I know I’ve been largely quiet of late, which means I haven’t chugged through the patron-inspired posts as quickly as I’d hoped. For that, I am sorry. Life and brain chemistry got in the way. But I am back on the horse,* and today I bring you words about a doozy of a patron-requested topic.
You may remember Mike Huberty from my most recent Cool People Doing Cool Things post. In addition to rocking and podcasting, Mike loves TV. And he has a ridiculously good memory for shows that ran for a very short time during his childhood. He asked me to watch one of those for the blog. Speaking of his podcast, the themes of today’s show fit perfectly alongside the topics on See You on the Other Side. So with no further ado, let’s get into it!
Shadow Chasers is a maybe-spooky-maybe-silly show created by Brian Grazer and Kenneth Johnson. It ran 14 episodes in 1985 and chronicles the adventures of Serious Scientist Jonathan MacKensie (played by Trevor Eve) and tabloid journalist/novelist Edgar “Benny” Benedek (played by Dennis Dugan). They travel around and investigate reports of strange occurrences. The pilot, however, is the getting-the-band-together story. At the start, Benny is in the offices of The National Register. This the craziest of tabloids, judging by the newsroom in the first scene—it’s got everything from Elvis as an alien to a dude meditating on a desk with flames coming out of his palms. It’s worth noting that the blocking, acting, and timing of this scene smacks of cable access. You can’t even hear most of the dialogue. Happily, the direction does get better from here. Anyway, Benny hears about a house in California that started on fire spontaneously, and decides it’s a story worth checking out.
Meanwhile, Jonathan is trying to edge out of his father’s shadow at the fictional Georgetown Institute. His department head semi-blackmails Jonathan into heading to California to study the very same case Benny is looking into. She wants him to see if there’s any truth behind the reports of supernatural occurrences. She knows he’ll investigate in a thorough and unbiased manner because he’s a skeptic, you see.
As you might have picked up, this is something of an X-Files before there was an X-Files. One half of the team not only wants to believe, but pretty much does. The other has a scientific background and is going to interrogate everything to get to the probably-mundane bottom of it. Their chemistry on-screen isn’t too bad, so it’s got that going for it, but the style of acting is a far cry from what we’re used to these days. That doesn’t have to be an impassable hurdle—I manage to get past it on Babylon 5, as I rewatch that. But Shadow Chasers is from even longer ago, and I don’t get the impression anyone’s taking this too seriously.
That includes the director (or possibly the editor), because we see a guy running around on fire (plus all other manner of spooky nonsense), and then we get a crash cut so crashy it looks like a mistake. Suddenly we see a shot of the Washington Monument set to the strains of “The Heat Is On”. Is it a cover? I can’t even tell. Either it’s a cover or this show’s retro-ness has sapped my ability to tell the difference.
Let’s face it. Shadow Chasers is about as 80s as you can get. It’s so of-the-80s I can taste it; it tastes of Life cereal, Pop Rocks, and New Coke. My good friend Warren took one look at the description and said “It smells of feathered hair, cocaine, and failed acting dreams.” He’s not wrong. Though I might’ve said it smells like the Oilers’ locker room. The Huston Oilers, that is. Yes, they got a mention. As did “XEROX” as a verb. The 80s-isms alone make this worth watching…nearly.
I wouldn’t say the acting dreams failed entirely. Our main players didn’t exactly disappear into obscurity. Both have worked steadily since then—both in front of and behind the camera. Trevor Eve is a British actor probably most well-known for his role on Waking the Dead. And you may know Dennis Dugan from The Rockford Files, Hill Street Blues, Moonlighting, or several Adam Sandler films.
I recognized more players than I expected. Grace Zabriskie later went on to play Sarah Palmer on Twin Peaks—perhaps not a far cry from her role here as a woman attempting to sell her partially-crisped house before something else terrible happens to it. Good thing for her Benny is on the scene. He buys the house just so they can investigate more easily—much to Jonathan’s consternation. He has to submit the expense reports. It’s wacky, you guys!
It also features Marcia Strassman—Julie Kotter from Welcome Back Kotter. She plays the wife of a recently-deceased descendant of a sorceress who was burned at the stake in Salem. And good old Hermionie Baddely plays a psychic who can “feel walls”, but only when she’s gooned on a really icky drink. You’ve probably seen her in something. She started acting in 1927. (I recognized her from Mary Poppins.) According to IMDb, this was her last role. I’m honestly a little sorry about that. Though at least it looked like she was having fun.
Let’s talk about the incidental music for a moment, shall we? I’m not sure calling it “80s” really captures just how odd it is. I’m convinced budgetary constraints limited them to a maximum of two instruments at a time. For example, there’s scene in which a house (and a guy!) burst into flames, and a tree appears to fall down on its own. The music here consists almost entirely of squealie guitars. Later, while they’re searching the spooky house, we hear an almost Seinfeld-esque bass-line with just a soupcon of woodblock. It’s…I was gonna say “jazzy”, but it’s really not even that. It’s just weird.
All-in-all, this isn’t a completely terrible show. But it’s not really a good one either. I think its biggest issue is it can’t decide what tone it’s going for. It swings from silly-wacky buddy-cop to spooky paranormal investigative drama. And there’s not enough connecting tissue between the two extremes to make it work. I suspect this is a big part of why it only lasted 14 episodes.
To be spoilerey about the pilot, by the end, there’s pretty much nothing remaining unexplained. It’s more natural than super. That in itself is fine, but for some reason, Jonathan is intrigued enough to join Benny and continue investigating telekinesis, psychic powers, and the like. This decision makes no sense! He was able to explain away the ghostly phenomenon in this episode. So where does this change of heart come from? They don’t make it clear what motivates him to continue on this course. I suspect it’s the paycheck the actor receives for 13 more episodes…
I will admit, I rather enjoyed myself at the outset. (Once we got past that terrible scene at the newspaper office, that is.) Drinking in all that 80s nostalgia was kinda fun, and at first, the mystery intrigued me. Sadly, by the time I got about halfway through, the mild entertainment value of the spectacular 80sness started to wear thin. And the plot meandered too much to keep me hooked. I found myself thinking “This is so cheesy, I camembert it.” Yes. It brought on dairy puns. I’d apologise for that, but I had to sit through this show. You get to suffer a bad cheese pun.
Perhaps if it had been tightened up into something shorter, it would have held me all the way through. If you want to check it out, I warn you, the pilot is about an hour and a half long. Which makes it longer than Mike’s reward level, yes. But I made him wait so darn long, I’m not only overlooking it, I may even do a post about his second- or third-choice shows. Stay tuned!
*The metaphorical not-giving-up horse. No, I am not doing heroin.