Saturday, May 5, 2018
"VALERIE/THE HOGAN FAMILY": A STUDY IN FORGETFULNESS AND MEDIOCRITY !
I mentioned once that I absolutely hate this theme song. It made my Dishonorable Mentions List of my Top Ten Worst TV Theme Songs of all-time, and yes, I realized that I had one-too-many dozens of dishonorable mentions, that was a hard list to come up with and I don't care if I overdid it; you didn't have to do the research!!!!!!!!!!!...- (Deep breath) Sorry, I still haven't fully recovered from that project. Anyway, eh, I guess I might've been a little hard on it. There's nothing technically wrong with it, it fits the show, sorta, it's actually sung by Roberta Flack, she didn't write it, thankfully, but she certainly gives it a little more prestige than it should. But-, yeah, I stand by that claim. It's just this bizarre combination of sickly sweet sincerity mixed with this bizarre generic nature of the song that I distinctly remember irking and bugging the hell out of me even as a kid.
Don't get used to that phrase, "Distinctly remember" for the rest of this article.
Alright, look, I- I know you're all wondering, what the hell am I even talking/writing about this show for? I mean, I'm talking about a decades-old sitcom that I doubt most of you even remember right? Well, you're not wrong that's kinda why I am writing about it. And this isn't even an article outlining a forgotten masterpiece, this isn't even a good show, even at the time this wasn't regarded as a great show or anything. In fact, there's only one thing that's kinda noteworthy and important about the show and it's not even the thing I want to talk about with it. I'll outline that one thing in a minute, oh-, and retroactively, Jason Bateman was on it. That's not the thing, it's like the 4th most famous TV show he's been a regular on and actually 5th if you want to count him as a semi-regular on that one season of "Little House on the Prairie"; yes he's been around that long, and yes, I may still think of him mainly as Justine's brother. (Boy, did I lose money on that one; I would've for sure bet that she would've been the bigger acting star by now back then.) However, I grew up with this show, and I remember watching it, many times as a kid, when it was on the air and later on, many, many, many times in reruns. Now, normally, that would indicate that I have an attachment to this show. I don't. I really don't; in fact, I can't imagine anybody who does. I am probably the only person I know who has ever randomly brought this show up in conversation and mostly the conversation went, "Do you guys remember "The Hogan Family", (Assuming I remembered that that was the name of the show, and no, if you're not familiar with it, it's got nothing to with "Hogan Knows Best", thank Christ it doesn't.) and of course, if anybody does actually remember this show, the only thing they ever respond with is, the behind-the-scenes stuff, which they know by heart. Like, I'd have had it explained to me by my grandparents before, multiple times. It was a big enough deal that they knew about all the shit that went down with it, and yet, neither they, or I, can remember anything else about it.
Like anything, without looking it up and rewatching episodes for this article, I- can't remember a plotline to the show, I can't remember an interesting character, I can't recall a funny joke offhand from it, like...- Again, this wasn't a show that I barely watched, this was a show that I get instant recall from, if for nothing else, that goddamn opening theme song I can't stand, but everything else is a blank to me. And I don't want to brag here, but I have an audio-visual memory, if I see it and hear it at the same time, I tend to get it, right away; and I have a passion for television and a way-above-average recall mechanism in my brain; I literally lettered in high school in Being Able to Recall Obscure Bullshit Trivia Really Well, or Varsity Quiz as the local Trivia Bowl between schools is usually called. But-, "The Hogan Family/"Valerie" is...- a blank to me. And it's always been that way; this isn't like a new thing, where it was like, "Oops, I forgot "Valerie" and two of Henry VIII's wives, I must getting old, like-, No, I've never remembered anything about this damn thing.
