by Johnny Web (aka Uncle Scoopy, aka Greg Wroblewski)
Serial is a light-hearted look at all of the
crazy "consciousness expansion" fads of the late 70s.
That era was the first time in which psychiatric care
became not only therapeutic, but fashionable as well.
Those who bragged about their therapy seemed perfectly
sensible compared to those who trod the more outre paths
to enlightenment: Asian mysticism, cult religions,
self-help books, primal therapy, communes, EST ... you
name it. It was a time when the leftover 60s hippies
were trying to find a way to assimilate into mainstream
society without renouncing the counter-cultural
spiritual values they had come to treasure. When they
entered the consumerist world they found themselves
side-by-side with people with very different value
systems, some of whom had hypocritically co-opted the
symbols and slogans of 60s idealism to suit their own
personal aims, others of whom were old-fashioned folks
simply having a good laugh at what they perceived to be
a rash of New Age bullshit. The film portrays that
uneasy amalgam of disparate value systems as it was
reflected in a group of suburbanites in Marin County.
I went to see this film when it came out in 1980. My
first wife and I were still together and we were on
vacation in Toronto, where we watched this flick in an
exotic urban multiplex consisting of a couple of large
rooms for the blockbusters as well as several tiny
theaters connected by various winding and intersecting
corridors and staircases - an anfractuous maze which one
had to navigate by following handwritten signs
containing hastily-scribbled arrows. Katie and I had
been inside a few multiplexes before that, but never one
in a city center ("centre," actually!), and we found the
experience totally enchanting, a perfect display of
everything we loved about Canada: a certain understated
elegance partially undermined by quaint, low-tech
eccentricity. You may think, "Why go to a movie when
you're on vacation?" Well, we had read quite a bit about
this film and liked many of the cast members, especially
Martin Mull, so we were really looking forward to it,
and were quite pleased that it was playing within
walking distance of our hotel and our main entertainment
for the evening, which consisted of a Second City show
at The Old Firehall and an excellent late dinner at
Three Small Rooms.
And let's be honest. After years of watching Dobie
Gillis as a kid, I couldn't wait to see Tuesday Weld
I guess I remember all of these details
because it may have been our last really good night
Oops. I'm rambling.
I guess I was leading up to the point that we were
disappointed in Serial, despite our good mood in general
and our predisposition to enjoy this film in particular.
And yet now, watching it today, I really enjoyed the
film. Is that because it brought back those pleasant
memories which I just shared with you? Well, maybe, but
I think there's a better explanation, or at least an
Serial is a film which derives its humor from a slight
exaggeration of the characters and fads of the post-60s
hippie diaspora. The word "slight" is, I believe, the
key to why the film seems better to me now. Because it
was only slightly exaggerated, Serial seemed in 1980 to
be too close to reality to be effective satire, but too
silly and too fond of its characters to be effective
social criticism. I felt at the time that the film gave
only a gentle loving ribbing to many things that
deserved a contemptuous sneer. As time goes by, however,
I tend to forget all the subtleties and nuances of the
past and just remember the big picture. Memory tends to
encapsulate an era by using mnemonic devices - handy
symbols that make one particular time stand out from
every other time in the past. When the memories fade,
the extreme emotions "in the moment" always seem to be
tempered. Looking back on Serial now, I seem to share
its point of view about that era: that it was all kinda
silly, but many of the worst parts of it can be
remembered not with contempt, but with a fond nostalgic
smile, the kind of sheepish grin that says, "I can't
believe we used to be that way."
Oh, I still found the film's jokes tepid and obvious,
yet this time it gave me a great deal of pleasure.
Unfortunately, I can't say the same about Tuesday Weld's
topless scene, which is still as disappointing as ever.
On the other hand, Sally Kellerman's scene is both sexy
and funny. Sally has made a great career out of one
character - the pretentious ass who's also kinda hot.
She has pretty much spent her entire adult life playing
Hot Lips Houlihan.
Kate: "Carol, gay or straight, you still have that
certain something ... you're a cunt."
Carol (sadly): "Still?"
Kate: "Work on it."
I first became aware of Serial in book form. I
stopped at a book store during lunch and found it on
the bargain table. I spent the rest of the day reading
it from cover to cover, ignoring work, absorbed in a
brilliant send-up of life in the late 70s in Marin
The film is true to the book, so one cannot truly
appreciate its satirical insights without knowing
something about Marin, which is directly across the
Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, and is where
all of the hippies migrated when Berkeley and The
Haight declined. The real die-hard freaks moved into
remote communities and/or communes, but the bulk of
the so-called counter-culture assimilated into
straight middle-class lives and became co-opted into
the capitalist system. The men donned suits and ties
and bought BMWs, the women joined
consciousness-raising groups, and the kids were raised
permissively and sent to trendy pop shrinks.
As Roger Ebert notes: "The dialogue is jammed with
code words, catch phrases and fashionable
pseudo-psychological jargon: everybody in the movie
seems to have learned the language out of the back
issues of Mother Earth News and Psychology Today."
There is still a good deal of this culture in Marin
As the film begins, Tuesday Weld, Martin Mull, and
their daughter are installed firmly in the culture of
fern bars, Beamers and "I'm ok, you're ok," but Martin
is sick of relationship talks and would like to get
laid a little more often, while Tuesday feels they
don't really communicate. Their teenaged daughter is
chafing at parental restraint, and Tuesday is usually
on her side. Their world includes Tommy Smothers as a
new age minister, Peter Bonerz as a POP psychologist,
Sally Kellerman as a free spirit into serial bigamy,
and a host of others.
Then their lives start to collapse. Their daughter
runs away to join a San Francisco religious cult;
Martin has an affair with his secretary (at an orgy);
and Tuesday has an affair with her dog groomer, then
"Kate left me."
"'Right on' your ass. This is serious. She even took
It is one of my favorite films from the 80s, and it's
finally available on DVD.