"Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society...."
Oops. No, wait.
"Viewers beware, you're in for a--"
Shit. That's not the right one either. How does it go again?
"My name is Marshall Teller..."
For those of you who're lucky enough to remember those words, I hope you get all the feels from nostalgic memories of watching TV on weekday afternoons in the late '90s. For those of you who don't, what are you even doing here?
Last fall, I rewatched all of the show for feature I wrote for Den of Geek. Every single episode. 19 half hours. That's like...9.5 regular primetime hours. Neat, huh?
In the process, I would up writing reviews of each one. There was too much material, so - long story short - I decided to post them all here. Because I know you had a hankerin' for detailed analyses on a show you vaguely remember. And because I care.
Episode 1: Foreverware
The pilot episode of Eerie, Indiana also happens to be the most memorable thing about it. Not only does it introduce us to Marshall, Simon and the gang, it introduces us to Foreverware, the most iconic element of Eerie, Indiana ever, besides the city limits sign.
As Marshall Teller adjusts to his new life in small town Eerie, he gets concerned when his mother is invited to a homemaker party by their neighbor, a strange woman named Betty Wilson. She looks a lot like Jackie O, and her twin sons look like they’ve been transported right out of the ‘60s too. Turns out the get-together is a Foreverware party, an obscure kind of kitchenware Betty’s late husband invented that can preserve food for decades.
When Marshall sneaks into the Wilson house later that night, he’s shocked to discover that the whole family sleeps in giant Foreverware containers. Bogus! Can he stop his mom from becoming just another leftover sitting in the fridge? Or is she cursed to taste slightly freezer burnt forever?
This is an impressive first outing to a show that could easily have had a slippery start. As a pilot, it doesn’t necessarily feel like a first episode. It doesn’t feel like a second episode, for that matter, or a third. It’s “just another episode” - an entry point for anyone, much like the other standalone installments of the series. Maybe it’s a luxury of having an intro that establishes the show’s atmosphere, or of being the series premiere of a show that doesn’t have to be too concerned with serialization. Either way, the audience isn’t lost one bit and is happy dive right into the weird deep end. I’m a fan of pilots like this, where you don’t have to make the viewer sit through a tedious origin story to care about what happens. Using Marshall’s narration as a framing device was also a wise choice for a show like this, because there are a lot of disparate elements involved, despite how connected they may appear.
Conventions of golden age TV are played with, as was trendy to do in the early 1990s, to emphasize that the show is going to poke the undead corpse Americana with a pointy stick to see how it reacts. Joe Dante’s clever direction highlights these themes quite well, since he has a soft spot for retro-horror flicks.
Eerie, Indiana introduces itself as a bermuda triangle that existed between several checkpoints in pop culture history: the 1990s, the 1980s, and the 1960s. The foreverware containers themselves are a reminder that the nostalgia of “the good old days” of America was then looking back on were gone forever, and so was its mentality. It was the ‘90s now, man. Don’t have a cow. The American dream that older generations were holding onto was a strange relic from another world. It was now fascinating to contemplate from a stylistic perspective and oddly meaningless from an idealistic one. If Twin Peaks was the damn fine cup of coffee that cured TV nation’s hangover from the overindulgence of the ‘80s, then Eerie, Indiana is the milkshake and fries it had later that afternoon as it pondered what to do next.
Tonally speaking, “Foreverwear” matches the episodes that follow it, yet I’ve always had a vague impression that it happens in a different timeline than the rest of the series. Why?
Because one of the most important characters is missing: the Teller homestead. Every scene in “Foreverware” that took place at Marshall’s house was filmed on a completely different set than we saw in further adventures - and that was very distracting for me this time around. The actual set we’re used to has such a great layout that it’s iconic in its own right. The one used here is so non-descript in comparison. The living room is bland, the kitchen is cramped, and it’s just enough to throw off the show’s aesthetic. But this is only a distraction in retrospect, so if you’re a first time watcher, you won’t even notice or care. If you’re a nerd like me, it’ll stand out and say, “HEY. I’M A DIFFERENT HOUSE. PRETEND YOU DON’T SEE ME. SERIOUSLY STOP LOOKING.”
Otherwise, this is a highly underrated pilot that deserves a lot more praise and study. It’s got a great hook and a fresh attitude that blends well with the nostalgic elements. Plus, Luan Gideon’s guest appearance as the unholy tupperware queen Betty Wilson was fun for fans of Leave it to Beaver and John Waters alike.
