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.
Puppeteering impresarios Sid and Marty Krofft arrived exactly when they were needed, and spent the better part of the ’70s permeating the subconscious of a generation of children fractured by divorce, drugs, recession, and culture wars. The brothers’ origins were hazy by design—for years, they pretended a phony bio cooked up by their publicist was the gospel truth—but it’s generally accepted that Sid began his career in the ’40s in vaudeville and with the circus, and toured the world before he turned 20. (In David Martindale’s book Pufnstuf & Other Stuff, Sid claims that when he performed in Middle Eastern countries, his audiences assumed he was performing actual magic when he brought his marionettes to life.) Frequently described as “gentle” and “a dreamer” by those who’ve worked with him, Sid was joined by his more business-minded brother Marty, who initially took advantage of Sid’s fame by booking solo gigs under his older sibling’s name. As a duo, their combination of artistry and chicanery made them formidable. Marty made sure they took advantage of any opportunities that came their way, while Sid made sure that everything they worked on had his personal touch.
Though they’re primarily known as the kings of ’70s Saturday-morning television, the Krofft name was familiar to the general public in the decade before H.R. Pufnstuf. In the early ’60s, they mounted a racy revue called Les Poupées De Paris, which drew huge crowds and national media attention for its sexy, half-clad marionettes. The Kroffts took the show Off-Broadway (where they invited audiences to come backstage and examine the cast, never letting on that some of their most animated “puppets” were actually costumed little people), and played multiple World’s Fairs before briefly becoming regulars on The Dean Martin Show. The Kroffts were hailed throughout the ’60s for their bold, colorful, imaginative staging, and were invited to create costumed characters for advertising campaigns, design attractions for the nascent Six Flags theme-park chain, and help develop Hanna-Barbera’s NBC series The Banana Splits Adventure Hour.
The success of The Banana Splits would set the Kroffts on the course that defined them. Asked by NBC to pitch their own series, the Krofft brain-trust came up with H.R. Pufnstuf, an eye-popping hybrid of The Wizard Of Oz, Mr. Rogers’ “Neighborhood Of Make-Believe,” and the cult science-fiction series The Prisoner. The Kroffts’ show starred Jack Wild as a preteen boy stranded on an island rampant with dangers and wonders. The brothers poured a lot of their own money into Pufnstuf to pad out NBC’s paltry budgets, and by the time they finished the season’s full 17-episode order, they couldn’t afford to make any more. But those 17 episodes went over so well that they were replayed on NBC for two solid years. In the meantime, the Kroffts kept coming up with new shows, like the Pufnstuf-ish The Bugaloos and Lidsville, also about mysterious lands where displaced characters unite against bumbling despots.
Describing the appeal—and the uniformity—of their TV projects in Pufnstuf & Other Stuff, Sid says, “That’s the classic story, isn’t it? You’re going on the adventure, as a kid, and all of a sudden something happens and now it’s ‘God, when’s he going to get home?’” But tapping a primal fear wasn’t all these shows had going for them. The Kroffts developed a kid-sized version of the loopy psychedelia that was infecting the culture, offering delirious visions of worlds populated by colorful creatures, talking hats, singing bugs, and heavy doses of white and black magic. What’s most remarkable about the Krofft oeuvre today isn’t so much the thinly veiled drug references to “puffin’” and “lids,” but the glum recurring situations. The standard Krofft setup had a moppet (or moppets) stumbling into an alternate universe, where their companions were gaily anthropomorphic but intellectually dim, and where their parents were replaced by evil sorcerers. The Krofft landscape made perfect sense to a growing army of latchkey kids, as well as to youngsters likely to enjoy the shows more for their color and activity than for their metaphors for loneliness.
Yet while Pufnstuf, The Bugaloos, and Lidsville all made a strong impression (and lived on in repeats), none lasted more than a season. The Kroffts’ Land Of The Lost was different. Though it told a similar story—about a widowed father and his two kids disappearing through a time/space warp and traveling to a world populated by aliens, ape-men, and dinosaurs—and though it debuted on NBC in fall 1974, the same year ABC and CBS both aired Saturday-morning shows with prehistoric themes, Land Of The Lost ran for three seasons, becoming the Kroffts’ biggest and most critically respected hit. The brothers were the show’s producers, and were closely involved with character design, but the writing staff was made up of a mix of Krofft veterans and science-fiction/fantasy heavyweights, including a handful of Star Trek scribes. In the years since its cancellation, Star Trek had become a sensation in syndication, prompting intelligent TV science fiction to come back into favor. Land Of The Lost capitalized on the trend.
