Thursday, March 24, 2011

Eerie, Indiana


When Eerie, Indiana debuted on American television in September 1991, it was well-received by critics who favorably compared it to Twin Peaks, albeit for kids. However, I always felt that a better analogy for this clever, short-lived show was that it was actually Friday the 13th: The Series for kids. Like the protagonists in that supernatural-themed program, the main characters in Eerie – two young boys – investigated bizarre happenings and collected artifacts from their adventures. The latter was much more light-hearted in tone than Friday the 13th, but still had a creepy undertone reminiscent of episodes of the classic era of The Twilight Zone.

Eerie, Indiana was the brainchild of Jose Rivera and Karl Schaefer, both relatively inexperienced in the realm of T.V. at the time (Rivera had done a handful of episodes for various sitcoms, while Schaefer had even less experience) but they capitalized on the flood gates of weirdness that Twin Peaks broke open during its brief tenure to push through a quirky show reminiscent of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries but if written by Stephen King. However, the look and feel of the show is indebted to filmmaker Joe Dante who not only directed the first episode (and four others) but also acted as creative consultant for the series. It is easy to see what drew him to the project as the suburban setting, with child protagonists encountering fantastical events, are all hallmarks of his career.

NBC originally aired Eerie Indiana on Sundays at 7:30 pm. Unfortunately, network executives didn’t know what to do with the show and after 13 episodes and rescheduling it was retooled, lasting only six more before being cancelled. It has been 20 years since the show first aired and it still holds up well while also providing nostalgic memories for anyone who can remember a time when fairly adventurous programming managed to find its way on the air if only for a short time.

Dante really sets the overall look and tone for the series with the first episode, entitled “Forever Ware” (a sly nod to the classic science fiction novel The Forever War by Joe Haldeman perhaps?). Marshall Teller (Omri Katz) is a 13-year-old boy whose parents have moved from New Jersey, “just across the river from New York City,” where he loved that it was “crowded, polluted and full of crime,” to the wholesome, squeaky clean suburbs of Eerie, Indiana. Sure, it looks like a cross between the all-American Lumberton in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and the cookie cutter neighborhood in Edward Scissorhands (1990), but Marshall isn’t fooled. He can see past the fa├žade and realizes that the town is in fact the “center of weirdness for the entire planet,” where the local mailman is packing a firearm, a lady hangs her laundry to dry which includes a strait-jacket, and a graying Elvis Presley emerges from his home to pick up the daily newspaper. And in a nice Lynchian touch, a crow can be seen perched on the town sign with an eyeball in its mouth. And this is all conveyed in the prologue!

Marshall’s family is introduced to the neighborhood by Betty Wilson, an AVON lady/Stepford Wife hybrid with two sons (Bert and Ernie – har, har) that peddle ultra-efficient Tupperware called Forever Ware. Betty’s eager to not just sell Marshall’s mother (Mary-Margaret Humes) some of her containers but invite her to become part of a small circle of friends. However, when one Betty’s sons slips Marshall a cryptic note, he decides to investigate with the help of his next-door neighbor Simon (Justin Shenkarow). They soon uncover a rather sinister plot that won’t make you look at vacuum-sealed plastic containers the same way again. Of note is Dante’s trademark mix of horror and humor through the eyes of young kids.

Part of what makes Eerie, Indiana work so well is how it takes things that kids deal with while growing up and give them a slightly sinister, supernatural spin, like going through the ordeal of getting braces in “The Retainer,” which sees a hapless kid beset by a prototypical retainer created by an orthodontist cum mad scientist (played with relish by Vincent Schiavelli) that allows the wearer to hear what dogs are thinking and it ain’t pretty. Marshall and Simon uncover a canine revolution where dogs demand, “Down with Kibble!” and “No more Stupid Pet Tricks!” and “No more neutering!” The only thing that appears to be stopping them is “the mystery of the doorknob,” as one dog puts it. While these scenes are played for laughs because of the sheer absurdity of the concept, it does remind one of how poorly dogs (and animals in general) are treated in pounds/shelters and are regarded in our society.

Omri Katz plays Marshall like a budding Fox Mulder, anticipating the inquisitive FBI Agent and his show, The X-Files by two years. He is smart and able to jury rig gadgets to help in his investigations. He also does all kinds of research with Simon’s help and what they find out only confirms their suspicions. For example, in one episode they discover that the shape of the Bermuda Triangle perfectly mirrors the shape of Eerie. Marshall and Simon have the passion of conspiracy theorists only their paranoid fantasies turn out to be true! Katz and Justin Shenkarow play it straight most of the time as the bulk of the show’s humor comes from the outrageous people they encounter and the darkly comic situations they find themselves in.

