Monday, July 21, 2014

Ask JKM a Question: The Real Ghostbusters (1986 - 1991)?

A reader, Charles, writes:

“I would like to get your insight on something very near and dear to my heart: The Real Ghostbusters.

I am now 32 years-old, but I have come to realize how much this cartoon influenced my future perceptions and “tastes” in entertainment.

For example, the concept of “continuity” (a central theme most comic books I read) can be traced the RGB episode “Janine You’ve Changed,” which as it turns out was written by the show’s original writer J. Michael Staczynski, who is now a major comic book author.

But on to the more important purpose of this email: I am now a new father (twins). I still love going back and watching these classic episodes, but now I’ve noticed something that never bothered me before.

Is this show—specifically the first three seasons plus the aforementioned “Janine You’ve Changed” —really appropriate for children? It is an odd thing to ask, since I was a child when I watched them and I turned out fine (at least I hope so). But what is the likelihood an animated show like this one would ever make on children’s television today? And, to that extent, what was the likelihood RGB should have even been targeted towards children back when it originally aired?

Although I could comment forever about any number of RGB episodes, I have tried to narrow-down four specific examples. Still, I would love to hear any comments you have about a particular episode(s). I have two primary reasons behind my new-found concerns, with two episodes highlighting each.

1.       Knock, Knock” and “The Grundel”. I mention these episodes for one very simple reason: They are scary. I know so, because, as a child, the scared me. Gave me nightmares.

And, if we are all being honest here, they may still do so every now and then. “Knock Knock” was one of the earliest episodes in the series (maybe even the pilot but I am not sure). But it played on many of the frightening themes and imagery that the show would later explore in more depth. And the fact that this would have been one of the very first episodes produced is yet another example of just how astonishing it seems that the series was allowed to succeed in the first place. 

“The Grundel,” however, was the point in which I believe the series reached its “horror apex”. I found/find so much about this episode frightening —and not just the idea of an evil monster that waits outside your window at night in order to steal children (an idea which has a much older history in folklore as I know you are aware).

Look at the design of the main villain (a giant black trench coat...really?!?!). The pacing of the episode is tight; every frame matters. Even the background music stands out. With all of the visuals in this episode, the scene that really stands out to me might surprise you. It is when Egon is mulling through his library late at night, and a voiceover is used to repeat the conversation he had earlier that day with a young boy. The music in the background is ominous. Suddenly, while flipping through some pages, he reaches an excerpt on a Grundel and realizes just what it was the boy was afraid of. In that moment, as a viewer, I feel almost as startled as Egon.

2.       Chicken, He Clucked” and “Ragnorock and Roll.” These episodes play into some slightly deeper (yet not as alarming) concerns I noticed, which is not to say that there is anything particularly wrong about them. Only that I am simply unsure if children can fully appreciate them.

“Way above their heads”so-to-speak. I remember enjoying these episodes as a child, however entertaining they might have been at the time, but doubt I could ever fully understand what they were talking about.

On one level, “Chicken He Clucked plays out as just another Faustian tale—something that is not unusual in children’s fiction. But it also presents two rather unique perspectives which, as far as I know, have not been reflected elsewhere.

First, it addresses a rather surprisingly odd hypothetical. What if a person wants to sale their soul in exchange for something trivial, perhaps even illogical? Something so ridiculous, even the devil doesn’t understand.

Next, the episode turns the traditional “Devil vs. Daniel Webster” conflict on its head. In typical Faustian fashion, it is the seller who tries to find some way out of his/her deal with the devil. Instead, this time around, it’s the devil (or a devil) who wants out and the seller who demands that the contract be honored. 

Ragnorock and Roll”, on the other hand, is the episode which, looking back, was probably the shining achievement of the entire series (IMO). As a child, this episode didn’t have any greater significance beyond the scary face in the sky. But, looking back, it delves into so many far-reaching concepts (i.e., what it means to be human, ect.). Chief among them are Suffering and Loss. More importantly, how we respond to these events, and just how far we are willing to go in order to act out on those feelings.

I know I have talked rather exhaustively at this point, so I am just going to end my short discussion of “Ragnorock and Roll,” and invite any comments you might have (in addition to anything else).

Andrew: First of all, congratulations on twins!  That’s a lot of work, but also, I’m certain, a lot of joy.

Secondly, I loved reading your analysis of The Real Ghostbusters, and perhaps even more importantly, I can strongly register your passion for the series.

