Tune in Tonight: "The Best of Times"
I’ve been writing about old television for going on five years now, first on Tumblr, then on WordPress, and now here. Nothing I have written about on the subject has stuck with me quite as much as 1981’s The Best of Times, a baffling hour long musical-comedy-faux documentary starring a very young Crispin Glover and Nicolas Cage as ordinary high school students (named “Crispin” and “Nick”). I watched it three years ago, and rare is the day that I don’t think about it, at least for a second or two. More than 83,000 people have watched the video on YouTube, and yet we’re no closer to figuring out why this show happened, or how, or for whom. To my knowledge, nobody has ever asked either Glover or Cage about it, which is puzzling considering they both perform in several song and dance numbers, including this one, during which Cage plays a comb in a menacing fashion.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that, barely two years later, another pilot about teenagers premiered that was also called The Best of Times, and, like its predecessor, disappeared almost immediately. This was not to be confused with the 1986 Robin Williams-Kurt Russell comedy The Best of Times, or Styx’s 1981 hit “The Best of Times.” Three of them are about the glory days of high school, the fourth isn’t specifically, but was the soundtrack for many a high school graduation in the 80s. In that context, as with the other three, it sends the clear message that you should enjoy your teenage years as much as you can, because it’s all downhill after that. This was a sentiment that was depressing when I actually was a teenager, and now that I’m middle aged, it’s existentially bleak.
Other than a shared title and basic plot, the two TV shows have little in common. If anything, the later Best of Times is riding on the coattails of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, to the point where its original working title was Changing Times, and it featured two cast members from the film. Like the series that really was directly based on Fast Times (TV is very confusing, you guys), it’s heavily diluted, removing the weed and masturbation and abortion and replacing it with dull shenanigans from charmless actors who are way too old to be playing high school students.
Unlike most pilots, which take a little bit of time to establish the characters and setting, The Best of Times just throws the audience into the deep end and expects them to swim. It’s fine, though, it’s not a hard show to follow, and the characters aren’t very interesting anyway. It’s the first day of school for Pete Falcone (Robert Romanus), who the plot description on Wikipedia claims is a freshman, but that seems extremely unlikely, because Pete looks like he’s almost 30 years old. You may recall that Romanus played the memorably scummy Damone in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Here, he’s still a smarmy would-be ladies’ man, but slightly less of a cad than Damone, because he’s supposed to be the hero of the series, and you can’t have the audience constantly wanting to pepper spray the hero.
ANYWAY, Pete’s dad (Alex Rocco) makes vague references to Pete getting into trouble the previous school year, and promises to buy him a car if he behaves himself. Pete’s sister complains that she “doesn’t have enough sweaters,” and that’s all we see of her. Pete’s two closest friends fit nicely into the archetypes they teach you in Basic Comedy Writing for Teens 101—Neil (Leif Green) is the nerd, Hooper (Chris Nash) is the rebel, who has gained a reputation for never showing up for class. We later discover that it’s because he’s learning how to play the blues from a musician who apparently offers lessons only on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.
On the way to school, Pete and the boys pick up two more stereotypes, worldly, 15-going-on-30 Robin (Krista Errickson), and her friend Patti (Hallie Todd), a goody-two-shoes who dresses like she’s about go door to door asking if you’ve heard the news about Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But, wait. Hold on to your hats, folks, the screenwriters are about to blow your mind by turning one stereotype—ready for this—into a different stereotype, when Patti locks eyes with Pete and looks as though she’s been thumped on the head with a very large dildo. “I can’t BELIEVE how cute that Pete Falcone is! I WANT him!” Patti announces to Robin, and everyone in the hallway around her. Todd recites all her dialogue very LOUDLY, as if she’s auditioning for summer stock theater, and it doesn’t help with the presumably unintentional impression that Patti has recently been released from homeschool in her basement and left in Robin’s care.
Speaking of aggressive lust, there’s Vice-Principal Otto (William G. Schilling, who would play virtually the exact same character on Head of the Class three years later), a graduate of the Edward Rooney School for Psychotically Fixating on One Student. In this case, it’s Hooper, whom Otto is determined to nail for cutting class. And when I say “nail,” I mean it seems like he might literally want to have sex with him. Staring unblinkingly at Hooper, he informs him that he’s going to stalk him like a lion stalks a gazelle. “I’m gonna pounce on you, Hooper,” he says, all but licking his lips in anticipation, and thankfully, like Pete’s sister, that’s also the last we see of him.
The plot, such as it is, involves Garth Stimlovich (Tony Longo), a fearsome former student turned Marine, who vows revenge against Pete after he asks Garth’s ex-girlfriend to a school dance. When Garth calls Pete’s house to threaten him (while using a few ethnic slurs, a jarring tonal shift in an otherwise meant-to-be-lighthearted sitcom), Pete’s dad temporarily lifts his ban on fighting so that Pete can teach this palooka a lesson. Does Pete, in fact, teach that palooka a lesson? Of course he does, with a little help from Patti, who tells Pete that her reward is that he should call her, and presumably talk her into a shuddering orgasm.
A wan, indifferently placed laugh track helps the audience to understand that this is supposed to be funny.
Originally intended to be a replacement for the critically acclaimed but sadly underperforming Square Pegs, The Best of Times was burned off at the end of summer with all the efficiency of a dermatologist treating a wart. As was the case with a lot of media about teenagers made in the 80s, it doesn’t seem to be for teenagers. Because so many of the actors in it are thoroughly unconvincing as high school students, it comes off as creepy and uncomfortable, as if it’s going to turn into porn at any minute. That mood isn’t helped when you have Patti saying stuff like “Maybe he wants someone young and eager to learn!” in regards to Pete, who, again, is supposed to be the hero of the show.
Like the first Best of Times, it’s a show written about teenagers by people who hate teenagers. Both shows are unfocused and inconsistent in tone, and have no idea who their target audiences are. That being said, at least the characters in the first Best of Times actually look like real teenagers. In fact, they were, with Crispin Glover and Nicolas Cage both seventeen at the time, if you can imagine that Nicolas Cage was ever a teenager. Pete and his friends, inexplicably played by actors in their mid to late twenties, look and feel more like the kind of guys you get to buy you wine coolers and cigarettes, and, if you’re lucky, maybe they won’t ask you to get in their car and make out with them.
Original airdate: August 29, 1983