“ATM With a Heart of Gold” places more of an emphasis on Simon as he befriends an intelligent ATM machine that Marshall’s father (Francis Guinan) invented. The machine’s interface features a computer avatar that’s a cross between Max Headroom and a Ken doll known as Mr. Wilson. Simon is just a kid who wants to belong and have friends because his home life is so crappy. In one scene, we see him walk towards a drab, earth-toned colored house where we can hear his parents arguing and fighting within. No wonder he wants to hang out with Marshall and investigate flights of fancy. Shenkarow does a nice job of conveying the longing Simon has for friends and how this leads him to befriending Mr. Wilson. This also blinds him to the machine’s creepy malfunctions. Pretty soon Simon learns that you can’t buy friendship and that money won’t solve all your problems.

Robert Altman regular Henry Gibson and Dante regular Dick Miller make an appearance in the Dante-directed episode, “The Losers,” and seem to be having a blast playing men responsible for all the recently disappearing items in Eerie. There are some nice visual gags in this one as we get a look at a few rather famous missing items found in their lair, chief among them a pod from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and the sled from Citizen Kane (1941). This is definitely a more playful, whimsical episode and it is great to see veteran character actors like Gibson and Miller playing such pivotal roles.

I always enjoy Halloween-themed episodes of T.V. shows and Eerie, Indiana does not disappoint with “America’s Scariest Home Video,” which pays homage to the Boris Karloff 1932 horror film The Mummy as Marshall and Simon are stuck babysitting Simon’s little brother only to have the mischievous tyke transport himself into a horror film on T.V. and the Mummy in the film appearing in the house. The fog-enshrouded night and decrepit monster always make me think of John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980) minus the scary pirates from beyond.

In 1990, co-creator Jose Rivera was working on an idea for a horror anthology show set in a high school that would have been a teenage version of The Twilight Zone. Meanwhile, co-creator Karl Schaefer had an idea for a modern-day Tom Sawyer story. An agent got the two men together and they merged their ideas to create Eerie, Indiana. Schaefer described the show as “a twisted, modern fairy tale.” Rivera grew up loving fairy tales and wanted to impart notions of magic realism into suburbia, “that beneath the veneer of malls and crossing guards there lurks a deeper reality of something just slightly off-centre.”

He and Rivera picked Indiana because it had the image of “being a benign, harmless place to live.” They also asked Joe Dante to direct the pilot episode and with him convinced the executives at NBC to air the show. Schaefer said that the network liked the central character Marshall but they had to be convinced that the concept of the show would work because it was so different from NBC’s usual fare. In retrospect, Dante considered Eerie, Indiana a dream project because he was there at its inception and was then asked to stay on as a creative consultant. As a result, he even had a hand in casting Omri Katz. The producers originally wanted “this geeky kid,” according to Dante, but he felt Katz was more authentic and the young actor was cast. Dante was obviously taken with Katz as he subsequently cast him in his next film, Matinee (1993).

Eerie, Indiana was well-received by critics when it first debuted on television. Entertainment Weekly gave it a "B" rating and Ken Tucker wrote, "You watch Eerie for the small-screen spectacle of it all — to see the way, in the show's first few weeks, feature-film directors like Joe Dante (Gremlins) and Tim Hunter (River’s Edge) oversaw episodes that summoned up an atmosphere of absurdist suburban dread. The Hollywood Reporter’s Miles Beller wrote, "Scripted by Karl Schaefer and Jose Rivera with smart, sharp insights; slyly directed by feature film helmsman Joe Dante; and given edgy life by the show's winning cast, Eerie, Indiana shapes up as one of the fall season's standouts, a newcomer that has the fresh, bracing look of Edward Scissorhands and scores as a clever, wry presentation well worth watching." USA Today described the show as "Stephen King by way of The Simpsons," and Matt Roush wrote, "Eerie recalls Edward Scissorhands and even – heaven help it – David Lynch in its garish nightmare-comedy depiction of the lurid and silly horrors that lurk beneath suburban conformity." Finally, the Washington Times David Klinghoffer wrote, "Everything about the pilot exceeds the normal minimal expectations of TV. Mr. Dante directs as if he were making a movie, and a good one. In a departure from usual TV operating procedures, he sometimes actually has more than one thing going on on screen at the same time!"