And I know, some people who think, "No, this isn't a good reason to study something," like, I got in this discussion awhile back after I talked about how I tweeted about Tim Gunn using a "Gilligan's Island" reference on "Project Runway Junior" and seeing how none of the teenagers knew what that was, and I tweeted that, "You see that sounds like it's a good thing, but it's really not." Anyway, somebody disagreed with me on that sentiment, saying that there was no real reason anybody needed to know every little thing like "Gilligan's Island" especially something that's bad. Now, I understand his argument, I didn't agree with it, but I understand it, is it crucially important that a bunch of teenage fashion designers know every little piece of arcane television knowledge, no, probably not, and of course it's important to filter out the bad from the good; hell, my general approach most of the time is to differentiate between what you like and what's good, but there's different levels of good, and there's also different levels of bad. Anybody who insists on constantly talking about "The Room" all the fucking time make that point relevant for me. Well, there's also plenty of forgettable good stuff, maybe we should look at some of the forgettable mediocre-to-bad stuff too. Especially something that lasted so long, and this show lasted six seasons by the way, and you know, isn't say "Small Wonder" bad, weird and/strange from concept or something, it's just-, it was there, it exists. Why is something good, we study it, why is something bad, we study it, and why "The Hogan Family" is "The Hogan Family" of TV shows, we should study this.
I know, that was only half-coherent, but it's bugged me for awhile, okay, and if I am going to go through this exercise of trying to analyze something that's truly forgettable than let's do it with something, that's truly forgettable.
Except for the one thing-, yes, okay, that one thing, that distinguishes "Valerie" or "The Hogan Family", you've probably noticed that I've used both names of the show until now. Let's start at the beginning. The show was created by Charlie Hauck who's a noted TV writer and producer, but the real brainchild of the series is Miller-Boyett Productions, and if you're my age you probably recognize that name, they were responsible for "Family Matters", "Full House", "Perfect Strangers", basically the entire ABC TGIF lineup until "Boy Meets World" came around. This was 1986, so right in there in the beginning of their rise, and basically the show was about a working career mother, who worked at her own job and ran the household of kids, in a two-parent working household, the father character was a pilot so they wrote this in as him being, relatively absent for most episodes, 'cause he had to fly everywhere. For the main role, they cast Valerie Harper, and they then named the show "Valerie". Valerie Harper was then, and still is now a TV legend and what happened next, ended her career basically. (Well, that's not fair, she's worked regularly ever since, but this has become infamous regarding her.) So, after two seasons, Valerie asked for a raise and a restructuring of her contract in order to get more of the residuals for reruns of the show. It's important to note that she did this before on "Rhoda" and she got it back then, and the thinking was that, the show was named "Valerie", that's not only her character's name, but her name, and she's the star and the show has two successful seasons in the Top 40 and it seems somewhat reasonable, but they didn't get it at first, so Harper walked out on the show, and she and her husband/agent were in a huge dispute over Miller-Boyett and their producing partner Lorimar Productions over this, and this led to a complicated back-and-forth, but basically, they fired her. They fired, the star of the show, that was named after the star, and the next season, her character was killed off on the show and suddenly, the father's a widow and his sister, played by Sandy Duncan, comes and moves in with them.
Like, imagine if Jerry Seinfeld got fired from "Seinfeld" in like season four and they replaced him with, eh, I don't know, Steven Wright, and suddenly the show was called, "Jerry's Friends", that's kinda what happened. The show was even called "Valerie's Family" for a year.
Honestly, this was important at the time, and I'm not kidding, this was HUGE at the time, this was and still is, one of the biggest contract disputes in TV history, it's up there with like, Suzanne Somers getting fired from "Three's Company" or Carroll O'Connor's notorious contract negotiations for his later "All in the Family" years, or some of the Late Night hosts ones. Except for all those other shows, we actually frigging remember things about them, other than this! It's literally, the only show that I know of, that's more remembered for the behind the scenes stuff than for what happened onscreen. (Maybe, "Jim'll Fix It" and that's just because of what we learned afterwards on that show and the fact that I have to go that dark to come up with a comparison should tell you just how friggin' weird this is.)
