making new seasons of things no one asked for, why not reintroduce Free Spirit? In fact, why don't I do that? Why don't I make........**SLAP** See, there I go again.
In the eighth episode, there is a bizarre 3-minute sequence where Winnie falls asleep and dreams her life is a 1950's sitcom. The jokes in the sequence are about how kitschy those old programs were, but considering THIS kind of show is considered kitschy NOW, it feels very Inception-y.
Also, in episode eight, we find out for her services Winnie is paid approximately $17.33. A week. This amounts to a living wage of $901.16 a year. Winnie is naive enough to not question it, and powerful enough for it not to matter, but the scene is played straight as if Thomas isn't being awful and someone could actually live off of that much. Huh?
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Winnie is so powerful that she can get that line past the censors on a family sitcom in 1989.
As for where Winnie came from, there's not that much information out there. If she had a life in her homeworld, she doesn't seem to miss it any. The only hints we get are in the final produced episode where Winnie reveals she owns a snowglobe with a model of her childhood home inside it. It's also a good bug squisher (gotta love Winnie). There's a flashback sequence that takes place outside of this house, but it isn't made clear if said house is in her realm or on Earth. I hope it wasn't in her realm because the ramshackle structure is rather unimpressive for a family of magicians.
A far bigger question -- and one I wish the show had delved into more than it did -- is do the children really love Winnie, or do they love what she can give them? They're getting an awful lot of things for free, and at several points it seems like Winnie is just being taken advantage of. "Love That Winnie" explored this question a little bit, but as of the end of Season One, the only Harper who's openly admitted to platonic affection for Winnie The Person is Robb, of all people.
There's no ending to Free Spirit. It is 13 stories about a witch living with a family, no conclusion, no cliffhanger. It just stops. They switched its timeslot to 8:30 for the final episode, and that wound up forcing it to run against the debut episode of the regular Simpsons series, "Bart the Genius." No hope from there. It's a travesty we were robbed of all the following:
* The clip show where Winnie is "put on trial" by a supernatural court that replays all her past shortcomings, but they let her go when they're so moved by clips of her hugging people
* The two-part vacation episode where they go to Disneyland, and the whole thing is one big commercial for Disneyland with a few very light plot elements to tie together the gratuitous shots of the most popular rides
* The inevitable episode where Winnie time-travels and winds up in 17th century Salem, Massachusetts
* The episode guest-starring Boys II Men
* The Free Spirit / thirtysomething crossover
* The really weak final season after Winnie and Thomas have gotten married, Alyson Hannigan has left the series, and an annoying little child has been adopted
But that's not quite all! In the following week's TV Guide, there exists a description for an unaired fourteenth episode!
Did it ever really exist? Is it sitting in a film can somewhere? Did we really need THREE Robb episodes while poor Jessie only got one? No one really knows.