(The following article is largely a stream-of-consciousness ramble where I complain like a grumpy old man about what’s wrong with television these days in ways which are occasionally self-contradictory. You have been warned)
It is December 5, 1987. Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a Place on Earth, a song which to my mind is pretty much the iconic piece of late ’80s female pop, unseats (I’ve Had) The Time of my Life in thnumber one spot on the Billboard charts. The rest of the Top 10 consists of Sting, George Michael, Richard Marx, Debbie Gibson, Whitesnake, Whitney Houston, Jody Watley, and REM, who are going to be bumped off next week by George Harrison. Connie Sellica is on the cover of TV Guide, along with a headline asking if it’s reasonable to expect TV news to issue corrections when they get important facts wrong, because it’s still the ’80s, and we haven’t yet decided that the answer is “Nope. Not even if they do it on purpose.” In prime time, there’s a repeat of The Twilight Zone‘s adaptation of “Button, Button”. They change the ending, and I think their ending is a lot better. Richard Matheson disagrees, but what would he know, he’s just the writer. That story is also the basis of the 2009 movie The Box, which mangles the whole thing into an international conspiracy action-thriller.
In the backwoods of syndication, Out of this World has its last episode before the winter break. It’s a show I’ve mentioned before, one of that cluster of late ’80s high-concept sitcoms. I don’t have a huge amount to say about it really, but I am shamelessly padding out a buffer of spare stories to run so that I can pretend I am working to some kind of a schedule for the benefit of the six or seven people who read this blog on a regular basis. I feel like I watched a lot of TV as a child, but I’ll be damned if I can remember much of it. This is kind of doubly strange because I can remember re-encountering a lot of shows from my youth later and being surprised by how little I remembered. I remember remembering that I had forgotten. Meta enough for you?
When I started watching, for instance, Knight Rider reruns on USA around 1995, it quickly became clear to me that I basically remembered nothing at all about that show from my youth other than the fact that it had existed (I very distinctly remember, at 16, being absolutely sure of the details of one particular episode which turned out to be a pastiche of random plot elements and lines of dialogue from “Soul Survivor”, “KITT vs KARR”, “Knight of the Juggernaut”, “Lost Knight”, and “Junkard Dog”). I remember the details of it better now, thirty years after it first aired than I did twenty years ago.
And this little cluster, ALF, Small Wonder, Out of this World and the rest, by 1995, there’s just nothing in my recollection about them, and we’re talking about less than five years here. That’s about the same length of time as I’ve been married. Poking back at one’s childhood memories can be distressing. The memory cheats, as some dead asshole used to say. Much of what you think you remember is fabricated. You forget a lot, but even more than that, you’re a different person now than you were then, and like a botched OS upgrade, not all of the old software is compatible.
I keep bringing up 1995 because 1995 is in one sense where “me” started. Plainly not in the literal, physical sense, of course. But in 1995, I got my driver’s license, and I had proper internet access for the first time and started doing things like posting in online forums like USENET and The Dominion and buying seven year old clearance VHS tapes. This was the first time I really existed — peripherally at this point — in the domain of “grown-up” rather than “child”. The “me” that exists now, the one that pretty much popped into existence on December 12, 2011, is very much a descendant of 1995-me, much more recognizably so than of the “me” that opened his eyes in the living room, in his pajamas, some time very late in 1982 and was suddenly surprised to discover his own existence as a continuous conscious entity with extension in space and time who maintained an identity from one moment to the next, and had no idea what any of that meant, but all the same instantly recognized that something very important had just happened, even if he’d never be able to explain it. The 1995 version of me would be able to explain that, because when the 1995 version of me was four years old, he took a Modernism class.
