Cornfield Meet

Things collide here.

Back in time, just before dawn

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When I was in elementary school, my friend Mike and I pitched a small orange tent in my backyard and camped out one night. I’m sure we stayed up late talking about Star Wars or playing cards by flashlight or something.

I woke up in the gray light before sunrise, surprised by how many birds were singing. It was a little chilly, with mist hanging over the cornfield behind the house.

We’d brought my dad’s old Boy Scout cooking set and some stuff for breakfast – although we were only a couple dozen steps from the house, at most – and I poured myself a bowl of Apple Jacks.

I went for a run before sunup today. The smell and feel of the air, the chattering of birds, and the color of the sky brought that long ago morning almost back to reality.

June 3, 2015 Posted by | 1980s, Ohio, running | , , | Leave a comment

Collect All 21! – Five Years Old Today

Five years ago today, I released the first edition of Collect All 21! Memoirs of a Star Wars Geek into the wild.

The first batch of pre-orders and sales that summer and fall of 2008 were mostly to family, friends, and the supportive Star Wars fans of the Ohio Star Wars Collectors Club and the vintage forums at Rebelscum.com. They really jump-started this whole thing with their responses to my 2007 online series of Star Wars recollections.

In early 2009, right around the time my last full-time newsroom job was eliminated and I found myself out of work, Rob Wainfur posted one of the earliest completely-neutral-party reviews of Collect All 21!  on his  Retro Finds site, which was a more-than-welcome bit of nice news, and especially neat because Rob’s from Wales.

Around the same time, Adam, my Collect All 21! editor, launched Deus Ex Comica, and suddenly I was like, “Hey: want a cool, professional cover and a foreword, too!” And that’s where Kirk Demarais and David Morgan-Mar came in, generously contributing their talents to the revised version of Collect All 21!, providing me with some amazing front cover art and a kick-ass introduction.

Working with a great digital publishing team, I expanded the book for a Kindle edition in July 2011, adding some new personal material as well as interviews and my magazine-length feature on Lorne Peterson.

Some of the other neat stuff that’s happened along the way:

  • In spring 2009, I got an incredibly kind and supportive email from George Krstic, another Northeast Ohio first-generation Star Wars fan who grew up to write neat stuff like MTV’s DowntownMegas XLR, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and Motorcity. We’ve hung out a few times since, and recorded a few Star Wars nostalgia podcasts,  and it’s always a blast. (George also introduced me to Josh Ling, who’s also a first-generation Rust Belt kid that came of age addicted to Kenner toys, and, I think it’s also fair to say, deals with the same old-school v. new-era Star Wars internal conflicts that twist so many of us in geek knots.)
  • Jenny Williams and Curtis Silver both said really nice things about Collect All 21! on the GeekMom and GeekDad blogs, respectively.
  • At PAX East in 2010, thanks to the GeekDad crew, I met Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks author Ethan Gilsdorf, who bought a copy of the book on the spot while we were all hanging out, and later provided me with a superlative blurb.
  • CNN interviewed me for a 30th anniversary story about The Empire Strikes Back.
  • Sharing Star Wars memories became kind of a thing: My friend Jonathan Liu sent me an advance copy of Tony Pacitti‘s My Best Friend is a Wookiee (2010), and I wound up meeting Tony at Star Wars Celebration V to exchange books and stories. A couple years later, in 2012, Gib van Ert released A Long Time Ago: Growing Up With And Out Of Star Wars, which I read and enjoyed on the way to Star Wars Celebration VI. And, of course, earlier this year, Fanboys director Kyle Newman (who also encouraged me regarding Collect All 21! in 2010) put together The Return of Return of the Jedi.
  • Geek A Week artist Len Peralta and I recorded a Star Wars and 1980s conversation/podcast.
  • I got invited as a guest to a couple JediCon WV events, which were tons of fun, and got my name on a spectacular poster by Kenner toy photographer Kim Simmons.
  • Hugo Award-winning author and good guy Jim C. Hines read Collect All 21! and blogged about it.
  • Then there was that time in 2012 when the fantastic Renita Jablonski called me and said, “So, we were thinking of doing a piece on the 35th anniversary of Star Wars, and I said ‘I know a guy,'” and we talked on the phone, and then BOOM! I’m driving to work a day or two later, and right there in the middle of National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” is me. (And five years before that, when Renita was at WKSU, she produced a piece I wrote about not remembering the first time I saw Star Wars, which, again, is pretty much where all this started.)
  • Topless Robot put Collect All 21! on its list of The 10 Greatest Non-Fiction Star Wars Books, which includes the line, “Celebrate the love, yub yub.” Yes!
  • Somehow my book caught the attention of filmmaker Brian Stillman, who visited our house a couple summers back and interviewed me for Plastic Galaxy: The Story of Star Wars Toyswhich should be coming out later this summer.

