Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
I like to imagine that in some sideways universe, George Clooney’s role on E/R was the key to his future; not the NBC drama, but the CBS sitcom, which in our universe, lasted only 22 episodes in 1984-85 (in spite of having After MASH as a lead-in). In the sideways world, E/R ran for a decade, won multiple Emmys, and changed the careers of everyone associated with it. Clooney never became a movie star, because he was typecast as a small-screen character actor, not a leading man. Jason Alexander wasn’t available to do Seinfeld, Mary McDonnell never appeared in Dances With Wolves, and Elliott Gould became one our most beloved actors, earning a salary that dwarfed Ted Danson’s.
I like to imagine this not because I loved E/R, but because I’m fascinated by TV’s might’ve-beens: the deals that collapsed, the series that never caught on, the pilots that never got picked up. It’s an unusual medium, television. The creators of Lost build a complicated narrative around a specific set of characters, then have to modify their approach because an actor hates living in Hawaii. Joss Whedon pitches a philosophically rich show about the fluidity of human identity, and only gets the green-light when he agrees to refashion it as adventure kitsch. A writer aims to craft a serious inquiry into the foundations of modern society, and accidentally creates Gilligan’s Island. Hundreds of pieces of outside creative input, combined with the immediate reactions of test audiences and home viewers, shape what ends up on our sets far more often than a single screenwriter does.
But there are the occasional anomalies, like the 1999 pilot for Heat Vision And Jack, which is a case study in what happens when a small circle of funny people are given a little bit of money and a lot of free rein.
Heat Vision And Jack is a self-conscious rip-off of The Six Million Dollar Man, Knight Rider, and every other kid-friendly “action man” show of the ’70s and ’80s, and one so on-point that it's closer to a recreation than a spoof. Jack Black stars as an astronaut who flies too close to the sun and develops super-intelligence—but only in the daytime. Owen Wilson provides the voice of Jack’s motorcycle, Heat Vision, who’s animated by the soul of Jack’s old roommate, Doug. And Ron Silver plays the NASA stooge (and respected actor!) who pursues Heat Vision and Jack. The opening credits—with its loop-de-loop promise “Introducing Ron Silver as Himself”—sets the tone, with a montage of wild action, scored to Tom Jones’ cover of the Yaz song “Situation.”
At the time the pilot was shot, Owen Wilson had been in Anaconda and Armageddon, but was still primarily a big name only among the small number of movie buffs who’d seen Bottle Rocket. Jack Black’s résumé was littered with bit parts in movies big and small, but he was mainly regarded as an emerging figure on the Los Angeles comedy scene, thanks to his appearances on Mr. Show and his gigs with Kyle Gass as the acoustic heavy-metal duo Tenacious D. The biggest name attached to Heat Vision And Jack at the time was Ben Stiller, who executive produced and directed the pilot, and appears briefly as a strip-club DJ in a pirate costume. Stiller already had an Emmy on his shelf for writing The Ben Stiller Show, and had just starred in one of the biggest hits of the ’90s, There’s Something About Mary. He pops up at the start of the pilot, Emmy in hand, jokingly promising special effects “to rival a certain new Star Wars movie.”
The lone episode of Heat Vision And Jack begins with a short-order cook named Frank (played by lurching sad-sack Vincent Schiavelli) listening to the radio at a diner in a dusty desert. Frank picks up a broadcast from outer space, which turns the radio a glowy green, then turns Frank a glowy green. A waitress comes in and asks what’s going on, to which Frank shouts, in monotone, “The Ape-Woman needs a label! Call me Paragon!” Then Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” plays on the jukebox while Paragon’s eye-blasts turn the waitress into dust, and he yells, “All monkey-sluts shall be absorbed!”