The thing that led me, eventually, to remember that Out of this World had existed, some time in the first decade of the twenty-first century, and subsequently track down an incomplete set of bootlegs, was its theme song. Out of this World‘s opening theme is an adaptation of “Swinging on a Star”, a song which I most often see credited to Sinatra, but was first recorded by Bing Crosby, though pretty much every major crooner of the era has done a cover. Appropriately, there’s a corresponding level of confusion about who did this cover; I’ve seen it attributed to David Lee Roth and/or Van Halen (probably by people who looked it up, saw who wrote it, but stopped reading at “Van H” before going on to “eusen”), and, unsurprisingly, Sinatra. The show itself isn’t much help here; the only music credit is music director Kevin Kiner, who in the intervening years worked his way up through shows like Super Force and Carnosaur 3 and Walker Texas Ranger, to the point where now he’s a properly renowned soundtrack composer doing stuff like Star Wars: The Clone Wars and CSI: Miami and is way too famous for a guy like me to pester with an email asking him who sang the Bing Crosby cover for a sitcom he worked on twenty-five years ago for the sake of a stream-of-consciousness-y blog post that’s being written largely as filler and purely for the benefit of the tens of readers I get. (But, like, Mr. Kiner, if you happen to be googling yourself one day and see this and remember who it was, feel free to leave a comment).
A few years ago, in some context or other, I heard Tony Bennet’s cover of “Swinging on a Star”, and was surprised that I didn’t recognize the lyrics: the verses of the song offer cute caricatures of the limitations of various animals, proposed as an alternative to the potential of humanity. The version I remembered, on the other hand, was told from the point of view of some higher form of life, waxing affectionately about the pastoral simplicity of the “plain as can be” humans. The proper song evolved out of an admonition from Bing to one of his children, specifically, “By the way, if you hate to go to school, you may grow up to be a mule”, and ending with the suggestion, “You can be better than you are: you could be swingin’ on a star.” My remembered version instead suggests, “If you take my advice for what it’s worth, you could be happy here on Earth.” So I did a little poking and managed to sort out the name of this obscure old first-run-syndication sitcom from a year that increasingly strikes me as the nexus of all realities.
First-run syndicated sit-com. There’s a phrase you never hear any more. Heck, “first-run syndication” isn’t a phrase you hear much any more. The nexus of all realities, the fall 1987-spring 1988 broadcast television season, may have been its high point. Bizarre as it may seem now, in 1987, there were something like 245 independent television stations in the United States. I’m talking about television stations which weren’t part of any of the broadcast television networks — not ABC, not NBC, and not CBS. And for the first time, also not FOX: this was the inaugural season for FOX as a prime time television network, and that’s really the reason that first-run syndication would never be as big again as it is here in the nexus.
When I was a child, we were lucky, in that with a fair wind, we could pick up 13 broadcast stations (admittedly, not all at the same time). If the wind was south-southeast, we got the Baltimore channels, WMAR-2 (NBC), WBAL-11 (CBS) and WJZ-13 (ABC) (If you are about to tell me I got the network affiliations wrong, Baltimore did a “network shuffle” in the 90s, with the big three moving over one. This was characterized in the media as hopelessly confusing and possibly a sign that the end times were upon us), along with the unaffiliated channels WKJL-24, WNUV-54 and WBFF-45, as well as the Annapolis PBS station, WMPT-22. If atmospheric conditions were more favorable over central Maryland than over the bay, our channels were WRC-4 (NBC), WJLA-7 (ABC) and WUSA-9 (CBS), with WTTG-5 and WDCA-20 as independents and the DC-area PBS affiliate WETA-26. There was also an independent channel on WFTY-50, but I think we only actually got that one during hurricanes.
It was a wild and free time for a while. WKJL was ostensibly a Christian-themed network, but for a span of a year or two, just before the nexus, they padded out their lineup with a couple of hours of black-and-white reruns: The Twilight Zone, The Honeymooners, and Laurel & Hardy shorts. This was my introduction to all three of them, and one of my fond early childhood memories is reclining with my dad in his bedroom, staring intently at an ancient thirteen-inch TV with the wire coat hanger pinned behind the UHF leads, watching Rod Serling or Jackie Gleason or Oliver Hardy as he drifted off to sleep. By the time the nexus hit, WKJL had been sold to the Home Shopping Network, WBFF and WTTG were owned by Fox, and WDCA and WNUV had developed a loose affiliation with Paramount that would eventually evolve into UPN.