Crunching some numbers from Lulu and Amazon to figure out about how many copies of Collect All 21! are out there – counting print and electronic versions – I come up with a number somewhere close to 2,500. (I’m always looking to make that number bigger, of course, but hey – that’s not a bad run for a completely independent, word-of-mouth effort.)

I will never be able to say thanks enough for all the encouragement and support from my friends and family and everyone who’s ever bought, borrowed, read, or shared Collect All 21! among fellow Star Wars fans and 1980s-era nostalgia loons (which I can say since I’m one of them).

The Force Will Be With You. Always.

July 2, 2013 Posted by | 1970s, 1980s, Books, Film, geek, Ohio, science fiction, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Two things from the ’80s

I remember a lot of passing, strange tidbits from the 1980s, but twice – before lunch! – on Sunday, I encountered two pieces from the era of which I have absolutely no memory:

  1. Lynne Cox‘s 1987 swim across the Bering Strait from the U.S. to the U.S.S.R. One of the National Geographic Channel The ’80s: The Decade That Made Us episodes included a segment on this, and it struck no chords of familiarity whatsoever.
  2. Duran Duran bassist John Taylor’s song “I Do What I Do” from the  9 1/2 Weeks soundtrack. Kelsey and I were in the car listening to a rebroadcast of an old Casey Kasem American Top 40, and this was in the countdown:

Nope. Don’t remember ever hearing that one. And that’s coming from a guy who still has bits of the lyrics to the other songs on Buckner & Garcia’s Pac-Man Fever LP – an album I didn’t even own – stuck in his brain.

April 21, 2013 Posted by | 1980s, geek, Ohio | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Monster from the Land of no return – or, “An Ebor-what?”

Looking through some stuff for my This is Me in ’83 series, I found this:

MonsterFromLandNoReturn1978

Scanner cut off the bottom – it’s 9×12 paper – but it’s labeled “Monster from the Land of no return.” My mom wrote “March 1978” on the back in ballpoint pen.

And now look at this ToyNerd.com picture of the Eborsisk from Willow (1988):

Image: ToyNerd.com

I’m just saying.

January 29, 2013 Posted by | 1970s, 1980s, geek | , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Which An Idea is Hinted At

Lake Middle School yearbook - 1983

This is the cover of my 1982-83 Lake Middle School yearbook, just about 30 years old. That’s a nice round number.

January 4, 2013 Posted by | 1980s, Ohio | , , , | 1 Comment

Flashback: Pee Wee’s Big Adventure

(This piece was originally written in September 2008, right after I saw Pee Wee’s Big Adventure for the first time. I re-post it today because Old School ’80s pointed out the movie was released on this day in 1985.)

In practically every sense of the word, I grew up in the 1980s: I turned 10 the year they began, when the Empire struck back and Tom Hanks cross-dressed on television. In 1989 I saw Robin Williams make studying poetry rock, graduated from high school, started college, listened to the Cure disintegrate and turned 19. The popular culture of that decade is as addicting to me as a two-pound bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and a two-liter of Coke Classic.

And yet when recently I started to make a list of 1980s movies I hadn’t seen – from the ones that invariably have my friends going, “Whaaat? Seriously??” to others that I just remember from theater previews or black-and-white newspaper ads – I was stunned at how quickly the list grew.

So here I am, at the first of (hopefully) a regular series of reviews and reactions to Eighties Movies I’ve Never Seen Until Now. (2012 note: How’d that work out? Not so hot. Although I did write about seeing Tron for the first time in 2010.)

Oddly enough, the first movie I’m writing about wasn’t even on my list. I just happened to notice it on the library DVD shelves while looking for others: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

(Go ahead: “Whaaat? Seriously??”)

