Yes, I'm really going to do it: I'm going to base my next cartoon series on a forgotten cheesy sitcom that only ran for a few weeks 25 years ago. I'm sorry, but it just makes perfect sense.
I explained here how I wound up with all 13 episodes of Free Spirit, about a witch named Winnie and three siblings who keep her secret. Though it wasn't executed well in 1989, the show's premise and characters captivated me, especially Winnie, and refused to leave my mind. I tried to explain to my brain that I felt alienated enough already and couldn't afford any more obsessions that made me look weirder....but in the end, the pull was too great. Winnie is too good a character to allow such obscurity to befall her. I even loved her character design, which is an odd thing to say about a real person -- but I'm referring to her bird's nest of a hairstyle, which is your only visual clue that something is off about her, but not enough to raise suspicion. And the thing is......given eighties fashion, I'm not sure if that was intentional or not. Winnie really picked the right era to hide on Earth in.
So I gave in. "Fine, me....if you want a Free Spirit webcomic so badly, then let's do this." And as I've started developing adventures and stories over the last few months, I now know why my creative center was demanding this one so much. The concept has grown beyond anything I expected and the new ideas I keep coming up with are constantly surprising me. Let me tell you....I'm having fun. I mean a LOT of fun. If you decide to follow the series when it starts appearing, you should be in for some times. Hopefully, when you see what's been going on in my head, you'll understand.
What it eventually means is that, the deeper I get into developing my own version, the weirder this old show is going to look to me.
I'm not basing that off any public statement of hers. I'm just sure she'd sue me into the ground -- or worse -- if I ever let clips like the following get out:
"Winnie! This is GREAT!" You have to wonder at several points what kind of medication fog she was under.
There are actually two bootlegs of "Hallowinnie" floating around, one of which is attached to a recording of the Real Ghostbusters Halloween Special, which this episode preceded. The two tapings are mostly the same, except the Ghostbusters variant is in slightly worse quality and, for some reason, has a different detergent ad. This was the first Free Spirit I saw, and though it didn't immediately convince me to base an ongoing webcomic around it, it whetted my appetite enough to seek out the rest of them.
This is the only episode of Free Spirit to
have "We'll be right back" bumpers around every
commercial break. It's unusual for a sitcom to do this. Did the
episode run short? Did an advertiser back out at the last minute?
Maybe it was done to fit the show into the earlier, temporary
timeslot it was in to make room for The Real Ghostbusters.
I do know that Life Goes On, which normally took this
slot, had bumpers in every episode.
Jessie and a friend we'll never see again are waiting for an important phone call. They're both hoping a social clique that comically calls themselves "The Debs" (though it wasn't intended as a joke) will invite them into their circle. "Once we have Deb jackets, our social lives will be triple wicked!" Hannigan declares.
Every family sitcom in the 1980's with a teenage daughter had an episode like this, and the process depicted here still baffles me, because I have no idea where it came from. Cliques happen in high school, but never to the extent I saw on TV. It wasn't enough on TV to just meet with your friends, oh no. You had to form a "gang," give it an official name, a secret handshake, and an initiation process for newcomers. You had to meet in a ramshackle "clubhouse" made of discarded wood, read the minutes, vote on initatives while observing Robert's Rules of Order....was this ever how social life worked for children at any point in history?
Maybe things were that weird in the 1950's, because the writer of this episode makes it a point that he's from that generation. But we'll get to that material later.
In walks Winnie! The first words out of her mouth? "I hate Halloween" repeated five times. Why does she hate it? The reasons change in every scene. She says she hates the "costumes, pranks and candy," but only one of those things makes sense; Winnie should love candy. When Robb spooks her out with a mask and a jump scare, she says that kind of thing is the reason she hates it. When Thomas tells her to get "one of those ugly witch heads with the warts and the crooked noses," she doesn't take kindly to that. "That's an unfair stereotype!" she protests, but of course Thomas has no idea what she's talking about.
I haven't decided yet what my version of Winnie would make of Halloween. Having her hate it for the reasons mentioned in this show feels too easy.
Finally, the phone rings and Jessie blasts over to pick it up before the first ring is finished. She greets the caller enthusiasically, but her expression slowly changes. ".....No. ......It's okay, I understand. .......These things happen." With that she hangs up.
"It was your girlfriend, Robb, she just broke up with you," Jessie announces. Was that cold or what? I wasn't kidding about how badly the other Harpers treated Robb, although it's also true he constantly does things to deserve it, and none of their attacks seem to faze him. Neither does losing a girlfriend; he identifies five more ladies with homes on Gene's trick-or-treating route and accompanies him with the sole intent of hitting on them each. I'm not sure how Robb slowed down long enough to have what's defined as a "girlfriend" in the first place.