In 1987, it was novel and slightly risible that some Australian upstart would have the uppityness to declare itself a fourth network. Heck, the old timers were still making jokes that challenged the legitimacy of ABC. By the late 90s, there would be UPN and the WB and later the CW, and later still “MyNetworkTV”, which I only know exists because I had to look up channel 50’s callsign, because I joined the TiVoLution back in 2003 and have not watched broadcast TV in about a decade. But in 1987, there were a lot of channels that needed to buy their programs one at a time — and for that matter, there were a fair number of hours in the day when the networks weren’t responsible for local programming. You had TV shows — successful ones — that weren’t affiliated with one particular network, that didn’t air in every viewing area, that didn’t even air at the same time across the country. Captain Power was one. Star Trek the Next Generation was one. Even weirder, network sitcoms frequently eked out a few declining years in syndication: Silver Spoons, Webster, Too Close for Comfort, WKRP in Cincinatti, Charles in Charge, Punky Brewster and many other shows which you have not heard of but which I fondly remember as… having… existed….
This stopped happening in the ’90s, near as I can tell. The only ones I could find dating later than 1993 were Saved By the Bell – style Teen Comedies. First-run syndication remained the dominant model for sci-fi and fantasy adventure series through the 90s, but that too petered out as cable got bolder and anything worth watching got gobbled up by Sci-Fi and Spike. Even children’s programming, which was pretty much 100% syndication, declined greatly as kid-oriented cable channels became more popular, leaving broadcast to a profitable future showing talk shows and infomercials. These days, first-run syndication is pretty much down to gameshows and the somehow-even-less-good unscripted “reality” shows.
Why did syndicated sitcoms go away? Beyond the general decline of first-run syndication, sitcoms in general have also been in a bit of a slump for years. I think probably Seinfeld and Friends had a lot to do with it. Suddenly, the requirement for a sitcom stopped being “Show about a family, probably in suburban California, with a mouthy kid and an interesting quirk, such as ‘Working Mom/Stay at home dad’, ‘Wealthy and successful African Americans’, ‘Green Card Marriage’, or ‘Alien houseguest with a dong-shaped nose’,” and started being “Let’s hire a well-known performer, preferably a stand-up comedian, with an enjoyable quirk and basically have him play himself.” And that required more of an investment than you could make without network backing. Meanwhile, the visual and storytelling style of TV evolved and merged with that of film, and that called for a more “naturalistic” frame, doing stuff like shooting on film and having big sets and no studio audiences and one camera that moved around with the actors, and that was a problem for sitcoms in two ways: first, the sitcom thrives, even revels in artifice. Sitcoms are fundamentally a construction of cliches, catchphrases, stock setups, stock reveals: they are in a certain sense a kind of comedy ballet. And ballet is many things, but “natural” isn’t any of them. Sitcoms are part of the theatrical heritage of TV that wasn’t inherited by film: the format is an evolution of comedy sketches from variety shows — literally in some cases: The Honeymooners (from The Jackie Gleason Show), Mama’s Family (from The Carol Burnett Show), and even The Simpsons (from The Tracy Ullman Show), and that heritage is a big part of what was jettisoned to make TV work more like film. More to the point, the biggest sell for sitcoms, to broadcasters at least, has always been that they are exceedingly cheap. But you start requiring a big star and film stock and a steadicam and actual writers instead of a Cards Against Humanity deck and an electric card shuffler, and the economics just don’t work out.
Also, as successful as Seinfeld and Friends were, about ten minutes after they ended, we all woke up and realized that they were utterly loathsome shows about utterly loathsome people and could we go back to the mouthy kids and phallic aliens please.
But let’s get back to business. The high concept of Out of this World is that on her thirteenth birthday, Typical Suburban California Teenager Evie Ethel Garland learns that the reason that she hasn’t seen her father Troy since she was an infant is not, as she’d been told, that he’s a government agent on a deep-cover mission abroad, but rather that he’s an alien from the planet Antareus, who was recalled shortly after she was born to fight and or mediate in a space war.
Hijinks ensue. Now that she’s hit menarche, she gets to be let in on the family secret, which comes with a cuboid glass sculpture that lets her summon the voice of Burt Reynolds and the first of several magical alien powers that start out rigorously defined but get sort of vague and lacksidasical as the series progr– you know what? Let me simplify this for you: It’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch. It just is. Like, half the episode plots are the same.
