Life Goes On, a fondly remembered family drama that began in the late 1980s, was groundbreaking for two reasons in that it was the first drama to prominently feature a character with Down Syndrome, and in later seasons, a character with HIV. The Thatcher family is comprised of parents Libby and Drew, Paige, Drew's adult daughter from a former marriage, 18-year-old son Corky, and daughter Becca. The first season is marked by Corky's entry into mainstream high school and the trouble he faces as he attempts to keep up with his school work and blend in with his peers. Becca is going through growing pains of her own, fending off the barbs of popular girl Rona Lieberman, and dealing with a big crush on the big man on campus, Tyler Benchfield. Libby is balancing the demands of career and motherhood, while everyman Drew, who decides to leave the construction business, is trying to get his new restaurant off the ground. In other words, there is plenty of fodder for storylines, although by the end of Season One, most of them center around Becca.
The pilot episode chronicles Corky's entry into high school and does an excellent job of setting the stage for the remainder of the season. In this episode, the characters and recurring themes are firmly established; Paige moves back into the home after a painful breakup, Becca moons over Tyler, and the family's financial problems are hinted at. Corky's transition is very difficult as he attempts to differentiate between real friends and those who are mocking him. There is also a good deal of drama between Corky and snobby cheerleader Rona, as well as between Corky and Becca, due to her ambivalence at having her brother at her school. As far as pilot episodes go, it is unbelievably strong.
Other memorable episodes from this season include:
"The Spring Fling": Becca and Tyler go to the dance together, kind of, but a problem arises when she double books herself. During the Spring Fling scenes, sure to check out Tyler's singing and dance moves, as well as a very young Seth Green!
"Becca's First Love": Becca falls for a self-absorbed young rock singer, turns temporarily rebellious toward her parents, and alienates the rest of her family. When her romance comes to a crossroads, it is up to Becca to choose between her new love and her family.
"It Ain't All It's Cracked Up To Be": Motivated by the potential to win scholarship money, Becca enters a beauty pageant, which forces her to compete against Rona. When the two of them are forced to share a hotel room, Becca realizes that Rona's life isn't quite as perfect as it seems.
"Corky Rebels": Corky decides to begin riding the bus on his own, against the better judgment of his parents. This episode features the incredible voice of Patti LuPone as the Thatchers get ready to perform in a charity benefit.
"Paige's Date": Drew fixes Paige up with a guy who appears to be on the fast track to success, but all is not what it seems. As the family quickly sours on him, Paige is still in love, and she is unsure which way to turn.
While it is undeniable that Life Goes On experienced a remarkably strong first season, be forewarned that there are some perfectly silly episodes, most notably the one where Corky becomes attached to a pig (yes, a pig). In the aforementioned "Corky Rebels," Corky starts innocently enough by playing practical jokes, gelling his hair, wearing clothes that make him appear as though he is appearing in a bad revival of Grease, and looking at pictures of girls in skimpy bikinis. Where the episode gets absolutely excruciating to watch is when Corky, to further exert his independence, decides to lip-sync to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," complete with angry facial expressions and moonwalking. Where are Chuck D and Flava Flav when you need them? They actually allowed their song to be used for this? Needless to say, the family is only too happy to allow Corky to ride the bus, if only to stop all the bad fake rapping.
The occasional wacky episode aside, I loved this show from the moment it aired, mostly because I was the exact age as the character of Becca, the precocious, super-opinionated, slightly geeky daughter. As the show wore on, she turned from an awkward girl into a truly beautiful, self-confident young woman. Played by Kellie Martin, who would later go on to star in countless television movies and even ER, Becca is clearly the center of the show. Monique Lanier is wonderful as Paige, and she would be replaced in later seasons by Tracy Needham, who was equally as good. Patti LuPone, of Broadway fame, is excellent as Libby.
Although the show was originally supposed to be about Corky, it is clear that Kellie Martin is the real star here. She is so convincing as a teenage girl, not trying to act like a 30-year-old trapped in a teenager's body as they did on Dawson's Creek, but a real, honest-to-goodness teenager. Her self-consciousness and her facial expressions are so realistic, as though she is just being herself rather than acting. This is proof that shows can center around "regular" female characters rather than ridiculously wealthy, popular blonds. Parents looking for positive television role models for their kids might want to make note of that.
Watching a show on DVD for the first time after it has been off the air for many years is always an interesting experience. On the one hand, the old episodes are familiar, like a comfortable old shoe. On the other hand, at times the cultural references, attitudes, and fashion can make a show appear very dated. Try not to be distracted by the late-80s fashions, like acid wash jeans, Tyler's mullet, or Becca's red plastic Sally Jesse Raphael sunglasses.
One real disappointment, a trend becoming increasingly common on DVD releases these days, is the fact that the truly charming original theme song is missing from all but the pilot episode. On the original show, the family themselves sang the Beatles tune "Life Goes On" accompanied by a rollicking piano accompaniment and much laughter. It was the perfect means of setting the tone for each episode. Apparently, due to licensing problems (songs like that most likely cost dearly) the original song was not able to be included, which is at the same time understandable but a genuine loss to the overall viewing experience. And the replacement song is truly horrendous.
As a longtime fan of the show, I believe the first two seasons are the strongest. Although it is admirable that the writers tackled the subject of AIDS in later seasons, there is no doubt that this caused the show to shift focus from the Thatcher family and lose its footing, most notably when, in an all too convenient plot device, a much-beloved peripheral character was shamelessly and needlessly killed off. It went from being a sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sweetly funny program to a heavy-handed soapbox with far less enjoyable episodes. It will be interesting to see, as later seasons are released, how those episodes have held up over time. As for this season, enjoy it, because it is a real treat.
Life Goes On: The Complete First Season is presented in full screen, and it is a pleasantly surprising improvement over what one might expect when viewing it on television. The colors are crisp and the picture is incredibly sharp. In my experience watching endless television shows on DVD, this is not always the case, so this release deserves special recognition for that.
This season is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, and it sounds quite good. Having watched some old movies on VHS recently, especially ones taped off of television, I am finding that no matter what format a DVD is released in, the sound is astonishingly better on DVD. So while Life Goes On is not an astounding audio experience or anything, it is still very good. This goes especially
There are several extras included on this release; an audio commentary on the pilot episode with Chris Burke, who played Corky, and series creator Michael Braverman, a gag reel, and Bill Smitrovich's (Drew) and Patti LuPone's (Libby) screen tests. The commentary indulges viewers in behind the scenes details such as the fact that the house that appears in the exterior shots is located in Brentwood, California, touching details about the real-life friendship between Patti LuPone and Burke, and even some laughter over Becca's ridiculous glasses. Viewers will also learn Arnold the Wonder Dog's real name and the reason why Braverman created the show. Also listen closely for the interesting connection between this show and the films Casablanca and Lethal Weapon. One disappointment is the glossing over by Braverman of why Monique Lanier left the show; fans of the show know that she was replaced later on, but it would be nice to hear more information about Lanier's departure. The gag reel and screen tests are the standard filler, so the real treat here is the commentary. Be sure to give it a listen.
Viewers must rely on the DVD packaging for episode summaries, and although within each episode there are scene selections, the on-screen menus are lacking in detail. Many television releases include on-screen summaries and detailed scene selections. Unfortunately there are none available here. Fans of the show are so thrilled that it has been released on DVD, however, that this is a minor quibble.
Whether you adored this show during its initial run or have yet to see it, Life Goes On, despite the occasional misstep, is quality family television at its best. Check it out.