The phone rings again. This time, it's Jessie's
friend who answers first -- and it's the expected caller.
"IT'S DAWN!" she squeals out.
"I'm in? I'M IN!!" She bounces around
the room enthusiastically, while Jessie urges, "What about
"Harper. Jessie Harper," she says
again after a beat. Well, that's never good.
How can Jessie make a good impression and earn a stupid stone-washed denim jacket that she could have just bought on her own? Thomas, who's in the room (actually, everybody's in the room) proposes a simple solution: throw a party! Since it's Halloween, they can throw a Halloween party and invite the Debs! Everybody except Winnie agrees to the idea.
Well, if she's being forced to do it, she can at least have a little fun. Winnie dresses that evening as a leggy female magician who performs stage magic tricks, but cheats by using actual magic. Gee, you think.........nah. I sincerely doubt anyone on the production crew had ever heard of Zatanna, and besides, she was hardly the first incarnation of that idea. Before superheroes were popular in comics, magicians were popular, and characters like Mandrake and Blackstone dominated the 1920's. Zatanna actually stems from a knockoff of that trend called "Zatara the Magician" which debuted all the way back in Action Comics #1, right after Superman. ......Nope, no girlfriend yet.
Winnie and Jessie rehearse a trick they're going to perform for the Debs. Jessie will step into a box, Winnie will say a few words for show and actually make Jessie invisible! It'd be even more impressive to try a trick that would look much harder to stage, but I didn't write this.
The rehearsal goes off without a hitch, but then Winnie can't seem to turn Jessie visible again. And the Debs arrive right at that moment! Winnie orders Jessie to just stay quiet until she can figure out how to fix things.
Ha, this is priceless. The Debs come in wearing denim jackets with homemade "DEBS" stickers made of construction paper stuck onto them. Show me one high-schooler that would find this cool. In addition they all have rouge makeup, artificially curled hair bobs, and poodle dresses with a circumference of miles. Winnie asks what their costumes are, and Dawn replies "We're the Fifties."
It's revealed in another episode that Winnie
was born in 1665. She has no idea what century they mean.
"Then.....where are your powdered wigs?"
In the kitchen Winnie repeatedly tries to make Jessie visible, but gets no further than 50%. She explains, in her most valid reason yet for hating Halloween, that it's much harder to perform magic on that night because so many amateurs are trying. At that moment Thomas bursts in, but fortunately, Winnie is the only one who can see the half-visible Jessie.
Thomas has the worst costume in the entire world: a garbage bag covering his whole body. I wouldn't know how to respond, but Winnie comes up with the perfect take on it without even trying: "I think it's very realistic....but why do you want to go as a rabbit dropping?"
Thomas sighs and says he's supposed to be a "singing raisin." I hope I don't have to explain this. Oh, heck, I know I'm old....there were these claymation raisins that sang, and...well, you kinda had to be there. The show couldn't clear "Grapevine," so Thomas struts around and sings "Respect" instead. But he doesn't get any, and walks back upstairs to try a different costume. You made him waste a bag!
Now alone in the kitchen, Winnie is still experimenting with ways to change Jessie back. She tries a different spell, which is just "The Name Game" with Jessie's name inserted (THE FIFTIES, EVERYBODY). It has disastrous results, flickering the lights and shaking the drawers out, but it was a dumb idea anyway and Corinne Bohrer looked embarrassed to be singing it. There's no other episode where Winnie had to say anything to do magic. If the writer couldn't think of any decent-sounding incantations, he shouldn't have used any.
Jessie silently walks back into the living
room, where the Debs are debating whether or not to let Jessie
into their mafia. So far, the argument is leaning toward
"against," as Jessie is disappointed to hear.
Thomas knocks on the door. Poor see-through
Jessie couldn't open it right now even if she wanted to. She
thinks fast and comes up with the vague retort "Dad, I don't
want you to see me like this!"
Thomas insists he doesn't want to talk to a closed door, and Jessie becomes more desperate -- thankfully, at that very moment, Winnie figures out how to make her visible again and appears in her room to apply the correct spell. "I still hate Halloween," she sighs before teleporting back again.
"Dad, the Debs accepted me!" Jessie
Thomas the Sailor Duck says, "Then don't
Thomas thinks Jessie should make this decision on her own, given his own ineptitude at it. He explains that sometimes in life you have two choices: to suck up to people who don't deserve it in order to get ahead, or to take a riskier path on your own. But he ends it by saying whatever Jessie decides, he'll always be proud of her. Time for the hugs and corny music.