I was 14 when this movie came out in summer 1985, and though I knew who Pee-wee Herman was, at that point I’d never seen the cable comedy special that launched the character and Paul Reubens into popularity.

My only lasting impressions of the character come from a few years later when I was working at Children’s Palace, a massive toy store and one-time rival of Toys R Us, and for at least one Christmas, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” toys Were. The. Shit. I remember parents combing through the action figures on their pegs, disappointed at finding only King of Cartoons and Magic Screen hanging there by the dozen. And it seemed like about five minutes later, the clearance aisle was stacked with stuffed Chairys and Pterris marked down and gathering dust.

Of course I know enough about the movie to get references to the “Tequila” bar dance or Large Marge or Being A Loner, Dottie; A Rebel, but I’ll confess this: I never “got” Pee-wee. He was goofy, yeah, but with an oddly adult edge to the humor sometimes. (And that made the whole transition into an actual children’s show even more puzzling to me.) Was he supposed to be a kid, and this was his imagination, like Calvin & Hobbes or what? But … but … he lived in a HOUSE, right? By himself? And – oh, crap, I give up. He was amusing, I suppose, but he never really got me howling.

That out-of-whack feeling came flying back during the Big Adventure opening scenes, from Pee-wee’s Tour de France dream through his morning routine. Who IS this guy? What WORLD does he live in? But … but … but…

It faded soon enough, since Burton’s created a great screen environment to just look at, and he jumps into the Quest for Bike story pretty quickly. Once that’s underway – after the overlong “evidence presentation” scene – the Big Adventure scoots along nicely as basically a series of place sketches.

That’s not a bad thing: It worked for me. In fact, I’m not sure another director could have made this movie from the script by Paul Reubens and Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol and pulled it off. The story’s jumps and turns and holes and skips would be roadblocks in any other environment, but this is a Pee-wee Herman movie with Tim Burton at the wheel and that’s pretty much the catch-all answer to any “What the-” moment that comes along.

I was genuinely surprised by the freakish darkness of the nightmare scene with the evil clown ambulance crew – I mean, it’s a Tim Burton movie, so I expected that twisted, off-kilter feeling in a lot of places, but man, that scene is just damn creepy, and I wonder how it played back in ’85 when Pee-wee was weird, all right, but still mostly crayon bright and Silly Putty-scented. (Francis Buxton in the Satan costume, though? That took me straight to John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, even though Pee-wee beat that one by a couple years.)

Big Adventure didn’t get more than a few out-loud chuckles out of me, though it might have had I seen it at age 14 with a few friends. It still earned a healthy share of smiles – Pee-wee rescuing the snakes, for some reason, is making me chuckle right now in recollection; and as a huge fan of Airplane! I loved that the electric golf carts are given motorcycle engine sound effects during the ending chase.

I enjoyed it: Visually, there’s always something to check out, even during the few slow spots; it was easy to root for Pee-wee; the plot never felt frustrating or manipulative, and even though the happy ending is pretty much a given from the start, Burton and the writers made the ride unpredictable, fun and worthwhile.

August 9, 2012 Posted by | 1980s, Film | , , , | 2 Comments

Atari: 40 years old today

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I’ve mentioned the role Atari played in my childhood a couple times before –

8-bit time capsule

More games, more fun

– so I love this timeline that Atari created, and which we’ve shared at GeekDad, in honor of the company’s 40th birthday today. (Below is just a peek – click through to see the whole thing, and enjoy some flashback cake.)

Click to visit the full timeline at GeekDad.

 

June 27, 2012 Posted by | eighties, Games, geek, Uncategorized, video games | , , , | Leave a comment

Lazer Tag – pewpewpew!

My brothers and friends and I jumped fairly late onto the Lazer Tag bandwagon when my mom found stacks of the original Game Kit on sale at Kay -Bee Toys for $9.99 each. At that price, once we’d given our kits a test run, we went back and bought spares, and I think that may have been when my friend Adam picked up a set for himself, too.

Over at his blog, Adam recently posted some Lazer Tag comic book ads, mentioned the backyard battles we’d have with our friends, and naturally, brought up “the time John ran into a tree, full bore, at dusk.”

