Mister T “Mystery of the Stranger” (part 2 of 6)
So, our heroes are stuck back in the age of sail. How will Kimmer Ringwald write them out of this one? Easy. The next shot is of a director yelling cut, revealing this is all occurring on the set of a movie.
And when I say a director, I mean it. If there’s one thing this show is not known for, it’s subtlety. The director is wearing knee-high black boots, General Patton’s pants, a sweater, a monocle [!], and a beret. He looks almost exactly like Dom DeLuise in Blazing Saddles.
Not convinced that he’s a director? Here’s a small sampling of his dialogue (all verbatim): “Cut. Print. Wrap.” “Marvelous. Wonderful. Beautiful.” “Your screen test is in the can.” “I need stunt doubles for my stars.” “My gymnasts, as your director, I can safely say that you are exactly what my picture needs to be boffo at the box office.” Cut to a large industrial fan, where it turns out Ms. Bisby is the one throwing the buckets of water onto Mr. T. Because why use a unionized stage hand when you can get a dowdy spinster to do the job for free?
Apparently, this was a screen test to use the gymnasts as stunt doubles. Nonsense. Complete nonsense. Stunt workers need extensive training in race car driving, skydiving, martial arts, scuba diving, and more, which these teens don’t have. And it’s only for people over the legal age of consent, which these teens aren’t. And if you want to work on a movie shot by a Hollywood studio, you’d better be a member of both the Screen Actors Guild and a stuntman’s union, which they clearly aren’t.
It’s about to become important, so let’s just be clear that the pay for a working stunt person is between $50,000 and $100,000 a year. Incidentally, being a professional stunt person just might disqualify you from competing as an amateur gymnast. So it appears the team is more than willing to trade in their Olympic dreams for fifty grand a year. That seems fair. I traded in my dreams for a Snakes on a Plane T-shirt.
Also, there’s no such thing as screen tests for stunt people. What happens is a director hires a stunt coordinator, and that person hires the stunt workers. So, important lesson: don’t take career advice from cartoons. Only take it from puppets.
Despite the firm job offer from an obvious lunatic, Ms. Bisby has some bad news. The team is only scheduled to be in Hollywood until the invitational meet on Saturday. She says they’ll have to change their plans, and suggests calling the director about this later.
But the director is aghast. “No, no, no! Don’t call us, we’ll call you!” And… that’s the exact opposite of what that saying is supposed to mean, because the director already made it clear that he wants to hire the team. How can the writers, who I imagine lived and worked in Hollywood, have misunderstood that? Had they heard the phrase so many times that they just thought it was what all directors said in all circumstances? Maybe (and this is just my theory) this episode wasn’t written at all. Maybe it was an early stab at the Turing prize.
At this point, the director’s assistant puts a cape on the man and he leaves. A cape. Like it’s a James Brown concert. I swear, Alan Turing is going to pop out and scare me senseless. Especially since he’s been dead for 54 years.
None of the above worries the gymnasts at all. They shake hands and high five each other. One or all of them says (because I can’t tell whose mouth is supposed to be moving) “Alright!” “We did it!” “We’re gonna be in the movies!” And then one of them asks the fateful question, “Where’s Spike?”
You see, this stupid, stupid storyline about screen testing has been interwoven with an entirely different and much more interesting storyline about Spike and, to a lesser extent, mohawk-dog Dozer.
You remember Spike. He’s the 11 year-old who idolizes Mr. T to such an extent that he dresses like him, and has set about ruining his voice by growling everything he says. Also, he’s Robin’s younger brother. The circumstances of his traveling with the team are never exactly spelled out, but my best guess is that his father is a CIA operative in Afghanistan training Osama bin Laden on the best ways of carrying out terrorist acts on a budget. His mother, a frail woman, died watching the final episode of M*A*S*H, broadcast February 28, 1983.