I love the series as well.  When my son, Joel, was four, I purchased the first season on DVD for him, and he has loved it ever since.  We’ve watched the episodes together many times, and I can’t honestly say that he has never been terribly frightened by them, even though the episodes concern the Sandman, the Boogeyman, Doomsday and other monsters. 

Joel’s favorite episode is “When Halloween was Forever,” the one that stars a villain called Samhain, who threatens to trap the world in an eternal Halloween (and eternal night). We must have watched that episode together ten or eleven times.  We’ve also recreated the episode with toys and play-sets and action-figures.  It seems like, for him, it is a seminal influence.

We have also watched "Knock Knock" (the Doomsday episode) several times, and I share your assessment of it as quite effective in its scariness.  The episode is downright creepy.

I believe that the reason both a seven year old and a 44-year old can enjoy the same cartoon series is that the writers -- JMS included – took special pains to fill the series with literary and cinematic/TV tributes and allusions. 

One story recreates Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, for instance, another features a visit to a space station where the crew seems awfully familiar (like the crew of the starship Enterprise…). 

Seeing these references is not necessary to enjoy the stories, which are funny and well-told, but they add something for adults to hold-onto when the going might otherwise be tough.

I am quite happy to say that some modern TV series that I’ve also watched with Joel – from Pokemon to Ben 10 -- attempt the same brand of entertainment, making allusions to other franchises while still telling stories that kids enjoy.  Ben 10, in particular, is great in this regard (favorite episode: “The Con of Wrath,” if that tells you anything…).   And I just watched an episode of Pokemon: Indigo League with Joel that was a remake, essentially, of Yojimbo (1961)

JMS is a clever and cerebral writer, so I suspect that when he took the helm at The Real Ghostbusters he understood that the movie was seen and beloved not only by children, but by teenagers too.  He gambled that, to some extent, the same demographic was going to tune in for the Saturday morning cartoon.  Accordingly, he could play a little loosely with the concept of it as a kid’s show.  I can’t say for sure, but certainly that’s an assumption that makes sense.

I have watched mainly the first season episodes, but I also remember watching the series in my teenage years and feeling that The Real Ghostbusters created a universe not subordinate to what we saw in theaters in 1984, but rather parallel with it. 

I still feel that way.  The series doesn’t feel like kiddie-Ghostbusters, it feels like a TV take on Ghostbusters that just happens to be animated.  The stories are involving, and each has a “horror” hook that if not always terrifying, is certainly compelling.

I am considerably older than you (twelve or thirteen years…) so the TV series that scared me as a kid are a little different.  I remember being thrilled, excited and anxious every time those hissing Sleestak appeared on Land of the Lost (1974 – 1977).  Space: 1999 was very much the same thing.  Episodes such as “Force of Life” and “Dragon’s Domain” stimulated my imagination and scared the Hell out of me and as I’ve said before…I kind of think that can be a good thing for kids. 

Good horror stories reinforce the idea for children that life is valuable, and that furthermore, things aren’t always happy or perfect.  Horror programs also reinforce the idea that you can survive, even though bad things happen. 

I have never been one to believe that kids shouldn’t see TV shows or films that have a horror aspect, but I do believe the parent is responsible for judging appropriateness, and better be certain that the child is ready for what he or she is about to see.

I don’t know that I’ve answered your question or responded with enough specificity about The Real Ghostbusters but having watched the first season in recent years I can affirm that it is a well-written, intelligent and funny series and one that appeals to adults as well as kids. 

When the twins are ready, definitely share your love of the show with them.  And if I may be so bold, go onto E-Bay and buy them some of the toys too.  Holding some of the “ghost” figures in your hand, and playing the “monster” makes the ghouls seem less scary, and more like characters/personalities, from my experience.

Cult-TV Theme Watch: The Mayor

A mayor is the highest-ranking municipal official of a city or town.

Given a mayor’s authority and power, it is no surprise, perhaps that many such governing officials have figured prominently in cult-television history.

In the original Batman (1966 – 1969) for instance, the villain known as The Penguin (Burgess Meredith) ran for the office of Mayor of Gotham City against the Caped Crusader (Adam West) himself in “Hizzonner the Penguin/Dizzoner the Penguin.” 

On The Simpsons (1990 – present), Mayor Hemby -- a Kennedy sound-alike -- runs the town of Springfield…incompetently.