Again, I'm only mentioning this, 'cause I have to, I'm obligated; that's literally the big thing. Everything else about it...- I mean, I'm genuinely about 25% surprised, to find out that Valerie Harper's character was named Valerie. I mean, I probably would've guessed that, but I wouldn't have been 100% sure until I went back to re-watch the show recently.
Yeah, so, it's- it's been on my mind lately. My internet was out recently and I happened to catch the show again on AntennaTV, who have been airing reruns of the show weekdays after "My Two Dads", which is about as perverse and sadistic an hour-long block of television I've ever heard of.. (Yes, "My Two Dads" was real and it's worse than you even think it is.) And, since I have this weird curiosity about the show, I sat down and watched a few episodes and tried to figure, something about the show. Like, something that would register, and since that didn't completely work I started to seek out episodes elsewhere and did some research and tried to at least some other facts about the series and perhaps some of the noteworthy episodes if I could find them online or streaming somewhere and you know, have some reaction and thoughts.
Well, the first thing I noticed, this is the same set that was either in "Family Matters" or "Step By Step", or both, as it turned out after looking that up. If I didn't know "Family Matters" and "Step By Step" were in the same universe, I'd suspect that this kitchen the site of multiple different universe of which those three shows were apart of them, that's only my weird theory. I forgot Edie McClurg was on this thing for most of it's run, but most people remember her for being in those John Hughes films than this, her biggest TV hit. (Well, 2nd biggest, she was the voice of Mrs. Seaworthy in "Snorks", so..., eh, toss-up?)
What else, um...? (Shrugs) Well, they seem to add regular characters more often than just changing the main character; those quite a few extra ones in fact. The oldest kid gained new friends in college, the neighbors changed. Hmm. (Shrugs) Um, there's really nothing too memorable about these characters, they're kinda cliches of cliches, I mean the Burt character is clearly just the "Nerd" stereotype. If he hadn't come first I would've sworn his character was a response to Urkel's popularity, but that stereotype existed before Urkel, just not on TV as much. (Shrugs)
There's not much there honestly. Also, the show's not funny. Well, occasionally I get a chuckle but basically, it's unfunny in the same way that other family sitcoms aren't funny, especially the cliche ones of that era, but part of this is intentional in this show's case. I'm actually a little surprised while doing research how much of the discussion on the show involved the idea of the series being an attempt to portray a realistic family with realistic approaches and problems, and not just humor. That sounds weird compared to today's modern interpretation of what we think of as a sitcom, but actually I think it does make some sense. As derided as let's say "Full House" gets, people forget that the whole premise of that series is that the matriarch of the family has just died and left behind a grieving husband and three daughters, one of whom is still a baby and will grow up never knowing her mother and that's why he had his two best friends move in with him to help him through his pain and help takes care of the kids with him. "The Hogan Family" didn't intend something that dark, but it's a show, that if it's known for anything outside of the infamous stuff, it's known for dealing with some dark topics at times. Even before having it forced upon them, a famous episode of the series, dealt with teenage sex and is noted as the first TV series to ever use the word "condom" on the air. Also, later in the series, there's a recurring character that we find out contracted AIDS. It was early '90s, so-eh, it's probably not as bad as how "Small Wonder" tried to force that into the show, but-eh, I'm hoping some show did it better afterwards when more knowledge was known on the subject. Again, it seems to be an episode of the series that I don't remember, so...- (Shrugs). Anyway, so there is pseudo-post Norman Lear-esque kinda dramedy vibe to the series, in general. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It actually weirdly involves, from the few episodes I've re-watched, a lot of going to the hospital or some other major emergencies occurring. Some more major than others, like a Driver's Ed test leads to a crash,- actually there's quite a few car crashes in this show it seems...- lots of car trouble in general actually. Weird. There house is on fire at one point, that's actually a really good episode, even if it's tonal whiplash at times.