Sabrina Spellman was a character created in the 1960s for Archie comics. Yes, that Archie. The one who teamed up with The Punisher. She’d already been adapted for TV in the 1970s in the Filmation mildly-animated series Sabrina and the Groovy Ghoulies, which had roughly the same plot as Duckula, but the canonical version of her backstory is the one used by the 1996 ABC sitcom: Sabrina, born to a human mother and a witch father learns on her sixteenth birthday that she, like the aunts who’ve raised her, possesses magical abilities. And a talking cat. It was probably the best work Melissa Joan Hart has ever done (though possibly not as important to the history of children’s television as Clarissa Explains it All, which I’m told is very good, but was on at an inconvenient time slot for me, and probably proved female-led tween comedy was commercially viable, thus creating the universe in which the existence of Miley Cyrus was possible), unless you are a masochist and prefer Melissa and Joey. The series would follow Sabrina over the course of seven seasons and a network hop as she learned to use her abilities and deal with life’s challenges in both the mortal and supernatural worlds.
Only not really; the one moral lesson of this series turns out to be “Don’t use your supernatural powers for anything ever.” Learning this takes Sabrina approximately one hundred and sixty episodes of spells backfiring, misfiring, having unexpected side-effects, or working to spec but being morally wrong because it impinges on someone’s free will or makes life too easy or undermines the premise of the show. She finally does get it late in the show’s final season, whereupon the moral, realizing the gig is up, promptly changes to “Don’t deny your true nature,” in order that she can continue being wrong for the remaining three episodes as she tries to not use magic to solve her problems.
I was only vaguely aware of Sabrina for most of its run, but some time prior to its last season, I discovered that Soleil Moon Frye had joined the cast and took an interest largely because its mid-morning basic cable rerun was the only show that my TiVo considered worthy of recording during the hour between when I watched the previous night’s The Daily Show and when I got home from my grad school database class. I found the early seasons fairly tedious, but on balance, it was a nice enough show, a bit like Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie, but with the reactionary fantasy elements downplayed — there was still that nasty element of “Young Woman has to hide the fact that she is powerful and hypercapable in order to avoid spooking the squares,” that you see in pretty much every show with a magically empowered female protagonist, but it was comparatively downplayed, largely because Sabrina so frequently interacted with other magical characters and because the ensemble cast was predominantly female. Even better: though the cast was predominantly female, the majority of stories weren’t specifically coded as female-narratives — Sabrina’s typical life-challenges were things like learning to drive, getting and holding a job, balancing competing responsibilities, making amends after accidentally injuring Santa Claus, or discovering the magical secret hidden in her family tree; love triangles, make-up and mean girls, while present, didn’t dominate the narrative.
So the areas where I found Sabrina grating weren’t its gender politics, but its hamfisted morality. Sabrina’s driving test is administered by an unfair proctor who orders her to park in a space visibly smaller than her car, so she uses magic to enlarge the space: moral failure, prompting karmic revenge when she immediately crashes her car since she isn’t really qualified to drive it as she doesn’t know how to… violate the basic principles of geometry without using magic. To fully qualify as a witch, Sabrina must determine her “family secret”. Cue a season of her constantly being berated for her stupidity and laziness for not having solved it yet. Except that the family secret can only be revealed by solving a rebus, which is given to her one image at a time, with all the important words left till the very end, meaning that it would be, again, literally impossible to solve it from the clues she has until the very last episode of the arc. The one time she actually does try to take initiative to sort it out herself ahead of time, it turns out that’s cheating too since it counts as using outside help.
And then there’s Harvey. Sabrina’s boyfriend for the first four seasons is written out for half of season five with the explanation that they’d broken up off-screen after he finally learned of her true nature in the fourth season finale. His character arc for the remainder of the series is, roughly, that Harvey now has to be the butt-monkey in order to achieve karmic redemption for the breakup — he’s only ever characterized as having been scared, or shallow, or bigoted or whatever. Never once does anyone suggest that his motivations in the breakup might have had something to do with the realization that his girlfriend had been lying to him for years, occasionally placing him in mortal danger, rewriting his personality to her whims, physically mutilating him, and then erasing his memory to maintain the charade. Because, y’know, that’s no big deal.
