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Eerie, Indiana: A Look Back At a Wicked Little Town

Sometimes you watch a promo for an upcoming series and think it's been created just for you. That's how I felt in the fall of 1991 when I saw a teaser for NBC's Eerie, Indiana, a family-friendly, comedy-laced horror show about an ordinary kid Marshall Teller (Omri Katz), who moves with his family from New Jersey to a distinctly unordinary small town -- Eerie, Indiana, population 16,661. Like Marshall, I had recently been uprooted as well, leaving downtown Toronto for suburban Virginia. And while the community my 13-year-old self had moved to wasn't home to a still-alive Elvis Presley or an orthodontist who designed retainers that allowed their wearers to read the canine mind, it still seemed pretty strange and alien to me. When Marshall described Eerie as "the center of weirdness for the entire planet" in the show's great credits sequence, he basically summed up how I felt about my new home.

Beyond the premise, I was also excited for Eerie, Indiana because it boasted the involvement of Joe Dante, who had directed some of my favorite movies growing up, including Gremlins, Gremlins 2: The New Batch (one of the greatest sequels ever made and don't let anyone tell you different; I still have the novelization and the original black-and-white Game Boy video game lying around somewhere), Explorers and, best of all, Innerspace, which I saw multiple times in theaters and watched over and over again on video and cable. (It should be noted that Dante didn't create the show -- he served as a creative consultant and directed several episodes, including the pilot; the actual creators were Puerto Rican playwright José Rivera and Karl Schaefer, but they were clearly working in Dante's spirit.) I was still a year or two away from becoming a full-fledged film buff, but I was starting to recognize and remember the names of directors whose work I liked and Dante was towards the top of that early list. (I still have a lot of affection for the guy; his zany 2003 Looney Tunes outing Back in Action is sorely underrated and 1993's Matinee, also starring Omri Katz, is a minor masterpiece.) Those movies accomplished what Eerie, Indiana set out to do on a weekly basis, namely give a well-worn genre -- in this case, horror -- a shot of youthful energy and wit, resulting in a final product that both kids and adults could enjoy.

At least, that's how it was supposed to work in theory. In practice, Eerie, Indiana, like almost all of Dante's work save Gremlins, fell right in between the two audiences. Adults saw the pre-teen Marshall and his red-headed sidekick Simon (Justin Shenkarow) and dismissed it as purely kids' stuff. Meanwhile, kids were either too busy yukking it up with Parker Lewis Can't Lose or learning earnest heartfelt lessons on Life Goes On with their parents to tune in to Eerie's flights of fancy. To a certain extent, the series was ahead of its time; the mid-'90s proved a more fertile period for spooky shows with a youthful twist -- look at Goosebumps and Ghostwriter (which Rachel penned a terrific tribute to the other day) both of which ran for several seasons. But the more likely explanation for its failure is that Eerie, Indiana was just too offbeat and too strange to ever connect with a mass viewership.

For those of us that were on its wavelength though, Eerie, Indiana was the highlight of the week during its short 18-episode life. (19 half-hours were produced, but one didn't air until the show was re-shown on the Disney Channel in 1993. Six years after its cancellation, the series was revived in a Canadian-produced spin-off entitled, Eerie, Indiana: The Other Dimension, but it failed to make much of a dent in the ratings either.) Funnily enough, I couldn't tell you the plots of most of the episodes I watched. What stands out in my mind are the eerie little details about Eerie -- Forever Ware, Elvis picking up his daily newspaper, the ATM that wanted a best friend -- which made it feel like a living, breathing place. (Maybe that's why I didn't care for the show's later episodes as much, where they broke the fourth wall and acknowledged we were all watching a show. Today, I think I'd find that twist inspired -- back then, I was kind of annoyed to be told that this place I believed in was just made-up after all.) Above all, I was taken with the way Marshall dealt with the general weirdness of his new home.

Watching him proactively deal with life in Eerie instead of sitting back and letting it overwhelm him eventually helped me to face my fears, stop pining for my old city and learn to find the things I liked about my current living situation. I won't say that I ever felt truly at home in the Virginia 'burbs, but at least I came to appreciate it somewhat before my family picked up stakes again and moved halfway around the world to Hong Kong (which proved to be a much better fit for my urban temperament). And even though I haven't revisited good ol' Eerie since the early '90s, I'll always treasure my time there and the people I met. Even that dog-crazy orthodontist.

The complete run of Eerie, Indiana is available on DVD via Alpha Video and hopefully will pop up in syndication again one of these days.

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