Later that night, Jack rolls into the diner in his tight-fitting NASA flight suit, alongside the foul-mouthed, philosophical Heat Vision:
They’re intercepted by the local sheriff (played by Christine Taylor, whom Stiller met on this shoot and later married). After a little sexy repartee, the sheriff throws the rogue astronaut in jail, where he recounts his origin story:
Later, while the sheriff is consulting with a doctor (played by Sy Richardson, a.k.a. the dude with lots of rules in Repo Man), Ron Silver comes in and offers to help with the town’s Jack problem. The doctor’s astute reply? “You were a bad guy in Timecop!”
Meanwhile, once the sun comes up and recharges Jack’s brain, he busts out of jail, and along with Heat Vision, confronts Paragon:
But Paragon escapes by pushing Heat Vision over—the motorcycle’s one weakness, aside from doorknobs—so the duo has to regroup over at the house of the now-sympathetic sheriff, where Jack has a romantic interlude and Heat Vision pledges to make sure that the bad guy is “Para-gone!”
The adventure ends at the Sunken Pleasure strip club, where Jack puts a bra on his head to block Paragon’s eye-rays, and Heat Vision escapes Ron Silver by literally pulling a rug out from under him. (“Feel like you’re trippin’?” he quips.) Paragon is bested, Silver slips away, and Heat Vision and Jack ride off into the sunset anticlimactically, while The Hollies blare away on the soundtrack.
Not only did HV&J never make it to series, this episode never aired. After Black and Wilson became bigger stars, a DVD of the pilot became a hit on the “grey market” (which is where I got my copy, six or seven years ago), and a go-to example whenever someone wants to point to the cluelessness of television executives. How could Fox let three of the biggest comedy stars of this era slip through their fingers? It’s no wonder the vast majority of television is terrible, when some of the business’ most creative people have their access to a larger audience blocked by some of the least.
Of course, I’ve never been a TV executive, or even spent time in the offices where creative decisions get made, so I have to base my opinions about the business on interviews with writers, producers, and actors, who tend to be full of self-serving horror stories about dealing with the network brass. Among the creatives, suits have a reputation for swooping in with ideas for how to make shows blander, before they move on to other jobs without ever taking ownership for the mediocrity they leave in their wake. During the whole Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien debacle at NBC earlier this year, veteran exec Dick Ebersol complained to New York Times reporter Bill Carter that O’Brien’s Tonight Show sank because the host refused to take advice from the network—and specifically from Dick Ebersol—about how to make his shtick 11:35-friendly. But while Ebersol is a justly respected TV legend, his brief, unspectacular stint as the producer of Saturday Night Live in the early ’80s hardly makes him an expert on comedy. Conan O’Brien was hired to be Conan O’Brien; asking him to be someone else because he’s on the air an hour earlier was insulting to both the man and his fans.
But at the same time, writers and performers aren’t always the best judges of their own work, either. Dig deeper into some of the best movies and TV, and you’ll undoubtedly find a writer still bitter that someone cut out his or her favorite line. Just recently, in fact, Dan Harmon wrote a letter to a little girl who was frightened by the animated movie Monster House, which Harmon co-wrote. Monster House is by no means a great movie, but it’s charming and entertaining, and an Academy Award nominee—nothing for anyone to be ashamed of. Harmon, though, used his apology letter to vent about how badly he felt Monster House had been handled by director Gil Kenan (“a hack”) and producer Steven Spielberg (“a moron”). He wrote, “I tried to tell them they were making a bad movie that was going to confuse and frighten smart children, instead of making children more brave, and they acted like I was stupid for being afraid that would happen.” Since we don’t have Harmon’s ideal Monster House to compare to the existing one, we can only take his word that it would’ve been better. But is it possible that Harmon was so committed to the Monster House in his head that no other version would’ve been acceptable?
