Tune in Tonight: "Supertrain, Episode 9"
This is the end, my only friend, the end. We reach the conclusion of our journey on Supertrain, and what a bumpy, motion sickness inducing ride it’s been. Things go out with a bang in the final episode, and when I say that I don’t mean Supertrain literally explodes, which would be a fitting conclusion, but that this is the worst episode of all, a baffling mess that ties all matter of logic and sensibility to railroad tracks and promptly runs right over them.
What’s the departing gift the audience receives in the last episode? A laugh track, liberally disbursed over scenes where it doesn’t belong. Like stale croutons on top of a wilted hospital cafeteria salad, it does nothing to make it more palatable, especially since the plot concerns an escaped prisoner who takes some of Supertrain’s staff and passengers hostage.
Though it would seem to be a questionable use of taxpayer dollars, Supertrain, a luxury pleasure trip train, is also for whatever reason being used for prisoner transfer. The prisoner is Billy Brennan (Barry Gordon), an accused cop killer and evidently a professional Woody Allen impersonator, right down to making cracks about how his analyst was glad when he couldn’t afford his appointments anymore. It’s insufferable from the moment he opens his mouth, and doesn’t get any better from there, but one assumes that the audience is supposed to find the idea of this nebbishy guy (who resembles someone who later had a sexual relationship with his girlfriend’s teenage daughter, then was accused of molesting his own adopted daughter) being a cop killer hilarious.
Finally, additional security measures are taken on Supertrain, but those are soon foregone so that Billy, who constantly complains about not liking to be in enclosed spaces, can eat in the dining car. He’s soon recognized by fellow passenger Janet (Rue McClanahan), a liberal feminist reporter. We know this because her very first line of dialogue is an icily uttered “It’s Ms.,” and she writes for a magazine called Enlightened Woman. She is, of course, also a condescending bitch to Supertrain’s staff, because, y’know, women’s libber. Janet believes that Billy is a leftist hero who was framed for murder, and makes a big commotion about it, which causes the cop watching over Billy to choke on his dinner and pass out. Somehow, Billy ends up with the cop’s gun in his hand, and, at Janet’s suggestion and encouragement, he takes everyone in the dining car hostage.
Nobody, save for Conductor Harry, seems very concerned about this, least of all Billy’s hostages. Janet is so excited about it that she looks like she’ll drag Billy off to a coat closet the first opportunity she gets. It takes mere minutes before the other hostages are on his side as well, excitedly making plans to escape with Billy to Mexico, and even applauding him after he makes his demands and threatens the FBI. See, they know he’s innocent, because he says so. Oh, and his mother is mean to him, so that’s enough for them.
If you weren’t quite sold on what a great guy Billy really is, one of his hostages goes into labor, and it’s up to him (why? who knows) to help her give birth, which, because this is television, happens in about three minutes. Though, really, when it comes to childbirth it’s the mother who does all the work, it’s Billy who gets the praise, with everyone, even the new mother, looking at him adoringly afterward. “Do I know power in a man when I see it?” Janet says, all but undressing him with her eyes.
Alas, Mexico is not to be, as the FBI shows up after a foiled attempt on Billy’s life. Conveniently, they managed to find the real cop killer during that time, and the FBI agent says that Billy will “probably get off with probation” for holding eight people captive at gunpoint (author’s note: he would most likely be facing life in prison). The episode ends with Billy’s former hostages seeing him off to jail with kisses and tears, like he’s leaving for boot camp.
Holy shit! What a weird, unpleasant way to end a weird, unpleasant show.
Thank god for the last minute addition of a laugh track, otherwise I wouldn’t have known that this was supposed to be mostly played for laughs, for some reason. To be fair, again, at the time a Woody Allen type being mistaken for a coldblooded criminal would have been pretty funny, mostly because it was not yet apparent what a gigantic creep the real Woody Allen was. Except, of course, once Billy decided to pick up a loaded gun and imply that he would hurt or even kill anyone who got in the way of his escape, he was a criminal, and the inexplicable affection the strangers he takes hostage express for him quickly becomes unsettling. Stockholm Syndrome as a gag, particularly in a light as a feather rip-off of The Love Boat, is questionable at best, downright distasteful at worst.
I watched three full seasons of Fargo in less than three weeks. I watched the final two seasons of The Leftovers in about ten days. That was a grueling emotional experience, but nothing could have prepared me for what a joyless slog watching a single season of Supertrain would be. I thought it would be a goof, an entertainingly silly way to earn more credentials as a connoisseur of bad pop culture. This is some rough shit, though, my friends, and solid proof that anyone over 40 who insists that television of the past is inherently better than it is today is either willfully lying, or lying to themselves.
If it had just been a dud TV show that burned off its episodes and then quietly slipped away never to be mentioned again, that would be one thing, but this was, again, the most expensive television show ever produced, at the time at least (and for a long time afterward). Instead of reworking scripts to give it engaging characters and compelling plot lines, they simply kept throwing more money at it, at a loss as to why this fancy-ass train wasn’t good enough to draw in and keep an audience. Some of the model Supertrains were sold for thousands of dollars once they finally put a bullet in this wretched thing’s brain, when one should have been parked right in the middle of NBC Studios, as an eternal reminder of the cost of hubris, and what happens when you think money can buy quality.
Original airdate: May 5, 1979