Wednesday, 23 April 2014

I Was Raised by Spacemen: Eerie, Indiana

“Questions were playing tiddly winks with my grey matter...”

Most times you go back to watch a programme from your youth, it's pretty disappointing. Every now and then, however, they're genuinely as good as you remember. Eerie, Indiana is one of those special few. There are a handful of series that tried to be The Twilight Zone for kids. Round the Twist (which I'll be coming back to in another article) is well-remembered by British and Australian audiences. Are You Afraid of the Dark and Goosebumps scared the kids of the early and late nineties, respectively. None had the wit of Eerie, Indiana. So why this series only lasted for a single season baffles me.

The series was set in the eponymous town of Eerie, Indiana, population 16,661. Marshall 'Mars' Teller moves to Eerie with his family. Only he, and his best friend, Simon, seem to notice just how bizarre life in Eerie really is. Bigfoot eats out of Marshall's trash, Elvis is on his paper round, and each episode, some uncanny occurrence makes becomes the subject of Marshall and Simon's investigations. The situations the duo faced were man and varied. Some were drawn from classic horror and sci-fi, but with a twist, such as “America's Scariest Home Video,” which drew the Mummy straight out of a black-and-white movie and into Marshall's living room, while Simon's younger brother took his place (and proved far scarier). Some drew on science fiction for their inspiration, such as the HAL 9000 riff “The ATM With a Heart of Gold.” Others were barmy in their originality. “No Brain, No Pain,” involved a shambling vagrant, who was in fact a genius, but had accidentally taped over his mind with a copy of The Knack's My Sharona.

While the writing was generally very good for a children's drama, it was the direction and the cast that really set Eerie apart from its rivals. While Jose Rivera and Karl Schaefer were credited as the series' creators, Joe Dante was a major creative force on the show, directing several episodes. This is the man who directed such sci-fi classics as Innerspace, Gremlins and, um, Piranha. Not the sort of person you'd expect to be working on a children's TV series for the Disney Channel. The cast were what really made it, though. The series boasted not only a solid regular and semi-regular cast, but some of the best guest actors in television. Weird old Vincent Schiavelli played the town's terrifying orthodontist, while Rene Auberjonois tried to brainwash the town. Dante's favoured actor, Archie Hann, played Mr Radford, the proprietor of the World O' Stuff, until the series' midpoint turnaround, when he was revealed to be an imposter. The real Radford was revealed, played with twinkling charm by John “Gomez” Astin. In one fan-favourite episode, “The Lost Hour,” putting the clocks forward one hour incorrectly stranded Marshall in an empty parallel version of Eerie, with only a mysterious milkman to turn to for help. That milkman – who, it was hinted, may have been Marshall's own future self – was played by the late, great Eric Christmas, an actor who was born to play the Doctor. These impressive guest spots and many clever references make the series a joy to watch for genre fans.

It would be wrong to overlook the core cast, however. Omri Katz was the star of the show. Fifteen at the time of filming, but playing it a little younger, Omri was perfect as Marshall, representing the many young boys who were just entering puberty and being torn between silly kids' shows and adult life. Omri gave Marshall a wide-eyed wonder at the weirdness of the world, with just enough snark to make the character snappy, but never obnoxious. Stealing the show, though, was Justin Shenkarow, four years younger, as Simon Holmes. Justin dominated every scene he was in, despite being the youngest member of the cast. Simon was an outsider in Eerie, and became close friends with Marshall, only to find himself take a backseat to the teenager's problems. Popularity, school, and above all, his burgeoning interest in girls, threatened to take Marshall away from Simon, but at the end of the day, the two were inseparable. There was a lot for young boys to relate to.

Marshall's family were equally as important to the setup, forever oblivious to the strange goings on around them. Frances Guinan was just the right side of eccentric as his father Edgar. Possibly named in association with Edward Teller, inventor of the hydrogen bomb, Edgar tried to keep afloat with his career as an inventor for Things Incorporated. His inventions were often a main plot point in the series. Marshall's mother, Marilyn, was played Mary-Margaret Humes, who I only now realise was quite impossibly sexy and wasted as Edgar's housewife. As Marshall's older sister, Syndi, Julie Condra provided the boys watching with the twin interests of an irritating sibling to run rings round, and a beautiful young woman to gaze at.