And on Smallville (2001 – 2011), the Mayor of Clark Kent’s Kansas home-town was none other than The X-Files’ Cigarette Smoking Man, William B. Davis.

Cult-TV’s most famous mayor, however, remains his honor Richard Wilkins (Harry Groener) of Sunnydale.

Mayor Wilkins was the (delightful) “big bad” for the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003), and sought to control all of the burg’s power and direct it towards his own “ascension” to full demonic form.

Unfortunately for Buffy the Scooby Gang, the Mayor’s ascension coincided with the high school’s graduation ceremony…

Recently, another evil Mayor has darkened our TV screens.  On ABC’s Once Upon a Time (2011 - ) Lana Parilla plays Mayor Regina Mills of Storybrooke…really Wonderland’s Evil Queen. 

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Mayor

Identified by Hugh: Batman


Identified by Hugh: Northern Exposure

Identified by Hugh: The Simpsons

Identified by Hugh: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Identified by Carl: Doctor Who: "Boomtown"

Identified by Hugh: True Blood


Identified by Hugh: Eureka

Identified by Hugh: Once Upon a Tie

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week: Sunshine (2007)

"At the end of time, a moment will come when just one man remains. Then the moment will pass.  Man will be gone. There will be nothing to show that we were ever here...but stardust."

- Sunshine (2007).

Sunday, July 20, 2014

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Cult-TV Flashback: Beauty and the Beast (1987 - 1990): "Once Upon a Time in New York"

Twenty-five years ago, all the way back in 1987, a fairy tale came to vivid life on our television sets. This was the year that Star Trek returned (The Next Generation), but it was also the year that the story of "Beauty and the Beast" was re-imagined for prime-time television on CBS. The series ran for three years and drew good ratings for a time. More to the point, it earned a great deal of fan devotion.  Today, it has even been remade on the CW, at least after a fashion.

Today, watching the pilot episode of the original, one can determine clearly why the series was so beloved. Beauty and the Beast is indeed a fairy tale, a very specific form of "escapism."

Accordingly the series opens with a meaningful conjunction of fantasy and reality. The opening legend reads: "Once upon a time," the classic first line of all great fairy tales, and then adds for good measure " the city of New York," thus making viewers aware this will be a modern story, in other words, a fairy tale with a unique twist.

In 1987 (as today...) we desperately needed good, moral fairy tales like the one this series provided. Urban crime rates were at their highest in recorded American history and the "greed is good decade" had taken its toll on the country and the economy. At the top of the social ladder were the yuppies -- young upwardly mobile professionals -- vying for stock options and corner offices, and at the bottom of the heap were President Reagan's forgotten Americans, the homeless whom publicly he deemed "homeless by choice." Their ranks swelled in the 1980s. By the millions. This was also the time of Gordon Gekko, or in real life, Ivan Boesky. It was an era when criminals made millions on Wall Street, and when violent wildings occurred in Central Park.

And, it must be pointed out, Beauty and the Beast came to television just when racism -- and racial tension -- was again becoming major national news. There was the Howard Beach incident of December 20, 1986 and the Tawana Brawley incident of November 28, 1987, to name but two such attention-grabbing headlines. But the issue was clear: the racial divide had not been healed in America. And what is "racism" if not the "fear of the other," the person who is "different" from one's self?

Beauty and The Beast successful addresses and incorporates all these facets of American culture in the late 1980s, and so today practically reads as a time capsule of the epoch.  So imagine if you will, one Friday night in 1987. When - without warning or preamble - a fantasy world appears on your television set, a classic fairy tale made modern and relevant.

In this first episode by Ron Koslow (and directed by the brilliant Richard Franklin, of Psycho 2 fame), the ugly "above" world of New York, that of corporations and yuppies, is revealed (literally...) to be a nightmare for lead character Catherine Chandler (Linda Hamilton).

She's stuck with a smarmy business-man fiance, Tom (Ray Wise), working a thankless job as a corporate lawyer, and wondering what her life is really all about.

After an argument with Tom, Catherine leaves a party early one night and runs smack into the realities of street crime. She's abducted by several thugs, taken to a van...and cut with a knife. Her face scarred, she's dumped in a park and left to die...bleeding.

Later, when she re-imagines this crime as a dream phantasm, Catherine sees Tom and his circle of friends mocking her. Her co-workers do so as well. They have no sympathy for the victim of a violent crime, and instead mock her. Why? Well, because she's scarred, and in 1980s America (the U.S.A. of aerobics and Perfect [1985]) the one thing you can't be if you hope to be ugly.