Harvey gets the girl in the end, of course he does; that’s TV-law: when a man has paid his dues, he gets the girl, just like Ross Geller and Steve Urkel and a hundred other sitcom protagonists I want to punch. This in itself is saved from being abhorrent by the fact that, aside from the outcome, Harvey doesn’t follow the That Guy archetype: he doesn’t stalk, doesn’t passive-aggressively pursue, doesn’t get turned down time and again but keep persisting. He doesn’t do anything but try to be a genuine friend, and when he does acknowledge his continuing feelings for Sabrina, he leaves rather than become That Guy. But just to complicate things, the show’s morality goes all over the place as it comes to a close: after years of being told, week-after-week, not to use magic to solve her problems, Sabrina decides to give up magic for good, only to learn that her magic is part of who she is and it’s wrong to hide from that. In the series finale, as she prepares to marry this season’s love interest, she predictably runs to magic for a solution to what seems to be an ordinary case of pre-wedding jitters, and finds that the magic stones representing her and her betrothed’s respective souls don’t properly interlock. What follows is a two-parter hammering home the long-standing series moral about how she shouldn’t rely on magic to solve mortal problems and should follow her heart and do the thing she wants to do and not listen to magic rocks, so… She decides to run off with Harvey (whose magic soul rock of course interlocks perfectly with hers, IYKWIM) instead. So… I guess the moral is “Actually, magic rocks know how you really feel and you should yield to their judgment.” Blecch.
But I have now spend most of four thousand words of an article about Out of this World talking about shows that aren’t Out of this World. This article’s gone a bit pear-shaped. The hamfisted moral dimension of Sabrina the Teenage Witch is the area in which the show is most different from Out of this World. Out of this World is very big on silly walks and one-liners, and not so much on the Aesop. Actually, that’s saying too much. OotW is fairly normal for sitcoms of its period about delivering heavy-handed life lessons, usually some variation on “Don’t go jumping to conclusions based on having partially overheard one side of someone else’s conversation,” just not so much on the Space Whale side of it. When Evie uses her
magic alien powers to win a music competition… She’s allowed to win and reap the rewards. When she stops time to give someone unpleasant their comeuppance, they are come-uppened and the whole thing does not backfire on her for the sin of not just passively accepting the unfairness of the status quo. You’d occasionally have Troy deliver a Full House-style moral to Evie at the end when she called him on the cube for the tag, but as often as not, any moral weight would be undercut by the cultural differences between Antareus and Earth (ie. “The cheap joke where Troy’s advice to Evie would only be applicable in a methane atmosphere.”).
Stopping time is her major power, by the way. And in a diagetic way, not like how Zach Morris could call a time-out to have an aside with the audience. In fact, I probably should have lead with that, because half of you would have known what show I’ve been talking about if I’d started out with “It’s the one about the girl who could stop time.” She gains other abilities as the show goes on, primarily “conjure non-plot-breaking objects out of thin air,” and one time she gave herself a sex-change, but stopping time remains the one people remember. Out of this World was in most respects, a simpler kind of show than Sabrina. Evie had a smaller repertoire of powers, and the alien world, unlike Sabrina’s Other Realm, was only present via Troy’s phone calls. Accordingly, while almost every episode of Sabrina juxtaposed mortal-world teenage struggles and tribulations with Sabrina’s unique difficulties as a supernatural being, Out of this World more often stayed closer to earth, only making a point of Evie’s alien-specific challenges on occasion. Most of the time, the extent to which her alien heritage was relevant to the unfolding of an episode amounted to “At a critical moment, she stops time so that she can discreetly disabuse her mother or uncle of a key misconception before it leads to an awkward social situation.”
Relatedly, while the laugh track disagrees with me here, the actual humor in the show is not hugely situational. I suppose it’s a bit amusing when they freeze-frame an obligatory vase mid-fall, and presumably someone still finds humor in “Fat uncle Beano desires romance despite the fact that he is fat and named ‘Beano’, and we all know people like that do not merit love,” but much more of the comedy comes in the form of, as I said before, one-liners and silly walks. The funnier bits of Out of this World are Evie’s snappy retorts. Sure, they feel very performative: it’s not how real people talk, and real teenagers aren’t that clever. But Maureen Flannigan has surprisingly good comedic timing and delivery for such a young actress. She strikes me as being very much like an ’80s version of Kristen Bell. It doesn’t seem like she’s gotten the prominence her work merits since OotW; her most prominent post-Evie role was as a girlfriend on 7th Heaven.
