Senior HTF Member
- Apr 19, 2000
- Salinas, CA
- Real Name
Webster: Season Two (1984-1985)
Studio: Shout! Factory (originally produced by Paramount Television)
Length: 628 Minutes (based on calculating the individual discs’ stated lengths)
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Subtitles: none (Closed-Captioned for the Hearing Impaired)
Season Release Date: September 21, 1984
Disc Release Date: May 10, 2011
Disc Review Date: May 31, 2011
“I never thought forever was the best I could do, then came you.”
3/5 (but add a point for nostalgia)
In the period between the end of All in the Family and the beginning of The Cosby Show, the sitcom struggled to compete with the soapy glitz and glamour of Dallas and Dynasty and the fast-paced action of Magnum, P.I. and The A-Team. Few bona-fide hits emerged during this period while flop after flop piled up; just ask McLean Stevenson. Many of the lucky few that ran long enough to leave any sort of impression on popular culture featured kids or teens as the main focus. One of the most famous—or infamous, depending on whom you ask—was Webster, the 1983-1989 ABC sitcom, whose sophomore season is presented on this 4-disc set from Shout! Factory.
When privileged WASP blue-blood Katherine Calder Young (Susan Clark) met Greek-American ex-football player turned color commentator George Papadopolis (Alex Karras) on a Greek cruise, they quickly fell in love, got married, and settled in Chicago only to find themselves godparents to a short, 7-year old black orphan boy named Webster Long (Emmanuel Lewis, who was 3’4” and 12 years old when the show began, and six years older and not even that many inches taller when it ended). Webster’s father Travis, one of George’s teammates and best friends, made him the child’s godfather when he was born, trusting that his character would mitigate any concerns about the difference in their races in case the unthinkable happened. Seven years later the unthinkable did happen: Travis and his wife Gert were killed in a car accident, leaving the newlyweds to raise Webster. While they had planned not to have children, they reluctantly accepted the responsibility. By the end of their first year together, they wanted to adopt him. Now they begin the season fighting a custody battle with Webster’s only living relative, his Uncle Philip (Ben Vereen), that began at the end of the first season. A few episodes into the season, a fire forces the family to move from their apartment into a well-appointed Victorian mansion full of secret passages, living with owner/restorer Bill Parker (Eugene Roche) and his wife Cassie (Cathryn Damon). I remember watching the show regularly as a child and thinking that was the coolest thing on TV. Ricky Schroder and his dad on Silver Spoons could keep their indoor railroad; I wanted my house retrofitted with secret passages. It is only in the past few years that I have forgiven my parents for being unable to do so.
Why would such a good-natured, innocuous show be so infamous? Probably because ABC wanted to make up for losing Diff’rent Strokes to last-place NBC enough to want to capitalize on its success with a similar show of their own (predating Modern Family by more than a quarter of a century). One of NBC’s only hits in the late 1970s, ABC had a chance to air it first, but they lost it when they attempted to meddle with it in the early stages of its development. Wisely, they chose not to strike while the iron was hot. They waited until its best years were behind it, their own late 1970s sitcom hits were either gone altogether (Laverne & Shirley, Barney Miller) or living on borrowed time (Happy Days, Three’s Company), and the shows that were intended to succeed them were crashing and burning (Joanie Loves Chachi). When Clark and Karras signed to the show, they were to be the stars and their adopted son a supporting character, but when Lew Erlicht, president of ABC Entertainment, saw Emmanuel Lewis in a Burger King commercial, he was so impressed that he told the production company to make Lewis the star and Webster the main focus. The two adult stars, who had a hand in its production, were angry at the network, and they fought bitterly for the first couple of seasons. In retrospect, this is far from the first, last, or most egregious example of the network’s inability to develop original ideas. Consider that ABC’s top show at the time, Dynasty, owed a lot to CBS’s Dallas, that their own That’s Incredible was not much different from NBC’s Real People, and that they had actually been sued over The Greatest American Hero and Battlestar Galactica. No one watched the show for its originality. They watched it because Webster was cuter than an army of Hello Kitty dolls stationed in Toyland and commanded by Shirley Temple. Yet despite its ratings success—it came in a tie for 25th place in its first two seasons—it could never shake off the comparisons to its predecessor (which, in its final season, moved to ABC and aired an hour after Webster; the two were separated by Mr. Belvedere). Now that it’s on DVD after more than a decade of being unseen almost anywhere, the truth can be told. It isn’t better than Strokes, but it certainly isn’t worse.
