Tune In Tonight: "Dirty Dancing"
The summer of 1987 was a banner season for teenage girls and their sexual awakenings. First, there was the release of The Lost Boys, the film that featured vampires as Tiger Beat dreamboats, and then not even a month later there was Dirty Dancing, Generation X’s introduction to the concept of dancing as a metaphor for fucking. While girls giggled and blushed, boys grumbled about all the unreasonable standards that would be placed on them (you either had to dress like Adam Ant or know how to do a mean samba, them’s the rules, I don’t make ‘em). Despite the racy, decidedly anachronistic dance moves in it (a lot of hip swiveling, a lot of deep back bends), Dirty Dancing had rare cross-generational appeal—teenagers ate up the opposites attract love story, while their moms ate up the eye candy that was Patrick Swayze, 35 but playing a decade younger, and everyone loved the smash hit two volume soundtrack, which mixed sixties classic pop with limp noodle modern love songs.
Given how huge a hit the film was, particularly with the all-important teen audience, there was no choice but to make a so-watered-down-there’s-no-flavor-left TV version of it, and CBS answered the call in 1988. If you had issues with Dirty Dancing as a movie, such as how it was cast, how the characters were developed, and how it ended, then this was the show for you. If the entire time you were watching it you were thinking “Yeah, this is nice and all, but I really want to know more about Baby’s relatives,” you were in luck, my friend. Bland and plodding, it only really comes to life during the by that point played out scenes of sweaty bodies gyrating against each other, and feels like a Florida dinner theater version of the original.
A reset button is hit, taking the story back to the beginning, when the main characters first meet. Frances “Baby” Houseman is now named Kellerman, and instead of a doctor’s daughter she’s the daughter of the summer resort owner. Gone is Jennifer Grey and her awkward, clumsy charm, replaced by Melora Hardin, who looks like she emerged from the womb with the grace and poise of a Joffrey Ballet dancer, and isn’t terribly convincing when she’s stumbling around and flustered in the presence of a meathead dance instructor. That meathead dance instructor is, of course, Johnny Castle, played here by a different Patrick, Patrick Cassidy, who possesses half the good looks and a negligible fraction of his predecessor’s charisma. To compensate for those deficits, he’s sewn into jeans so comically tight it’s a miracle he can walk in them, let alone dance.
Johnny eyes Baby like a plate full of hot wings when they first encounter each other, but as soon as he discovers that she’s the boss’s daughter, he treats her with suspicion and barely concealed hostility. Also not there to give Baby a warm welcome is Johnny’s dance partner/occasional girlfriend-when-the-script-declares-it Penny (Constance Marie), a character who gets a dramatic plot arc in the film, but here is reduced to competition for Baby. Another character who gets a significant downgrade is Baby’s father. Instead of compassionate, overprotective but well-meaning Jerry Orbach, now it’s McLean Stevenson as Max Kellerman, a blustering boob who treats Baby like a fruit basket he didn’t order, holding her askance and trying to foist her off on other people.
Not knowing what else to do with her, he puts her in charge of the resort talent show, which means she’s essentially in charge of Johnny. Though he presumably hired him, Max seems to despise everything Johnny stands for, which means we get a lot of scenes of him looking befuddled and exasperated every time Baby demands that Johnny be given a chance, even though she’s just met him and has no idea what he may or may not deserve. The show leans hard into the “we’re from two different worlds” rigmarole (though here it’s not so much “Jews vs. gentiles” as it is just plain old, boring “rich vs. poor”), even though we know where this story is going to go eventually. Indeed, it’s not even halfway through the first episode before we get a recreation of the iconic scene where Baby and Johnny first dance together at a late-night party. Whereas Swayze came off as flirty and playful in the original scene, Cassidy is weirdly menacing, occasionally looming over Hardin like a vulture about to snatch up a prairie dog, other times hustling her like a male stripper. Nevertheless, all it takes is twenty seconds of Johnny rubbing his vacuum-packed crotch against her and Baby staggers out of the party in an erotically charged daze.
The first episode hits most of the beats of the movie—Johnny and Baby meet, Johnny teaches Baby how to dance, they have a romantic encounter, Baby dances in the big show, her father gets his “oh, my little girl’s all grown up” moment. It even closes with the inescapable “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.” You might wonder how they could stretch that into an entire series, but after their encounter, Baby abruptly decides that she doesn’t want to get involved with Johnny. So the plot ultimately turns into another interminable “will they or won’t they” storyline, along with some drama involving Johnny’s father and Baby’s mother, as well as other characters who appear in one episode and then are never seen again. We also get to know some of the colorful minor characters, including Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig as a busboy/aspiring stand-up comedian, and Baby’s boy crazy cousin, and who could possibly fucking care about Baby’s cousin?
The show was canceled after eleven episodes.
Though stage productions of Dirty Dancing have met with varying success, the TV series was merely the first in several failed attempts to recreate the magic of the film. to results that ranged from “pointless” (a 2004 prequel in name only, with a different setting and different characters) to “atrocious” (a 2017 TV movie with a hilariously earnest framing device that suggests the events of the film were later turned into a Broadway musical). As a TV show, it’s merely mediocre, populated by paper-thin characters club footing through one dull plot after another (Baby and her cousin vie for the attention of a visiting folk singer, an old flame of Johnny’s shows up and causes trouble, etc.), as if anybody was watching for any other reason than to see attractive people simulate clothed coitus with each other. Thanks to cable and VHS, we could watch the real thing whenever we wanted to.
Original airdate: October 29, 1988