by Michael Magnes
No one sets out to make bad art. If a producer approaches a young director and says, “Look here, Sonny Jim, The Hunger Games are a popular film franchise, make me one of those,” the young director is going to do his best to make the film his and craft it well. Success is just a matter of being able to work with constraints. Constraints are everywhere. Picture the college writing exercises, where the directions are like, write a three-page play using the following elements: the color red, the number forty-three, have no actors on the stage, and have the play take place over three thousand years.
The problem is that sometimes you get chewed up and spit out by commercial powers that be. Remember what happened to Barton Fink. He had to make a wrestling picture and he tried his damnedest to make it meaningful. He wrote the kind of movie he always wanted to write. The studio didn’t want that, so they ruined him, chaining Fink to anonymity.
A lot of brave art projects fall through the cracks of history, due to tragedy, capitalism or rottenness. Thanks to DVDs, Netflix, YouTube and BitTorrent, we can resurrect the fallen. (And if those fail, there’s always German DVD markets and VHS collections on eBay.)
To be fair, much over-looked and forgotten filmed art may actually have been terrible. The librarians and hoarders among us will insist nothing deserves to be lost. Lost TV shows are a direct line into a society’s deepest fears and dreams. And, just as Archie Bunker represented an angry and repressed force that was unable to deal with a changing society in the 1970s, so does the 1985 television show “Misfits of Science” represent our love of lost causes.
If you are not familiar with the work at hand, here is an oral history of the show.
I first saw the opening credits of “Misfits of Science” and was… intrigued? Is that the right word? In it, a guy on TV croons about those titular “misfits of science,” whatever that means, while someone smacks the TV, and then super-hip 80s synth music comes on and you fall in love. Also then the credits announce that all the men have three names and the woman is Courteney Cox. By that point, it’s clear the show is about 1) nerds with 2) super powers. Or something. It would not be out of place on the SyFy channel today, and the special effects would be about the same.
Also the father from “Alf” is at the end of the credits, shrugging, as if to say, “It’s a living.”
From the credits alone, the show could be a colossal failure on an artistic level like The Room, or it could be some hidden gem. For all society knows now, “Misfits of Science” was the original “Mad Men.” Maybe it was better than “The Sopranos: and “The Wire” combined.
In the pilot, “Deep Freeze,” our hero, Dr. Billy Hayes, is a guy who looks vaguely like Michael J. Fox and wears short shorts.
He’s a scientist at a government-sponsored think-tank called Humanidyne that has a catchy slogan: “Science to help the human condition.”
Billy studies genetic anomalies such as:
• Johnny, a guy in sunglasses, who can absorb electricity and shoot it out of his hands.
• Gloria, a teenage telekinetic Courteney Cox who once trashed a jewelry store in a mall due to her out-of-control powers.
Also there is Billy’s co-worker Elvin “El” Lincoln, played by Kevin Peter Hall, who is best known as the lead character in the Predator movies. (The Predator.) Sidebar: He died of complications related to HIV in 1991, the year after Predator 2. El is a seven-foot-tall African-American scientist. This is relevant.
At Humanidyne El and Billy are working on a hormone that makes either really small, or really large, bunnies for military purposes, because the military is trying to weaponize bunnies. You can guess what’s coming.
The plot kicks off when a frozen man emerges from a Spinal Tap-like cocoon.
The frozen dude starts freezing people because he’s angry and shouting for someone named Amelia. It isn’t long before some guys off-screen find him and he’s at Humanidyne. Dr. Billy Hayes, being the genius that he is, guesses that he’s looking for Amelia Earhart because the frost man was frozen the year Amelia got lost. It is unclear where anyone found this information but that doesn’t matter because it’s never mentioned again. They soothe Frosty (real name Biefneiter) by force-feeding him frozen Snickers bars.
Next we learn that the government is cutting Billy’s funding. It seems that they have little interest in bunnies of varying sizes. Dissolute and depressed, Billy brings El out for a game of basketball but soon learns that El, in the cool blast of subtle 1980s-style racism, hates being his size and black, because people assume he’s good at basketball. So El injects himself with the bunny hormone to make himself real small.
Meanwhile, Billy’s old supervisor Dr. Momquist (or Dr. Mom, as they refer to him) was captured because he found out about a plot from Humanidyne’s evil boss. The evil head of Humanidyne is selling an unstable super-weapon (i.e., a giant laser) to the government. You see, the two bad guys have duped a Senator, played by Kenneth Mars, aka the Nazi from The Producers, into giving them money to develop the weapon. But the weapon was already built, right? It’s just unstable. Somehow the bad guys’ plan is to just transfer the weapon from a secret base, for which Dr. Mom has built the security system, to the military. They don’t want to blow anything up. They just want to have the weapon. As Kenneth Mars says, when approving the funding for the giant laser, “You know and I know that we don’t use nuclear weapons. We stockpile them.”
Kenneth Mars enjoys his meat while lecturing about nuclear weapons.
So Billy and El get wind of Dr. Mom being held captive so they gather Johnny…
…who kind of looks like Kevin Bacon. And Gloria…
… who is Courteney Cox, pretty fresh from shooting the video for “Dancing in the Dark” (there’s probably a good joke to be made about Dancer In The Dark here) but before guest-starring on “Murder She Wrote.”
