The Special Houseguest comes down from the sky, from a distant planet or a magical kingdom, either accidentally or purposely. He or she, by pure chance (or was it?) lands inside somebody's house, to the surprise of the resident or residents living there. Despite having no idea who the person/creature/life form is, they adopt the Special Houseguest into their family instantly. The visitor ends up driving them up the wall on a regular basis, but they would never let him/her/it be discovered, 'cause gosh darn it, they love each other!
Special Houseguest serials connect with the public because they work on a certain psychological level. It's more common to see the "Chosen One" approach used instead, where the central character, the one you're meant to step into the shoes of, is the one with the powers and abilities. But no matter how "realistic" their problems are portrayed, there will always be a disconnect between them and the audience that knows of no such experiences. Special Houseguest stories contain a fix for this -- they require at least one other character, this one depicted as grounded and "normal" as possible and meant to represent the viewer. The Houseguest is a mystery both the character and the audience want to solve. The viewer gets to know the Houseguest right alongside this character, and as they grow closer, the viewer develops the same attachment to the Houseguest.
It's been done many times in the past and it'll be done many times in the future, because it works. Here are some of the more significant Special Houseguests of the last fifty years.
One of the earliest Special Houseguests in TV history...if there were any beforehand, I don't know of them. Tim O'Hara, reporter for the Los Angeles Sun, has a roommate...a roommate from MARS! This Martian roommate can turn invisible, read minds, talk to animals and all sort of other tricks. He looks exactly human, because isn't that always the way.
The Martian's actual name is Exigius 12½, but his Earthly name becomes "Uncle Martin" after Tim tries to pass him off as such. He also has two antennae which he can fortunately retract when company drops by, usually the scatterbrained landlady whom Martin develops a half-romance with.
By the time the series was about to be cancelled, Bewitched had hit the scene, and so Uncle Martin inexplicably gained a ton of new powers he hadn't had before (yet still explained through "science" rather than "magic"). The show only lasted three seasons, and remains rarely seen to this day. You're far more likely to find the disastrous 1999 movie adaption starring Christopher Lloyd, but it's a poor substitute.
A professional astronaut lands on a deserted island and finds an ornate bottle lying in the sand. He pulls off the cork. Steam rises and out pops a dark succubus, who attaches herself to Major Tony Nelson and refuses to leave him alone for the rest of his life. She sabotages his relationship with his fiance, drives away all potential girlfriends and even poofs him into a cage at one point. Eventually Stockholm Syndrome takes over and Tony surrenders, marrying Jeannie forever.
So what makes this endearing instead of frightening? Barbara Eden. She completely threw herself into this role, bouncing around with such enthusiasm that you abandoned all reason and really thought you were watching an enchanted spirit for a few minutes. Compare this with (here I go again) Charmed, where every line dealing with something that could never happen was snarked out in a nasally tone by the three sisters, making the ability to care about any onscreen event impossible. That is not how you do fantasy. I have a lot of respect for any actor that can take a more out-there role and make it believable. It's not easy.
In one of the more regrettable ideas the show presented, Jeannie was once locked in a safe for four entire episodes. Stuff then proceeded to happen: the safe is on a rocket bound for the moon! The safe is stolen by gangsters! The safe is on that conveyor belt headed for that junk crusher! The safe will blow up if opened wrong! The only one who knows the combination to the safe is the President of the United States! Jeannie's sister is here and she's going to take advantage of the situation and seduce Tony! I guess if you want to get out of a few weeks of work, this method is less obvious to viewers than a clip show, but it must have been annoying as hell to find her in the same trap over and over back when the show was only on once a week.
Then there was also that time when a cartoon surfer teen found a bottle of his own, which also contained a possessive genie named Jeannie, but that one had red hair. It's unknown if the incidents are related.
A spaceship arrives in the woods, and out come doughy aliens who zip around the universe collecting plants. Midway through their mission, they're discovered by humans and leave as quickly as possible -- in their haste abandoning one of them. This is especially unfortunate because the creatures apparently rely on a symbiotic mental connection to sustain their own lives. The remaining alien wanders into a house, lured by candy, and connects with a little boy from a divorced home who desperately needs a father figure. (Take THAT, Spielberg's dad!) But it isn't enough, and the alien starts to die. The mother drops her coffee cup. Astronauts walk into the house in slow motion. The house is Saran Wrapped and there, surrounded by clueless scientists, the alien appears to expire. Fortunately, at that moment, his friends re-enter the atmosphere, responding to a signal he was broadcasting with the use of tin foil and a Speak 'n Spell. He recovers, escapes, inspires the Amblin logo and returns to his regular life.