The “funny walks” are provided by the rest of the cast, primarily Buzz Belmondo as “Buzz”, and later Peter Pitofsky as “Peter” (A lot of Tony Danza-ing in this show. Evie’s mother, Donna, is played by Donna Pescow). They both play these weird cloudcuccolander-types who are just sort of there, not usually integrated into the plot of the episode at all, but just turning up to do a brief physical comedy sketch for no clear reason based around slapstick and pratfalls, structured quite a lot like a Mr. Bean sketch done on the cheap. Buzz is also doing a Funny Foreigner schtick, like Cousin Balki turned up to eleven. I’m struggling to remember if this was a “thing” in late ’80s sitcoms, and I’m coming up blank. Sure, the “wacky neighbor” archetype is one of the most Arch of the Arch Sitcom Tropes, but I’m hard-pressed to think of one so obviously and shamelessly tacked-on as Buzz. It’s almost like he’s actually just visiting from another show that’s taking place down the street or something.
Another thing that’s slightly weird about Out of this World is that all the male characters — every single one of them — is really goofy. Sure, it’s a sitcom, so you expect people to be a bit on the goofy side, but this is 1987, well before the standard “mode” of male characters in comedy became “Mentally handicapped sexually precocious toddler.” You expect some silliness, but also at least one “straight man”, and you expect there to be a “dad”-archetype who sits the kids down at the end of the episode and explains the moral to them while the simulated orchestra plays something sappy — I mean, it’s 1987, Full House has literally just premiered. Instead, our male characters are Buzz, Peter, Uncle Beano (Really, just saying his name should tell you everything you need to know about Uncle Beano), and a character played by veteran western actor Doug McClure (you might remember him from such things as being half of the inspiration for Phil Hartman’s “Troy McClure” character on The Simpsons), who’s called “Kyle Applegate”, but is pretty much just Doug McClure — a veteran western actor whose star has long-since waned, who got himself a vanity job as mayor of a small town out of a desperate need to feel important, despite the fact that he’s dangerously unqualified to govern so much as an ant farm. Did I mention the cast is very very male? There’s a lot of recurring characters of both genders, but Evie and her mother are the only female regulars. That’s not too surprising: Hollywood wasn’t great at creating female characters outside of a few narrowly defined types back then (a fact which is easily proven by noticing that Hollywood isn’t great at it now, despite having gotten consistently better over the past quarter-century), but it’s strange to see it in a show where all the men are goofy, while the women are the more serious characters. I’m not used to seeing women as the moral authorities in a comedy show of this era except in the female-dominated shows. The sitcoms I can recall where a woman is the sole (You had, of course, lots of shows in the “Mom and Dad are both responsible adults” vein, of course) “responsible adult”-type character tend to have between zero and one male regulars. I mean, contrast with Second Chance from a couple of weeks ago, where the idea of a single mother being the “responsible adult” ensuring a teenager’s evolution into an upstanding and moral adult was treated as something that required literal divine intervention to fix. There is never any implication that Kyle, Beano or Buzz are anything even remotely like surrogate fathers for Evie, nor is it ever seriously entertained that she might need one. On the contrary, Evie is consistently more mature and more moral than any character on the show other than her mother.
In all, it’s a weird and funny little show. The ’90s are going to see the face of sitcoms change dramatically, but I think you can see little hints of new trends emerging here: while it still follows a variation on the “classic” sitcom setup, it’s drawing a lot of its humor from “weirdo with a funny schtick” characters, much more than you typically did in an ’80s sitcom. It leaned heavily on “Male characters are hopeless buffoons rather than competent leaders” years before Home Improvement and The Simpsons would elevate that model to be the new standard (The Simpsons, I note, has already premiered by now in its Variety-Show-Sketch form, but at this stage, Homer’s buffoonishness hasn’t become the character’s defining trait yet).