Johnny is living in a desert because water gives him a rash, and could possibly kill him.
His foot gets red, kind of, when it touches water. The stakes are low and so are the special effects!
And Courteney Cox is living in a mental institution because of that jewelry store in a mall episode, with necklaces floating everywhere.
Billy, El, Gloria, Johnny and Gloria’s caseworker, Jane, all go to bust out Dr. Mom and Biefneiter the frost man. In a brilliant move to calm down Biefneiter, because Jane forgot to bring the Snickers bars, Billy gets the caseworker to pretend to be Amelia Earhart to calm him down.
Why is this frost man here? Why is he eating candy? Why did this pilot episode of a television show begin with him? He’s there because later on the misfits need him to freeze a water tunnel that Dr. Mom designed as a protective barrier to the laser super weapon that was built. You see.
A water tunnel. Hmm. There’s this fantastic moment right before Biefneiter freezes the water. Our heroes debate whether Biefneiter can do it. You see Biefneiter (Biefneiter, Biefneiter, Biefneiter!) has to keep his body temp under 32 degrees and he’s walking around in a cold suit to keep his temp down. He needs to touch the water to freeze it and that means letting his hand out of suit.
Jane is concerned. But then he does it. So you’ve got no build up to danger, sudden danger, and then nothing.
The heroes win the day and stop the laser from being transferred and Kenneth Mars salutes them and this happens.
And then, they close out with a freeze frame of our heroes high-fiving each other.
FYI, Executive producer James D. Parriott would later be an executive producer of “Ugly Betty” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” (Sidebar: It all turned out pretty well for some of the people here. Well. Not for Kevin Peter Hall, of course, and not for Dean Paul Martin, who died even sooner, in 1987, when he crashed a fighter jet. But Cox might not even be the winner here; Mark Thomas Miller, despite suffering a “disfiguring accident” in 1991, has still had what sounds like an awesome life. But yes, let’s not forget that half the cast was dead within five years of this show airing.)
So what does this show all mean? Throughout the episode, Billy keeps insisting that he’s trying to help weirdos. The tag line of the show is trying its hardest to be: weirdos of the world unite! Let your freak flag fly! The problem with that is no matter how many “Weird ‘R’ Us” signs you show, you have to let the characters be weird. But Billy, for instance, is a stock fun-loving slacker type who hits on women who rollerblade in front of him.
He also has a secretary who, as the media covers the misfit’s final assault on the base, switches to another channel to watch soap operas.
And Johnny is an angry musician and Gloria is a neurotic girl.
Here, by the way, is a choice romantic exchange between Johnny and Gloria.
Gloria: “I like listening to your music. I still do.”
Johnny, raising his eyebrow: “You actually have one of our albums?”
Gloria: “All three.”
Johnny: “Oh, a collector.”
Gloria: “I guess so.”
Apart from… that, the rest of the dialogue is all exposition explaining what tasks they must accomplish, like when they break out Dr. Mom. The misfits have to get into the locked laboratory when Elvin, astute as anyone in the cast, says, “There’s a button to open the door on the other side!” And then the camera zooms in on this for a few seconds.
Elvin shrinks himself, repels down the other side, and opens the door. Right.
Unfortunately for time and space, the idea behind “Misfits of Science” is a good one, because it’s basically a sideways adaptation of “X-Men.” (First published: 1963.) Here are a team of outcasts banding together to protect a world that hates and fears them. But SF and superhero movies and television shows had to be campy and goofy, in the day before everything became Christopher Nolan-ized. And this was 1985. (See also: Running Man, of 1987.) High camp was the order of the day.
But that weird and 80s cheese has an appeal, particularly from here in our age of impeccable CG. It’s gross yet endearing, like Tab cola or Zagnut bars.
All the producers had to do was lower the stakes, making the characters and their insecurities the focus of the series. If someone remade this it wouldn’t be out of place next to “Psych” on USA. It would be a low-rent “Fringe.” (Also, it’s been released on DVD in Germany, so maybe there’s a big following over there?)
Finally, a few notes of things that really stick with a viewer:
• Billy’s mother either works in a beauty salon, owns a beauty salon, or hangs out in a beauty salon. This is unclear but we do get to see her faint when she sees her son on television.
• There’s a conspicuous picture of Richard Nixon in the Billy’s lab.
• As the evil general and the evil businessman watch a demo of their super laser, the general says, “Yesssssss. This sends chills up my spine. One more time.”
• Billy after being berated by his mother: “I’m a doctor, too! Doing some things here!”
• The misfits drive around in an ice-cream truck with the words ‘Sundae Fundae’ on the side
• When the chips are down, the soundtrack switches to a song about teamwork. The lyrics include: “GOT TO HAVE A LITTLE TEAMWORK.”
• When shrunk, El had a tiny little parka made for himself. This baffles Billy.
Many of those ideas were probably mistakes. Or perhaps they were just two decades too early.
“Misfits of Science” lasted for sixteen episodes, and aired in 1985 and 1986. Episode titles include:
• Your Place or Mayan
• Guess What’s Coming to Dinner
• Sonar…and Yet so Far
• Grand Theft Bunny
• Against all Oz
• Three Days of the Blender.
If you’re intrigued, there’s even more to learn, somehow.
Michael Magnes’s special powers are to drink coffee. He is a true misfit of science and would like a t-shirt, please.