I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Best of Times: A Collage of Heartfelt Cheesiness

by Jake Goldman
April 12, 2016

After watching the pilot episode for Best of Times, the 1981, hour-long, ABC-produced venture, it's not surprising the show wasn't picked up for series. The show isn't so god-awful and the acting is decent (though, many of the performances here seem to lean hard on theatrical training. In other words: these actors have yet to add "subtlety" to their repertoire). It seems that the show's fairly narrow scope (the plight of middle-class teens) and its unfortunate prime time slot (someone expected this to catch up to behemoths like Laverne and ShirleyThe Love Boat and Dynasty?) is what did it in.

Though it's worth a watch if only for Crispin Glover and Nicolas Cage's performances (Nic is credited here as Nicolas Coppola). Glover proves to be a fairly capable narrator, often breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to an audience uneducated on all things teenage. Cage, on the other hand, manages to inject his standard combination of intensity and creepiness into his role as the slow-witted, beefcake jock.   

There is no real through-line or narrative here, just a series of vignettes detailing the often surface-level particulars of teenage life in what seems to be middle-class America. Three girls sit at a makeup counter sampling eye liners while talking about their dream-weddings. Predictably, it ends in a groan-worthy punch-line about divorce. Kevin, a nerdy nice-guy tries throughout the episode to get a date to the big dance but continually receives rejections in various phonebooths. There are three song-and-dance numbers: a vocal-free rhythmic jam that takes place inside a 7-Eleven owned by Jackie Mason (of course), a ditty regarding the teenage struggle of working summer jobs, and a weird, sexually charged version of Pat Benatar's "Heartbreaker", sung to Glover by a group of rabid teenage girls who now want his bod (based on his excellent selection of denim). At the end of that song, a furious-looking saleswoman glowers at Glover who replies "We were just browsing," in an aw-shucks kind of way. End scene.

The aforementioned scenes are silly but it's hard to get too terribly mad at them. It's clear that the producers bit off a little more than they could chew, and, in the end, the final message is a little unclear.  There is one incredibly surprising element, though. Though the program is intended to be a Laugh-In style comedy for children of the 80s (with a little Fame thrown in), there are some very thoughtful, introspective, and even somewhat depressing moments in the show. These moments, while a little heavy-handed, really glue the show together.

Eight and a half minutes in, Jill Schoelen stops cleaning dishes by a sink and addresses the camera. Since the show up until this point had been a steady stream of jokes about being a nerd, or how lame parents can be, I expected a brief missive on the hardships of in-home chores a teen must complete. Instead, a sad-eyed Schoelen puts down a plate and says "I know this is silly, but I'm afraid of being alone. Oh, sure, I have my folks and my friends, but they're not there all the time." She goes onto explain how she used to talk to her doll, and how it's scary to be alone during a thunderstorm. The whole monologue ends with Schoelen saying "It isn't easy getting old." And that's it. No punch-line, no music--just honesty. It's a beautiful moment. Being a kid can get pretty lonely, especially if you're constantly fighting for popularity, or trying to get the girl, or snag the cutest guy. As a teenager, you often have to be someone you are not, which is exhausting and depressing and ultimately lonely; your peers don't know who you really are, and thus you find yourself alone. With all the lighthearted cheesiness preceding this scene, I'm not sure if the show really earned this moment a mere nine minutes in, but I completely respect the guts it took to pull it off.

Later in the episode, Nicolas Cage has a similarly weird and touching scene. Addressing the camera on the beach, Cage expresses his fears over potentially getting drafted for battle in El Salvador (referencing the possibility for U.S. involvement in the 12-year El Salvadorian Civil War that began in 1980). He tells the audience that his dad was a Korean war vet, and whenever Cage asks his pop about what it was like to be on the front lines he "just dummies up and gets this far away look in his eyes and changes the subject." The scene with Cage saying "I just hope we don't have a war. It'll kind of spoil things." Jesus christ. The scene before showed us a coy Crispin trying to ask out one of his good friends, and her politely declining. And now, a stone-faced speech on how terrifying war is to kids?

And, maybe that was the point of butting those two scenes up against one another. In one instance you see a nice kid being all shy, but respectful to a girl. You see him fail, but you don't necessarily feel bad; it's just part of being a teen. And then, you see a kid, the same age talk openly about his fears on going onto the battlefield, a place where you're not fearing what a girl might say to your shaky inquiry, but rather, you're fearing that you might die. They're just kids -- don't send 'em to war; let them be kids.

In the ende, though, those touching moments are too shoe-horned in and not front-and-center enough to make an impact on mass audiences. However, it tells us one thing: the people that created this show cared about the youth of America. It wasn't just trying to cash in on John Hughes mania. Underneath all the cheesiness, this show has a beating heart. The show is misguided, maybe, but it certainly has heart--a not-so-easy feat.  

Jake Goldman is a writer and a teacher. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.  Occasionally he writes songs.  If you are so inclined, check out Internetdogfist.com for words and Otsego.Bandcamp.com for music.