A couple of minutes ago, at about the time Stereotypical Director started raving over the gymnasts, Spike became just the tiniest bit jealous. He tried to get the director’s attention, but only got a dismissive, “Hey kid, beat it, will ya? I’m talking to my gymnasts here.” Let me just say this: I’m 38 years old, and not once in my life has anyone ever told me to “beat it”.
Spike, however, was undeterred. He growled, “Hey, what about me, mister? I want to be in the movies, too!” I have a tip for Spike. The first step to getting into movies is to have some sort of discernable talent. Or to show your tits. In the case of Harvey Keitel, do both.
Stereotypical Director shoved a finger in Spike’s face and commanded him to step back out of the way. And I don’t get what Spike’s problem was there. He knew they were auditioning to be gymnastic stunt doubles. It must have occurred to him that he’s not a gymnast, given that he goes to meets all the time where the athletes are the center of attention. So, why is he so wound up about this? I think, and there’s no evidence for it in the episode, that he just saw “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” and realized that his mother died for nothing. Nothing! It was the second crappiest final episode of all time! (I’m looking at you, Jerome Seinfeld.)
So, Spike and Dozer take off or, as the kids say, “beat it”. They’re walking down a nondescript L.A. street while Spike whines, “Big deal. Who wants to be in the movies, anyway?” A half-second later, he adds, “Gee, I sure would like to be.” Well said, well spoken. You should always answer your own rhetorical questions, shouldn’t you? Yes, you should.
Just then, a blue-gray van pulls up alongside them. The driver, in a suit and tie, calls out to Spike, “Could you help me out, son?” Oh. My. God. It’s happening! It’s happening!
The driver says he’s lost and, also, he’s somehow now in the passenger seat. He asks if Spike knows a good hamburger stand. Spike tells him to wait 25 years and look it up on Yelp. No, he doesn’t. He tells the man that they have good burgers at Spike’s hotel. Yes! Yes, Lord! Let it begin!
The man opens his door and I groan orgasmically. Get in the van, Spike! Do it! Do It!!
The man pulls out a blank sheet of paper which he refers to as a “map”, and asks Spike to come over and point out the location of his hotel on this map. Just as Spike is heading on over, Robin runs up and stops him. Denied! Oh, cartoon gods, why do you tease me so?
Robin asks Spike what he’s doing, and Spike replies, “Helping that guy find a great hamburger!” Given that Spike seems to have nothing between his ears besides ground beef, that’s certainly one way of putting it. Robin lectures Spike about talking to strangers, saying it’s not safe.
Spike’s response? “You’re my sister, not my mom!” Yes, but… your mom’s not here. She died, remember? Shortly after Hawkeye took off in the chopper. So, either Robin mothers you, or nobody. You know what? It’s not worth it. I’m not going to argue with a cartoon. That’s how I got thrown out of Space Jam.
Suddenly, the guy in the van slams the door and peels off. Spike, revealing that he might be too stupid to live, says, “Boy, that’s one hungry guy!”And the best part is how Robin still has on her pirate costume here, eye patch and all, which is probably what really scared off the would-be kidnapper.
Cut to the hotel, where the entire cast is waiting by the phone for the studio to call. Ms. Bisby says the following, which I swear I am not making up: “Oh my stars and garters, this show business is nervous-making!” If you took all the words in Annie Hall and shuffled them randomly, you’d have about a 40% chance of pulling out that sentence.
The phone rings. Everybody but Mr. T rushes for it at once, because, you know, Mr. T is too cool for school. Any school. They all answer in unison, and find out that the person on the other end wants to speak to Mr. T. They say they’ll get him, also in unison, and then hand the phone over to him.
“Hello, T here,” he says, “No? I understand.” He hangs up, and the team looks bummed out. But then he says in exactly the same tone of voice, “We got the parts.” And they all start celebrating. Which means T was deliberately screwing around with them. So you really have to wonder what the other side of that conversation was like. “Congratulations! You got the parts! … No? What do you mean ‘no’? … Hello?”