Episode 2: The Retainer
Marshall’s acquaintance Steve has a problem: he’s got this huge metal retainer stuck on his face. If that isn’t bad enough, it also seems to be picking up signals from a specific radio frequency that dogs communicate on (?!). Using the mysterious powers of Steve’s headgear, Marshall and Simon catch on to the beginnings of a prison riot at the local pound. When they try to stop it, the boys become hostages to a gang of pups let by poodle with a French accent. Will the boys be stuck in the doghouse forever?
For a short lived, relatively obscure television series, each episode of Eerie had something memorable about it. For "The Retainer", it was...well, it was...the retainer itself. I think. Or the army of dogs. Now that you mention it, I’m not quite sure. Either way, this is one of the few Eerie episodes that is easier to forget than the rest of them.
Maybe it's because the plot doesn't make sense. Or maybe it's because it comes across feeling like letdown after such an impressively bombastic pilot. We can be sure about one thing, no matter what the cause: it's certainly not the guest cast's fault. Vincent Schiavelli (whom Vanity Fair as one of the greatest character actors ever) plays the evil dentist with just enough mania to match the show's campy undertones. Meanwhile, Patrick LaBrecque brings a relatable sense of life to overweight loner Steve - and a heartfelt awkwardness that makes his character's fate that much more tragic in the end.
Still, if there were a watch it/skip it guide to Eerie, Indiana, I’d list it under the skip part.
Episode 3: ATM With a Heart of Gold
When Marshall’s dad creates a new type of ATM with artificial intelligence named Mr. Wilson, he doesn't expect that it will befriend Simon, who's going through an identity crisis, and give him tons and tons of money. He also doesn't expect it to ruin the local economy of Eerie in the process, and put his whole career in danger. In order to help save his dad, Marshall must first save Simon from his addiction to spending every cent in town.
Although Edgar Teller is a huge part of "ATM", he's most certainly not where the focus is. Simon Holmes, junior sidekick extraordinaire, takes the stage here. And it's about time. We can't help but wonder what Simon's life is like outside of tagging along on Marshall's spooky adventures, and if he even has one at all. The answer is, sadly, no. Simon really doesn't have much going on in his own private little corner of Eerie. His home life is cold and abusive, he doesn't have any friends his age that he can relate to, and he's not old enough to understand the whole girl thing...yet. Which is why he finds a kindred spirit in Mr. Wilson, the eponymous ATM interface whose language of love are smiles and cold hard cash.
Simon's tragic character is the heart-wrenching foundation for the episode, which is what makes it so effective. Witnessing just how ostracized he is from his environment, just how much of an afterthought he's treated as by those around him...we discover we can relate to him more than Marshall himself. This is especially the case when Simon begins to take all the money that Mr. Wilson gives him to give himself an empty boost of popularity.
The moral of the story here - money can't buy friends - could come across as very Davey & Goliath in its delivery on a family show like this. Fortunately, "ATM" sidesteps any preachy notions, instead taking a more subtle approach to give us catharsis, just like any self-respecting all ages program should. I'm sure the themes here were timely since this episode aired in the wake of a several economic crises that plagued the late '80s. (Plus, those "Sky Monster" shoes are the perfect symbol for how materialistic that era was.)
This deeper commentary coupled with the relatable growing pains of our disenfranchised supporting character make "ATM with a Heart of Gold" an essential part of the Eerie experience. (In other words, don’t skip this one.)
Episode 4: The Losers
Marshall finds out where all of your missing stuff goes when you're not looking: The Bureau of Lost, a massive underground government operation designed to fuel the economy. After he infiltrates their local headquarters beneath Eerie to find his dad's missing briefcase, Marshall Teller gets trapped in the clutches of the man who runs it...and he’s not going to let him leave.
I must say, this is a very clever Eerie episode, and arguably the most epic since "Foreverware". (Both of these were given follow-ups in that short-lived YA book series almost ten years later for a reason.) The idea of The Bureau is exciting in a lot of ways. The set itself is incredible, very Terry Gilliam-esque, very Brazil. The notion of a huge conspiracy that seeks to sabotage the everyday consumer by stealing their valuables (and disposable items) is pure genius in its absurdity. Sure, it's not feasible in any real, practical sense, but speaking as an 11 year-old kid? It definitely feels like it could be. There are plenty of random items of various importance that go missing in our lives all the time, whether they be a freshly cleaned toe sock, a 3DS stylus, or an iPad. That there could be a conspiracy behind all of this is wild fodder for the imagination.