Near death that terrible night, Catherine is miraculously rescued by an unusual stranger. On this strange, fog-shrouded evening, a colossal, shadowy figure named Vincent rescues her and brings her to his subterranean home, to the world underneath or The World Below. He brings her to the world where the poor and disenfranchised live...unnoticed....forgotten. But Vincent's world, beneath the city and beneath the subways, is not one of sadness, desolation or hopelessness.

On the contrary, as he establishes to Catherine quite early in the show, "You're safe here." In this underworld, he claims "no one can hurt you."  This is quite different from the street crime above, and the white-collar crime of Tom's world. Catherine feels safe there, and begins a friendship with Vincent, who reads to her passages from Great Expectations while her wounds heal.

You probably know the rest of the story. Vincent (Ron Perlman) is a survivor too, a strange, hulking lion-man. And he develops a bond with Catherine, an empathic one. So that even once she's healed and returned to the world above (now re-born with purpose as a crusading district attorney...), he is still "bonded" to her.

That synopsis may sound cheesy in a society obsessed with grim, gritty reality in its entertainment, but this is a fantasy after all, and a lovely one at that. Vincent makes for a classic hero, not just physically powerful, but also gentle, intellectual and highly moral. And Catherine, of course, is strong and resourceful.  They make a perfect fantasy (and TV couple).

But what makes Beauty and the Beast such a wonderful and rewarding viewing experience, even today, isn't just the romance, it's the very world the TV series so carefully forges. Like Star Trek, this is a highly moral universe, one about people who work hard to do the right thing and take care of each other even when it isn't easy to do that. The World Below is a fantasy utopia, in a sense, but Beauty and the Beast crafts a world, like that of the 23rd or 24th Century that viewers can feel good about escaping to.

With admiration, I noted while watching how Koslow's screenplay for the pilot creates the character of Vincent and how Perlman interprets it. He's a man of deep feelings, with a deep-seated sense of right and wrong. Unlike many heroes of our cynical time, when Vincent commits violence, it's clear he feels shame. Here, we see it in a close-up of his eyes after he's killed a thug trying to hurt Catherine. For him, violence isn't something to be relished.

No, it's part of his dark side; not the good side that his father (Roy Dotrice) says boasts "the soul of a doctor." 

I also appreciate how Vincent sees New York, or "the world above." It's a world of "frightened people," he says, where his face -- a different face -- reflects the "aloneness" of others. This is great fairy tale stuff, and almost explicitly a comment on racism. Vincent hides in the shadows, lives in darkness, not because he is ugly (he isn't...), but merely because he is different. And differences -- in this world -- are to be feared.

Although now twenty-five years old, Beauty and the Beast, especially in this pilot is dominated by great production values and filled with wondrous sets. There are long spiral staircases leading down, down into the golden-bronze underworld. There are libraries stacked with books, cut from solid rock. In one iconic shot composed entirely for its visual poetry and dynamism, Catherine is depicted walking away from Vincent -- in silhouette -- into a blue ray of light.

Also, there's a brilliantly crafted moment in the middle of the show wherein Vincent begins to describe the fairy tale world beneath the city, "where the people care for one another." Instead of focusing on a close-up of the character, or of Catherine, for that matter, director Franklin chooses instead to pan across Vincent's room...a place of books and trinkets and statuary. We "see" the world he is describing as he describes it. Many moments in this pilot feel equally cinematic.  I don’t want to diss the remake, but it plainly doesn’t feature this kind of timeless feel.

The writing here is also good...and often downright poetic. There will be those cynics who can't stomach the genuine sense of romance on display here, the slightly purple prose, or the syrupy music. Yet Beauty and the Beast isn't just a fairy tale, it's a romance...a love story. So, if you ask me, the violins are perfectly appropriate, and even welcome. And I believe the series writers' were correct to make Vincent speak in a manner of almost Shakespearean classicism and greatness.

The purpose of a program like this is indeed "wish fulfillment," the idea that we can step into a tunnel and walk into a utopian world below the streets, Vincent's world. It would not be appealing or interesting if everyone there spoke in the exact same manner as those of the "above" world.  We need plenty of distinctions between the World Above and the World Below, and Vincent’s language is one of them.

