Monday, January 08, 2007

Things That Suck: OUT OF THIS WORLD

Update: Since writing this post I have concluded that I was wrong: Small Wonder is much worse than Out of This World. Oh, well.

There are many bad things that can be said about popular culture the '80s -- like these ten things -- but one thing is for certain: the '80s were the golden age of Bad Sitcoms. It seemed like there were many more sitcoms being made than ever before, because you had the networks rushing to cash in on the success of The Cosby Show on the one hand, and on the other hand you had the new market for made-for-syndication sitcoms. And nearly all of these new sitcoms were shot on videotape, cheap to produce, and "family-friendly."

And so you got a flood of poorly-produced sitcoms with rickety sets, has-been casts, cheesy writing and insane premises. The most insane premise of the decade was probably My Two Dads, a very family-friendly show. It was about a girl who's the daughter of one of two men; her mother didn't know which one of them was the father. When the mother dies young, leaving her daughter alone, a judge awards joint custody of the girl to the two men, who have to move in with her and raise her together. Oh, and the judge is their landlord. A feel-good show about illegitimacy, premature death and abuse of the legal system. But the show was produced by Michael Jacobs (Boy Meets World), and the writing was decent; it certainly can't qualify as one of the worst of a decade that gave us Small Wonder.

No, the race for worst of the worst '80s sitcoms comes down to three made-for-syndication shows. One was the aforementioned Small Wonder, but that was at least in the recognizable tradition of stupid fantasy shows. The second is the syndicated version of Charles in Charge, but it is dragged down by the fact that the first season or so (Michael Jacobs again) is actually pretty good. That leaves the winner of the crappy '80s sitcom sweepstakes, one I hadn't really thought about when I wrote my posts about those other two shows. The real winner is Out of This World, or as it's known to every single person who ever happened upon it as a kid, "That show where she stopped time by touching her fingers together."

The premise of Out of This World, which premiered in syndication in 1987, was this: Evie Garland is a typical girl with a typical single mom in a typical town. But on her thirteenth birthday, Evie discovers that she has a strange power: when she touches her index fingers together, she can literally stop time. Her mother, Donna, must now tell her the truth. Donna married Troy, an alien from the planet Antareus. But Troy had to go back to his home planet to fight a war or something like that, leaving Donna alone to raise their daughter. (As a cover story, Donna told everyone, including Evie, that Troy was a CIA agent who had to leave on a mission.) Because she's half-Antarean, Evie has the power to "Gleep," defined as... well, actually, as on any FantaSitcom, her powers are never precisely defined, and what she can or can't Gleep up depends entirely on the situation. But to help Evie deal with her developing alien powers, Donna gives her a box, a sort of intergalactic remote control that allows her to communicate with her father. Every week, Evie tries to solve some problem using her powers, only to make things worse. Her father gives her some kind of useless but lesson-y advice, as does her mother. In the end, she learns her lesson about caring and sharing and not getting stressed out, and solves the problem.

The theme song, which you can hear if you click on this link to view the opening titles, was the Oscar-winning "Swingin' On a Star", with new lyrics:

Would you like to swing on a star
Carry moonbeams home in a jar
And be better off than you are
Or would you rather go to earth

An earthling's a creature who is plain as can be
He's not as unique as you or me
His body comes in lots of different shapes
They say his relatives were chimps and apes
But if you take my advice for what it's worth
You could be happy there on earth

Oh, and Troy the alien from Antareus is voiced by Burt Reynolds, who was one of the show's producers.

The cast actually wasn't bad, probably because of the Burt Imprimatur. Unlike Small Wonder and Charles In Charge, this show had some tolerable people on it: Donna Pescow, formerly star of the prime-time sitcom Angie; Joe Alaskey, whom we now know best as the voice of Plucky Duck; the comedian who called himself Buzz Belmondo and, as Evie, a charming teenaged actress named Maureen Flannigan, who later grew up to put most other former teen sitcom stars to shame.

What made Out of This World so bad was the writing. You know I talk about "Bad sitcoms with good writing" -- shows with weak premises that are saved by solid writing. Out of This World is just a bad sitcom with really bad writing: the premise is stupid, and every week the writers, who included future Simpsons showrunner Mike Scully (whose work on OotW was even worse than the low quality of his Simpsons seasons would lead you to expect), would fully live down to the low standards set by that premise. Every character except Evie spent every waking moment of every episode acting like a moron, including her mother. Every plot revolved around some problem that could have been solved instantly -- without Gleeping -- if the characters hadn't been idiots, or around some premise that seemed to have been thought up in a Benzedrine haze. Take this one, if you can: Evie is so annoyed by a commercial jingle that she starts accidentally "gleeping" the singers into existence every time someone says the word "Mouth." The lyrics are, and I wish to god I was making this up, "Buffalo Breath, is that what they call you?"

