First-run syndicated prime-time TV is so dead that I have to explain to you what it is before I start talking about anything else. It was a system whereby TV producers could sidestep the networks entirely and sell their shows directly to local affiliates -- albeit with a much smaller budget than they'd get if they were supported by a network.
While some of these were very successful, the quality of the average prime-time syndicated show was not good. The main reason they were there in the first place was because no network wanted them. Syndicated TV isn't around anymore for a number of reasons (monopolization, less available timeslots, declining ratings) but the most obvious thing I noticed was that syndicated shows were just becoming stale copies of previous successes. Sci-fi shows about people living in spaceships and fantasy programs about roaming around New Zealand with swords were a dime a dozen. And there was also Cleopatra 2525.
Recently, Buena Vista Television (Disney wearing a mask) thought it was time for prime-time syndication to make a comeback. The first syndicated action show in five years, Legend of the Seeker, debuted in 2008 but lasted only two seasons. It was, again, a fantasy program about roaming around New Zealand -- the only difference between it and previously more popular shows like it was that this one wasn't deliberately trying to be campy. I thought it was fine, but fans of the books it was loosely based on hated it. Due to the sickly state of the market, most people didn't even know the show was on.
Though that may be the last time Disney dabbles in prime-time syndication, it wasn't the first time. In 1989 Disney had a hit live-action family movie, Honey I Shrunk The Kids. It was awesome. In 1992 they sequeled it with Honey I Blew Up The Kid, and that was great too. In 1997 times had changed and the third "Shrunk" movie, Honey We Shrunk Ourselves, was produced for the booming direct-to-video movie market. Lacking any of the epic feel, most of the stars except for Rick Moranis, and much weaker attempts at humor, it was yards and yards of spooled-magnetic-tape fail. Wayne Szalinski shrinking himself was an idea with a lot of potential -- but it didn't come close with the production values of a Disney Channel Original Movie.
But it wasn't over yet, no. That following September, I saw an ad that looked like THIS:
This cow was going to be milked until its udders fell off. Despite its title, they only got shrunk three times -- once in the pilot, where they were swallowed by their grandpa and drove their minivan through greenscreened videos of blood vessels, and again later in Season One to promote McDonalds, who paid a ton to have Wayne get trapped in a Big Mac. (It happened once more as one of the last episodes, but I wasn't watching by then.) As the ad says, shrinking was just the beginning -- Wayne would invent everything from time machines to teleporters to duplicators, and wreak havoc on his family with said inventions every week.
Just like in the movies, the opening is animated (at least in Season One). One good thing is that they've stopped advancing the family several years between stories and have reset the children back to Nick and Amy. There's also Peter Scolari, who does a decent job replacing Moranis. But the mom was even better than Marcia Strassman.
Whoever Barbara Alyn Woods is, she has the best range of any actress in the world. For all the crazy parts she had to play, you really believed she had become an evil genius, or been zapped into a computer, or grew a lizard's tongue, or anything. She could go from human to cartoon and back again and make it look routine. Look back up at that ad -- everybody else can barely keep from cracking up, but Barbara is totally into it, grimly staring into the camera like Ellen Ripley. There was one episode where Diane had her mind switched with a cat's, and she even pulled off having a cat brain convincingly. There was just nothing she couldn't do.
I have no comment on Hillary Tuck, the show's Amy. But guess who Nick is?
Yes, this shrimpy kid grows up to be JOHN CONNOR, leader of the human resistance. The world's screwy sometimes.
Okay, fun's over. I'm going to start with one of the worst episodes I can remember...."Honey, They Call Me Space Cowboy."
Wayne wants to take the wife and kids out for a special picnic day....in the 19th century. Why's that? Wayne reveals his motive is tied to a material he uses in all his inventions....which he got from a crashed meteorite. As of this episode, this was the show's explanation for how one man could be inventing so many things. I don't like it. He can build a shrinking machine because of...space rocks? Why can't the explanation just be that Wayne is smart? That's good enough for plenty of other sci-fi shows.
