Monday, October 15, 2012

TONIGHT'S DVD REVIEW: Big John Little John: The Complete Series (Fabulous Films/VCI, 10/2/12)

(All images courtesy Fabulous Films/VCI)
SYNOPSIS: When John Martin (Herb Edelman) takes his wife, Marjorie (Joyce Bulifant), and son, Ricky (Mike Darnell), on a summer vacation to Ponce de Leon Park in Florida, the science teacher accidentally drinks water from the legendary Fountain of Youth. Sometime after returning to his job at Madison Junior High School, the water works its magic, transforming the forty-something-year-old man* into a younger version of himself at age twelve (Robbie Rist), but only in how he looks and talks (usually). As he labors to find a cure for his affliction, John must cover up his unpredictable changes from big to small (and vice versa) by passing off his youthful form as his visiting nephew, a.k.a. "Little John". Marjorie and Ricky help to keep his secret under wraps from people like John's students Homer (Kristoff St. John), Valerie (Cari Anne Warder) and Stanley (Stephen Cassidy), as well as the school principal, Miss Bertha Bottomly (Olive Dunbar). From there, chaos and shenanigans ensue.

BACKGROUND: BJLJ was produced during the 1970s, when a revived interest in live action shows for Saturday morning was rampant on the three major TV networks (ABC, CBS and NBC), primarily due to a backlash begun in the late '60s by parents, educators and psychologists (like Dr. Fredric Wertham) against the dominance of cartoons (violent or otherwise) on their schedules. With few exceptions, most of the live action shows didn't last beyond one season, but that didn't deter producers from making more, as long as there was a demand for them. So it went that Sherwood Schwartz, creator of  the popular, kid-friendly The Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island, took a shot at a Saturday morning series.

Herb Edelman

One interesting anecdote I remember reading a while back about the short-lived Saturday morning program Big John Little John (NBC 1976-1977) stated co-creator/executive producer Sherwood Schwartz had developed the series for child star Robbie Rist as an "apology" of sorts for the unexpected cancellation of his hit sitcom The Brady Bunch in 1974. Back then, Robbie had been added on as Cousin Oliver in a desperate measure to inject some fresh youth into the show since the six Brady kids were no longer young or cute, but his inclusion (recognized by the burned-out writers as a mistake after the first "Oliver" story was in the can) didn't save it from getting the ax. Two years later, Sherwood and his son, Lloyd, created BJLJ, giving Robbie a crack at a potential TV smash.

Some apology.

Okay, it's too easy to criticize a '70s low-budget kids' show, but while other ones of the era manage to transcend their frugality (such as Isis and The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show), BJLJ is bogged down by it. Despite having a premise tailor-made for kids and an agreeable ensemble of actors, BJLJ is a cheap, superficial series with a few laughs and not much else. (In my opinion, if Sherwood did the show in the 1960s, the show may have had a better chance at longevity. He certainly would've had enough money behind it to pull off the concept better than how it turned out in '76.)

Homer's backyard, complete with shadows cast on the blue sky.

How cheap is it? Visually, the show looks rough due to the fact episodes were videotaped and then transferred to film, but that's the least of its woes. There's some tacky set construction, lumbering staging, crude editing and even poor lighting--POOR LIGHTING! (I can't hardly recall ever seeing any TV show that wasn't, at least, well lit until I reacquainted myself with BJLJ.) If the comedy was more frequent, these technicalities could be overlooked, but as the gags often come at a slow pace, they distract the viewer unnecessarily. After working on sitcoms that had substantial budgets, BJLJ was like a step backward for Sherwood and company, especially with having to adapt to new technology (video cameras) and being restricted to what appears to be very limited studio space.

Whereas GI and TBB had a finely-crafted balance of comedy, characterization and good storytelling that made them easily accessible to children (then and now), BJLJ makes the mistake of oversimplifying the scripts for the Saturday morning target audience, undermining many good story ideas with thin dialogue, clunky humor and the stretching of comic logic beyond its limits. Sherwood and Lloyd may have done this to appease NBC's Standards and Practices division; in the process, they pulled back too much, and such restraint really neuters the comedy somewhat.

Robbie Rist
The cast members try their best to make the slight material work with mixed results. At times, there are even brief moments when reliable actors like Herb Edelman, Joyce Bulifant, Olive Dunbar and Robbie Rist display (I swear) actual exasperation on their faces as they say something or do a bit of shtick they know isn't funny. Importantly, because they aren't totally committed to their roles, it's hard to warm up to any of the characters, which is a death sentence to a sitcom. Again, this inconsistency in the acting may be related to the budget  (a tight shooting schedule where retakes were rare), but this can't be confirmed. I'll also guess the veteran actors signed on to the series as a favor for Sherwood because of a connection they had with him (e.g., Joyce was once a contender for Carol Brady), as I can't envision anyone but a starving actor auditioning for the show after reading one script.

left to right: Kristoff St. John and Cari Anne Warder
BJLJ isn't a total loss, even if most of the stories don't have good payoffs. Highlights include "Peter Panic", with Big John cast in the school play as Captain Hook...and Little John as Peter Pan; "Very Little John", where Marjorie and Rick believe a baby left in John's care is John in an even younger state; and "Big Scare, Little Scare", where John's students think the Crabtree mansion is haunted, but John and Miss Bottomly are skeptical. However, the best episode is "Abracadabra" (written by David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams), in which aspiring magician Homer is convinced he changed Little John into Big John. Here, like in the other shows, future soap star Kristoff St. John is a scene-stealer as Homer. (It's evident the writers like him, so he's given some choice quips to say, and his buoyant personality enables him to roll with the punches when he has less dynamic lines to recite.)

The 2-DVD set from Fabulous Films (a UK company) was initially available only as an import in 2009, the US release left in a legal limbo until VCI picked up the distribution rights just this year. The video, advertised as "fully restored", isn't quite that, but it looks sort of clean, the picture quality ranging from very good to fair, sometimes from one scene to the next. The audio is in its original mono, which occasionally gets noisy during loud passages, but it's never diabolical. Among the "special features", a show synopsis and an episode guide are also found in the packaging of the DVD case, which leaves a stills gallery as the only true bonus item, and it's a skimpy one. There are no subtitles or closed captioning for the hard of hearing.

Herb Edelman and Joyce Bulifant

BJLJ has the unique distinction of being the first Sherwood Schwartz "flop" series to make it to DVD, but it also may be the one which could've been left in the vault and not missed at all. Whatever warmth I once had for the program dimmed as I watched it again through older eyes. To me, the unintentional laughs now outnumber the intentional ones; others are bound to get more of a nostalgic buzz from it. If you have children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews five years of age or younger, it's an okay show you can watch with them, but they will outgrow it quickly. It's safe for a rental; buy it at your own risk.

POST SCRIPT:  Despite the failure of BJLJ, Sherwood Schwartz's subsequent projects for NBC did bear fruit. In 1978, the first of three Gilligan's Island reunion movies aired (one of those a failed pilot for a new show), followed by The Brady Girls Get Married movie and its spin-off series, The Brady Brides.


Cobweb TV! ranking for Big John, Little John: The Complete Series--


(DC Comics/Warner Home Video)

Keeping it trivial....


* - The catchy theme song has John's age at forty. One episode says he's forty-five. Herb Edelman was forty-two when BJLJ was produced.


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