Saturday, March 16, 2013

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Shazam!: "The Joyriders" (September 7, 1974)

The first episode of the Filmation live-action series Shazam! (1974 -1976) is titled “The Joyriders” and it establishes the formula and parameters for the Saturday morning eries’ (abundantly-cheap) storytelling brand.  This first adventure involves a kid named Chuck (Kerry MacLane) who feels peer pressure to be part of a gang that has become involved with stealing cars and going on those titular joy rides.

Meanwhile, on this “far out day,” Billy Batson (Michael Gray) and Mentor (Les Tremayne) drive the back roads of an unnamed town in a Winnebago and learn that the Elders want to communicate with them.  Using a small red-dome like device decorated with blinking lights, Billy speaks an incantation to establish contact: “Oh Elders fleet and strong and wise -- appear before my seeking eyes.”

Once in the (cartoon) realm of the Elders, the Gods inform Billy that he will encounter someone soon who “can’t be himself.”  One of the Elders then quotes Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Polonius in particular: “This above all, to thine own self be true.” Future episodes feature quotations from Wordsworth and Aristotle.

Soon, Billy and Mentor cross paths with the timid Chuck, who fears being called a “chicken” by his friends.  The gang steals another car, and it’s up to Captain Marvel (Jackson Bostwick) to save the day when the gang, including Chuck, end up in a dangerous junkyard….nearly crushed.

As the preceding synopsis makes plain, this is very juvenile storytelling.  And by that I mean it is storytelling literally about juveniles, made in juvenile fashion.   Of course, one must remember the time slot and historical context: Saturday morning in the mid-1970s.  Accordingly, “The Joyriders” involves a “teenage dilemma” and a message about that dilemma.  The story is didactic, to be certain, but also lacking in any genuine scope or real danger.  In the age of Iron Man (2008), The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and The Avengers (2012), this feels like superhero storytelling in a very minor league indeed, but of course, it is fruitless to make such a comparison, since decades separate Shazam! and such productions.  But importantly, Shazam! also does not travel the route of its contemporary superhero series like Batman (1966 – 1969).  It deliberately eschews super villains for more “real” (if, again, small-potato) stories.  

Honestly, the series would be more interesting to watch with more dynamic and colorful villains.

Despite the small-potatoes nature of the narrative, Hollingsworth Morse shoots the first episode with crisp authority, and there are some nice, if workman-like set-ups featured throughout the half-hour  Shazam actually looks as though it was filmed under the auspices of modern guerrilla filmmaking principles, with shots grabbed in parking lots, on back streets, in junkyards, and so forth.  There isn’t a single interior shot in the whole half-hour, unless one counts the front seats of Mentor’s RV.

In terms of character background, very little information is provided in “The Joyriders.”  Billy reveals that he and Mentor are on vacation, and that he is relieved he doesn’t have to prepare and deliver the morning news cast at his school.  But other than that information, we don’t know how Billy and Mentor met, how Mentor came to know of the Elders, or upon what principles the strange communication dome in the RV operates.  Instead, the episode is an immediate descent into SoCal juvenile delinquency and After School Special-type lessons about moral behavior.

I have a six year old child, so it’s not like I’m not opposed to TV stories containing a “lesson” in good behavior, but Shazam sure feels relentless in its moralizing.  That established, what this episode diagrams is the importance of empathy. Chuck has had his bike stolen, so he understands what it would feel like to have a car stolen.  Today, I find that a lack of empathy -- across the culture -- is perhaps the biggest problem facing us as a nation.  We have politicians who grew up with a social safety net, a social safety net that sent them to college or helped them endure deaths in their families, and yet today those very same politicians want to gut the same programs that were there for them in those times of need and pain.  Why is it so hard, I wonder, to put oneself in the position of the less-fortunate “other?”

So perhaps I shouldn’t complain that Shazam chooses this idea of empathy as a part of its inaugural “lesson.”

In terms of the performances, Jackson Bostwick plays Captain Marvel here, and he brings a gentle, quiet strength to his scenes as the superhero, never saying too much, or contributing to the episode’s talkiness.  His taciturn nature is a nice change from all the overt moralizing.

Next week: “The Brothers.”

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:48 PM

    Filmation on-location filming of SHAZAM! both audio sound recording[natural background] and direction felt very much like '70s guerrilla filmmaking. It had a low-budget texture like PBS filmed '70s on location programs. Somehow Filmation did not have that occur on their ARK II series in '76 which had both sound and direction that felt prime-time quality, not low-budget.