Screenshot: Eerie, Indiana

One-Season Wonders, Weirdos, And Wannabes considers the merits of short-lived TV shows. In this installment, Eerie, Indiana, which debuted on September 15, 1991, and aired for 18 episodes. 

For the spookiest week of the year, there may be no more ideal one-season wonder than Eerie, Indiana. The nearly perfect ratings bomb ran for only a single season, as a boy moved to a small Midwestern town that turns out to be “the center of weirdness for the entire planet.” Every week offered Eerie’s own version of a Twilight Zone-like plot, framed by young Marshall (Omri Katz) and his friend Simon (Justin Shenkarow), as they investigate the town’s many supernatural mysteries, which no one else seems that aware of (like Marshall’s family) or troubled by (the rest of the town).

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When Eerie, Indiana debuted on NBC in 1991, The X-Files was still a couple of years away. Buffy The Vampire Slayer was even further than that. There was one show that somewhat predicted the “small town hides a host of strangeness” format (with ties to a big-name director): Twin Peaks had debuted the previous year, in 1990, and made some significant supernatural inroads and influences before getting canceled after season two.

The supernatural show may have been on its way to its heyday, but there was a certain revival that also paved the way for Eerie’s particular kind of spooky menace: The 1980s had seen the popular return of bizarre and unsettling anthology series Twilight Zone along with a new one from Steven Spielberg, Amazing Stories. HBO brought back its Tales From The Crypt horror anthology series in 1989. (The Outer Limits also returned eventually, in 1995.)

Besides Twin Peaks and the new Twilight Zone, there was another pop-culture shift trope that helped affect Eerie, Indiana: a series of movies of idyllic towns hiding weirdness. Besides Lynch’s own Blue Velvet in 1986, Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands in 1990 featured a picture-perfect subdivision, complete with Dianne Wiest as a sweet Avon lady. 1989’s Parents and 1990’s Cry-Baby also depicted idyllic neighborhoods upended—by cannibalistic parents and a greaser Johnny Depp, respectively. Weirdness lurking on the outskirts of middle-class America was somehow in vogue.

So in 1991, there was a bit of an audience for the bizarre, but nothing to fill that void on broadcast television except for Eerie, Indiana. While the show was likely seen as unusual when it debuted in fall 1991, it might also have seemed vaguely familiar. Creators José Rivera and Karl Schaefer had previously written for family sitcoms like Family Matters. But there was one name that really helped put Eerie, Indiana on the map: director Joe Dante. The Gremlins director has always been expert at straddling the line between horror and humor, and Eerie, Indiana offered a prime opportunity for him to helm several episodes. The fact that the show was produced on film instead of video also must have appealed to the director, although the unusual step made the show much more expensive to produce (much to its eventual detriment).

The show kicked off its first (and every) episode with just a minimal intro from Marshall, explaining the weirdness of his new town in just a few sentences:

My name is Marshall Teller. I knew my new home town was going to be different from where I grew up in New Jersey, but this is ridiculous. Nobody believes me, but Eerie, Indiana is the center of weirdness for the entire planet. Item: Elvis lives on my paper route. Item: Bigfoot eats out of my trash. Item: even man’s best friend is weird. Still don’t believe me? You will.

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Then Eerie, Indiana, led by director Dante, decided to throw everyone in the deep end immediately with the first episode, “Foreverware.” Marshall’s mom is invited to a neighborhood ladies’ party in this clear knockoff of Tupperware. But all the women are stuck in their particular time periods, be it 1961 or 1974. Turns out, they all sleep every night in the Foreverware, which protects their youthful freshness and keeps them the same age forever. Marshall is clued in by the Foreverware lady’s creepy twin sons, who have been in high school for 37 years.

The episode is absolutely surreal, down to the Foreverlady’s nightmarish exaggeration of the perfect housewife. Marshall helps the boys escape, and a piece of Foreverware is the first item we see him enter as evidence into his Eerie, Indiana collection, trying to convince the rest of the world about the weirdness of the town. Just as he did in Gremlins, Dante expertly switches between spooky and seductive, and always stays entertaining. Even the end of the episode, in which the twins finally break free of their Foreverware prison, is unexpectedly chilling at the end of only 30 minutes.