As one of the most influential Special Houseguests in cinematic history, ET popularized a number of elements that countless stories like it would borrow: the innocent little boy, the tearjerking moments of sap, and the apparent moral that Science is Evil. This last one saturated fiction for at least ten years: scientists were henceforth depicted as poking, prodding, emotionless villains who would capture you, imprison you in a lab forever and revoke every constitutional right you had. It was cited as the reason why Wayne Szalinski kept the event of his children shrinking a secret, as he told Nick in Honey I Blew Up The Kid: "We didn't want you kids to become specimens! To go through countless tests!" So....if that ray had any adverse effects on them, like maybe it increased their risk of cancer by 900%.....you'd rather not know?
The Littles live within the walls of regular-sized people's houses and mooch off their food supply. They are a species of what appear to be human-rat hybrids, with big buck teeth and tails. Concidentally, they all have the surname "Little," and everybody else involved also sports on-the-nose last names: the boy who discovers their existence is "Henry Bigg." Now that ET happened, there has to be an evil scientist involved, who is named "Dr. Hunter" because he hunts the Littles, get it?
The Littles started as a series of popular children's books. The idea of tiny little guys trying to survive in a world of giants had television potential, but it also had the misfortune of being adapted by ABC Saturday Morning in the early 80's, so every punch was pulled or had pillows tied to it. Despite how dull this cartoon can get, it's my opinion it could have stayed on longer than it did, if the network hadn't forced a gimmick as the theme of Season 3. The Littles were then suddenly traveling around the world, learning a moral lesson in every country. They even go up to space in the revamped main title. Once you see anyone on TV floating in space, you know their shark has jumped.
For years I thought the Saturday Morning Punky Brewster cartoon was a fully original creation and not based on anything. When I heard people say "Punky Brewster" I thought it was the cartoon they were talking about. I had no idea a prime-time version of this ever existed until around 1993 or so. This was originally a down-to-earth, perfectly normal sitcom, with no furry munchkins or anything? No wonder I never noticed it.
It makes what they warped it into feel bizarre now. Punky was riding her bike through the park when she saw a rainbow in the sky, and decided to see if she could find the end of that rainbow. She got there and discovered a lost civilization of Ewok creatures with magical powers, one of which briefly left the confines of the rainbow in curiosity. While he and Punky were screwing around, the rainbow faded away, leaving Glomer stuck there. But that was okay, now that he was a Special Houseguest! From that day forward, Punky and Glomer got into two eleven-minute escapades every week.
Was this an alternate timeline created when Punky threw a pair of dice to determine if she or her adopted father would pay the pizza guy? Or was this taking place within the continuity of the prime-time Punky and Glomer was just offscreen for all of it? I guess we can debate that all day. They did release the cartoon on DVD, sort of -- as a bonus along with each season of the original show. If Punky Brewster had been on longer, what direction would the cartoon have taken? Would they have updated the design of her cartoon counterpart as she grew? ....Considering her infamous early blossoming, probably not.
Rubik was once owned by an evil magician, but a series of accidents put him in the possession of the first Hispanic children in US animated history (or at least the first PC ones). Together, they protect Rubik by utilizing his limitless powers to humiliate the magician over and over again.
Sound pretty keen? Well, Rubik is no Glomer. For him to do anything, you have to solve him first, and if you drop him on the floor, his tiles get scrambled and you have to solve him again. And no, you can't just rip the stickers off and glue them in the correct places -- it won't count. There were many stressful situations when the Rodriguezes needed help NOW, but had to solve Rubik first. The number of people who successfully completed the real 1980's puzzle -- at least once -- has to be in the double digits and I'm being generous. How could these poor kids be expected to do it every DAY?
The wisecracking, cat-munching, cash-cow Alien Life Form crashed his spaceship into the roof of the Tanner Family of Los Angeles (not to be confused with the San Francisco Tanners) one evening. Everyone seems to instantly enjoy his company, with the exception of wife Kate, who finds him nothing but a nuisance. Yet when faced with the chance of reporting him to the Alien Task Force, an entire government-funded organization dedicated to tracking down aliens....she balks on it. Maybe she likes him after all. Four seasons later the ATF catches him anyway.
Alf has drifted in and out of work since then, getting the occasional TV movie or talk show. Rumors persist of a feature-length movie in his future, but we'll see.
After ET, many Special Houseguest programs had a character meant to emulate Elliot, in hopes that the audience's emotions could be manipulated in the same way. Here, Brian Tanner was meant to be the Elliot. Every time Alf was in danger of being caught, or was on the verge of leaving, that's when they would bring out Brian: "NOOOOO! SOB SOB, HE'S MY FRIEND!" Since you could tell what they were trying to do, it was more irritating than touching. Elliot imitators never worked as well as the original.