It wasn’t one of my finer Lazer Tag moments: We were playing at Adam’s house (Unfamiliar Territory: -1 to Perception checks), and it was getting dark. I was charging across his backyard, hunched over and bolting for the area beside the garage. Thanks to one of those big mercury lights, this meant barreling through a bright pool of light before disappearing into the cover of shadow.

Just inside the line of that shadow lurked a medium-sized tree. Fortunately, since I was rounding a corner, I was leaning into the turn, and I didn’t smash into the thing with my face – the trunk caught me right in the chest and stomach, knocking the wind out of me and sending me to the ground, flattened.

If I recall correctly, Adam saw me go running across the yard through the light, vanish into the shadows for half a second, and then bounce back into sight like a cartoon character punched by a boxing kangaroo.

Like I said – not one of my finer moments, but it reached “someday we’ll laugh about this” status about three nanoseconds after I was able to breathe again.

I’ll counter with one of my favorite memories from one of the two-on-three or two-on-four conflicts that my friend Aaron and I used to engage our younger brothers in.

Partly because we were James Bond fans at that age, Aaron and I loved to take our strategy and daring seriously, coming up with ways to distract and divert and bait the other team, since we were almost always outnumbered. We’d take turns climbing the shed, for example, or take up positions on opposite sides of the yard, each squeezed between the close-knit branches of the rows of pine trees there. (Pine needles are of no concern, you see, to a Lazer Tagger.)

So, one night, Aaron is over, and we’re playing Lazer Tag against my little brothers in the darkness of the yard and the shadow mazes of the house and trees. It’s probably June.

I have climbed the TV antenna next to the chimney and positioned myself atop the wood-slatted roof of our back patio, over on the southwest corner where I have partial cover thanks to the branches of a big birch tree.

Aaron is patrolling the yard, seeking to draw Nick and Adam from their hiding spots and bring them around the south side of the house, into my field of fire.

I rest on one knee and try to breathe without sound or motion.

I hear sudden calls in the night air, carrying from the front yard: Nick and Adam are chasing Aaron. Silently I count down: Three … two … one! And there’s Aaron now, his rifle in both hands, held low at his side as he rounds the house and looks up to my perch, even though he probably can’t actually see me. Nick comes charging behind, his red target light pulsing at his waist. I fire twice and hit him once.  At the sound of his sensor alarm, he turns his back to hide the target, looking for me over his shoulder.

Adam emerges from around the corner slowly, seeing Nick shaking his head in warning. I get one shot off at Adam before he, too shields his target.

My hiding spot is soon discovered: My brothers are getting better at this, and they’re not surprised as easily anymore.

Stay up here another second, I think, and there’s no way down that doesn’t involve Nick and Adam flanking me and peppering me with Lazer fire.

And then I’m all unfettered reaction, coiled and released, springing to my feet and racing across the porch roof to the north side of the house. My veins are afire, shot through with adrenaline, my brain iced and thinking only of escape.

I don’t stop at the edge of the roof.

My mind photographs, in that heartbeat, the hulking shadow of the neighbors’ house and the India-ink sketchings of tree branches against the sky. There is a tightening of my chest in the gasp of a moment when, without slowing, I set one foot high onto nothingness, and in the core of my mind a realization that there is no pulling myself back from the brink. The other foot follows with a leap toward Ursa Major, and I am in flight on the summer air.

The yard is dark and empty below, and I let my legs fold to cushion my landing, rolling in the dew-gathering grass, darting east toward the driveway with my pursuers in the darkness behind…

In the years since, I’ve gone back and estimated the height of the roof at maybe 11 or 12 feet, which isn’t high, really, but still – climbing up there again and standing at the edge, I know that if I had paused even for a blink that summer night, I wouldn’t have jumped. And I wouldn’t do it again today.

But for that one instant, the impossible was forgotten, the dangerous was unknown, and there was me and there was a leap.

February 25, 2012 Posted by | 1980s, Games, geek, Ohio | , , | Leave a comment

The Wonder Years – Season Two Premiere: “The Heart of Darkness”

Seven months passed between the end of The Wonder Years‘ first season on April 19, 1988, and Season Two’s first episode – “The Heart of Darkness” – which aired November 30 of that year. In teenage time-passage perception terms, this felt like a long time, spanning as it did the end of my junior year of high school, the subsequent summer, the start of my senior year, and my 18th birthday.

