Charles in Charge
The Complete First Season (1984-1985) (Universal-2006)
Scott Baio, formerly of Happy Days and Joanie Loves Chachi fame, plays Charles, a stylin’ mid-80s college student (dig those skinny ties, suspenders and sweater vests) who decides to pay for his tuition and get free board by playing nanny for a suburban couple and their group of precocious kids.
It is difficult, however, to get kids to grow up nicely and properly in the era of Footloose, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Donkey Kong, scrambled soft-core porn on cable, Iran-Contra and Blame it on Rio. The comedy of the show builds from a supposedly wild and crazy college kid trying to shield a fourteen year old, a twelve year old and an ten year old from bad influences. Those influences are everywhere. “The children know everything, Charles,” their mother explains. “We have cable TV.”
So faster than you can say “wacky situation” you have a me-decade variation of the age-old sitcom staple – a guy who has no experience or business suddenly having to care for small children. Charles follows a long line of from Mr. French to Mr. Belvedere as a set-in-his-ways and a-little-selfish person who grows and learns to love due to dealing with kids on a day-to-day basis.
It sounds unbearable, but while Charles in Charge could never exactly be called a good series, it does have some entertainment value and is easy enough to watch. It’s not funny in a Get Smart! kind of way or groundbreaking in a Seinfeld manner or trenchant like All in the Family or even casually subversive in a Frasier mold. Charles in Charge is junk-food television, mostly empty calories but relatively satisfying. These episodes were helmed with economy and flair by the late, legendary television director Alan Rafkin. (See our interview with him from a few years ago on the features page.)
The oldest of the Pembroke kids is Lila (April Lerman), an uptight straight A student who is just starting to hit jailbait sexuality, much to the dismay of her dad (though the actress looks to be at least a few years older than the fourteen she is playing.)
“Lila, do you know what the best part of being a kid is?” Charles asks. “If you relax and enjoy it, no one will blame you.” However, Lila doesn’t relax and enjoy anything – she’s on a constant spin cycle of sanitized teen angst. Lila is fixated with popularity, cosmetics and is just starting to notice and obsess about boys (although she does completely blow off a nice boy played by a teen Matthew Perry for a skanky rock kid – giving Perry a preview of how his life would eventually go as Chandler Bing on Friends).
The middle kid is Douglas (Jonathan Ward), who walks around in silly alien masks and refers to girls as female carbon units. He’s smart and odd and has absolutely no social skills. Douglas also spends one whole episode obsessing about selling 400 candy bars to win a trip to New York – which seems like a little excessive amount considering the family lives in New Brunswick, NJ, about a forty-five minute drive from the big city.
“Mom, when Douglas was born, was the circus in town?” asks Jason (Michael Pearlman), the youngest, most cutesy son. Jason is the Danny Bonaduce character of the show, the middle-aged stand-up comic in the slightly funny looking body of a little kid.
Mr. Pembroke is played by James Widdoes, who is best known for playing Delta Tau Chi fraternity president Hoover in National Lampoon’s Animal House. Widdoes ended up using this sitcom job experience to forge a long career as a TV comedy producer and director. However, as an actor, his character has very little to actually do here. In fact, if you get technical, the character is borderline criminally negligent. He works hard during the day, he doesn’t want to bother with parenting. That’s what he pays Charles for.
Almost every speech Dad is given starts with him pulling Charles aside to tell him, “Charles, I’m 35 years old.” Then he gives some extremely cryptic instructions to will Charles to get his daughter to stop dating, his son to stand up to bullies or his other son to stop playing Space Invaders. Finally, he asks Charles, “Do you understand what I’m telling you?” and Baio somehow magically actually does. Then, after Charles defuses the potential tragedy, dad smiles at mom and says, “Jill, Charles is turning out to be a very good idea.”
Mrs. Pembroke is played by Julie Cobb, one of those interchangeable actresses who specialized in generic 80s TV moms that always seemed on the precipice of a breakthrough role but never quite made it. While she does perfectly fine with what she is given to do here, if you put her in a police lineup with Margaret Colin, Carlene Watkins, Mary Page Keller and Alison LaPlaca, I doubt most people would be able to pick her out. This anonymity is taken to new heights when she is replaced by a completely different actress playing her role in the bonus episode at the end of this DVD from the next season of the show; an episode which introduces a whole new family for Charles to be in charge of.
Mrs. Pembroke is an aspiring journalist (somehow in the space of one episode she made the leap from reviewing Swedish films and Chinese restaurants to interviewing the mayor). However, she doesn’t seem to like her job too much, in fact almost any time her career is mentioned it is in context of how it keeps her away from being with her children. Her mother-in-law (Rue McLanahan) berates her for working when she should be a mother. Mrs. Pembroke finally has a minor epiphany of sorts when she sees a movie that everyone else has hated but she loved and she gets to express her unique viewpoint, but even in that episode her job is shown as more of an inconvenience than a calling. (For all of its attempts to be hip and with it, in most ways Charles in Charge is a very square, old-fashioned show.)