Some Eerie, Indiana episodes are more successful than others: In the less-compelling follow-up episode, a retainer enables the wearer to hear what dogs are thinking (hint: it’s not good). Even Dante can’t do much with that one, although his off-kilter camera angles to highlight a surprisingly benevolent motorcycle gang are pretty funny. But after that the show got into a nice, wildly creative rhythm, as each episode brought a new menace that was nothing like the previous one. An ATM with a Max Headroom-like character tries to win over Marshall’s friend Simon with piles of money. The town’s annual Tornado Day event features a weather rider played by Max Headroom himself, Matt Frewer. Marshall’s refusal to accept the fact that Indiana doesn’t abide by daylight saving time results in a rip in the space-time continuum (in one of three episodes helmed by Parents director Bob Balaban). There was nothing else like Eerie, Indiana on TV at that moment, and the warm, brave performance of the young leads helped ground the town’s spookiest elements, preventing the show from spinning off into too-sinister territory.

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The show also excelled by zigging where you would expect it to zag. Instead of venturing out into the spooky depths of Eerie on Halloween night, the boys instead have to babysit Simon’s (never seen again) younger brother, who manages to switch places with the Mummy in the monster movie on TV. Dante returned for the surprisingly sweet “Heart On A Chain,” in which Marshall’s first crush undergoes a significant personality change after receiving a heart transplant. The show also had fun crafting full plots out of everyday mysteries: Where do the extra socks go in the dryer? To a vast, underground warehouse (and some very impressive set design for a weekly show) where Henry Gibson and his underlings actively swipe items to help fuel the faltering economy. For anyone who’s lost their keys three times in a single morning, it makes perfect sense.

The show’s many excellent elements make it even more surprising that Eerie, Indiana was as big of a bomb (at least initially) as it was, ranking 74th out of 78 programs that TV season. NBC had no idea how to market the show, pairing it against the family comedy The Torkelsons, which had more in common with Rivera and Schaefer’s previous sitcom efforts. Since kids starred in it, it seemed like a show for that age group, but the tween horror market hadn’t kicked into high gear yet. But it was tantalizingly close, as R.L. Stine’s YA Goosebumps series started in 1992, becoming a huge (and still continuing) hit. Are You Afraid Of the Dark? had debuted on Nickelodeon in 1990, followed by Stine’s Goosebumps series. Since Eerie, Indiana already had 19 (one unaired) episodes in the can, it was picked up by the Disney Channel in 1993 to align with this new trend, leading to a brief, renewed interest in the show.

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By the mid-’90s, the tween horror market was in full force, so Eerie also got pulled into the Fox Kids Saturday morning lineup in 1997. Fox also bought the rights to the series. Since those first episodes were initially depleted, the young network got the idea to create a new Eerie, Indiana. But since the original leads had grown up in the six years since the first run ended, Fox created Eerie, Indiana: The Other Dimension, in which a dimensional rift transferred all of the original town’s weirdness into an Eerie in another dimension. The show only ran for 15 episodes in 1998, making Eerie, Indiana a one-season wonder that has its own one-season wonder, which seems entirely appropriate.

The original Eerie was seen as the far superior series, even though it was difficult to track down for awhile; a DVD box set still goes for almost $100 on Amazon. Fortunately, Amazon also made the series available via streaming, where it is well worth the purchase. A view of the show 26 years later makes it easy to see why it’s still so beloved by fans of surreal TV. For example, Gravity Falls creator Alex Hirsch cites it as a major influence:

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The short-lived show even culminated in a perfect series finale. In “Reality Takes A Holiday,” Marshall receives a script of the Eerie, Indiana episode he happens to be in, and the camera dollies backward to reveal the Eerie set. The actors who play his family just start playing themselves (with nice meta joke by the girl who plays Marshall’s seldom-seen sister when the cast is informed of rewrites: “Oh, you mean my one line I memorized?”). Everyone calls Marshall by his real name, Omri. Dante returns to play the show’s director, and Rivera shows up as the episode’s writer, in which Marshall is about to be killed off in favor of of making his quasi-friend Dash the new lead of the show. Wholly original, it was a perfect way for the original Eerie, Indiana to go out.

One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? A wonder of a weirdo.