It was a pretty dynamic and busy and fun time, so I guess it’s not surprising that in the years since, I’ve always felt like this episode was further along in the series.

Season Two is also the last Wonder Years season stamped with the intangible associations of being at home in the house where I grew up.

I mostly watched these episodes from our living room couch, or one of the chairs, or while reclined on the floor, propping my  head up with a throw pillow. (Digression: Is there a physiological reason that kids  lying on the floor watch TV from their stomachs, while as you get older, you flip over to your back?) Mom and dad are probably there. My two younger brothers are most likely getting ready for bed. The curtain covering the sliding glass door to our back porch is closed for the night. These are episodes where commercial time still meant it was time for a quick trip to the refrigerator or the bathroom, and they air early enough in the evening that I’m likely to stay up doing my homework afterward.

I also associate these episodes with my senior-year English teacher, Mr. Hoffman. I don’t remember the specific reference he made, but I do recall him asking one day in class if anyone had watched The Wonder Years the previous night, and mentioning that he liked the show. (Adam may be able to help me out on this one. Adam?)

There are 17 episodes in Season Two, which makes sense, since the combined total with season one makes for a standard-length 23-episode season.

So: “The Heart of Darkness.”

This episode stood out in my mind for a long time, most likely because it seems like I never caught it in syndicated broadcast, and I’m not entirely certain I saw it more than once or twice (assuming they re-ran it back in the eighties) until within the past few years, when on TV showed it. I have sometimes wondered – in particular, when ABC Family was airing the series during the day – if it was due to the show’s content.

Because this is The Episode Where Kevin and Paul Smoke Cigarettes and Drink Beer.

My mom did not like this episode and specifically said she didn’t want my brothers – who would have been in late elementary school – watching it.

The episode begins with the first of several dream sequences playing on Kevin’s typical junior high anxiety and including a great soundtrack use of The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm.” Back in the real world, Kevin’s still kind of smarting from the whole Winnie/Kirk McCrae thing, and the fact that she’s suddenly hanging out with the popular kids isn’t helping. Kevin reacts by snubbing her in the hallway and then throwing his lot in with a detention-hall regular – Gary Cosey, played by Breckin Meyer. A couple forged parental signatures here, a couple lies to moms there, and Kevin and Paul (peer-pressured along for the ride) find themselves “partying” with Gary out in the woods at night.

Of course, when Kevin and Paul bring stuff like marshmallows to the campfire, they’re stunned to find their fellow seventh-grader there with his stash of smokes and beer.

Heart of Darkness - The Wonder Years

It’s clear that Kevin and Paul are hardly partaking of the alcohol and tobacco – although Paul seems to drink of the beer a little more deeply than Kevin, who barely touches the stuff to his lips, it’s also apparent that his subsequent goofiness is an effort to fit in, and he’s not really feeling any intoxicating effects. The scene is played for some laughs – as adult Kevin narrates the moment where Paul is deciding what to do with the beer in his hand, he urges his younger friend to be the level-headed one and Just Say No, only to see Paul heartily knock the can back for a swig – but it’s also fittingly uncomfortable. There’s talk of girls and girlfriends and their “honkers” (context: not noses) or the lack thereof, and the possibility of reaching second base.

Gary winds up talking Kevin and Paul into exploring a nearby “cave,” which turns out to be a storm sewer, and then turns into a full-on jackass, trying to scare the guys with tales of dead bodies and going into an obnoxious fit of ghostly moans. (This scene still strikes home: It reminds me of a kid who lived a couple streets away when I was in elementary school. We were becoming friends until he slowly squashed a tadpole to death on the road and then drove me to near tears by threatening to lock me in his family’s cellar.)

I also have to note that being the parent of a high-schooler adds a whole new layer of perspective to watching this episode. I don’t remember when I had my first illicit beer – though I can say for certain it was a shared can of Old Milwaukee that someone’s older brother had stashed out behind a tree somewhere, and it was so revolting that I didn’t have a second illicit beer for a good long time.

