“Questions were playing tiddly winks with my grey
Review – Daniel Tessier
Most times you go back to watch a programme from your youth, it's pretty disappointing. Every now and then, however, they're genuinely as good as you remember. Eerie, Indiana is one of those special few. There are a handful of series that tried to be The Twilight Zone for kids. Round the Twist is well-remembered by British and Australian audiences. Are You Afraid of the Dark and Goosebumps scared the kids of the early and late nineties, respectively. None had the wit of Eerie, Indiana. So why this series only lasted for a single season baffles me.
The series was set in the eponymous town of Eerie, Indiana, population 16,661. Marshall 'Mars' Teller moves to Eerie with his family. Only he, and his best friend, Simon, seem to notice just how bizarre life in Eerie really is. Bigfoot eats out of Marshall's trash, Elvis is on his paper round, and each episode, some uncanny occurrence becomes the subject of Marshall and Simon's investigations. The situations the duo faced were many and varied. Some were drawn from classic horror and sci-fi, but with a twist, such as “America's Scariest Home Video,” which drew the Mummy straight out of a black-and-white movie and into Marshall's living room, while Simon's younger brother took his place (and proved far scarier). Some drew on science fiction for their inspiration, such as the HAL 9000 riff “The ATM With a Heart of Gold.” Others were barmy in their originality. “No Brain, No Pain,” involved a shambling vagrant, who was in fact a genius, but had accidentally taped over his mind with a copy of The Knack's "My Sharona."
While the writing was generally very good for a children's drama, it was the direction and the cast that really set Eerie, Indiana apart from its rivals. While Jose Rivera and Karl Schaefer were credited as the series' creators, Joe Dante was a major creative force on the show, directing several episodes. This is the man who directed such sci-fi classics as Innerspace, Gremlins and, um, Piranha. Not the sort of person you'd expect to be working on a children's TV series for the Disney Channel. The cast were what really made it, though. The series boasted not only a solid regular and semi-regular cast, but some of the best guest actors in television. Weird old Vincent Schiavelli (Ghost, The Eddie Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) played the town's terrifying orthodontist. Rene Auberjonois (M.A.S.H., Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Boston Legal) tried to brainwash the town. One of Dante's favoured actors, Archie Hann (Innerspace, Small Soldiers), played Mr Radford, the proprietor of the World O' Stuff, until the series' midpoint turnaround, when he was revealed to be an imposter. The real Radford was revealed, played with twinkling charm by John Astin (best known as Gomez Addams from The Addams Family). In one fan-favourite episode, “The Lost Hour,” putting the clocks forward one hour incorrectly stranded Marshall in an empty parallel version of Eerie, with only a mysterious milkman to turn to for help. That milkman – who, it was hinted, may have been Marshall's own future self – was played by the late, great Eric Christmas (Harold and Maud, Porky's, In the House) .These impressive guest spots and many clever references make the series a joy to watch for genre fans.
It would be wrong to overlook the core cast, however. Omri Katz (Dallas, The John Larroquette Show) was the star of the show. Fifteen at the time of filming, but playing it a little younger, Omri was perfect as Marshall, representing the many young boys who were just entering puberty and being torn between silly kids' shows and adult life. Omri gave Marshall a wide-eyed wonder at the weirdness of the world, with just enough snark to make the character snappy, but never obnoxious. Stealing the show, though, was Justin Shenkarow, four years younger, as Simon Holmes. Justin dominated every scene he was in, despite being the youngest member of the cast. Simon was an outsider in Eerie, and became close friends with Marshall, only to find himself take a backseat to the teenager's problems. Popularity, school, and above all, his burgeoning interest in girls, threatened to take Marshall away from Simon, but at the end of the day, the two were inseparable. There was a lot for young boys to relate to.
Marshall's family were equally as important to the setup, forever oblivious to the strange goings on around them. Frances Guinan (Boss, The Exorcist series, Murder One) was just the right side of eccentric as his father Edgar. Possibly named in association with Edward Teller, inventor of the hydrogen bomb, Edgar Teller tried to keep afloat with his career as an inventor for Things Incorporated. His inventions were often a main plot point in the series. Marshall's mother, Marilyn, was played Mary-Margaret Humes (Dawson's Creek, Matlock), who as an adult I now realise was quite impossibly sexy and wasted as Edgar's housewife. As Marshall's older sister, Syndi, Julie Condra (Santa Barbara, The Wonder Years) provided the boys watching with the twin interests of an irritating sibling to run rings round, and a beautiful young woman to gaze at.
