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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Serial (Blu-ray)
Serial (Blu-ray)
Olive Films // R // January 19, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted February 7, 2016 | E-mail the Author
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Satire is, perhaps, the most difficult type of feature film material to pull off. Serial (1980) tries hard - too hard - and is pretty miserable overall, despite some little bits of funny dialogue here and there. Adapted from Cyra McFadden's 1977 novel The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County, the movie version attempts to satirize affluent suburbanites caught between the ‘60s and ‘70s hippie movement and the materialistic yuppie lifestyles of the Reagan era.

The film is a strange bird. Though its plot, such as it is, revolves around a married couple played by Martin Mull and Tuesday Weld, it's mostly a Robert Altman-like ensemble piece, including Altman regular Sally Kellerman in its cast. (The other actors and characters they play would have fit right in, too: Bill Macy, Peter Bonerz, Tom Smothers, etc.) It makes a somewhat interesting contrast to Lawrence Kasdan's more successful The Big Chill (1983), which works off a similar premise. Though that film was misguided in key ways (simplistically suggesting, for example, that it's okay to surrender to one's core values for material gain so long as you feel guilty about it once in a while and groove to Three Dog Night every so often), it's at least populated by fully-formed characters, where as those found in Serial are to a one the broadest of stereotypes.

Serial was not a great success and largely vanished soon after its release, possibly because it's so rife with profanity and explicit talk about sex it was next to impossible to run on commercial television. Olive Films' Blu-ray, licensed from Paramount, is okay but retains the inherently grainy and blotchy look of original release prints.


The 90-minute film has the barest of plots: Harvey Holroyd (Mull) is dissatisfied with his marriage to Kate (Weld), a housewife actively involved with women friends Martha (Kellerman), Angela Stone (Nita Talbot), Carol (Pamela Belwood) and others who embrace all the latest New Age, organic food, human potential movement, sexual revolution, etc., etc. trends. Tiresomely pretentious Martha remarries for the umpteenth time at a ludicrous ceremony presided over by New Age guru Spike (Smothers). Soon after, the Holroyd's unhappy teenage daughter, Joanie (Jennifer McAllister), joins a (fictitious) religious cult, something between Hare Krishna and Scientology.

The Holroyds' marital problems lead to a separation. Harvey tries to adapt to the situation, but is a fish out of water when invited to an orgy by his frankly amorous secretary, Stella (Patch Mackenzie).

Adapted by the writing team of Rich Eustis and Michael Elias (later the creators of the TV series Head of the Class) and directed by Bill Persky (The Dick Van Dyke Show, That Girl), Serial is fundamentally wrong-headed; instead of satirizing superficial behavior, the movie itself is superficial, barely scratching the surface of potentially rich material. (Another, superior movie that taps into a similar slice of Americana: Michael Ritchie's 1975 film Smile.)

Except for Mull's Harvey and his best friend, the equally bewildered Sam Stone (Bill Macy), Serial is populated entirely by self-absorbed, delusional, foolish, and intellectually vacuous types oblivious and unbothered by any criticism Harvey offers. Just as bad, Harvey and Sam are primarily interested in "getting laid" ("Did you see Carson [last night]?" Sam asks. "Johnny had on a guest with huge jugs!") and eating meat again. Though some of their reactive sarcasm is funny, they're nearly as boorish as everyone else.

The basic problem is that the screenplay makes no attempt to try to explain just why this collection of comparatively well-to-do adults would be so drawn to every new fad diet, questionable therapy, and crackpot religion, and in what ways it helps them personally (or not). Why do they so desperately cling to such things? In a less national, much less global society than we have now, it was commonplace to stereotype various parts of the country. San Francisco and its surrounding counties was ground zero for all this (mostly) crazy stuff, and the butt of jokes everywhere else. Yet Serial makes no attempt to explore these peculiar people beyond showing them saying and doing outrageous things.

To its credit or maybe detriment, Serial crams every cliché about the region imaginable, referencing everything from est and rebirthing to casual cocaine use and Star Trek ("God! How I miss that show," Harvey sighs), as well as the jargon of that time and place. It's as if the writers drew up a list of everything they wanted to include in the picture and found a place for it somewhere, anywhere. Serial is almost interesting as a kind of time capsule in which virtually everything in it has been discredited and dismissed or, at least, long ago fallen out of favor and virtually forgotten.

The picture's supposedly misogynistic and homophobic attitudes bothered some reviewers. Other than "normal" Harvey and Sam graphically obsessing about sex like junior high school boys I found none of this, though the film does use derogatory terms like "fag" to describe its disproportionately few gay characters, which are depicted as frivolous as everyone else. One, corporate recruiter Luckmann, is portrayed by British actor Christopher Lee, whose attempt at an American accent is so awful it's almost hard to make out.

Video & Audio

Olive Films' Blu-ray, licensed from Paramount, looks okay - just. At the time 35mm theatrical release prints were notoriously ugly generally, full of grain and chemical blotches, and there's some of this here, particularly during process shots like fades and dissolves. It's acceptable overall, but this is not a great looking Blu-ray by any measure. The DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio (mono, English only with no subtitles) is likewise okay but unexceptional. No Extra Features.

Final Thoughts

A curiosity, to be sure, but a big disappointment given the talent involved, Serial is a Rent It.




Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His new documentary and latest audio commentary, for the British Film Institute's Blu-ray of Rashomon, is now available.

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