The show aired late in the morning, aiming for more of a preteen audience, and the writers took their time exploring the strange world they created, parceling out information week by week. In the opening credits, Rick, Will, and Holly Marshall fall through a warp on a rafting trip, and in each episode, they find out a little more about where they are. First, they meet the race of hairy humanoids called the Paku (whose guttural language was designed by a UCLA linguistics professor). Then they discover the towering reptilian villains known as the Sleestak, played by costumed UCLA basketball players, including future NBA bad-boy Bill Laimbeer. Later, they learn, in a Planet Of The Apes-like twist, that the Sleestak are venal, reactionary descendants of an advanced alien race, the Atrusians.
In the October 12, 1974 episode “The Stranger” (written by Walter Koenig, a.k.a. Chekov from Star Trek), the Marshalls encounter a time-displaced Altrusian, Enik. Then, in the October 19 episode—the seventh overall—the Marshalls find out what some of the ancient Altrusian technology could do. “Album” (written by Dick Morgan and directed by Bob Lally) has almost no plot. Will and then Holly are called to a mysterious cave/temple by a high-pitched noise, and when they walk in, they each pick glowing blue crystals out of a clump of colored rocks, and immediately see a hazy image of their late mother. But what they don’t realize is that the cave and the rocks are a Sleestak trap, which Rick frees his kids from at the last minute.
How “Album” conveys that plot is what makes it such a powerful 23 minutes of television. Unlike the earlier “lost boy” Krofft shows, Land Of The Lost had a procedural quality that enhanced the fantasy: It was tailor-made for the kind of viewers whose desert-island daydreams involve gathering firewood and building sturdy shelters. Rick Marshall (played by Spencer Milligan) was a park ranger before the family dropped off the face of the Earth, and he came to their adventure with significant survivalist skills. Throughout the series, the elder Marshall approached their dilemmas systematically, drafting plans for getting home while keeping his kids focused on what needed to be done if they were stranded forever. In the continuum of TV dads, Rick Marshall was squarely on the Mike Brady/Andy Taylor “can do” side: the kind of pop who’d put his knee up on the nearest object with studied casualness before delivering sage advice.
In “Album,” Holly (Kathy Coleman) discovers that some creature has been “chewin’ on our food while we sleep,” and takes her cues from old adventure movies. She constructs a trap, which fails because she doesn’t secure the food supply before she lays the bait. (“It’s like trying to catch a mouse with a piece of cheese in a cheese factory.”) Her dad lets her take charge of the project, but makes suggestions and serves as her sounding-board. And while that’s going on, he asks Will (Wesley Eure, billed only as “Wesley” at this point in his career) to weed the family’s garden. The chores serve two functions: to make sure the Marshalls have plenty to eat, and to keep the children from getting bored and despondent.
But then comes that infernal high-pitched whine, which Will and Holly can hear but their dad can’t. Will follows the sound in a daze, having a narrow escape with a dinosaur along the way…
…and when he arrives at the chamber of glowing rocks, he snaps out of his funk and falls into outright despair upon seeing his mother.
When Holly arrives later, she doesn’t just see their mom, she sees their dad, too, beckoning her and Will through another opening. There follows a genuinely disturbing sequence where kids walk slowly down an underground path with “Rick,” revealed in shock-cuts to be Sleestak in disguise.
The plan might’ve worked, except that the real Rick notices his kids acting strangely, and follows them to the cave, where he punches out the beasts in a fight scene shot in jittery close-up.
“Album” ends with the Marshalls safe at “home” in their cave, and with Holly deciding not to snare their little food-thief, chuckling, “All of a sudden I don’t like traps.” But that little bit of empathy—along with the reminder that the Sleestak trap failed because Will and Holly have access to their real dad and don’t need a simulation—isn’t really what lingers from the episode. In classic Krofft fashion, it’s the disruption that sticks. It’s Rick Marshall feeling unsettled by the way his kids fail to respond to his “sun-signal” while they’re at the Sleestak temple, and it’s Will and Holly acting touchy and broody after being reminded that their mother is dead and that they’re stuck in a world from which there is no escape. Have you ever had something awful happen to you—like a death in the family, or some terrible medical news, or a bad break-up—and then woken up in the morning with the briefest glimmer of hope that it was only a dream? The look on Will’s face when he sees his mom is just like that feeling when you realize that your circumstances are every bit as awful as you’d feared.