It was something of a boys' show. Marshall had a new crush every other week, and while the girls were often strong, impressive characters, there was less for the female members of the audience. That changed in the thirteenth episode, which began a process of revamping the series by introducing Jason Marsden – that guy who's in everything, these days – as Dash X. A mysterious, amnesiac with grey hair, Dash X didn't know his real name or where he came from. He became the amoral antagonist to Marshall's hero, sometimes helping him, sometimes out for himself. He might possibly have been an alien, and was even seemingly aware that he was part of a television programme. He was also, importantly, the one all the girls watching had a crush on.

Dash X threatened to steal the series away from Marshall, something that the producers were fully aware of. In what was surely intended as the final episode of the series, but actually aired as the penultimate instalment, Marshall woke up to find that his name was really Omri, and his entire life was, in fact, part of a TV show. “Reality Takes a Holiday” was an ingeniously postmodern episode, and saw Dash X – the only character referred to by his fictional name, and not his actor's name – attempt to oust Marshall as the star. Genuinely clever, it was a high point for the series.

My favourite episode, however, was “Heart on a Chain.” Marshall and a previously unmentioned classmate, Devon (played by another Dante favourite, Cory Danziger), both fall for the new girl, Melissa. When Devon is killed in a road accident, his heart is transplanted into the desperately ill Melissa, who begins to display some of Devon's personality traits. Marshall and Melissa's burgeoning romance is sabotaged by Devon's restless spirit. Apart from the fact that I had a huge crush on Danielle Harris, who played Melissa, this episode really touched me as a kid. Watching it again now, it's still affecting. It's a genuinely sweet, sad, creepy little ghost story, just really fine television.

For all the silliness, references and naff monsters, Eerie, Indiana was quite a dark, subversive series. The strangeness of the town and its supposed ordinariness was a metaphor for the harsh realities that are so often kept behind closed doors. While Marshall had a strong, loving family, Simon was from a broken home. He was able to spend so much time with the Tellers because his mother was rarely home, and his father was often “entertaining.” Other characters' lives were rarely anything to celebrate. “Who's Who” revolved around a young girl whose mother had abandoned her, and who was neglected and exploited by her father and brothers. Even the pilot episode, “Foreverware,” hinted at the dark secrets behind so many supposedly perfect families.

For some reason, Eerie, Indiana never took off on its initial 1991-2 run. It sank without a trace, with certain episodes not even airing. It wasn't until 1997 that Fox bought the series and it was given a new lease of life. It was then that the series made it overseas, onto the Saturday mornings of my thirteen-year-old self. It became successful enough to spawn a spin-off series, Eerie, Indiana: The Other Dimension. The concept was rather clever: in a parellel version of Eerie, life is perfectly normal, until a crazy cable guy opens an interdimensional rift. This lets the weirdness of the “prime” Eerie through to the Other Dimension, and threatens to destroy the Eeries of all realities. Marshall and Simon even appeared in the first episode to help out their younger equivalents, Mitchell and Stanley. However, although the effects had improved over the years, the scripts hadn't, and the weaker sequel series lasted only one season itself.

Eerie, Indiana amassed something of a cult following in its brief renaissance, but has little legacy. Even much of its cast are no longer acting. Omri Katz made the occasional film up until about eight years ago, while Justin Shenkarow now does mainly voice work. Julie Condra no longer seems to be acting. Of course, many of the more legendary guest stars are no longer with us. On the other hand, Jason Marsden is a familiar face on American television, Danielle Harris has become something of a modern day scream queen, and some kid called Tobey Maguire, who played a ghost boy, did quite well for himself. Still, I doubt any of these roles will make me smile quite as much as Eerie, Indiana.

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