I guess, Jason Bateman's character, David is, the same basic slimeball that he always seems to play, only in some cases he's an emotional caring brother/friend/son/boyfriend, whatever's needed at that particular time. (Shrugs) He's good at it, I guess? (Sigh)
Yeah, I'm not learning much other than, this show is really mediocre. In fact, I think part of why I'm obsessed with this show is that for all the talk about Valerie Harper getting fired and all, but, even as a kid, I don't think I even noticed there was a big change as the main character dying! I mean, I wasn't looking out for it, but as far as I can tell, not much of this show ever stood out or changed, and it's mostly just hard-to-watch. Like, I am really struggling to watch these episodes some times; I'm fairly convinced this show's ratings were just people leaving it on while they went to the bathroom. But, this is why I want to study it though, why is this so mediocre, even among bad family sitcoms, this one's like...-
Actually speaking of why it got ratings, why did this get Top 40 ratings for most of it's run? I know TV ratings and the schedules was vastly different back then from what it is now but, no, I refuse to believe a portion of the Neilsen audience was seeking this out, certainly not enough to have this show consistently break the Top 40- what was it scheduled with?
(Slight chuckle, head slap) That makes, almost too much sense. No wonder I remember watching so much, 'cause I was three years old and it was on after "ALF". Say what you want, "ALF" was memorable and one of the biggest shows of it's time; this wasn't. Okay, that's why it was watched, then, why has it not held up now?
Let's see, two-parent household, both of whom work, three kids, eh, family sitcom that occasionally dealt with serious issues, main child is an older brother who's a bit of a lovable prick that gets in trouble on a somewhat regular basis,... Alright, what do we got that I can compare this too? Well, there's the other Miller-Boyett shows, of that time, but ehhhh, can we get a little closer in structure? What was the biggest family sitcom of that time anyway?
(Checks TV ratings)
"The Cosby Show," yeah, I'm already dealing with "The Hogan Family", there's no way in Hell I'm climbing up that tree. And it can't be a good show either, that's not fair. No "Cosby", no "Family Ties", no "Roseanne",... What's the memorably bad-to-mediocre version of this show, that was on at this time?
(Sigh) That serves me right, I asked a stupid question.... I guess there's no chance I'm gonna talk a little more about "ALF" more is there? No? (Sigh) Dammit. Yes, we're gonna make this comparison, 'cause it is the right comparison. Why? Simple, I remember a lot of shit from "Growing Pains". In fact, a lot of it was pretty good. There's some episodes that are just hilarious in ways that you don't expect and there's memorable, interesting characters, and well-performed. Hell, I think I can do a pretty good job retracing the whole arc of the series without thinking about it too much. I'm not gonna do that here, 'cause it would involve a lot of giving positive credit to Kirk Cameron, but-eh, yeah, these are kinda the same shows, essentially. "Growing Pains" added a kid and a Leonardo DiCaprio at one point, "The Hogan Family" changed out their main characters and added an annoying neighbor. Parents who's work effects their keeping up with the home. A scheming older brother with annoying dumber friends, siblings that tend to get in their own troubles mostly with school or sports or stuff, and occasionally some touching real-life emotional moments. Lasted about the same amount of time on the air, give or take, they were on the air during the same time, both were hits at the same time.
Yet, "Growing Pains", for lack of a better word, holds up and is remember as a show, and the other is a curious footnote. (Also not for nothing, but the "Growing Pains" theme song is so much worst than "The Hogan Family"'s Oh god, this annoying song. "Show me that smile," fuck you B.J. Thomas! Alright you didn't write it, you're forgiven too, just like Roberta Flack.)
Is it just that it's a broader comedy show? I don't want to think that, and I don't think that's it, but there's not much else to go on. Broadness and mass appeal over subtlety and hints of realism are tones, those are things that effect quality, but I can't ignore that. You could've only seen one single episode of "Growing Pains" and know essentially all the main characters important character traits, nuances, tendencies, etc. Maybe that's it, 'cause, I have a difficult time differentiating any of that with any of the characters on "The Hogan Family". Seriously, how do you end up with a show with so few distinguishable characters on it. I mean, that's why there's so many extra characters that became part of the regular cast later on, 'cause even when the show was "Valerie" there really wasn't that much distinguishable in the series. The two twin sons, I don't know one from the other. What's the father like? (Shrugs) He's barely there. (In fact, the actor actually worked on the soap opera "Days of Our Lives", while doing this show, and Josh Taylor is still on that show today, believe it or not.) I mean, I get that that's part of the premise of the show, but we should still have a good sense of who the character is, right?
