Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With Lifetime debuting The Unauthorized Full House Story, we take a look at some favorites from the TGIF era.
Tom Fontana was once asked about the one thing he’d always wanted to do in a TV pilot, but never could. His answer: Kill the leading man, which he would do when Oz debuted on July 12, 1997. It would take a few years for the full impact of Fontana’s revolutionary prison drama to be felt in the wider TV landscape, but at least one show was following Oz’s lead in the fall of ’97. When Simpsons alumni Al Jean and Mike Reiss brought their follow-up to The Critic to the TGIF lineup that September, they boldly bumped off their lead in the first act. Of course, you can’t get a Teen Angel without first having a dead teen.
TGIF had a history with high-concept fantasy sitcoms like Teen Angel, launching Dinosaurs in 1991 and housing the short-lived Aliens In The Family five years later. Following the success of Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, ABC executives developed a temporary yen for sitcoms that blended magical powers with slice-of-life sitcom set ups—thus the birth of Teen Angel and the death of Marty DePolo (Mike Damus). The premiere, “Marty Buys The Farm,” doesn’t dither in its dark duties: By the two-minute mark, Marty has already scarfed the burger that seals his fate and boarded a heavenly elevator operated by special guest star Marcia Wallace. At the end of the trip, Marty meets the big, floating head of God’s cousin Rod (Ron Glass), who sends the boy back to Earth to watch over his doofus best friend Steve (Corbin Allred). In life, Marty coasts off of the smarmy Jim Carrey fumes that powered all adolescent male humor between the years 1994 and 1998, but he really lays on the schtick after earning his wings. Rechristening himself “Teen Angel,” he announces his new nickname with faux-superhero bravado, arms akimbo and voice affecting a Dudley Do-Right patois.
In Wallace and Glass’ characters, “Marty Buys The Farm” hints toward a Beetlejuice-esque take on the afterlife: bureaucracy among the seraphim and cherubim. Restricted by earthly red tape—“It was so compromised and overworked. I had 11 executives full-time telling me how to do my job,” Reiss later told the Hartford Courant—the show never achieved its full potential. But the creators’ pop-culture-damaged sensibilities sneak through in the premiere, from transitions that ape the Adam West Batman series to an out-of-nowhere Brady Bunch gag for co-star Maureen McCormick. Too bizarre to live, but too obscure to earn a cult following, Teen Angel at least deserves to be remembered for the boldness of its first episode. It wasn’t a participant in Oz’s revolution, but at least it had the guts to depict its series-catalyzing death on-screen—unlike Full House.
Availability: “Marty Buys The Farm” can be viewed in three parts on YouTube.