Tune in Tonight: "Ferris Bueller"
It’s been said that you know you’ve truly grown up when you watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and realize that Ed Rooney, while not necessarily the hero of the movie, isn’t exactly the villain either. He’s simply a put-upon public servant whose job is made difficult by a spoiled brat. Rooney, and the adults watching it, know what Ferris doesn’t yet, that while life does indeed move pretty fast, unfortunately you spend most of it doing stuff you really don’t want to do. If there’s any villain, it’s time, and its inexorable march to that point in our lives where spontaneously shucking our responsibilities for the day is largely a fantasy.
If you thought the movie would have been better had it been stripped of its more profound concepts, leaving only the most irritating aspects behind, then perhaps you would have enjoyed Ferris Bueller, the NBC spinoff that ran for four unremarkable months in 1990. It’s one of those shows where its very existence is baffling. Airing more than four years after Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was released, it bears only the most tenuous connection to the movie, in that it features a character named Ferris Bueller, and changes virtually everything else, making him younger and moving the setting from Chicago to Santa Monica. One gets the sense that the original draft for the pilot had nothing at all to do with it, but was changed as a cynical cash grab.
The show opens with a self-aware twist, as Ferris, now played by Charlie Schlatter, explains that the movie was based on his life. He then goes on to dismiss it, claiming that Matthew Broderick was “too white bread” to play him (mind you, Schlatter himself looks like he was genetically spliced with a packet of mayonnaise and a J. Crew catalog), and destroying a cardboard cutout of Broderick with a chainsaw. Opening a TV spinoff by giving the finger to the movie that inspired it leaves a sour taste in the viewer’s mouth, but one hopes that it gets better as it goes along.
It does not.
Though you’d think it’d be a big deal for a hit movie to have inexplicably been made about your life, after the opening sequence it’s never mentioned again. This is just a D-grade teen fantasy sitcom about an insufferable, privileged young asshole who does things like show up for the first day of school in a limousine, and is always able to pull a fast one on the clueless adults in his life. Backed with an endless supply of funds and vague “connections” that are never explained, Ferris spends most of his days hacking the school computer system to change classroom assignments, give out passes for students to park in the teachers’ lot, and rearrange the lunch menu. He’s constantly one step ahead of the incompetent Principal Rooney, setting elaborate traps to embarrass him over and over. You can probably guess that Rooney greets these traps with a bellowed “BUELLERRRRRRR!”
Much of the pilot is devoted to Ferris trying desperately to get the attention of transfer student Sloan (Ami Dolenz). Never mind that it wouldn’t make any sense to have Sloan appear as a character in the movie about Ferris’s life if he hadn’t met her yet–in fact, let’s just forget the movie entirely at this point, because the writers certainly did. Sloan will only agree to go out with Ferris if he has a car, so he helps himself to the one belonging to his sister Jeannie, driving it right out of the school parking lot. It’s probably worth mentioning that Jeannie is played by a pre-Leprechaun Jennifer Aniston, and she’s alright. In a show populated entirely by awful characters, she’s probably the least awful.
Pursuing him with a creepy single-mindedness that suggests he has a basement dungeon ready and waiting, Rooney eventually nabs Ferris for cutting class and attempts to expel him. Ferris pleads down to detention with the help of Alan Rachins, pretending to be his L.A. Law character. Even then, Ferris can’t be bothered, substituting a mannequin for himself in the detention hall. The episode ends with the now besotted Sloan agreeing to carry Ferris’s books when he claims to have a bad back, and Jeannie getting mistakenly arrested for stealing her own car. Ferris instantly hacks into the police station database and raises her bail to $250,000. Comedy!
In the third episode, Ferris, after finding out that a tough new dean of students is about to come to the school, reroutes the dean’s plane to New Zealand and convinces the school janitor to impersonate him. How this would work doesn’t make sense, and isn’t worth explaining. The B plot concerns Sloan, who, despite displaying no discernible talent for it, wants to be a professional ballet dancer. Though Ferris tries to prevent her from transferring to a performing arts school by hacking into the school’s computer system and moving her further down the waiting list, her admission is fast tracked thanks to Mr. Rooney. It’s not as a favor to Sloan that Rooney does this, though, but because he knows it will make Ferris unhappy. The time Rooney expends on interfering in Ferris’s life makes one fear that eventually he’ll be found hiding in his bedroom closet one night, wearing a long blonde wig and saying “I’m your girlfriend now, Ferris.”
Ferris’s janitor scheme backfires at first, but eventually works out to his advantage, because everything works out to this horrible little pissant’s advantage, often to the humiliation of someone else. How America didn’t embrace this delightful television program with open, loving arms, I have no idea.
While it’s true that Matthew Broderick played Ferris Bueller with a self-assurance that often veered into obnoxiousness, it was never without an impish charm that kept him likable. Charlie Schlatter plays him with a smirking insincerity that makes the character off-putting before he even gets a chance to speak. That impression does not change; in fact, by the end of the first episode you realize that, had just the setting been changed, you could easily be watching The Young Robert Chambers Chronicles. The smarmy phoniness of his interactions with the other characters, particularly his parents, is more unnerving than funny. Always with a fake smile and a glib lie at the ready, this Ferris comes off more as a frat house date rapist than a harmless teen prankster.
A competing show premiering a couple weeks later, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, was blasted for being a rip-off of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, yet maintained the charm and spirit of the movie far better than the television show named for it, and ended up being the more successful of the two. The titular character was still a twerp, but at least he wasn’t a twerp that you never wanted to stop punching.
Original airdate: August 23, 1990 (episode 1) & September 24, 1990 (episode 3)