The TV Series:
To be honest, Webster was a show I avoided during its original 1983-89 run. I thought Emmanuel Lewis was freaky.
Maybe I was being too harsh, however. Based on seeing the episodes in Shout! Factory's season three DVD set, this was a feather-light but awfully cute and efficiently done sitcom. The 1985-86 season finds Lewis' Webster, now a precocious fourth grader, still under the care of his adoptive parents George (Alex Karras) and Katherine (Susan Clark). The three still live in a converted old house in Chicago, with fun-loving landlords Cassie (Cathryn Damon) and Bill (Eugene Roche) sequestered in the basement. Occasionally a fastidious man named Jerry (Henry Polic II), a character whose function I have not been able to divine, drops in for a visit.
Webster always got a bad rap as a lightweight Diff'rent Strokes clone, but I get a decidedly less "street" vibe off these episodes. The lead character's youthfulness and the cozy, domestic situations he gets in places the show more in the realm of Full House, Family Matters and the other comedies that ABC turned into ratings gold with its "TGIF" block in the late '80s and early '90s. This is never more apparent than in the season's two-part opener, How the West Was Once, in which the family journeys to an Arizona dude ranch. The rusty hideaway of George's childhood has been converted to a high-end resort, which disappoints George but delights the sophisticated Katherine. Meanwhile, Webster meets grizzled old cowboy Jack Elam and nearly avoids getting a rattlesnake bite when a mysterious stallion called Moonhunter arrives to save the day. End of story, now it's off to bed, kiddies.
Plotwise, the show traffics in the usual stuff (Webster thinks he's an alien! Webster makes Katherine an ugly dress!). Often it centered around Webster and his friends from school, but just as many episodes revolve around George, Katherine and the landlords. The more memorable episodes find the characters going off to another city, such as when the family went to New York City and Webster got to meet basketballer Patrick Ewing. Another highlight has Webster, sans parents, going to Hollywood to visit his struggling actor uncle Philip, played by Ben Vereen. Lewis and Vereen tramp around the Paramount Pictures backlot and, in a fantasy sequence, perform a song-and-dance "Hooray for Hollywood" (filmed on the Solid Gold set). And don't forget the Very Special Episode in which Webster befriends a boy with leukemia.
Once you get used to the episodes' slower pace and often silly storylines, this particular year of Webster finds the cast settled in a comfortable rhythm. The most impressive aspect of this show is the fact that George and Katherine are depicted as smart, fully realized characters. Although Webster is the light of their lives, they also have interests and careers of their own. Unlike a lot of current family sitcoms, the parents are not stooges to the kid's sassy behavior. There are spots when one can see glimpses of the low key, marrieds-in-the-city sitcom that the actually married Karras and Clark originally envisioned for this project.
Speaking of Diff'rent Strokes, this particular season of Webster came during the same year ABC brought the aging Gary Coleman sitcom over to their network from NBC. The two shows shared the same night (Fridays, of course), but by the time the last episode of Webster's third season aired, Diff'rent Strokes was history. Eat my dust, Arnold Jackson.
Webster, Season 3 contains every episode that aired in the 1985-86 season on four discs, including four that went unaired until the show went into syndication:
3-01 ____ 20/Sep/85 ____ How the West Was Once - Pt. 1
3-02 ____ 20/Sep/85 ____ How the West Was Once - Pt. 2
3-03 ____ 27/Sep/85 ____ And Baby Makes Breakfast
3-04 ____ 04/Oct/85 ____ Big Problems
3-05 ____ 11/Oct/85 ____ Alien
3-06 ____ 18/Oct/85 ____ Parent Trap
3-07 ____ 25/Oct/85 ____ Good Grief
3-08 ____ 01/Nov/85 ____ One More Shot
3-09 ____ 08/Nov/85 ____ Great Expectations - Pt. 1
3-10 ____ 15/Nov/85 ____ Great Expectations - Pt. 2
3-11 ____ 22/Nov/85 ____ Who's to Blame?
3-12 ____ 29/Nov/85 ____ Chained
3-13 ____ 06/Dec/85 ____ The Triangle
3-14 ____ 13/Dec/85 ____ The Truth Hurts
3-15 ____ 10/Jan/86 ____ Hello, I Must Be Going
3-16 ____ 17/Jan/86 ____ That's Rich
3-17 ____ 24/Jan/86 ____ TV or Not TV
3-18 ____ 31/Jan/86 ____ Borrowed Time
3-19 ____ 07/Feb/86 ____ A Friend in Need
3-20 ____ 14/Feb/86 ____ Love Papadopolis Style
3-21 ____ 21/Feb/86 ____ Almost Home
3-22 ____ 07/Mar/86 ____ Farewell to Arms
3-23 ____ 21/Mar/86 ____ There Goes the Bride
3-24 ____ 28/Mar/86 ____ Gotcha
3-25 ____ 02/May/86 ____ My Family's Honor
3-26 ____ 04/Jun/87 ____ Special Delivery *
3-27 ____ 24/Jan/88 ____ Cuckoo's Nest *
3-28 ____ 30/Mar/87 ____ Rear View Mirror - Pt. 1 *
3-29 ____ 31/Mar/87 ____ Rear View Mirror - Pt. 2 *
* Episode produced in season 3; not aired until syndication run.
Shout! Factory has furnished this season of Webster with serviceable audio that serves the dialogue well with minimal hiss or shrillness.
Though the videotaped image leans toward the sharp-edged, the show looks pretty good for its age. The colors are well balanced and vivid without being overly harsh (all the better to appreciate Ms. Clark's, um, interesting wardrobe choices this season).
Except for forced previews for Punky Brewster, Small Wonder and Mr. Belvedere on disc one, there are no extras.
Webster wasn't the greatest of sitcoms, but the third season finds it hitting a stride of sorts with an appealing cast settled in a comfy groove. The scripts are typical fluff of that era, but at least most of the episodes don't get too sappy or kid-centric. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.