Everyone is excited, except for T, who’s suddenly become philosophical. “Slow down,” he commands convincingly, “We’re just gonna be stunt doubles.” This, amazingly, begins Mr. T’s reign as the clearest-thinking character in this episode. And it lasts an astounding fifteen minutes, too.
Nobody gives a damn, though. “Stunt doubles today,” one of the guys says, “Academy Award winners tomorrow! Hey, I can charge people to look at my Oscar!” Yeah, that happens. These days, I’m pretty sure that’s Mira Sorvino’s sole source of income. Spike takes all this celebration as his cue to bolt out of the room again. Come on, episode, Mystic River him already!
Spike and Dozer are wandering down another L.A. street. I have a good feeling about this. Sure enough, the van drives up again. It’s the same suited man, but now he has a well-dressed, middle-aged female accomplice. “Hey, kid!” the guy calls out, “Your name’s Spike, isn’t it?” Yes. God, yes.
“We’ve been looking all over for you!” Give me what I need, episode. “Your sister Robin, she’s been in an accident!” Strange sentence construction, but okay. “She’s at the hospital!” Oh yes, this is finally happening! “Hop in, we’ll take you there!” They slide open the back door of the van and… oh… oh yes… oh please, yes… Spike runs right in.
Woo hoo! We have a child abduction! This is now officially the Very Special Child Abduction Episode!
Pardon me while I pause to smoke a cigarette.
In the van, the man and woman grab Spike, tie his hands behind his back, and drive off. And the way this is blocked would only make sense if there were no seats in the van of any sort, not even a driver’s seat. But I am way, way too happy to care.
But Dozer, who to my utter dismay was not abducted, is left on the sidewalk to look forlornly at the fleeing van.
Inside, the woman tosses Spike down next to a blond boy and a brunette girl, both about the same age. Spike growls, “Tell me what ya up to!” For reasons known only to Kimmer Ringwald, the woman does. And this is how she explains it: “A lot of people want kids. We go out and find ‘em. We get a lot of money for the kids we bring back!” I never realized that there was a secondary market for abducted children. This looks like a job for Wikipedia.
Here we are, under “W”, right after the entry on Lech Walesa.
On July 27, 1981, young Adam Walsh was abducted from a mall in Hollywood, Florida. It was a sad episode, but it would have made no lasting mark on TV history except that his father, John Walsh, wouldn’t shut up about it. John talked to every reporter who would listen, and quite a few who wouldn’t. Eventually, everyone was scared senseless about the idea of their children being abducted by strangers.
By 1983, Congress was holding hearings on missing children, on the way to funding the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Meanwhile, in England, a young Thomas Dolby had been rendered completely blind by science. Incidentally, both the NCMEC and Thomas Dolby take themselves way, way too seriously.
But pop culture didn’t want to miss out. On sitcoms, dramas, and children’s cartoons, storylines about kidnapping, rape, and all sorts of terrible crimes against children (and some midgets) multiplied. “Mystery of the Stranger” was just another rainbow sprinkle on the sundae of Very Special Child Abuse Episodes. And the cherry on top would be none other than Gordon Jump as a gay pedophile in the Diff’rent Strokes two-parter “The Bicycle Man”—possibly the greatest hour of television ever aired.
But enough about me. Let’s see what Mr. T has to teach us about child kidnappers. So far we know that they work in pairs, take multiple kids at one time, and usually do it for the resale value. That all seems about right.
The well-dressed couple tells Spike that they can do anything they want with him. I hope they give him a detailed inspection before reselling him. Otherwise, they might get a neutral feedback on eBay. The girl next to him begins to cry, so Spike offers the comforting words, “You’re gonna be okay. Mr. T and the team will get us out of this.” And I know the little girl has a lot on her mind, but I hope at least one of her thoughts is, “Mr. T? What, are you high?”