And even from the beginning, the show, they didn't really base itself around Valerie's character the way say a Lucille Ball show would be based around her character, or even how "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" or "Rhoda" would be centered around their leads all the time. It's really a show about the kids, who aren't particularly interesting or memorable,- I'm sorry, but David Hogan is no Mike Seaver, and occasionally the mother or aunt comes along on whatever crazy thing they're up to. They're not even up to crazy things, even. "Growing Pains" had characters thinking of running off and getting married at one point, and while I'm focusing on that show, by the time "The Hogan Family" was canceled, "The Simpsons" and "Roseanne" were the biggest shows on TV, and those are some crazy families and the latter introduced the sitcom to a new sense of realism that we hadn't seen before.
"The Hogan Family" was plagued by backstage drama and a massive conflict over what direction to go with or where to take the show, and you can tell. It's one thing when a show does go out of it's way to switch it's perspective and tone, take "Happy Days" for instance at how before Fonzi took over the show was a completely different series. But, no matter which way they were going with it, even as it transitioned to the show it became, it was pointed and directed. It had a vision, a point of view. "Growing Pains" as shit as it often was, it had a vision, had a point-of-view, it even had some self-awareness about it that you can look at as a positive. That's why it's known now; that's why Kirk Cameron is still a big enough name to plaster his name over his shitty Christian films. I"The Hogan Family'"s lead-in "ALF" had vision and direction in spades, that's why it's still remembered. Like, honestly, I think it's really debatable whether "Valerie" or "The Hogan Family" ever had any kind of vision behind it. Rewatching the beginning years, it's about 50/50 whether the show was a Valerie Harper-centered episode around her putting out household fires and there's some semblance of a lesson learned, but the other half end up being, by the book teenage shenanigans sitcom stuff that's-, directionless. It's not even hack-ish-, it's just...- it's just 30 minutes of time being wasted. They time to fill, and this is the most generic amalgam of a series at the time, that they could find. When there's actually a germ of an idea or inspiration it's not bad, but it's still mostly just bland and forgettable.
And I think technically it probably is "better" than a lot of it's contemporaries, but who cares, it's so mediocre, it's hardly worth mentioning. (And I just wasted a blog on it. Fuck me and my dumb career choices) That said, maybe that's why it needs study. It's such a bizarre, mediocre piece of long-form television, infamous-in-the-industry mediocre at that. You can study the crap to see what not to do, and memorable crap will break through should be studied, but watching a lot of something like this, is also somewhat worth doing. If there really was, like, just one solid decision made on the show, one really strong perspective, there's a chance with or without Valerie Harper, that this thing could've maybe been pretty good. Noteworthy for good reasons even. It doesn't even have to be like a good strong perspective, just a strong one of any kind, you know; at this time, "Family Matters" just said, "Fuck it, we're going with the Urkel kid," and it worked for them. There is nothing in this show that's so inherently interesting and memorable that they could go to or ever try to go to. Even when it was tossed in their lap for them, to just play up the grief aspect, they don't alter or change it much elsewise, outside of a couple name changes and a few episodes that reference it. (Shrugs) Anyway, studying, what's really, really, average can probably help out others just as much as studying the great stuff and the crap.
That said, it's much more fun to embrace the utter crap than it is to embrace the painfully average and mediocre, and frankly, I don't now know why I complained so much in the beginning about how forgetful this show is; I honestly cannot wait to be able to forget it completely. No wonder Pauline Kael never said anything about appreciating good mediocrity.