Tuesday, June 5, 2012

#13: The Hole in the Head Gang

Episode 1014:  "The Hole in the Head Gang" a.k.a. "The Gun and the Toaster"

Original Airdate:  March 1, 1992

One-Sentence Synopsis:  The boys meet a strange kid residing in an haunted mill, and together they unleash the spirit of Eerie's literally worst bank robber, Grungy Bill.

Continuing their weekly chronicles of Eerie's weirdness, Marshall and Simon have decided to check out their 51st haunted structure, the Hitchcock Mill.  As they explore the condemned building, an angry spirit throws furniture at them and forbids them from returning.  Marshall snaps a couple pictures of the ghost before running away, but none of them are sharp enough to tell what's going on.

The boys stop by the World O'Stuff where Mr. Radford is being arrested by the police.  Apparently he was an imposter named Fred Suggs who kept the real Mr. Radford (John Astin) tied up in the basement.  The new, genial Mr. Radford takes an instant liking to the boys and tells them the tale of Grungy Bill, the ghost of the Hitchcock Mill.  He is known as the worst bank robber in Eerie history, not because he was dangerous or ruthless, but because he was so inept that he bungled every robbery he attempted.  On his final attempt, he lost his gun, so his spirit is rumored to haunt the mill, forever searching for his gun.

The boys return to the mill to try and find Grungy Bill and they discover that their previous encounter with a spirit was actually an elaborate hoax set up by a weird homeless kid residing in the mill.  The odd, grey-haired kid is gruff and anti-social and tells the two to leave because he doesn't want anyone knowing he's there.  While trying to destroy their photographic evidence, he breaks a hole in the floor and discovers a rusty old gun.  The gun goes off, releasing the spirit of Grungy Bill.

Grungy Bill, now reunited with his gun, takes a physical form and gets Marshall to tie up Simon and the weird kid.  He then says that he is going to rob the Eerie Bank once and for all so that he can finally be remembered for something other than being a fool.  He takes a disguised Marshall to the bank, while Simon and the kid manage to escape their ropes.  The kid leaves Simon behind, despite Simon's protests that they have to save Marshall.

At the bank, Bill and Marshall get in line and hand a folded up robbery note to the bank teller.  Simon shows up looking for Marshall, and the weird kid also shows up to help.  He knocks Simon into a little girl's piggy bank, distracting everyone in the bank.  Marshall takes the note back before the teller can read it and the weird kid grabs Bill's gun, returning him to spirit form.  Bill leaves, but not before stealing a toaster that the bank was giving away as part of a free promotion, finally making him a successful bank robber.

Evidence Locker Item:  Probably the stolen haunted toaster.

"What's with the gray hair?" "I'm starting a trend, what's it to you?"

This is the first reformatted episode of the series.  Television series usually begin with a 13-episode run and if the ratings are sufficient, the network orders more.  Here, NBC ordered 6 more episodes, so you'll notice that they have a couple differences not found in the first 13 produced.  (If you're wondering why this is labeled as Episode #13, note that it's production number is actually 14.  There is one more episode of the original group that we'll get to later.)

Because the series now has some very significant changes, a lot of this episode is spent introducing us to the differences, leaving us little time for the main plot.  First, we get two brand new characters: the real Mr. Radford and the greay-haired kid (played by Jason Marsden, a.k.a. that guy from the '90s who was in all your favorite shows).  Both of these are great additions to the cast, as they help flesh out more of the mythology of the show.  John Astin as Mr. Radford is wonderful because he plays the role with such an innocent charm.  Reprising his iconic eccentric and weird behavior from The Addams Family where he played Gomez Addams, Astin recaptures the joy and energy of playing an odd character in a silly show.  You always get the idea that he knows more than he's saying, but he is willing to help the boys no matter what.  The boys needed a support system in the show, and he fulfills that sort of "wise mentor" figure.  The original Mr. Radford was too erratic, sometimes helpful and sometimes antagonistic.  Astin is just nice.

Then we have the grey-haired kid (who will be named in a later episode).  He is the show's anti-hero.  At times, he plays the villain, but he has a good heart and almost always comes through for Marshall and Simon, his only friends.  He has no memory of his past and is also able to see that Eerie is a weird place.  His role is sort of what I feel Janet's (from "The Lost Hour") would have been, allowing us to see Eerie from a different perspective.  He's such an interesting character, even without his mysterious past, because he is quick witted and intelligent, adding a comedic element that we haven't yet seen in the show.

Finally, I've noticed that the show as a whole has really increased the humor aspect of the series.  Simon has become more of a snarky straight man, the dialogue is richer with jokes, and even the "weirdness" is treated with comedy rather than scariness or drama.  Take Grungy Bill.  He could have easily been a threatening ghost, but instead they make him a bumbling fool, a legend who is a legend for all the wrong reasons.  And it works.  It's a refreshing twist on the villainous ghost story.

This episode has to lay a lot of ground work, so it is not the most focused script.  But in introduces us to the new style of Eerie and each new element succeeds, so for that, I enjoy it.

Random Observations:
- Why is this episode called "The Hole in the Head Gang"?  Grungy Bill didn't have a gang.  Is it referring to Marshall, Simon, and the weird kid?

- Mr. Radford's banter with the kids is so sweet. "One Black Cow and one ditto."  He was the real reason I wanted the World O'Stuff to be real.

- Foreverware is 50% off at the World O'Stuff.  And a Foreverware mother and daughter are seen at the bank (I think it's Mrs. Swanson).  They are planning on buying a Foreverware for her doll.  I remember them from the first time I saw this episode, but I didn't remember their explicit Foreverware dialogue.  It was probably cut in syndication.  I think that's better because then it's more of an Easter Egg for longtime fans.  It's nice that the show is calling back to its origins.

- For a homeless boy with absolutely no memory before the last three months, the grey-haired kid certainly drops a lot of pop-culture references into his speech.  I like "Teenage Mutant Ghostbusters," though.

- Fred Suggs (the old Mr. Radford) is now masquerading as the banker.  I'm sorry that the actor had to be dropped from the show, but at least his character got a happy ending of sorts.  Apparently the actor Archie Hahn is a Joe Dante favorite.  (Joe Dante also directed this episode, so the change in style isn't a complete network reworking.)

Conspiracy Theories:
- Mr. Radford remains purposefully ambiguous as to whether he is the real Mr. Radford.  And his behavior during the Grungy Bill story (playing with an EKG meter, dusting a skeleton hand, and restocking a skull) implies he may have a deeper relationship with ghosts than he is letting on.  Perhaps, he is a ghost?

- The weird kid taunts Marshall, suggesting that maybe he is his evil twin.  Sounds like a good theory to me.  They are polar opposites morally, yet they both yearn to discover the truth.

Grade:  Despite containing obligatory introductions and a shorter-than-average story, the episode remains fun and entertaining.  B+

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