Charles is in love with Gwendolyn Pierce, played by mid-80s hottie Jennifer Runyon. After one season on the show (her character left during a shake-up at the end of the first season, though she did return for a “special” two-part episode a couple of years later), it looked like her career was headed for the stratosphere. Unfortunately other than a cameo role in the original Ghostbusters as a college student that Bill Murray flirts with during a psychic evaluation, her acting never quite took off. However, in Charles in Charge-world she is the be-all and end-all, so gorgeous that any time some guy mentions her character’s name, another guy repeats it in awe.
“Gwendolyn is everything you could want in a person,” Charles rhapsodizes. “She’s smart. She’s sensible. She smells like baby powder.”
In fact, Charles obviously has a strong sense of scent, in one episode referring to another babysitter who he is training – played by a very young but already relentlessly perky Meg Ryan – as “good looking and nice smelling.” So therefore, perhaps it’s not that much of a surprise when Charles is greedily taste-testing Meg’s root beer lip gloss only one episode after declaring Gwendolyn to be the perfect date. This happens one episode before what would become only his and Gwendolyn’s second major (and short-lived) fight.
Gwendolyn doesn’t know about Charles’ free-lovin’ ways, but she does know what is a bad influence on him. That influence is in the form of his best friend Buddy Lembeck (played by Willie Aames of Eight is Enough), who is an Eddie Haskell for the LA Gear Generation. (“Buddy is the state-of-the-art C student,” Charles says.) Buddy is Charles’ id friend and everything that the frankly-just-a-little-uptight Gwendolyn finds wrong in men – he is shallow, self-centered and girl-obsessed. “Were we ever that young and immature?” Buddy asks Charles about the Pembroke children, but of course it’s a rhetorical question. Buddy wears his immaturity as a badge of honor. “My mother calls me immature, and she loves me,” he says in another episode, with a certain amount of pride.
A rift is formed when Gwendolyn wants Charles to stay home and study while Buddy wants to go to the local college singles bar called The Lamp Light. (Excuse me, what campus bar is called the Lamp Light? That’s the name of a smoky go-go joint from the 50s, not a college hangout in the 80s! Come on, call it the Rathskeller, Mr. C’s or the Saloon or something, guys.) Eventually, about half-way through the season, the relationship between Charles and Gwendolyn cools off – they never officially break up but they go through the unnecessary drama of deciding to date others and then when Gwendolyn becomes student body president for the school she just sort of fades away into just-friends-hood, eventually showing up in a scene or two every few episodes.
Even though this show takes place in 1984 and 1985, many of the topical references are oddly a decade or more dated even then – things like Sebastian Cabot, F-Troop, Richard Nixon, Butterfield 8, Rudolph Valentino, George McGovern, Mr. Ed, Ingrid Bergman, “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” Clark Gable and the like. After several episodes into the season they start to get it a little better, though mostly about music, peppering in references to Corey Hart, Prince, Springsteen and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” (“We’re going to watch Duran Duran on video,” shrieks an incredibly young Christina Applegate as one of Lila’s girlfriends at a slumber party.)
Even when they do get the allusions right for the time period, they are kind of muddled – in one episode the sci-fi obsessed son is wearing a t-shirt for then-popular hair-metal band Ratt. However, in the same scene that he is wearing that shirt, he mocks his siblings for not wanting to watch a politician on television, instead they wanted to watch Michael Jackson – who was then only the biggest star in the world (the show takes place at the tail end of Thriller-mania). In fact, the kid shows disdain for any popular culture that does not include aliens. So are we supposed to believe this kid later went upstairs and banged his head to “Round and Round,” or just that someone in the wardrobe department thought it would be timely to have him in a Ratt t-shirt?
At the end of the first season, the series was cancelled by CBS. The show was off the air for a year and a half before being revived in syndication. (The first episode of the syndicated series is included here as a bonus.) In the time off, Charles in Charge goes through a major reimagining – losing Charles’ love interest and his adapted family, hooking him up with a whole new brood. (The oldest daughter of this group is played by future Baywatch babe Nicole Eggert.) Looking back the wholesale changes smack of desperation – as they probably were, when a show goes through a huge revamp like this, undoubtedly the polling numbers for the show were so challenged that they felt the need to rebuild the thing from scratch. Then again, maybe it was simply that time had gone on and the other actors were doing something else (despite all evidence to the contrary). Only Charles and Buddy would survive the massacre, but the series would continue on in syndication for four additional seasons, a lightly amusing but completely inconsequential footnote in TV history.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: February 18, 2006.