Mork was originally part of a dream that Fonzie had on Happy Days, but the network liked him enough to un-dream him and give him his own show. When the episode in question reran, there was a new ending that revealed Mork was real and only made The Fonz THINK he was a dream. Many years later (if we're going by the time periods of both programs), Mork rented a room in Mindy's apartment and became a Special Houseguest.
Eventually Mork and Mindy got married and had a baby. This baby came out of a giant egg and was, in fact, a hairy shirtless Jonathan Winters. This was the point when most people decided they'd quit watching.
AKA "Voice Input Child Identicant," or "the star of that strange show you barely remember about the robot girl." Doomed to live in infamy as the textbook example of 80's sitcom kitsch, Vicky stomped around the Lawson household, speaking in monotone, causing awkward calamity after awkward calamity.
Unlike most situations that a Special Houseguest is a part of, Vicky is not being kept a secret out of fears the government or Science will discover her. She was built by the family's dad at the robotics company he works for, and is being tested out to see if she could mature and grow on her own in a family environment. The "secret" part comes in because the dad can't have anybody else revealing any of this until his study is complete, lest his co-workers steal it. Naturally, this study doesn't end before the show does.
Worse yet, Dad is endangering his family's lives by letting Vicky run loose around them -- for Vicky is atomically powered. Yes, it was true. One sharp blow to her body and they would have all been vaporized.
Side Note #1: If Vicky grew up, she would have looked like this:
Side Note #2: This show was remade in India under the title "Karishma Kaa Karishma."
Most Special Houseguests have one thing in common: you wouldn't really want them in your house. You wouldn't want Alf wrecking your things, or Jeannie turning you into a cow accidentally, or Mork doing....ANYTHING Mork does. The traits that make someone entertaining to watch would make them unbearable in real life. The exception is this one. Boy, would it EVER be awesome to have Winnie around.
She has no limits and no inhibitions. Bullies bothering you? They're frogs. Feel like going to the Grand Canyon on a whim? She'll take you there in seconds. Ask her for a Playstation 4 and she gives you a Playstation 5. I might have implied this once or twice, but I really like Winnie.
My theory as to why Free Spirit never caught on in 1989 was that, thanks to ET, the 1980s were crammed with Special Houseguests and people were tired of the scenario by the end of the decade. They had an alien, they had a robot....did they need a witch too? Of course, being forced into a death slot against The Simpsons probably also had something to do with it.
In 1985, for reasons I'm at a loss to explain, Marvel Comics looked at Harvey Comics and got jealous. Why, I can't pinpoint -- Harvey was deep in financial trouble at the time. Whatever their line of thinking was, they introduced Star Comics, a new tot-friendly line of comic books, most of which were based on licensed 80's cartoon and toy properties. A few, though, were original creations....well, except for "Royal Roy," who was so much a copy of Richie Rich that Harvey tried to sue. But there was also Planet Terry, a wholesome-looking space traveler with wide Mickey Mouse eyes....Wally the Wizard, which had Bob Bolling behind it....and then there was Top Dog.
Average schoolboy Joey Jordan discovered a talking dog while looking for a baseball in the woods. They befriended each other and Joey agreed to keep Top Dog as a "pet" to protect his secrets. Top Dog wasn't just a talking dog, he was a canine of many talents. He could speak any language, mimic anyone's voice, and possessed a genius intellect. I'm withholding a lot of information since I'd like to cover "Top Dog" in greater detail later, especially its bonkers final issue.
Nothing in the Star Comics lineup found mass cultural appeal, including this dog. Marvel wasn't ready to give up on him so easily and they started putting Top Dog in the back pages of their Heathcliff comic. He wasn't welcome there and received several nasty letters. Kids found Top Dog kind of cornball and lame, and he was eventually chased away for good. He last appeared in 1990.
Poor lonely loser Keiichi picks up the phone and orders a pizza one evening. He dials the number wrong and calls the super-secret number of the Goddess Hotline instead, and summons the superbeing Belldandy, who will now grant him one wish. Keiichi blurts out that he wishes someone like that would stay with him forever. Face it, otaku, you just hit the jackpot!
Then Belldandy starts inviting her friends over. And complete culture-clash chaos ensues. For one matter, it turns out Belldandy becomes heavily intoxicated if she drinks soda.
This is the main plotline of Ah! My Goddess, one of the longest still-running manga in history, as well as the longest to be published on a regular basis in America, by Dark Horse under the corrected-pun title "Oh My Goddess."
If you have little patience for will-they-won't-theys, welcome to hell: this story has been going on for over 25 years with its main couple in no closer position than they were originally. Some fans have remarked that Belldandy might as well be Keiichi's mother for all the inaction they both take. It was, eventually, explained in-universe that the sex drives of both characters were lowered when they joined fates, because no one in AMG's Heaven wanted a mortal and a goddess to consummate. Well, don't that beat all.