It was something of a boys' show. Marshall had a new crush every other week, and while the girls were often strong, impressive characters, there was less for the female members of the audience. That changed in the thirteenth episode, which began a process of revamping the series by introducing Jason Marsden (Boy Meets World, Step by Step). Marsden played Dash X, a mysterious amnesiac with grey hair, who didn't know his real name or where he came from. He became the amoral antagonist to Marshall's hero, sometimes helping him, sometimes out for himself. He might possibly have been an alien, and was even seemingly aware that he was part of a television programme. He was also, importantly, the one all the girls watching had a crush on.
Dash X threatened to steal the series away from Marshall, something that the producers were fully aware of. In what was surely intended as the final episode of the series, but actually aired as the penultimate installment, Marshall woke up to find that his name was really Omri, and his entire life was, in fact, part of a TV show. “Reality Takes a Holiday” was an ingeniously postmodern episode, and saw Dash X – the only character referred to by his fictional name, and not his actor's name – attempt to oust Marshall as the star. Genuinely clever, it was a high point for the series.
My favourite episode, however, was “Heart on a Chain.” Marshall and a previously unmentioned classmate, Devon (played by another Dante favourite, Cory Danziger – The 'Burbs, Beauty and the Beast), both fall for the new girl, Melissa. When Devon is killed in a road accident, his heart is transplanted into the desperately ill Melissa, who begins to display some of Devon's personality traits. Marshall and Melissa's burgeoning romance is sabotaged by Devon's restless spirit. Apart from the fact that I had a huge crush on Danielle Harris (Roseanne, Fear Clinic), who played Melissa, this episode really touched me as a kid. Watching it again now, it's still affecting. It's a genuinely sweet, sad, creepy little ghost story, just really fine television.
For all the silliness, references and naff monsters, Eerie, Indiana was quite a dark, subversive series. The strangeness of the town and its supposed ordinariness was a metaphor for the harsh realities that are so often kept behind closed doors. While Marshall had a strong, loving family, Simon was from a broken home. He was able to spend so much time with the Tellers because his mother was rarely home, and his father was often “entertaining.” Other characters' lives were rarely anything to celebrate. “Who's Who” revolved around a young girl whose mother had abandoned her, and who was neglected and exploited by her father and brothers. Even the pilot episode, “Foreverware,” hinted at the dark secrets behind so many supposedly perfect families.
For some reason, Eerie, Indiana never took off on its initial 1991-2 run. It sank without a trace, with certain episodes not even airing. It wasn't until 1997 that Fox bought the series and it was given a new lease of life. It was then that the series made it overseas, including the Saturday morning TV in the UK to be watched by my thriteen-year-old self. It became successful enough to spawn a spin-off series, Eerie, Indiana: The Other Dimension. The concept was rather clever: in a parallel version of Eerie, life is perfectly normal, until a crazy cable guy opens an interdimensional rift. This lets the weirdness of the “prime” Eerie through to the Other Dimension, and threatens to destroy the Eeries of all realities. Marshall and Simon even appeared in the first episode to help out their younger equivalents, Mitchell and Stanley. However, although the effects had improved over the years, the scripts hadn't, and the weaker sequel series lasted only one season itself.
Eerie, Indiana amassed something of a cult following in its brief renaissance, but has little legacy. However, many of its young cast have gone onto successful careers. Omri Katz made the occasional screen appearance up until about 2000 but has since retired from acting, but Justin Shenkarow now does a lot of voice work for animation, and also produces, writes and directs series and short films. Julie Condra took a break from acting but recently started appearing in films again. On the other hand, Jason Marsden is a familiar face on American television also boasting a hugely successful voice career, Danielle Harris has become something of a modern day scream queen. Some big stars made pre-fame appearances here too: Tobey Maguire, who played a ghost boy in the episode "The Dead Letter", did quite well for himself, and even Denise Richards had a very small role in "Reality Takes a Holiday". Still, I doubt anything in these actors' stellar careers will make me smile quite as much as Eerie, Indiana.
Dan describes himself as a geek. Skinny white guy. Older than he looks. Younger than he feels. Reads, watches, plays and writes. Has been compared to the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth Doctors, and the Dream Lord. Plus Dr. Smith from 'Lost in Space.' He has also had a short story published in Master Pieces: Misadventures in Space and Time a charity anthology about the renegade Time Lord.
Dan's web page can be here: Immaterial
Published on September 9th, 2020. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.