November 20, 2011 Posted by | 1980s, eighties, Ohio, Television | , , | Leave a comment

The Wonder Years: Season One, through Older Eyes

Note: I’m planning to write about seasons and story arcs of The Wonder Years as I revisit the series in its entirety via Netflix streaming. Earlier, I wrote about my personal history and memories of The Wonder Years during its original broadcast run. This blog entry takes at look at the six episodes which comprise Season One. Expect spoilers ahead – if one can be said to “spoil” a show that aired its last original episode more than 17 years ago. I’m also assuming readers are familiar with the main characters of Kevin Arnold, Winnie Cooper, and Paul Pfeiffer, and Kevin’s family, Jack and Norma (mom and dad), Wayne and Karen.

After waiting for so long to see The Wonder Years available for home viewing, I was thrilled to finally queue up the pilot episode on Netflix.

I was also a little wary of how much the original music used in the show would be changed. After all, securing the rights to use the catalog of songs from the TV broadcasts has long been understood as a major reason for The Wonder Years not being available on the home video market. So when the theme song began, and it wasn’t the show’s original Joe Cocker version of “A Little Help from My Friends,” I got a little spooked. (It’s a version clearly recorded to emulate the Cocker version though. According to Wikipedia, this version of the song was played when The Wonder Years originally aired in the U.K.)

Past that, though, the pilot strikes all the same chords it did when it first aired, the voice-overs of Narrator Kevin introducing us to his neightborhood and his family and his friends just prior to the beginning of his seventh grade year at Robert F. Kennedy Junior High. While there’s definitely a not-quite-settled-in feeling to some of the characters and writing, I still don’t think any other show has hit so squarely the tone and feel of a time and place seen through a 12-year-old’s eyes.

Kevin’s father, Jack Arnold, in particular seems a much darker character in these early episodes, brooding with his after-work drinks and prone to loud and angry outbursts that go beyond the usual TV realm of gruff-but-well-meaning dad role. (In a moment that still makes me a little uncomfortable, Narrator Kevin says his father had never struck him, “but he’d given Wayne a beating. Twice.” The revelation is key, given what happens a few moments later, but the show never really goes down that road again.

The pilot story centers on the start of the school year, typical family conflicts (rebellious older sister; butthead older brother), and adolescent friendships and relationships. Where The Wonder Years really defines itself, though, is in the pilot’s final third. To this point, it’s been heartfelt and genuine and funny and just sad enough in a very identifiable way.

And then Brian Cooper dies.

Winnie’s older brother only appears in three episodes of the entire show, and two of those are the pilot and its immediate follow-up. It’s taken me years to realize just how much the impact of that character’s death in Vietnam shapes several significant events over the course of the series.

Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper - The Wonder YearsHaving screwed up royally and gotten in major trouble at school, Kevin rides home with his parents anticipating a severe punishment at the hands of his father. The three of them are met on the front porch by Kevin’s older brother and sister, who break the news about Brian’s death. It’s one of the series’ defining moments, bringing a real weight to the show, and setting up the iconic final moments, when Kevin and Winnie share their first kiss as he comforts her in the woods where they used to play. (MAJOR sigh of relief upon watching this one: Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman” still accompanies this scene. In my mind, this song is as inextricably tied to the scene as Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” is to John Cusack holding up a boom box. Maybe even more so.)

Episode two, “Swingers,” picks up immediately following the events of the pilot, opening at Brian Cooper’s funeral. (1980s pop culture afficionados, take note: The priest at the ceremony is David Lightman’s father – “This corn is raw!” – from WarGames.) Again, I’m incredibly relieved to hear Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” – you know, the “There’s something happening here…” song – playing on the soundtrack.

“Swingers” does a fantastic job of balancing the Cooper family’s with Kevin’s confusion in the wake of his kiss with Winnie, interwoven with the onset of junior-high sex education. Classic moment: Kevin’s gym teacher/sex ed instructor draws a diagram of the female reproductive system.

“Suddenly it became very clear why Mr. Cutlip had never been married,” Narrator Kevin recalls. “Any man who saw women that way would have no reason to.”

Cutlip Class Wonder Years

(This scene cracked my daughter up.)

And “Swingers” just moves from one great scene to another: There’s Kevin and Paul’s quest to buy a copy of “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask),” Wayne’s know-it-all doofus advice, and the post-first-kiss unease that casts Kevin and Winnie’s friendship in a new light.