The romance between Catherine and Vincent is timeless, tragic and touching, and therefore their mode of expression must be grand, rarefied and poetic. We've seen sparks fly on television before (the banter of Moonlighting, the back and forth of The X-Files), but rarely before (and rarely since...) has a love story been vetted for the masses with such an august sense of style, and such an authentic heartbeat.

There's a literary feeling to the writing here that is also surprising. The dialogue feels like it would be better read in a book then actually spoken by actors. But, by the same token, it's highly individual and original. Some people really won't like it, or may term it over-the-top and corny. But hey, I can appreciate a show that wears its heart on its sleeve.

Today, Beauty and the Beast feels remarkably un-cynical, and pulses with an open, romantic heart.

Outré Intro: Beauty and the Beast (1987 - 1990)

The romantic Beauty and the Beast (1987 - 1990) ran on CBS for three years, and drew a strong fan following. The series starred Ron Perlman as Vincent, the titular "beast" and Linda Hamilton as Catherine, the "Beauty."  I have always enjoyed the series tremendously as a modern day fairy tale and romance, a kind of spiritual predecessor to such programming as Grimm or Once Upon a Time.

The series' introductory montage captures beautifully the fairy tale aspects of the series. The montage is separated into two parts, essentially.  

Vincent (Perlman) narrates "The World Above," the first part which concerns Catherine's life in NYC, a place where "the beautiful rule."  

The second part of the montage is narrated by Catherine (Hamilton) and involved "The World Below," Vincent's "secret place...far below the city streets" where tunnel folk like Vincent are "safe from hate."

What I enjoy especially about this set-up is that each character discusses the world that he/she is separated from, not his or her own.

We begin with the Big Apple, an urban wonderland (as opposed to The Equalizer's urban jungle...).  

As night falls, we see the lights of the city twinkling like stars, and get the series title card: Beauty and the Beast.

Then, Vincent's narration tells us that his urban wonderland is a place where the "powerful rule," and as if for evidence, we see images of rich people -- in tuxedos, no less -- getting into a limo. 

The visual implication is that this is a place not merely for the powerful, but for the ultra-wealthy.  It is their immoral playground.  They exist in ignorance of the other world (The World Below) but also in ignorance that there is any place where people are poor, or starving, or suffering.  Instead, they are shuttled from one party to the next.

Coming up next in the montage, we get a Juliet on her balcony moment, so-to-speak.  Vincent speaks on the soundtrack about the first time he saw Catherine.  "From the moment I saw her, she captured my heart," he reveals, and the images depict beautiful Catherine stepping out onto the balcony, looking down below (by inference, at Vincent's world.).

Notice that in virtually all these shots, including the ones that introduce series star Linda Hamilton, there seems to be a sadness or wistfulness about Catherine.  It is as if something is missing from her life, and again, by inference that seems to be the friendship and kinship she feels towards Vincent.

In the next sequence of the series' introductory montage, Catherine crosses a busy metropolitan street, and the camera pans down to a vent or grate on the ground.  We go down through it, and get our first look at the World Below.

Notice the color-shift as we move to the World Below. The stairwell is lit by a warm, apricot light, a golden hue that strongly contrasts with the harsh silver of the grate/vent in the previous image.

As Catherine discusses Vincent's world, we get several views of its landscape.  As opposed to rich people partying and celebrating in decadence, we see stacks of books, suggesting learning, and views of humble living quarters.

Then -- again in stark opposition to the leisure of the rich we witnessed earlier -- we see Vincent offering a helping hand to Catherine, pulling her toward him.  The visual suggestion is thus that this is a world where people help one another, touch one another, and connect with one another.  

Finally, a few shadowy views of Vincent himself.  

At this juncture, he appears more a Shakespearean hero than a "beast."   This appearance suggest Vincent's heart.  He is a scholar and a gentle-creature, but one who can -- as his face suggests -- be roused to righteous anger.

Finally, the last shots of the montage reveal Catherine walking into the world of Vincent, the World Below, and appearing within a beam of light, almost a Heavenly light.  

Is is as though she finds salvation here, in this more meaningful, less-materialistic World Below.  And in a time when Yuppie values dominated the culture, such pointed imagery was meaningful.  A woman who moves in the "beautiful" world finds meaning not with the wealthy or powerful, but with the disenfranchised who read books, take care of one another, and form a genuine community.

Below, you can see the lovely montage in action.  The romantic theme music is by Mark Isham.