“The Losers” captures the true charm of Eerie, Indiana. It examines the normality of adulthood through the fresh eyes of a child new to the system. "The Losers" takes this stance when tackling the underbelly of bureaucracy and how it affects the distribution of resources in a mixed economy. It hints at the unjust motives behind most business practices, such as planned obsolescence, and reminds us that we're just here to keep buying products to feed the beast.
Of course, these embedded messages flew directly over my head when I watched this as a kid, and rightly so. The lighthearted spirit of "Losers" softens its agenda quite well. Henry Gibson's performance as Lodgepoole, the Bureau's attendant, helps do this as gently as possible. He takes this rather pessimistic character and turns him into something endearing so the younger ones won't fully notice what's going on. I guess that's another key to the charm of Eerie, Indiana: it has different things to say to people who are at different stages in their lives.
Episode 5: Scariest Home Videos
On Halloween night, Marshall and Simon plan to venture around town to see just how the forces of weirdness will manifest themselves on such a creepy night. Instead, they get stuck in Marshall’s living room babysitting Simon’s little brother Harley while everyone else is out having a good time. Trying to fight off boredom, the boys attempt to film Harley doing something funny to send to America’s Funniest Home Videos to win a cash prize. When they’re not looking, Harley bites the TV remote and gets zapped into an old black and white horror movie on TV. Unfortunately, he also swapped places with the mummy who stars in it. Looks like things get weird in Eerie even if you stay indoors...
I don't know about you, but I love bottle episodes. The creative restrictions they impose create fun and engaging ways to tell a story within the TV format. "Scariest Home Videos" is most definitely a bottle episode, and it doesn't hide this fact from the audience at all. (Marshall's narration at the beginning immediately drops that he and Simon aren’t going anywhere.)
And yet, there's a pitfall that exists with the bottle episode format that this entry can’t escape. When you stall events too much, the action is less believable. Events are inserted in to kill time and pad things out, and excuses have to be made to prevent your characters from getting up and leaving the setting they’re supposed to stay in. The audience can get frustrated unless you come up with a damn good reason why they just get up and leave. Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s sixth season entry “Older and Far Away” was probably the best at pulling this off without pissing too many people off, as it painted the concept as an uncomfortable nightmare. (It’s actually the reason why I’m fond of bottle episodes, believe it or not.)
The only barrier that stands between Marshall and Simon and their adventures outside in “Scariest Home Videos” is Harley. Now, why they couldn’t bring him along with them outside in the first place confuses me. It would have been fun to see our heroes get swept up in a weird situation with a little kid to take care of in the process. It’s Halloween, wouldn’t he want to go trick or treating anyway? And Syndi, Marshall’s sister, is around in the house “cramming for a test” (aka talking on the phone); why can’t keep an eye on Harley?
But as the channel zapping plot sets in, we stop thinking about it, and that’s a good thing. It’s not that the storyline is particularly engrossing, but the real charm is all in its delivery. The expressive use of lighting and fog in the Teller living room creates an ominous atmosphere where anything feels possible. It forces danger into the show’s safe zone, and that’s unnerving in itself. In that sense, “Scariest Home Videos” succeeds in its other goal - to be a Halloween episode.
We’re also lucky enough to have another talented guest star for the the leads to play off of here: Tony Jay, voice actor extraordinaire, whose velvety voice has graced the soundscapes of animated classics ranging from Beauty and the Beast to Mighty Max. He’s the mummy here - or, should I say, Sir Boris Von Orloff, the classically trained actor who plays the mummy on TV. After lurking around the house being scary for a while, he switches to a sympathetic character when we find out that he’s been stuck in that particular movie forever and has always wanted to to escape it. This is an interesting mechanism to contemplate in the world of Eerie. Are pieces of people’s souls captured on film and forced to loop through its recorded events again and again whenever they’re rerun basic cable? Are pieces of Von Orloff stuck in any of his other movies, trapped in a celluloid limbo as well? Whatever, I might be overthinking things here.