After Eerie, Indiana’s demise, co-creator Karl Schaefer stayed in the genre, writing and producing T.V. shows routed in fantasy and horror, like Stephen King’s Dead Zone, Eureka and The Ghost Whisperer. Jose Rivera also continued to dabble in the supernatural, writing episodes for Goosebumps, Night Visions and Shadow Realm before moving on much acclaim with his screenplay for The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) and adapting Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road for the big screen. Omri Katz worked again with Dante in Matinee and starred in the fun family film about witches, Hocus Pocus (1993) before going back to T.V. with the short-lived but critically-acclaimed, The John Larroquette Show. Aside from a couple of one-off guest spots here and there, he’s largely dropped out of the business, which is a shame. Since Eerie, Justin Shenkarow has worked steadily in T.V. and movies, most notable a regular on the show Picket Fences while also doing a lot of voice work. Joe Dante has found it increasingly harder to get his kind of films made and has also gone back to T.V., directing two episodes apiece for the horror anthology shows Night Visions and Masters of Horror. He has made a new film called The Hole (2009), which is still without a North American distributor (?!).

Eerie, Indiana takes the trials and tribulations of a teenage boy, like his first crush on a girl, and gives them a supernatural spin – said girl gets a heart transplant from another boy that liked her and begins acting like him. The otherworldly aspects allow the show to deal with heavy topics like life and death while still aiming it at kids. However, there are plenty references for adults to recognize and enjoy, like the numerous visual cues to classic horror films and guest stars, like John Astin, from classic film and T.V., that elevates it above typical kiddie fare. Eerie’s influence can still be felt in more recent kid shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Goosebumps, and the more recent House of Anubis. However, none of its offspring could quite duplicate the diversity of Eerie, which wasn’t afraid to end some episodes on a whimsical note, or on an ominous one, or even in a poignant way. And I think this is down to the presence of Joe Dante, who instilled that X-factor missing from other shows of its ilk. Much like what David Lynch brought to Twin Peaks, Dante gave Eerie, Indiana the look and feel of cinema with each episode having his personal touch regardless of whether he directed it or not. This is why the show still holds up today and works whether you’re a young kid or simply young at heart.



SOURCES

Farrell, Peter. “Imagination Runs Wild in Eerie, Indiana.” The Sunday Oregonian. September 15, 1991.

Fitgerald, John. “Off-Centre.” Globe & Mail. October 12, 1991.

Mink, Eric. “Strange Goings-On in Eerie, Indiana.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. August 19, 1991.

“New T.V. Show Set in Mythical Indiana Town.” Associated Press. June 13, 1991.


Sharbutt, Jay. “Eerie Follows Twin Peaks Lead.” Boston Herald. November 2, 1991.

7 comments:

  1. Wow. cool pick. I only vaguely remember the show, but fondly. I love that it's getting easier all the time to find the "forgotten" television that went away when you blinked.

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  2. Wow! I love this show! Great piece and thank you! There are quite a few Twin Peaks references throughout the show and It's always nice to travel back to the early 90's!

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  3. Brent:

    Thank you! I really dig this show and I just started thinking about it recently and then watching a bunch of episodes reminded me of just how great this sho was.


    Jerry Horne:

    Thank you for the kind words. And yes, this show certainly was indebted to TWIN PEAKS. There was even an episode where Deputy Andy made appearance as... a deputy! A nice wink to Lynch's show.

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  4. A very nice piece, J.D.- I was a big fan of EERIE when it first aired, have revisited it in its entirety a few times on DVD, and I'm always glad to see that it holds up. Favorite highlights include the uncanny Mr. Wilson, Claude Akins' guest spot as the ghostly & inept gunslinger, Jason Marsden (as Dash X) and his ludicrous imitation of Christian Slater, the genius rehashing of the TWILIGHT ZONE's "World of Difference" in the episode "Reality Takes a Holiday," and you can't go wrong with John Astin, either. Anyway, thanks for revisiting this early 90's gem, J.D.!

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  5. Sean Gill:

    Thank you for the kind words, my friend. Love the guest spots by the actors you mentioned. And, heh, you're right about Marsden channelling Slater!

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  6. Great post about a great show. In fact, I enjoyed your write-up so much that I chose it as one of my favorites from March and included a link to it in the latest "issue" of SPATTER ANALYSIS.

    Check it out!

    --J/Metro

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  7. Jonny Metro:

    Thanks so much for this! I am honored to be included - you've got some great links for your newest ish!

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