Episodes three and four – “My Father’s Office” and “Angel,” respectively – establish the series’ approach to stand-alone stories that focus more on the Arnold family than the ongoing junior-high struggles. They also begin to round out a few of these relationships and characters, again setting things up for echoes and recurring themes down the road.

“My Father’s Office” looks at Kevin’s relationship with his dad, whom he accompanies to work for a day. Jack Arnold gets some depth to work with, and there’s a funny fantasy sequence in which Kevin imagines himself as an office boss, with his siblings as his subordinates.

“Angel” – which marks the first major role for actor John Corbett, who later starred on Northern Exposure – is built around on the Vietnam War and the household conflict beween hippie Karen, her new boyfriend Louis (Corbett) and the Arnold parents, particularly Jack. It does a nice job of positioning Louis as both a pompous ass and a guy who’s genuinely scared and upset by what’s going on around him. (Of course, he is totally a dick because he’s a little too Free with the Love for Karen.)

The penultimate episode of season one, “The Phone Call,” introduces Kevin’s first post-Winnie-kiss crush: Lisa Berlini. Junior high society is in full play, with a lunchroom pass-it-on scene and Kevin wrestling with the dilemma of actually calling a girl on the phone. And while it’s a fine episode, it’s really best viewed as a lead-in to the season finale, “Dance With Me,” which has always been one of my all-time favorites. (Other than the series-closer, it’s the only Wonder Years episode I videotaped long before I started trying to collect the whole run.) So let’s get to that one.

If you were to ask me to pick one episode that best captures everything I love about The Wonder Years, it would be “Dance With Me.” Not to say it’s my favorite ever, or that it’s the best written or most powerful, but for sheer representation of the things that really make the show what it is, “Dance With Me” is tough to beat. Watching it for the first time in a long while, it really struck me how much the writers packed into this 23 minutes of television.

Opening up the morning after “The Phone Call” – adult Kevin informs us that he and Lisa had spent “close to four complete minutes” talking with each other, and his feelings have clearly deepened over this amazing experience.

So, in the wake of a homeroom announcement regarding an upcoming school dance, we get: awkward hallway conversation with Paul and Winnie in which Paul breaks out in itches and sneezes at the mention of a girl who likes him; Paul cluelessly mentioning Kevin’s crush on Lisa, which catches Winnie by surprise; lunchroom flirtation over burgers and fruit cocktail. This is Wonder Years Middle School at its borderline-cliché but fantastic best.

After passing Lisa a note asking her to the dance, Kevin gets that response every seventh-grade boy lives for: the “Okay” with a smiley face in the O. Five minutes later, of course, Lisa gets asked by some prick named Brad – Mark Paul Gosselaar! – face-to-face in the hallway. And she says yes. (Narrator Kevin’s priceless comment: “I had it in writing. Perhaps there was some sort of legal action I could take.”)

At home, Kevin mopes over an I Dream of Jeannie episode – fooooooreshadooooooow! – and then decides to go to the dance after all.

It’s during an Arnold-family music-and-dance montage that I noticed the first musical substitutions made for the newly-streaming episodes of the show. Where Jack and Norma used to dance to “The Girl from Ipanema” and Wayne goofed around to “Louie, Louie,” we hear different songs now. And though I recognized the switches immediately, they’re not game-changers. (Frankly, these are trades I’m OK with, as opposed to the practice of editing the episodes’ content, which happens from time to time in syndication.)

The episode finishes up at the dance itself and hits that perfect mix of nostalgia and melancholy and humor and reality, from Kevin and Paul resorting to trash can basketball with punch cups to Kevin’s heartache at watching Winnie with an eighth-grader to Kevin’s attempt at making her jealous by dancing with a girl he doesn’t even know. We’re treated to a brief, hilariously-imagined scene involving Winnie in the title I Dream of Jeannie role (including laugh track!), and then a classic episode-closing moment and voice over as Kevin and Winnie slow dance to the thankfully-still-part-of-the-soundtrack “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” by Otis Redding.

Watching it again, I think that if the show hadn’t been picked up for full-season release, this would still have served as a great bookend to three hours of really, really good television.

Fortunately, there was more to come.

October 17, 2011 Posted by | 1970s, 1980s, geek, Television | , , , | 2 Comments

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