Jennifer Love Hewitt talks to the dead in CBS' Friday night hit Ghost Whisperer. And America gets it.
She talked to Hawaiians in ABC's 1994 family drama The Byrds of Paradise. And America was mystified.
Go figure. The supernatural makes more sense to more viewers than one of our country's own rich subcultures. Not to mention those gorgeously exotic Hawaiian landscapes, mountains, ocean waves and palm trees. Sigh. What was America thinking?
And why isn't The Byrds of Paradise being seen someplace, anyplace, now that Hewitt is a certified TV Series Star? No on-air repeats. No DVDs.
Maybe Byrds got multicultural too soon, or too deeply. The show came out of Steven Bochco's production company at a time the guy was riding high with his envelope-pushing ABC hit NYPD Blue (a 1993 debut), after years of success with NBC's L.A. Law (1986-94) and Hill Street Blues (1981-87), plus the lighter-hearted kid-doctor half-hour Doogie Howser, M.D. (1989-93).
Both sensibilities combined in The Byrds of Paradise, ABC's midseason 1994 hour about a troubled family whose recently widowed schoolmaster dad (played by Timothy Busfield of thirtysomething) moves the clan from Connecticut to Hawaii for a fresh start. (Hello, Everwood.) Then 15, Hewitt played his rebellious teen daughter (he sent her to therapy!), with 20-year-old Buffy star-to-be Seth Green as her longhaired rocker brother.
The teens and their younger brother struggled not only with their mother's recent death but also to mesh with their multiracial classmates at dad's new school. The locals would sometimes speak either Hawaiian or the pidgin slang language, resentfully keeping the more privileged white kids (haoles) at arms' length till they proved their aloha. The Byrds had fled to the 50th state, but they sometimes felt they'd moved to a different country.
Fans of the show saw all this ethnic diversity, and the hula performances and scary tsunamis, as fascinating flavor. But apparently, too many potential viewers found it confoundingly, well, foreign. When younger brother Zeke turned 11, the Byrds' ethnic native housekeeper and handyman sang him Happy Birthday in Hawaiian. The housekeeper's character name? Manu Ka'ulukukui. Kah-ulu-koo-kooey would roll off the tongue once you got used to it, but not enough viewers stuck around to.
Too bad. Series creators Charles Eglee and Channing Gibson (who came off Bochco's L.A. Law and Civil Wars writing staffs and would move on to his 1995 series Murder One) clearly had an affinity for the unique Hawaiian culture, the specificities of which had been largely ignored in such previous island-filmed series as Hawaii Five-O. They had Busfield's headmaster character teaching, say, ethics not just from the traditional western perspective but also from the Polynesian and Asian traditions that so influenced the island nation-turned-state.
They got lots of other contemporary details right, too. Alice's Restaurant folk singer Arlo Guthrie played a long-haired laid-back ex-hippie, of which Hawaii continues to boast a sizable population. And the Byrd kids had to go visit the family dog marooned in quarantine, which all incoming pets endure to ensure the islands stay free of rabies.
Yet The Byrds of Paradise also did plenty that was universally relatable to modern families. Hewitt's character ate vegetarian, fended off boyfriends with overactive hands, and tried out for cheerleading. (Watch that last one at YouTube.) Her brothers had crushes on teachers and students, who had crushes on their dad. There were teen pregnancies, school rivalries and sports/study conflicts. Ex-Hill Street growler Bruce Weitz played an amiable therapist who actually made progress in treating troubled family members.
But the ratings just weren't there, and Byrds flew off ABC's air after just 12 episodes aired in spring 1994. Its Hawaiian eye is still fondly remembered by island aficionados, frank family-drama fans, and former teen boys who once lusted after the, uh, growing appeal of a pre-Party of Five Jennifer Love Hewitt. At least they've got her low-cut Ghost Whisperer wardrobe to remember it by.