Jessie returns down the stairs to find the Debs waiting with an official jacket for her. Jessie thinks "why not, I'll give it a shot."
The night's still young, so Jessie
suggests going down and visiting another girl's house. "No,
I don't think we'll EVER be going there," Chris tells her
Jessie is disturbed to find out the Debs are almost cult-like in they can't do a single thing on their own, but must decide on it collectively. Jenny Lewis even goes through each of their closets and throws out all the clothes she doesn't approve of.
Jessie says "y'know what, screw this, it's not worth it" and hands her Deb jacket back. On the other side of the stairwell, Winnie clinches a little fistpump in approval.
Her friend, though, has already been sucked in and leaves the house with the other Debs. Jessie isn't sure she'll ever be her friend again, and Winnie tells her not to worry; that she'll find her own circle of friends, and then she'll be glad she never settled in with people like that. In the meantime, Winnie has her own ideas for a Halloween celebration.
"I thought you said you didn't like
it," Jessie points out. Yeah, she was pretty explicit about
She giddily hops on a broom, but then
hesistates. "Wait, we can't do this -- people are gonna see
By the way, "Not necessarily" is like "What's up, Doc?" or "GOOD NEWS, EVERYONE!" or "OWL HAVE YOH HEDD ONNA SPYKE!!" in that it's something Winnie says at least once in every episode. I admit it took me a while to notice, even though she dropped the line three times in the pilot.
And then....is when THIS happens:
I sure hope you can see that glorious video. Anything I say will just ruin it.
Episode Denouement: Gene is counting his candy, Robb is counting his phone numbers, and Thomas is feeling dejected over losing his office costume contest, as if he ever had a chance. Winnie and Jessie breeze in giggling, their windblown hair now looking even more 80's than before. Thomas wonders just what they've been doing all night. Winnie tells him, "In the spirit of witches everywhere, we hopped on our brooms and flew like the wind."
This isn't the first time Winnie has outright said to Thomas's face, point-blank, what she is -- and he still can't figure it out. Not even when he does a double take at the sight of two brooms by the door he doesn't own, just before the Executive Producer credit.
AN UPDATE ON THE MYSTERIOUS "EPISODE 14": I suddenly remembered I had a VHS recording of prime-time TV from ABC in January of 1990. If it happened to be the right week, it might contain proof of whether Episode 14 of Free Spirit aired, or if what TV Guide printed was a misprint.
The good news is, it WAS from that week. The bad news is, ABC was done promoting the series at this point and the only commercial for Sunday night was entirely about America's Funniest Home Videos. The good on top of the bad was that Gary Owens clearly said at the end in his distinctive announcing voice, "Followed by Free Spirit."
There's no mention if the episode that week was new or a rerun, but it's the only airing left. According to TV Guide, the series never appeared again after that week -- a movie took its slot the following Sunday, and the week after that a drama about a young Elvis appeared instead. Unless it was replaced at the last minute, episode 14 of Free Spirit not only exists, it should have aired!
But then, if it aired, why is it missing from the Bootleg Zones? It could simply be that nobody taped it, or it could be that they didn't even look. 13 is the general number for a short-lived TV series. There are 52 weeks in a year. Divide that by half and you get 26, enough to run every episode in a season twice. (This is usually reduced to 22 in anticipation of pre-emptings and special events.) Divide 26 in half again and you have 13, or three months' runtime -- believed by most executives to be enough time to properly judge whether a show has legs or not.
So how does a show end with 14? Ordering only one extra episode did not occur in network history until Freaks and Geeks in 2000 (fortunately, they followed up that order with four more). It happens when a network doesn't count the pilot as part of a show order, yet airs the pilot anyway...this is why Firefly wound up with 14. And, indeed, the Free Spirit pilot aired on another night as a "sneak preview" even though Episode 2, which continues the plot of the pilot, could hardly be called Episode 1. I have probably thought much harder about the airing history of Free Spirit than anybody else in the entire world.
A few hours after this piece went up, reader Erased Paper claimed he was there that night and, despite what TV Guide and the network promos said, a Full House rerun appeared instead of Free Spirit. It was, indeed, replaced at the last minute, reportedly because ABC threw whatever it could at that slot over the winter to halt the 80% drop in ratings once AFV ended and everyone switched to The Simpsons.
Okay, that's a downer. But then, check the above link to the TV.com page for this episode. Not only is there a description of the plot more detailed than TV Guide's, someone gave the episode a 7.0, as if they actually saw it. Did they really see it or is this just the Internet fibbing like it always does?
The mystery continues. What we do know now is there's really an episode 14, but the bigger question is....where is it?