"Serial" is a sarcastic love letter and a big ol' eff you to the self-important, New Age claptrap-laden, like-wow-man 1970s. Released in March 1980, the film is ruthless in bidding a not-so-fond farewell to the Me Decade, placing its characters squarely in the epicenter of self help hell, Marin County, California.
An adaptation of the Cyra McFadden novel "The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County," "Serial" offers broad caricatures that skewer the most obnoxious fads of the era: swingers, orgies, psychobabble-fueled therapy, cults, and Jazzercise. Jazzercise! If you think Jazzercise is horrible as a memory, imagine how awful it was to live through the damn thing.
As the film opens, we're not sure what to think; the screenplay (by Rich Eustis and Michael Elias) buries us under a mountain of dated slang and disco-age ideals while some crummy soft rock tune blares on the soundtrack. It's only after the opening credits wrap that the movie finally begins to show its hand, and we realize that all these horrible people are horrible on purpose. With Sally Kellerman perfecting the Kama Sutra, Martin Mull riding a bike to work, and Bill Macy talking about orgasms, "Serial" isn't a celebration of the times, it's a tirade against them. All these aging hippies desperately struggling to stay trendy? Yikes.
Harvey Holroyd (Mull), we quickly learn, is the voice of sanity in the center of the storm of 70s idiocy. He's tired of buzzwords like "consciousness" and "organic" and "us-ness" and "peer group dynamic," and he's not above mocking the burned-out hippie preacher (a brilliantly out-there Tom Smothers) for being a total flake. He and pal Sam (Macy) are ordinary middle-aged guys stuck in a crazy world they can't understand.
That doesn't mean they avoid falling into that world. When his wife, Kate (Tuesday Weld), kicks him out, Harvey dips his toes into the swinger pool, dating a 19-year-old vegetarian free spirit (Stacey Nelkin) and accepting an invite from his secretary (Patch Mackenzie) to visit a San Francisco sex club. (The sight of Martin Mull nervously tiptoeing through a river of naked bodies is, to borrow the lingo, a gas.) Kate, meanwhile, runs off to live in a commune with a bisexual Argentinean dog groomer, and daughter Joanie (Jennifer McAllister) winds up in a Hare Krishna-esque cult. Somewhere along the way, the plot gets filled with, among others, a gang of "weekend freaks" dressed up like gay biker thugs, a pill-dispensing psychiatrist who tells a ten-year-old boy to connect with his inner child, and stoner contractors who, like, totally accept responsibility for, you know, not working, man. Oh, and Christopher Lee shows up, just to add to the weirdness.
A subplot involving Harvey's potential promotion at work acts, perhaps unwittingly, as a bridge to the Reagan years. The promotion would send Harv to Denver, which is about as middle as middle America can get, and if he can somehow get his family back together, they can all escape Marin County and all its 70s-ness and flee, as a Gipper-approved nuclear family, to the "normalcy" of 80s suburbia.
Director Bill Persky, a sitcom and TV-movie veteran making this his only venture to the big screen, lends the film a choppy, flat look, with bland pacing and sloppy editing (scenes often end at weird times, with no clear rhythm) that sour the comedy. The film winds up pulling too many punches in its satire, perhaps afraid to go too dark in its humor.
And yet a terrific cast and a biting script keep the movie afloat. Whenever Mull's on camera, things always pick up; here's the comic at his sharpest, playing a quick wit who's never at loss for a punchline. (She: "Are you going to put this in your one and only body?" He: "I have a spare.") As the story progresses, things pick up as the absurdity piles on top of itself, and the cast keeps the comedy on the right sinister note, making "Serial" a raunchy, wicked little time capsule of an era best forgotten. Like, far out, man.
"Serial" arrives on disc as part of Legend Films' recent collection of vintage Paramount titles.
Video & Audio
Apart from a few well-worn shots that reveal a distressed, dirty print, "Serial" looks pretty good for a thirty-year-old movie that's not been digitally cleaned up. Colors are faded but not overly so, lines are mostly sharp, and film grain is kept to the minimal amount expected for a movie of the era. Legend presents the film in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer; I can't find any information on the original aspect ratio, so I'm only guessing in saying this approximates the film's 1.85:1 format.
The Dolby stereo soundtrack is fairly simple, with clean dialogue and clear musical cues. No subtitles are offered.
"Serial" boasts a great cast and an intelligent screenplay. But it's also clumsy in too many spots and quite dated. Unless you're a Mull completist, you should just Rent It.