The writers knew comparisons between the two shows would be inevitable, so they did what they could to make this show distinct from its predecessor. Webster is not the scheming, wisecracking smart aleck that Gary Coleman’s Arnold was; he’s more of an innocent and impressionable child. He is more an idealized representation of the supposed innocence of childhood than a realistic child, but to their credit the writers do attempt to humanize him by having him say or do some less-than-endearing things (he can get fairly angry in a difficult situation, and his carelessness is the reason that the family must find a new home). His cuteness is already superhuman, and without this added dimension the character could have turned into an annoying goody-two-shoes. Additionally, he has no catch phrase, he has no siblings, he wasn’t raised in poverty, he still has a blood relative who plays an active part in his life, and his new parents have no experience raising children and are learning as they go; without a housekeeper, Katherine can’t cook or keep house to save her life. On its own merits, the show has its strengths and its weaknesses. The scripts don’t provide any big slapstick set-ups like I Love Lucy or anything comparable to The Golden Girls’ seemingly endless supply of quotable lines, but most episodes provide a few chuckles—the show has already improved somewhat in this respect from the first season—and some surprisingly compelling plots that aim for the heartstrings. Its overall tone is reminiscent of the “heart comedies” of the 1960s—think My Three Sons, Family Affair, or The Courtship of Eddie’s Father—where the emphasis was on the stories, life lessons, and warm, wholesome, sentimental moments; that era ended with the last episode of The Brady Bunch in 1974. Of course, there are the occasional attempts at tackling social issues that make it and other shows of the era lightning magnets for systematic criticism and snide mockery when viewed through modern eyes. Today it seems that any time a sitcom ever even tried to deal with any social issue, regardless of the quality of its ultimate execution, it is seemingly automatically dismissed as a “Very Special Episode”. I didn’t mind it as a child (although I hated when my 4 o’clock sitcoms got pre-empted for Afterschool Specials), but as an adult I have mixed feelings about it, perhaps because the self-contained nature of the plots makes their repercussions on the characters minor and quickly forgotten and their resolutions seem a little too convenient, even by sitcom standards. There’s also the fact that some issues are just not funny and therefore are unsuitable for the sitcom genre. Still, I admire the fact that they don’t trivialize the seriousness of those issues. What some modern viewers may not realize—whether or not they are familiar with the history of the age-old Morality Play—is the extent to which television was dismissed as a whole for frivolity and lack of social relevance even when it was still black and white—remember JFK’s FCC chairman Newton Minow and his notorious “Vast Wasteland” speech—and sitcoms bore the brunt of those complaints as much as any other genre. Additionally, activist groups put pressure on networks regarding the content of children’s shows; they’re the reason Looney Tunes got censored on Saturday morning. Combine that with the influence of Norman Lear’s wildly successful, politically charged sitcoms of the previous decade, and it just wasn’t safe to be a sitcom kid in the 1980s. While I can’t honestly say that Webster’s forays into social relevance are entirely successful, they are nowhere near as uncomfortable to watch as I feared they would be.
As for the cast, Emmanuel Lewis doesn’t have the rapid-fire comic timing of Gary Coleman, but there’s something innately appealing about him that makes him irresistible. Susan Clark is engaging in the role of a well-brought-up but domestically clueless mother; on her part, there is a bit of unease to the mother-child relationship between Katherine and Webster that lends it an added depth. She has undeniable chemistry with real-life husband Alex Karras, who, while never a great actor—most ex-athletes turned actors aren’t—has a decent handle on a role that was basically tailor-made for him. As the owners of the house, Cathryn Damon and Eugene Roche are both skilled actors—Damon won a well-deserved Emmy as the long-suffering Mary Campbell on Soap (which Webster’s creator, Stu Silver, wrote for) and Roche had memorable recurring roles on Soap and All in the Family—who do a decent job of providing comic relief and guidance to this freshly-formed family. I had never seen what they brought to the show until now. The Parkers had more experience raising children—one of whom returns in an episode after seven years of estrangement—and that experience gives the family someone to turn to when a problem arises that they cannot solve alone, in spite of the occasional quarrel. However, their talents were often underutilized, and they would be gone by the beginning of the fourth season. Damon’s terminal cancer may have had something to do with that; it claimed her life in 1987. On the other hand, Ben Vereen didn’t stay with the show for very long, but during his all-too-brief recurring run the show does take advantage of his song-and-dance background; in one episode, he and Webster do a charming duet of “Together Wherever We Go,” from Gypsy, and in another he sings a gospel hymn. Rounding out the cast is Henry Polic II as Jerry Silver, Katherine’s effete, arrogant former personal assistant who now runs a gym; he gets in some amusing barbs at George’s expense, and their feeling of dislike is mutual. Unfortunately, his role is reduced this year; a regular in the show’s debut season, he is bumped down to recurring status. In addition to the main cast, look for a diverse line-up of guest stars including Diahann Carroll, Frank Gifford, Roy Firestone, Harold Gould, James Avery, Meredith MacRae, Jack Kruschen as “Papa” Papadopolis, Webster’s new grandfather, and a very young Alison Sweeney in a very disturbing Very Special Episode (hey, it was the 80s, which also accounts for Susan Clark’s awesomely bad hair).