Wayne finds a newspaper scan that proves before the comet crashed, it passed over the area during the days of the Wild West. Since he's already invented a time machine, he's preparing to travel there to observe it, and he drags his family along too because...if they're not there, there'll be no one to fall into peril later.
They find out the comet wasn't a comet at all, but an alien spaceship. Unfortunately, this alien lands right within viewing distance of a gang of wanted desperadoes, who call him "meatball head." Whoa, don't wanna mess with them!
The alien came to Earth thinking he was picking up a distress signal, but now thinks that might just have been faulty equipment. He brings out a measuring instrument and the bad guys recoil: "DON'T SHOOT!"
"Ha ha, you think this is a weapon? Fear not, tiny brains! THIS is a weapon!" He brings out a gigantic laser rifle and blasts a nearby bush (it makes little cartoony lightning bolts; great special effects). The bad guys start salivating over his equipment. With that space tech, they could own the nearby town easily! So they start approaching him slowly. I mean slow enough that he could easily shoot them with the big thing he's carrying. But instead he stands there holding it and says things like "Uh, you might want to go the other direction...uh, I don't like the look you're giving me." Who's got the tiny brains?
"Geeze Louise! An alien!" articulates
"They stole my freaking starcruiser!" explains the alien, revealing that on his planet "freaking" is a profanity. He also reveals that his spaceship is powered by snot, and that he eats meals with his butt. I realize the writers weren't planning to chase the Emmy judges anyway, but man. Just because there are kids watching doesn't mean you have to dumb the humor down to a Captain Underpants novel.
They have to find the outlaws and recover the alien's stolen equipment before history is permanently altered. Of course, it could be altered anyway if an alien creature steps into town, so they cover him with their picnic blanket. "Cuz it won't attract any attention if he walks around with a bright checkered sheet draped over him.
He doesn't like that, though, and demands some real clothes. Instant gratification -- some drunk guy collapses into his lap (or he might just be tired, the show isn't specific). One camera wipe later, the alien is now fully dressed in cowboy attire. I fail to see how this is any less noticable. His lumpy face is exposed right there.
Things go smoothly for about seven seconds, until the alien witnesses a horse being whipped and mistakes that horse for another alien species that looks similar. "THAT IS INTERGALACTIC ABUSE!!" he shouts, and races over, punches the guy out and sets the horses free.
So much for not attracting a crowd. The sheriff himself walks over and demands to know what's going on. After he hears about the incident, he....shrugs it off. "Aw heck, let's all have a drink over at the saloon an' forget about it!" They'll be drinking Coca-Cola, presumably, even though it wasn't invented yet.
"What's your name? Reckon I haven't seen YOU before." The sheriff points at Wayne.
He stammers out, "Wayne.
John Wayne? Hey, this bit is just like in that movie when.........The show actually addresses the plagiarism. I didn't expect that.
"It worked for Marty McFly in
Back to the Future, where he told everyone he was Clint
Eastwood," Wayne explains.
Diane replies, "Was that the third one? Didn't see it. Dopey premise."
"Granted. But you've got to admit, nothing adds ZIP to a comedy like smug pop culture references."
He said that, not me.
A chat with the sheriff in the saloon confirms what they suspected outside: the town has a completely ineffectual sheriff, and they're on their own. The alien is in another room, hitting on a dog (really). "Can I freshen your drink?" he says seductively, while pulling over a doggie dish full of water.
The dog, in turn, gets a little too excited and jumps on him, knocking the hat off his head and revealing his bumpy brow. Instantly, every single saloon patron turns around and draws out their guns. Ya know what they do to aliens 'round these parts, pardner?
They throw them in jail, that's what they do! That's what you do with anything ugly or weird. That's how society is kept in order! Now the alien is trapped, along with the family by association....how will they get out?