Of all the Special Houseguests you don't want, Roger is the one you want least of all. He's a despicable scumbag of an extraterrestrial, selfish to an extreme degree, and would stab you in the back in a second. Yet somehow, we don't hate him...why is that? It's probably because of his nutty Paul Lynde voice -- if he sounded as dark as he acts, it wouldn't work.
Roger also barely qualifies as a Special Houseguest, given that his numerous disguises work SO WELL that it really isn't necessary for the Smith family to hide him -- he could live anywhere. No one ever notices that the new kid has gray skin, or that the loan shark over there has three fingers on each hand. The only way anyone will believe he's an alien is if the bald top of his head is exposed, which almost never happens. There was even a recent episode that included a short stay at the hospital for Roger. Due to the all-disguising turban bandage on his head, none of the doctors noticed anything strange about his physiology.
This is another one I want to talk about in more detail later, because it's an aborted Disney TV cartoon. Fluppy Dogs was made third after The Wuzzles and Gummi Bears, but after its pilot movie didn't test well, Disney dumped the show and aired the pilot as a TV special instead. Then they came out with the plush toys and coloring books ANYWAY. Its weird state of half-existence makes it feel eerie to me.
Despite their namesake, Fluppy Dogs are not really dogs. They're Fluppies, intelligent alien creatures that can hop between worlds by using a special key to open doors in midair. Once they travel to Earth, they're discovered by average everyboy Jamie Bingham and his next-door-neighbor Claire. They become Special Houseguests in Jamie's home and he helps them hide from society. Fortunately, since they look like dogs, they blend into suburbia well. Unfortunately, the first human to discover them wasn't Jamie or Claire, but an evil millionaire named J.J. Wagstaff, who would have schemed to capture the Fluppies in every episode. "I MUST! HAVE! THOSE FLUPPY DOGS! NYEH-HEH-HEEEEH!"
Famed composer Shirley Walker scored this cartoon.
Experiment 626, an illegal genetic monstrosity created by mad scientist Jumba, escapes his holding cell and blasts off, crash-landing on Earth. Being the only one with knowledge of his destructive traits, Jumba is ordered to retrieve 626 under the care of Pleakley, a nervous officer who probably shouldn't have been picked to do that.
Jumba's creation was programmed to destroy any city he came across, but fortunately, he landed on a Hawaiian island with no major cities to speak of. He also fell under the care of an offbeat little orphan girl who managed to reverse his more antisocial traits through the power of O'hana. Jumba and Pleakley also became Special Houseguests of a sort, but only because the Galactic Federation dumped them there.
Then it turned out Jumba carried his previous 625 genetic experiments with him and they somehow all found ways to hide on that tiny island, only coming out one at a time on a weekly basis. In addition to finding homes for them all, Lilo entered contest after contest with Stitch as a contestant, over and over, as if somebody controlling their destiny couldn't think of anything better for them to do. From there the story trailed off.
Never let it be said this list isn't thorough.
Cartoonist Terry Moore has created a number of things, most famously the slice-of-life comic book Strangers in Paradise, but during that same time period, he also put out a companion comic called Paradise Too that consisted of all the ideas he had failed to sell over the years. Mostly these were comic strips the syndicates never bit at, and usually, you could tell why. There were strips about mice, ducks, frogs, and a solitary polar bear sitting on a patch of ice, and no offense to Moore, but none of them were all that funny. (His attempt at basing a comic strip on Lizzie Borden was sure funny, but there was no way that was getting sold.) At the time, he was developing a Special Houseguest strip about a fairy named Kixie, and that character dominated the majority of Paradise Too issues.
Kixie is a sassy sprite who loves to eat strawberry cake, and.....that's it, that's every Kixie strip. It's a bunch of lasagna jokes with a different food. In addition to creating new Kixie comics for Paradise Too, Moore also tried launching "Kixie" as a webcomic, but it never caught on. Even Moore admits he may have focused on cake a little too much.
This one is funny, though, for some reason:
An irresponsible young couple discovers they can't concieve a child. That evening, they write down the traits they wish their dream kid had on slips of paper, stuff them in a box, and bury the box in the backyard, because....there was nothing on TV that night, I don't know.
One lightning strike later, a boy with leaves growing on his legs has emerged from where the box used to be. They prove to be terrible parents, but gradually, he teaches them life lessons through his quirkiness. Then, as he fulfills all the requests written on the paper, his leaves fall off one by one. When he loses them all, he fades away, but he did what he set out to do and now the couple are model parents to their new adopted daughter....I think.
Directed by Peter Hedges, who only makes movies once in a blue moon and has to date made just three. The second one was Pieces of April, which I loved to death. This was his third. I have no idea what happened.