Take a look, and note how every joke is unspeakably lame and how every punchline can be predicted about a minute before it arrives. Oh, and the obviously canned laugh track. And the fact that they thought a Hello, Larry reference was warranted. Oh, it's a mess.

Out of This World was popular enough to last four full seasons in syndication. The last episode ended on a cliffhanger, with Donna getting transported to Antaeus and Troy, still unseen, gets transported to earth. The cliffhanger was never resolved because the show was canceled. A fitting ending, somehow.

Oh, and Evie performing "Leave the Light On by Belinda Carlisle? - And you thought Robin Sparkles was something the producers of How I Met Your Mother made up. But sometimes Evie would sing with Burt Reynolds. That was even better.


Anonymous said...

Wow, that show was worse than I remembered. Not surprised, though. Back then I was just a prepubscent, thinking about that girl... nice. That's all I really cared to remember about the show (well, and the time stopping and incredibly cheesy reworking of "Swing on a Star"). But yeah. Go Flannigan, she turned out not too shabby.

Christopher Mills said...

I was certain I'd hallucinated this. I don't know if I'm relieved or horrified.

VP81955 said...

I can't call "Out Of This World" a classic by any means -- and I agree the writing could have been significantly better -- but worse than the annoying "Small Wonder"? I don't think so. I like to think of it as an '80s precursor to the live-action "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," although it was nowhere as inspired.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

I'm with Christopher...I came across this one Saturday morning while channel surfing...never realized it had an actual name; my only thought was "Burt Reynolds is hungry."

VP81955 said...

Speaking of syndicated shows, about 1990 or so a short-lived series aired called "She-Wolf Of London," a nice blend of gothic sci-fi and romantic comedy. (It was one of the few series inspired by "Moonlighting" to get it right.) The premise was that an American student (Kate Hodge) studying in London is bitten and turns into a werewolf when the moon is full. With a professor who studies paranormal phenomena, she tries to find a cure for her condition. It was decently written and plenty of fun, and Hodge (whose subsequent career has been spotty) was wonderful in the role. This series cries for a DVD issue.

Anonymous said...

Just for the sake of it, I'll point out what's wrong in that theme song alone...

An earthling's a creature who is plain as can be
He's not as unique as you or me

What exactly does this mean? An individual human is not as unique as an individual alien? So humans are more homogenous than Troy's race. OK, but then they say...

His body comes in lots of different shapes

So an individual human *is* unique then, despite what you said a single line ago.
Also, the suggestive "uh-huh!" after the line implies that it refers to the differences between men and women... so it seems a bit strange that the singular "his body" is used - the only way that would make any sort of sense would be if it meant a single individual male human changes shape, rather than several male and female humans have different shapes from each other.

They say his relatives were chimps and apes

More bad grammar... "ancestors were" or "relatives are". If we used to be related to apes, we still are, just more distantly.
And for that matter, chimps *are* apes!

VP81955 said...

One other "OOTW"/"Sabrina" comparison: Maureen Flannigan is only 2 1/2 years older than Melissa Joan Hart, but even though their characters were of comparable age (OK, Sabrina was slightly older than Evie), Flannigan was younger when "OOTW" ended (17) than when Hart began the series as Sabrina (20, so the "teenage witch" wasn't portrayed by a teenager).

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but nothing sucks worse than SMALL WONDER. The juvenile boy's acting alone made it a nightmare to switch away from, like a carwreck.

OUT OF THIS WORLD was better; if it wasn't, then where would THROB land on the suckage hit parade? HIGHCLIFF MANOR? MARBLEHEAD MANOR? Good gravy, there's so many to choose from....

Jaime J. Weinman said...

I think the reason I'm more pissed off by Out of This World than Small Wonder is that OotW had a fairly good cast. With the cast it had, it would have been very hard for Small Wonder to be any better than it was, whereas Out of This World could have been okay if the writers hadn't phoned it in every week.

Kevin W. Martinez said...

The Family Guy Connection

Lois Griffin: Peter, this is the worst thing you've ever done
Peter: What about that time I guest-starred on "Out of This World"?
[Secene cuts to Peter talking to Evie on Out of This World]
Peter: Evie, I just want you to know that I used your fancy party dress to wash my car.
Evie: Oh. Well there's only one thing to do right now.
[Evie "gleeps" Peter into standing completely motionless. roughly 5 minutes of ackward silence transpires]