I don't know. This is as much of the episode as I have. Just be grateful I have this much -- as I implied throughout, I hate this one. I do remember the ending, though: Wayne recovers the alien's ship, and in gratitude, the alien knocks the comet to Earth decades later so Wayne can get its material. "Enjoy it, Wayne....now your inventions will be limited only by your imagination," he says, stoically, to himself.
Unfortunately, they had to bring back the alien a second time, in the first season finale. Someone steals his freaking starcruiser again, only this time, it was the Men in Black. No, not Sony Pictures' Men in Black.....though the episode came out shortly after the movie, and there had to be some incentive behind using the name. These Men in Black are evil, and want to reverse-engineer alien technology to take over the world! At the end of the season, the head of the Men in Black pulls off a mask to reveal HE is an alien too, and that "I HAVE PLANS FOR THE SZALINSKI FAMILY.....BIG PLANS INDEED! AHAHAHAHAAAA!" (CUE EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS' NAMES)
And that was the last we saw of them -- of the alien or anything that had to do with him. That cliffhanger was forgotten for the rest of the series. Normally such an oversight would annoy me, but that dopey alien and the way he mucked up the franchise mythos was such a stupid idea, I really didn't care.
That's a Wayne-problem episode. Some episodes were Diane-problem episodes -- she worked as an attorney, volunteered with the PTA and junk, and tried to maintain a normal career. If an episode was an Amy-problem episode, it was assuredly going to be some predictable thing about her teen social life, exacerbated by Wayne's newest invention. Or if not by that, by her arch-rival Tiara, who disappeared with the aliens after Season One. Does that mean she was one too? It must. Have you ever heard of a human named Tiara?
The baffling thing is that when Tiara disappeared, they replaced her with the same character, only with a different face and name. Which suggests a different theory. Maybe the aliens grabbed Tiara as meat for the road and engineered a replacement clone, then sent out a hypno-beam to make everyone forget about her before leaving.
In the penultimate episode of Season One, directed by Savage Steve Holland, Amy is interning at Wayne's laboratory...but so is Tiara. Tiara sabotages Amy every chance she gets, like in these screens, where she's taken the bolt out of some important clamps. Wayne and Amy are conducting an important experiment to create the smelliest substance known to man. Why would you want to make that? Because the show's just that juvenile -- there are literally dirty socks in the mixture. The clamps don't hold, the entire lab is stink-bombed, and Amy gets all the blame.
Wayne's goofy boss, Mr. Jennings, is demanding results from Wayne's newest invention, the Chameleonator -- a pod that grants humans the chameleon's power of color-change. This is a worthwhile cause, because imagine the savings if women would no longer have to apply makeup! That would surely displease the Kari Faye Cosmetics Company, who Jennings suspects has a mole skulking somewhere around the facility. He wants that mole found and caught, but first, he wants results from the Chameleonator by tomorrow or Wayne's fired!
Wayne says the device isn't ready for human testing yet, but Jennings ignores him. As they both leave the room, Amy thinks if she tests the Chameleonator on herself, and saves Dad's job, it might be a way to make up for all the trouble people think she's caused.
She steps inside and switches the thing on. One smoke machine and icky comment later ("Now I know what a frog's butt smells like!") Amy finds the Chameleonator has worked too well: she's now invisible!
The first thing she wants to do in her incognito-ness is get revenge on Tiara. Tiara soon finds herself dropping important materials, kicking influential people, and farting loudly in the elevator. Someone is watching Amy and knows her secret, though...Mr. Jennings.
Jennings has a chat with Amy. He's not angry. He sees this experimental accident as the perfect way to search out the rumored mole. Amy agrees to help, but finds nothing but unfunny red herrings. Just when she's about to give up, she notices footprints appearing past a paint spill. That's how the mole avoids getting caught -- he must be invisible too!
Amy throws talcum powder in the direction of the suspect and sees the form of.....Dad.
"Okay, I tested the Chameleonator on myself too," he confesses. "But maybe we can find the mole together."
They couldn't find a mole on Henry Kissinger. It's Tiara of all people that finds the sneak, and this is because he's stealing the Chameleonator in broad daylight. "You are so busted!" she valleys out. "It's like my father says -- it's ALWAYS the help!"
"Ohh, I wish you hadn't found this out," the man says, and pulls a gun on her. Tiara is forced into the machine, the door is locked tight, and she's sent with it to Kari Faye Cosmetics. After that's finished, the man heads to the security room to get rid of the incriminating tape the cameras have made. As he's trying to do that, Wayne and Amy are in the same room, and they jump him, knocking him out.
They now have to rescue Tiara, but work hours are now over, so Wayne has to call Diane at home -- er, send a video file on their computer. He couldn't just call her because then she wouldn't see a pair of glasses floating in midair and understand the circumstances. Also, Mr. Jennings is at their home now, which is...odd.
Here's when the episode really goes nuts. "We can't let him do it without the entire GANG!" vows Nick. Nick races to Dad's home laboratory and pulls the sheet off his Chameleonator prototype, then shoves his mother and father's boss inside. "If we're invisible too, this'll be a snap!" What could possibly go wrong?
It didn't make them invisible, it gave them other chameleon traits! Jennings now has a large tail, Nick has suction hands that let him climb up walls, and Diane has a very very long tongue she can zap flies with. They'll just have to work with what they got.
Meanwhile, back at Kari Faye's, Tiara has been locked in a cage with other prisoners abducted by shopping mall survey ladies. They're all brainwashed and heavily coated with makeup. Since Kari Faye can't test her products on animals anymore (thanks a LOT, Berke Breathed), she has to test them on humans instead.
Nick, Diane and Jennings sneak into the plant just in time to see Kari Faye herself enter the room. Amy and Wayne are there too, but as Amy walks out to free the girls, she discovers her invisibility has worn off. She's captured by security and thrown in the same cage.
"Well, they must not see ME yet," thinks Wayne, and he heads to the rescue next. He gets the keys, opens the cage and fends off a good number of security guards, but wastes his time with the last one, grabbing her baton and saying, "Woooo, look at the floaaating niiightstick!" in a Dracula voice. He appears then and is captured, but he deserved it.
It's the rest of the family's turn with their new powers, but they aren't very effectual either. The one who ends up saving everyone is Tiara, who used the machine after she got out of the cage and now can't be seen. Kari Faye is now locked in the cage and Tiara torments her by licking her pounds of makeup off. (Uh, not that way....she licks her finger and then smears it on Kari's cheek, is what I meant.)
Jennings invites the Kari Faye lab rats to his own lab, where they'll essentially be lab rats once more. Wayne's final task is to change half of his family back to normal, but first he wants a round with Diane's tongue. Just don't think about it.
Nick-centered episodes usually dealt with his own insecurities. You'd think a total genius would have no problem dissecting a frog, but Nick has major issues with his impending assignment. Nick is having nightmares of a giant frog coming to dissect him, with occasional appearances by Fiona Apple (???). He wakes up screaming every night and then nobody else can sleep. Wayne could just walk to the drugstore and buy some Tylenol PM, but he always has to do things the hard way, so he actually builds a portal to Dreamland and rides a scooter into Nick's dream.
Wayne arrives just in time and socks the frog in the jaw while exclaiming "Take THAT, you tap-dancing freak!" The frog never tap-danced once; is this a Michigan J. Frog reference, or what?
Uh-oh, he shouldn't have done that. By tampering with the dreamworld, he's roused the anger of Morpheus(no, not THAT one), Lord of All Dreams! He lets Wayne off with a warning....but then Amy uses the machine to torment her brother, and Morpheus exacts his revenge on the entire family!
Morpheus fries Nick in an electric chair, and he wakes up with burnt clothing. Just like in the movie this is resembling, any harm they suffer in their dreams will happen to them in reality. One, two, Morpheus is coming for you! Seven, eight, stay up late! Nine, ten, a big fat hen!
Wayne tinkers with his machines, searching for a way to disrupt Morpheus's power, while the rest of the family chugs soda and coffee. The best he can do is the Szalinski Toe Tugger, which simply yanks Nick in the toes every time he nods off. It's only a matter of time, and they all start falling into his clutches one by one. Soon, only Amy is left, and she enters the dreamworld through the machine for a final showdown with Morpheus to rescue her family! ....Note that I'm making this sound more thrilling than it is.
Morpheus challenges Amy to what she fears the most: a standardized question test. "AN OBJECT IS DROPPED FROM A 123-STORY BUILDING, AT A RATE OF 100 FEET PER SECOND. IF EACH STORY IS 11 FEET TALL, HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE THE FALLING OBJECT TO HIT THE GROUND? One more thing....THE FALLING OBJECT IS YOU!!"
Immediately, Amy plummets down the
Hudsucker Building. Yes, it's the same footage....like I said before, TV shows
As Amy falls, she yells "I HAVE ONE QUESTION....WHY AM I DOING THIS??"
"Well, your friends all jumped off a large building, so you did it too." Sounds like Amy.
"I WOULDN'T DO IT WITHOUT A PARACHUTE!" She pulls a cord from her back, opens a chute and glides to the ground. That turns out to be the right answer.
"SECOND QUESTION IS VERBIAGE.
AMY DISCARDED HER PARACHUTE AND STOOD UP BEFORE HER CLASSMATES,
ONLY TO FIND HERSELF STARK NAKED. THE EXPERIENCE WAS A)
SUBSERVIENT, B) MORTIFYING, OR C) IRONIC."
"C, ironic....because everyone's wearing parachutes now! It's the latest trend!"
Sure enough, they are, because Amy said so. Where Wayne failed is that he approached the problem with Morpheus logically. Since dreams are illogical, and Amy excels in randomness, she can control the dreamworld and beat Morpheus at his own game.
Amy has defeated Morpheus, but he's a sore loser and won't let her family go. In response, Amy makes a giant alarm clock appear, one powerful enough to wake everybody in the world. She puts it on the scooter and prepares to drive back into reality, where the clock will become real. "If your power comes from dreams, and I wake everybody up....you won't have any!"
Morpheus creates a wall of fire to block Amy's path! Amy points and summons a fire truck full of clowns! Morpheus points and the clowns roll and morph together into a giant crush-ball of death! Amy conjures some TNT and blows the clown-ball up! This fight is getting expensive!
Amy makes it outside and sets off the alarm clock, waking up not only the Szalinskis but everybody else in the whole world, including a guy in Japan who was about to set the record for longest time asleep (yeah, naturally....)
The next day, Amy has a real test
to prepare for, but she nods off and sees Morpheus appear at her
"Am I in trouble?"
"No, I was beaten fair and square. I had to protect my realm -- nothing personal. I just came to give you the results of your test."
A plus -- with colors that fly. "And don't worry about this other test," he tells her. "From what I've seen, you can do it in your sleep."
We never find out if Nick sliced up his frog. Amy stole the episode away from him.
The series stayed afloat for three seasons and 66 episodes, ending with a weak one where Wayne dreams up a film-noir story starring his family and friends. After that, it ran in reruns on the Disney Channel for as long as it could.
Syndicated prime-time was the fast-food of television. You knew you were getting garbage, and it'd probably give you cancer if you had too much, but in moderation it was a decent way to pass the time. As strange as it sounds, I miss the world of comic-book plotlines, little girl robots, and pseudo-medieval swordswomen deflecting computer paint effects. Will they ever live another day? Will Victoria Pratt ever work again?
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