I know I started out promising this would be a pointless ramble, but I think I may yet find a point to get to in all of this, and it’s why I meandered off for half of this article to talk about a different show altogether. If there’s one point I’ve tried to hammer home in this series, at least since I’ve been back from hiatus, it’s that the past is very much a different country, and TV Past is an even more different one. In 1987, DL Wood had an idea for (At least, I assume he did. There’s a weird credit to him as “Based on a format by,” which I have otherwise only ever seen on game shows. I am guessing it means the same thing as “Original concept by”) a show about a cute blonde teenager who inherited weird powers from her non-human father. Nine years later, Nell Scovell came up with more or less the exact same idea. But despite the fact that the two shows have the same brief, a lot of the same episode plots, an a large number of similar characters (Though Sabrina starts out much more venial and ends up much more socially conscious, her temperament and sense of humor are very similar to Evie’s; Harvey’s personality is very close to Evie’s off-and-on boyfriend Chris; and there’s a lot in Zelda and Hilda that can be compared to Donna and Beano, and Salem often fills the same narrative role as Troy), the shows are very different stylistically. Out of this World is a lot more straightforward and a lot less anvilicious about its morality. Sabrina is more — I’m not sure about my word choice here — holistic. All the parts of the show just go together better in Sabrina. Nearly every episode features Sabrina dealing with one issue in her mortal life, and one issue in her secret life, and the meat of the episode is about the interplay between those issues. Even as many of the same events happen in Out of this World, the show is hardly ever about that tension. Sabrina hardly ever feels like we’ve just put the show on hold for three minutes so the audience can enjoy a short slapstick sketch about how those hilarious Europeans take the directions on the bottle too literally and get stuck all day in an infinite lather-rinse-repeat loop, and its plots usually only require the non-humans to act like non-humans.
Hm… All the parts not quite fitting together. Where have we heard that before? When I dove back into the shows of my childhood, it finally became clear to me just how much TV had changed in the late ’90s and early aughts. It’s easy to dismiss older shows as being simply “bad” or “unrealistic” or “cheesy”, but ultimately, they’re just products of a different set of values and expectations. No one goes to see Shakespeare and complains about the iambic pentameter, and 1980s sitcoms are hardly Shakespeare, but the point, I think, still stands. See, for us twenty-first century folks, it seems natural to think of films and television as two peas in a pod. But that’s a modern invention. Film and TV developed during the same time period, but their evolution was largely separate. Both are descended from a common ancestor, the stage, but neither is really derived from the other. Film grew directly out of the “high” theatrical tradition, with its big spectacles and classical storytelling, and larger-than-life actors. Television’s evolution was less direct: TV grew out of radio drama, and radio drama, to a large extent, grew out of the “low” theater: vaudeville. Traveling variety shows. Stand-up. Pantomime. Punch and Judy. Morality plays. These weren’t traditions trying to make a mimetic experience designed to bring about catharsis through the application of spectacle to a situation the audience identifies with. These were traditions based on delivering an audience experience by presenting a new arrangement of familiar tropes and stock characters. Audience engagement was generated not by presenting a character recognizable as real, but through repetition: the “funny foreigner”, the “mouthy kid”, the “sassy black woman”, the “emotionally distant father”, these don’t have to be characters we recognize from real life; it’s enough that we recognize them from the other TV shows we’ve been watching for our entire lives.
But something happened around the turn of the century: the plates shifted and a land bridge opened up between the continents, and the once-separated populations of Filmasia and Televisonica started to interbreed. And in the grim darkness of the ’90s, when we’d culturally turned our backs on the performativeness of the ’80s and obsessed with proving how “genuine” and “sincere” and “authentic” we were, those Method Acting genes of the film world had a clear evolutionary advantage over the catchphrase-spewing artifice of television. The narrative and visual style of film and TV converged: modern TV is basically “Movies in long-format with a smaller budget.” And yeah. it’s good. I wouldn’t trade the narrative style of CSI for Hill Street Blues, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer for She-Wolf of London. But something was lost. And sometimes I miss it.
Final note: In 2012, Maureen Flannigan teamed up with other former child stars such as Brice Beckham, Josie Davis, and a bunch of people from shows I didn’t watch to speak out against former child-star and born-again-evolution-denying-evangelical-“movie”-star Kirk Cameron’s statements opposing gay rights, under the banner “CCOKC” (Child Celebrities Opposing Kirk Cameron), in a FunnyOrDie sketch which kind of hilariously degenerates into a bunch of former child celebrities making obscene hand gestures, until she accidentally stops time while trying to mime frottage. It is absolutely hilarious, especially if you missed the first title card and couldn’t remember who she was until time stops: