Image C Sound B Extras B-
"Pilot," "Operation Kubiac," "Power Play," "Parker Lewis Must Lose," "Close, But No Guitar," "G.A.G. Dance," "Love's a Beast," "Saving Grace," "Musso & Frank," "Deja Dudes," "Radio Free Flamingo," "Science Fair," ""Teacher, Teacher," "Rent-a-Kube," "Heather the Class," "Jerry: Portrait of a Video Junkie," "Splendor in the Class," "The Human Grace," "Citizen Kube," "Randall Without a Cause," "Jerry's First Date," "Against the Norm," "King Kube," "Teens from a Mall," "My Fair Shelly," "Parker Lewis Can't Win"
by Jefferson Robbins It's the cool uncle of "Malcolm in the Middle". It's got "Scrubs" among its progeny, and the '80s teen comedies of Savage Steve Holland somewhere back up the line of descent. It may have single-handedly established the swoosh-smash-zip school of sitcoms, festooned with sound effects, inner monologues, and discursive daydreams. If it wanted, "Parker Lewis Can't Lose" could claim "Family Guy" as a descendent, for the way it appropriates "Parker"'s absurdist jump-cuts to tangential situations.1
"Parker Lewis Can't Lose" also holds obvious parallels with the late John Hughes's Ferris Bueller's Day Off, to the point that it could reasonably be accused of plagiarism. There's the syllabic similarity in titles. There's the undermining little sister (Maia Brewton) who wants her untouchable sibling brought to heel. There's the recurring chka-chkaa music cue that could come straight from Yello. Finally, there's the protagonist archetype of a popular teen who's got the whole situation wired. In Parker's case, it's literal: From a hidden video bay above the school gym, our hero (Corin Nemec) and his "best buds," rock aficionado Mikey (William Jayne) and geek manservant Jerry (Troy Slaten, the love child of Lukas Haas and Harold Ramis), monitor the halls of Santo Domingo High School via closed-circuit video and hidden microphones. It's a fantasy of how you thought you'd navigate high school when you were in sixth grade, and a reminder that illegal surveillance can be a tingly rush if you're the one doing the watching.
But unlike Ferris, Parker doesn't want a day away from school. He's smugly content to help his friends cheat on tests (at least in the pilot), gently manipulate binge-eating rageaholic giant Larry Kubiac (Abraham Benrubi), and tweak hard-ass principal Grace Musso (Melanie Chartoff) with strategically deployed videotapes and phreaked phone calls from her mother. What's more, "Parker" recognizes its Hughesian origins, embraces them, and then uproots itself to walk abroad as its own creature. Facing a competitor for the title of coolest kid in school, Parker asks, "Who does this guy think he is? Ferris Bueller?" In one episode alone, Parker offers to cheer up a depressed Mikey by throwing a John Hughes movie marathon, and carries off a blinky, pinch-lipped Matthew Broderick impression.2
"Parker Lewis Can't Lose" first aired on FOX in 1990, which can now be seen as a year of undercurrents erupting into the mainstream and an early window on an electronic future. Check the costuming and styling: Parker's shirts are amazingly loud, but they're pure Kid 'n Play--a white kid toying with black signifiers.3 Ambitiously sculpted hair has become not a mark of punk outsiderdom or, God forbid, queerness, but something adorning almost every male. School was still a safe place to be, in the eyes of the culture. The sight of a metal detector in Santo Domingo's hallways, placed for laughs, is genuinely discomfiting. So are Parker's musings about the consequences if Kubiac fails his math midterm: "... Or he'll flunk it royally, kill everyone in the building, and blow up the entire neighborhood. This is what makes being a high school junior so interesting." In Parker's pastel suburbia, where his parents rent out cassettes for a living, technological cornerstones like cell phones and the Internet are there but not there, like rumors of magic. En route to commercials, "Parker Lewis" dissolves into pixels. This show knows, or at least suspects, that the language we will soon speak is entirely digital. "That kid is so smart," Parker's dad (Timothy Stack) murmurs at one point, "so aware of the world."
It's a wonder that kid got on the air at all. The pilot episode has the occasional feel of a student film, with flat staging and moments where its ambition clearly outstrips its budget. The Cyrano-gone-sour plot finds Parker trying to hook Mikey up with fellow student Milla Jovovich (then seventeen and looking all of eleven) and avoid a pummeling from man-mountain Kubiac. You could be forgiven for thinking, from the way Parker commands a small crew and peddles scalped concert tickets, that he's some kind of drug dealer. But the episode sets up those elements that will carry forward throughout the first season, like the potent thumb Musso jerks towards her office when she apprehends a hallway miscreant, or Dutch angles so assertive that objects within the frame respond to their canted gravity.4 The staging broadens out in subsequent episodes, though "Parker Lewis" never appears fully comfortable in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. You always get the feeling there's something going on just outside the margins.
The fourth episode, "Close, But No Guitar," is the most thoroughly directed of the early shows. Under Bryan Spicer, who'd go on to helm a third of the series' entire run, the camera goes everywhere--in the bullhorn of a PA system, on the bridge of a flying guitar. The story is fluff, but the view is phenomenal, and that sort of visual daring would become a hallmark of the show. And over the long haul, "Parker" rewards the faithful viewer by building upon its established jokes. The opening and closing bumpers regard the characters from inside a fridge, a medicine chest, a photocopier; Musso's right-hand student snitch, the vampiric Lemmer (Taj Johnson), leaves a viscous tar wherever he goes and disappears in a burst of spooky wind; Kubiac's footsteps are heavy enough to rattle the hallways, and his tears shatter floor tiles; and Jerry constantly seeks shelter in a locker, including one that's inexplicably standing alone in Musso's office. Just when you think Musso is the most authoritarian principal in the annals of teen comedy5, along comes her nemesis/love interest Pankow (Gerrit Graham, phenomenal) to twist Santo Domingo into Orwell's Oceania.
Where "Parker Lewis" palls is in the "Can't Lose" portion of its title. It's stated up front that the hero is invincible, so there's not much catharsis in seeing him wriggle out of whatever corner he's momentarily penned in. As the series gains confidence, it delivers some fantastic absurdity, but it also begins to believe its own hype. Episode 8, "Musso & Frank," features the season's zippiest script and wittiest sight gags, yet it's an exception among the teleplays crafted by "Parker"'s creators, Lon Diamond and Clyde Phillips. Theirs tend to be the show's weakest, from the so-what? pilot to the one where Musso's mother comes to visit and she's played by Barbara Billingsley. (That's pretty much the only joke of that particular entry, until the other shoe drops in the form of a Jerry Mathers cameo, right on schedule.) When the showrunners turn the wheel over to others, particularly head writer Tom Straw and directors like Spicer and Max Tash, the vehicle hums along with greater efficiency. Even then, the thing can throw a rod. When Jerry simply nods his head and you hear ball bearings rolling around in a trashcan (1.18, "Citizen Kube"), you start to think the sound guys are getting paid by the gag. I'm grateful in retrospect that a program this smart got three whole seasons on TV's most mercenary network--I only wish it weren't so frequently pleased with itself.
Shepherded at last to DVD by Shout! Factory (issuers of a sweet Roky Erickson CD retrospective that puts them forever on my good side), "Parker Lewis Can't Lose" looks like it was shot through a screen door no matter which monitor I view it on. The show was filmed in 16mm, and I thought I was getting cataracts until Bill Chambers explained it to me this way:
By the mid-to-late '80s, almost every television show shot on film was now having its post-production done entirely on video, thus allowing networks to skip the expensive and cumbersome neg-cut stage. Which is all well and good, except this means that literally thousands of individual TV episodes were archived for eternity on analog formats using telecine techniques soon-to-be-outmoded by the advent of HD. In other words, stuff like "Parker Lewis" has only sorry-ass tapes to claim as their "negatives." Shout! Factory undoubtedly went back to the source here, and the source sucked; and even if the show's negatives still exist (unlikely), cutting them, colour-timing them, and redoing titles and scene transitions would've been cost-prohibitive.
Cue music from "The More You Know!". Unlike the picture quality, the 2.0 stereo audio holds up reasonably well, with Musso's thumb swooping left-to-right and Kubiac's T. Rex footfalls serially stimulating the subwoofer. Dennis McCarthy's reggae-inflected, whistle-ready theme bounces along free and happy, but across large episode blocks consumed in single sittings it's increasingly apparent he's got two modes: white-boy reggae and Damn Yankees power ballads. I wonder what kind of rights issues Shout! Factory had to address with the songs on this package--I never watched the show in broadcast, but any soundtrack that mixes Poi Dog Pondering, Frank Zappa, and Otis Redding really should have grabbed my attention.
The four-disc collection features commentary on seven episodes, reuniting the creators and various members of the cast for chats that find everyone impressed with their own work. In a bullshit move, there's no subtitle or closed-caption option for the series--so if you're watching with commentary, forget trying to follow the script dialogue. Not having seen the shows, in some cases, since their original airings, the producers, directors, and actors alike fall silent for brief stretches to watch, and burst out laughing at the show's payoffs. Diamond, Phillips, and Spicer are well aware of their legacy, although they don't sound bitter about the shows that stole a march from "Parker" after its cancellation. It's revealed that Spicer directed his first episode at age 23, and proved so inventive that the producers brought him back time and again. Working often in tight close-ups, he built a light to go in front of the camera's matte box to chase shadows away, along with a device called the "Spicer Spinner" to achieve better 360-degree camera rotation. Diamond and Phillips acknowledge their debt to John Hughes, but they seem quite proud of having crushed the inferior "Ferris Bueller" sitcom a mere 13 episodes into its run.
From the cast, the set brings back Nemec, Jayne, Slaten, Brewton, Parker's parents Timothy Stack and Anne Bloom, and Taj Johnson. Sadly, as Nemec talks on a different episode from Jayne and Slaten, there is no reunion of the "best buds" to be heard. Slaten, a lawyer now who was just 15 when the first season was shot, has nothing but fond memories of the show and admires its creative balls. His recall is amazing: he IDs the boom operator as an extra in 1.17, "The Human Grace." All these chats are convivial, but at 22 minutes, there's little time for a "Parker" episode to foment deep discussion. Also, these yakkers appear to have been recorded out of order, hence there's a bit of jet lag as participants refer to something they said "earlier," which to the viewer is actually "later," and...oh, never mind. Suffice to say, everyone's damn proud of the show, and there are chuckles to be had by listening in.
Much missed from the commentaries are Abraham Benrubi and Melanie Chartoff. Benrubi does chime in, along with the others mentioned above, for "The History of Coolness: A Look Back at 'Parker Lewis Can't Lose'" (28 mins.). This parade of talking heads tells us little not heard on the yak-tracks, but it is a chance to see who's aging well among the cast and who is not. Benrubi still looks like Kubiac, but he's borrowed a beard from that guy with the lantern on the inside cover of "Led Zeppelin IV." Nemec has roughened up after his stint on "Stargate SG-1", while Slaten has filled out and is no longer pulling fax machines out of his trenchcoat. They all love the show, and they love Shout! Factory for giving it the kiss of life. Forced trailers for "My So-Called Life," "Freaks and Geeks", and the first two seasons of "Blossom" cue up when Disc One loads. Originally published: August 25, 2009.
1. But that's a black sheep scenario: "Family Guy" gets this idea entirely wrong, and the tangents become the whole premise. return
2. "Parker" was in direct competition with NBC's "Ferris" TV spin-off (a strange animal to contemplate) in its first season. The Hughesian magic proved non-transferable to the small set, and "Parker Lewis", per its title, won. The "Ferris" show did provide one of Jennifer Aniston's many, many stepping stones en route to "Friends", though--she took over the little sister role originated by Jennifer Grey. return
3. Aside from a cameo by Kool Moe Dee and a Public Enemy poster on Parker's bedroom wall, this is also where the hip-hop stops. There are perhaps two people of colour in all of Santo Domingo High, and the kids' declared musical tastes seem to run to classic rock. FOX probably figured "In Living Color" had its urban bases covered. return
4. Jovovich also sets the template for Parker's love interests, none of whom last beyond one episode. This is a boys'-own show, with no female writers or directors in sight, and the one time a female does invade Parker's heart and hangout (1.16, "Splendor in the Class"), she's not worthy of him, and acknowledges as much. return
5. This must be said: Melanie Chartoff has a delightful mouth. I could watch it for hours. If Miss Musso had been my principal, I would've found a way to get sent to her office at least once a week. return
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