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1980's Serial disappeared quickly from theaters but found its place on the new cable TV outlets that swept the nation. It's an excellent example of a minor film wanted very badly on DVD by a small but loyal group of customers. Legend has licensed a number of Paramount library titles and is releasing them in budget editions, and Serial fits in well next to a selection of older horror films, action thrillers and interesting dramas.
The film was sourced from a 1977 book by Cyra McFadden: The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County which itself started as a 52-part serialized satire of the problems of affluent proto- Yuppies in one of the richest parts of California. The permissive, socially progressive times gave birth to a population of self-directed people fascinated by sex, no-fault marriage, encounter groups and meditation gurus. Serial lampoons the trendy folk of Marin county with a constant barrage of one-liners, starting with a flaky marriage vow in a ceremony presided over by a guru-like minister: "Thank you for inviting me to participate in your life, for I am an asshole. And being an asshole is neither good nor bad. It just is." Audience surrogate Harvey Holroyd is always ready with a sarcastic quip: "These are exciting times aren't they? Gas is over a dollar a gallon, and it's okay to be an asshole." Wife Kate thinks Harvey needs to mellow out: "Such rage, Harvey."
The price of gasoline joke is as dated (or nostalgic) as the rest of the humor, which is often hilariously funny and on target. Much of it is tasteless, which makes it seem even more contemporary. The film's advertising logo expresses its level of comedy -- a plastic 'feel good' heart transfixed by a big metal screw.
Serial is a black comedy in love with its punch lines. The people are funny cartoon characters, and almost every line of dialogue is a setup for a smart laugh, usually at somebody's expense. If it weren't for the reasonably warm characters played by Martin Mull, Tuesday Weld, Bill Macy and a couple of others, the show would collapse in pointless caricature. We're invited to jeer at a certain sector of upscale California society. Make that a gross exaggeration of a particular sector. Condensing the 52 chapters of the book into ninety minutes makes most of the characters seem narcissistic decadent airheads who hide their miserable selves behind feel-good psychobabble. One family dog is named Elton John; a rebellious kid has been given the name Stokely by his politically conscious parents.
The movie considers anything liberal a fraud. Feminism and consciousness-raising are treated as nonsense. The funny jokes always have a victim in mind, a patsy. Kate calls a particularly nasty girlfriend a c***. When the girlfriend decides she's gay, Kate's only response is that she's still a c***. One feminist refuses to identify herself as anything but, "Woman." Harvey asks her how she gets her mail. Similarly, the script enjoys using the words homo and fag. One gag has a male cultist confront Skull, the only-on-weekends gay biker, with his group's usual greeting: "I love you." The gay biker fires back: "That's easy to say, but are you willing to prove it?"
The movie's a joke book of prejudices, even when it's being egalitarian. Airhead earth-mother Martha (Sally Kellerman) is horribly patronizing to her black maid Rachel (Ann Weldon) and tries to show her openness by inviting Rachel to join in a consciousness-raising discussion. The supposedly unenlightened maid floors the sexually frustrated housewives with her reportage of great sex at home -- six, seven orgasms per session are normal.
Harvey rides a bike to the bay Ferry and his wife thinks he's an environmental hero. Marriages last months, until everyone seems to have been married to everyone else's ex. Family gatherings breed sarcasm and disrespect. Joanie is enticed by the 'We love you' mantra of the cultists because her own family has broken up.
The role of psychology is scary. Therapist Leonard thinks every social problem is an inner problem, and is helping Stokely, an 11 year-old, get in touch with his 'inner child'. He gives Stokely a doll of a gay man to play with, and a piece of plastic excrement to contemplate. The kid spends his breakfast time trying to talk the housemaid into flashing her breasts.