In today’s sitcom environment of ribald, pop culture-obsessed jokes, serialized stories, and faux-documentary set-ups and camerawork, a family-friendly, moralistic, theatrical, studio-bound show with self-contained stories like Webster may seem positively quaint. But it and its pre-TGIF contemporaries are masterpieces compared to what passes for comedy aimed at kids today, especially those that dwell in the Disney Channel/ABC Family/Nickelodeon ghetto to which this show would probably be relegated if it premiered today. Parents should have little reason to object to letting their kids watch this show, and if they were kids in the 1980s it may even bring back some fond memories for them.
Like all but a handful of 1980s sitcoms, Webster was shot on analog videotape, and as the saying goes, “consider the source.” Within those expectations, the picture looks just fine, but not perfect. The color saturation is not too dull or too bright, while the actors’ fleshtones and the set’s earth tones are accurately rendered. Contrast levels are normal, and the flat studio lighting doesn’t blow out the highlights. There are a few dropouts occasionally, and some mild video noise, but those are inherent limitations of the technology and the age of the tapes; those with smaller displays shouldn’t be able to see them too clearly. On progressive scan displays, the freeze-frames of the ending credits look jagged; this, too, is a technological handicap of the era. The episodes are spread out fairly comfortably over four discs with either 6 or 7 episodes per disc, so there are few problems with compression, given the fact that the MPEG-2 codec and analog videotape sources are often at odds with one another.
Like the network broadcasts, the audio is in mono (presented here as Dolby 2.0); ABC didn’t switch to stereo for another couple of years. It’s a serviceable track, not too bright or muffled, and with a surprising amount of low end present. The dialogue comes in crisp and clear, and the show’s infectious theme song, “Then Came You”, has not sounded this good in years. Its ever-so-80s synthesized drumbeats have a real kick to them.
Disappointingly, Shout! Factory has come up short with supplemental material; previews for other 1980s sitcoms on DVD don’t count. With the majority of the cast still alive to tell their stories, it’s a shame they didn’t come forward to share them. And Emmanuel Lewis’s old Burger King commercials must exist somewhere (not to mention his Japanese music video)!
The Final Score:
Sporting an appealing cast of characters in engaging and entertaining situations, Webster: Season Two is the perfect definition of television comfort food. Dismissed by critics in its day, it seems like a breath of fresh air today; unlike what most of Hollywood currently offers to kids, it talks to them without talking down to them. Parents looking for something the whole family can watch together without reservations about its age-appropriateness will find the show well-suited for them. Fans of early-to-mid-1980s feel-good family sitcoms should definitely give it a chance. Just watch out for an attack of the Very Special Episode, and don’t be surprised if you end up constantly humming “Then Came You.” In spite of the absence of extras I must commend Shout! Factory for their work and their commitment to the show. I had written off any chance of seeing it released, or at most seeing season one riddled with music cuts and no further releases after it, but season 3 has been announced for August, putting it at the halfway point a mere eight months after season 1’s release. The episodes appear to be uncut (except for one episode, “Moving On”, that runs a minute shorter than average but is too long to be a syndicated cut, and has the complete theme, which it did not have in syndication), there is plenty of original music, and the original logos are there. This would not be the case if CBS/Paramount had released the show themselves. Hopefully subsequent sets will maintain the same standards of presentation set by the first two.