The Krofft TV brand remained strong for the rest of the ’70s, though they lost some mojo when they branched out from Saturday-morning adventure shows to prime-time variety (most notably with Donny & Marie). Still, in ways both direct and indirect, the brothers influenced the direction of popular culture. The various Krofft series prepared the kids who watched them for the freaky creatures of Star Wars, the befriending-a-monster plot of E.T. (not too far removed from the Kroffts’ Sigmund And The Sea Monsters), and even the slow-drip mysteries of Lost. The look of the Krofft shows were reflected in odd places, including McDonalds’ “McDonaldland” advertising campaign, which so resembled H.R. Pufnstuf that the Kroffts sued the fast-food chain and won. In the meantime, the Krofft costume shop filled commissions from Kool-Aid and from sports franchises, thereby spreading the soft, trippy sensibility of Sid Krofft—a man who to this day lives in a house he designed, with a tree growing through the middle of its living room.
Sid and Marty Krofft never became media moguls on the order of Walt Disney or Jim Henson. They were less active as producers in the ’80s, then had another hit in the early ’90s with a new Land Of The Lost series—though the Kroffts’ input into the new show was minimal. The revamped Land Of The Lost had better effects, but the characters were much dopier. The original ’70s Krofft shows went through a brief revival period on cable in the mid-’90s too, when the youngsters who grew up on Krofft entered the workforce and started having children of their own. Pufnstuf & Other Stuff was published around this time, and in it, Sid Krofft talks about the Land Of The Lost movie that he and his brother were working on, which they expected to be released by the end of the decade, and to be closer in tone to the ’70s version than the ’90s one. Instead, the project languished in development for another 10 years, and finally came out in 2009, by which time it had morphed into a broad Will Ferrell comedy that flopped badly.
Were the Kroffts too much of their time? Did their style cease to be relevant once smiley-face buttons and mood rings went out of fashion, or was it just that no one outside their creative circle really understood the appeal of their ideas? With Land Of The Lost, so much of what made the show work was idiosyncratic and unrepeatable, like the banjo-and-synthesizer-fueled theme song…
…and the blend of puppetry, stop-motion, and composite images, which gave the show an “off” look, not so much cheap as willfully bizarre. In Hal Erickson’s book Sid And Marty Krofft: A Critical Study Of Saturday Morning Children’s Television, 1969-1993, Erickson praises the first Land Of The Lost season for being “carefully scripted to conform with the limited budget” in a way that later seasons and later versions of the show weren’t. But it wasn’t just the writing that fit Land Of The Lost’s modest ambitions. The show had framing and sound design reminiscent of some of the more gothic daytime soap operas, thanks largely to first-season directors Lally and Dennis Steinmetz, the latter of whom later won a Daytime Emmy for his soap work. Land Of The Lost had no laugh track, a soundtrack loaded up with weird noises, and a cast of characters that frequently didn’t speak English. The stories tended to be as simple as a good children’s picture-book, so that nothing needed to be overexplained. And the location—not in the distant past, as many still believe, but on another world with its own curious, disturbing history—was so vivid that some children found it almost too forbidding to visit every week.
I was one of those children. I generally preferred cartoons on Saturday mornings, but I spent some time with all the Krofft shows in the ’70s (especially the “Electra Woman & Dyna Girl” segments of The Krofft Supershow, which may have permanently skewed my expectations of femininity). I can’t help but identify them with what I was going through at the time. Land Of The Lost is particularly hard for me to watch, because its three-year run corresponded with a sequence of rocky moves to new towns, and the dissolution of my parents’ marriage. I feel the same way about that show now as I do about certain songs that were on the Top 40 at the time, like The Eagles’ “New Kid In Town,” or Foreigner’s “Cold As Ice.” On one level, they call to me, in the way so much popular culture of the past does, as a doorway to the half-remembered. But there’s a melancholy there, too—deep, powerful and true.
Next time on A Very Special Episode: Beauty And The Beast, “Ozymandias”