Central characters Kate and Harvey are just as screwed up as their neighbors. Harvey meets Marlene at the grocery store and asks if she wants a cup of coffee. She answers, "Why don't we just go home and go to bed together" Kate is bowled over by Paco, but when she chooses to reveal his identity at the hair salon, she finds that her male stylist is Paco's boyfriend, who didn't know Paco was bisexual. Harvey is also seduced by his new secretary, and spends an evening at an orgy in a private club. After all that, the Holroyd's eventual reconciliation doesn't seem very credible.
The movie finds a bit of heart when it comes time to rescue Joanie from the cultists -- we're unsure of many things in the movie but saving the daughter from the Love Zombies strikes a nerve going back to The Searchers. The movie also becomes more serious with the middle-aged Sam, who goes off the deep end with Marlene, smoking dope and trying to act like a hippie. When Sam emerges from this mid-life crisis he falls into a depression. The irrational shrink tries to medicate the man into tranquility. It doesn't work.
The movie has some casual nudity and a tame orgy scene to titillate the audience. But a weak fix of 'family values' finally comes to the rescue. Harvey's snide, snappy-comeback response to life finally turns into a rejection of the Marin County lifestyle. In a remarriage ceremony, Harvey insists on a straight old-fashioned marriage vow, and Kate submits to 'whatever Harve wants.' The movie treats this as a victory, and if it seems like one, it's only because the previous 85 minutes have been absolute social and familial chaos. 1
The obnoxious kid Stokley also shows signs of mental health when he sides with Harvey's revolt against Gomorrah's -- I mean, Marin County's absence of values. Stokely: "In an insane society the sane man must appear insane." Harvey: "That's really good. Where did you learn that?" Stokely: "Star Trek."
One can't just conclude that Serial has something to appall everyone, and let the subject go. It is frequently hilarious, and compared to the gawd-awful witless smut that passes for comedy today, it's downright charming. But the show grossly exaggerates its Marin County lifestyles, just to have a bigger target for its humor. If you don't mind a degree of heartlessness and opportunism in comedy, Serial is highly recommended.
Martin Mull hit national prominence as a funnyman on the Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Fernwood 2-Night TV shows. His deadpan delivery goes well with Tuesday Weld's smooth portrayal; the couple eventually generates some hope that they can transcend New Age idiocy and form a lasting relationship. A standout in the supporting cast is Sally Kellerman as the quintessential freeze-dried California earth mama: charming, self aware and ignorant.
Tommy Smothers has a small turn as Reverend Spike, who Harvey calls a "priest from The Gong Show". Christopher Lee tries on a shaky American accent to play a merciless corporate officer who tells Harve that he's a loser if he's not "earning his age." Nita Talbot has a good role as Sam's wife Angela; way back in 1952, she was the underage girl in the Bar in the noir On Dangerous Ground.
Serial was a rare feature excursion for veteran TV director Persky. Producer Sidney Beckerman has a varied stack of well-known films on his rap sheet: the mostly praised Last Summer, Marlowe, Kelly's Heroes, Portnoy's Complaint, Joe Kidd and Marathon Man share space next to Blood Beach, Inchon and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.
Legend Films' DVD of Serial is a satisfactory transfer of this forced but funny comedy. The audio seems a bit distorted at times, or perhaps just a bit compressed, but all dialogue is clear. The score by Lalo Schifrin is topped by Michael Johnson's vocal on the apt title song, It's a Changing World. A previously released VHS tape may have contained a censored broadcast version. Even so, we see signs of looping which may or may not have been profanity-related. In his opening scene, Harvey wakes, raises the blankets to evaluate his, um, status, and his lips don't match his dialogue.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. I say that what happens in Serial is a gross exaggeration, but what I really mean is that cramming all the behaviors and attitudes into one film is a distortion. I've been around the haunts of the rich in '70s L.A. and have seen plenty of raunchy behavior not unlike that in the movie, and have also seen Beverly Hills kids act similarly to the obnoxious Stokely. What surprises me is that Serial doesn't play up the role of drugs in all this. Everybody drinks, but for me the sad hypocrisy of the times was that many so-called liberated folks were indulging in ridiculously destructive and wasteful drug habits.
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