Why do I bring this up? Because Harmon also co-wrote and co-produced Heat Vision And Jack, alongside his frequent partner Rob Schrab. Harmon and Schrab co-wrote Monster House, and worked on the early episodes of The Sarah Silverman Program. Schrab is still at Silverman, while Harmon runs the very funny NBC sitcom Community. Separately and together, Harmon and Schrab have also been heavily involved with Internet-originated comedy for Acceptable.tv and Channel 101, and their web-series credits are strewn with titles like Laser Fart, Computerman, Twigger’s Holiday, Robot Bastard!, and Time Belt. To some extent, Harmon and Schrab remind me of that Simpsons episode “The Front,” in which an Itchy & Scratchy Show staffer proudly declares that it’s time to pursue his dream and “write that sitcom about the sassy robot.” Something tells me that Harmon and Schrab would’ve been perfectly happy writing television in the ’80s, coming up with shows about wacky aliens, neurotic superheroes, or talking appliances—so long as they could put their own spin on them.
There’s a touch of The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension in Heat Vision And Jack’s matter-of-fact depiction of government conspiracies and alien invasions, but the show’s clearest forerunner is the work of Zucker-Abrams-Zucker. Heat Vision And Jack’s comic sensibility is different—it’s more “comedy of slack” than ZAZ’s hail of Mad-magazine-style parody-bullets—but like Airplane or Police Squad!, Heat Vision And Jack does take a simultaneously loving and mocking approach to low-rent entertainment. The ZAZ trio dined on the stiffness of B-movies and ’50s genre television, while Harmon and Schrab soak up the corny faux-cool of ’70s and ’80s TV. From HV&J cheekily calling its pilot “Episode 14” to its use of “We’ll be back after this!” bumpers, the show is squarely in the Police Squad! tradition. And like Police Squad!, Heat Vision And Jack has a reputation as a show that didn’t get a fair shake from TV’s decision-makers.
Or did it? Where defenders of the show may have it wrong—and the Fox execs had it right—is that Heat Vision And Jack might’ve found precisely its proper level as a little-seen cult item, and not as a weekly TV show. In the years since the pilot washed out, Stiller, Black, and Wilson have had up-and-down careers, with some of their greatest successes and biggest embarrassments coming after HV&J. (In fact, some of those successes were their biggest embarrassments.) Like a lot of the comedy stars of the ’00s, they’ve also kept returning to the look-at-this-funny-old-junk sensibility of HV&J, including in Stiller and Wilson’s underrated comic take on Starsky & Hutch. The problem with most of these big-screen vehicles is that they’re overstuffed and ungainly, full of good ideas and bad ideas competing for the audience’s attention. Even at their best, it’s hard to argue that a lot of these movies wouldn’t have been better as 10-minute sketch.
That’s been Schrab and Harmon’s knack. Though both have done well in television, they’ve been smart enough to keep working on content for the Internet, which has become one of the most fertile fields for comic minds here in the ’10s. Schrab and Harmon have been developing a Heat Vision And Jack movie off and on for a decade now, but while the project remains mired in development hell, they’ve reportedly also been working with Fox and Ben Stiller’s Red Hour Films to turn the idea into a web series, where they can move more quickly, with less interference.
It’s apt in a way that Heat Vision And Jack never aired on television. Though the pilot is as sturdily built as any of the TV shows it’s referencing—so much so that it would be enjoyable even without the jokes—it’s more an example of the entertainment of the future than the entertainment of 1999. This is where we are now with comedy: People with access to cameras and actors come up with an amusing idea, shoot it in a day or two, upload it to the Internet, and watch it become a sensation for a week before the public moves on to something else.
That “moving on” is the key. As the Internet becomes more of a staple of people’s entertainment diet, it also becomes more and more ephemeral, with the viral phenomena of last year quickly consigned to the fog of our pop-culture unconsciousness, right alongside all those dopey old TV shows that web videos frequently reference. Did I really once watch a celebrity roast of superheroes? Was there really once a sitcom about a genius-level talking orangutan? (In the ’80s, no less?) That “Did that really happen?” feeling is what Heat Vision And Jack means to evoke, and as such, it’s best exactly as it is, no matter what its creators and fans may think. Now and forever, it remains a cool “what if,” uncorrupted by dumb ol’ reality.
Next time on A Very Special Episode: Combat, “Survival.”