Author's Note: This is my first c-blog article! Sorry for the wall o' text, but I'm a history graduate student used to filling up essays in order to reach that word count. That's also why the other articles I'm working on are languishing in various stages of overwriting. Plus, because I'm a newb and took too long to write it, it was originally stuck being published two days ago! That's not really fair, so I'm reposting it so it has a faint chance that someone will read it...
I've been reading Ashley Davis' series From the Console to the TV Station
, and since Lucasarts' adventure games are having a bit of a renaissance lately (with Monkey Island), I figured I'd take a look at one of the most obscure video game-to-television adaptations: Maniac Mansion
.Yes, ladies and gents, the classic 1987 C64/PC/NES adventure game featuring meteors, mad scientists and microwaved hamsters was made into a television show!
Is this your reaction?
The season one opening, featuring one of the few references to the game. Simple, but somewhat catchy. Background Maniac Mansion
was a Canadian production that aired from 1990 to 1993, with 66 half-hour episodes over 3 seasons. In the US, it was broadcast on the Family Channel (now ABC Family), while in Canada it was shown on YTV (Youth Television). As you can tell by looking at these stations, Maniac Mansion
was targeted towards a broad family demographic, and it shows. Essentially, the only common points between the television show and the original game are:
1. The title.
2. A scientist named Fred Edison.
3. He lives in a mansion.
4. Weird stuff happens, involving science. A meteor is vaguely involved.
Other than that, the show ditches most of what made the game a classic: the dark and risqué humour, the creepy denizens of Fred's mansion, sentient tentacles, etc. Instead, the producers used the basic framework of the game to create a family-friendly sitcom with a touch of the paranormal.
Also interesting is how the show is closely related to the classic Canadian comedy series SCTV
. The creator of the show, Eugene Levy (now better known as...sigh...the dad from the American Pie
movies) was one of the stars of SCTV
, the majority of the cast and writers were also alumni of the earlier series, and much of the SCTV
cast guest starred in a few episodes: Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas, Martin Short, and Andrea Martin. So, SCTV
's unique brand of witty and referential humour was also present in Maniac Mansion
, almost to the point that it can be considered somewhat of a spinoff (at least in terms of comedic style).
The second season opening, which shows off the cast more clearly. Fred Edison:
The patriarch of the family is a honest but bumbling scientist, resembling little of the blue-skinned mad doctor of the game. Played by Joe Flaherty (another SCTV
star, though better known now for roles in Happy Gilmore
and Freaks and Geeks
Fred's loving wife, who serves as a point of normalcy among the strange events that occur. Played by Deborah Theaker (she graduated from my university!).
Fred and Casey's teenage daughter. Interested in science, she helps her father with many of his experiments. Played by Kathleen Robertson, who has been several average TV series and movies since, most recently as Azkadellia in the Sci Fi miniseries Tin Man
. Also, pretty hot (at least later)
Your average pubescent middle-schooler. Played by Avi Philips, who did little else afterwards.
A normal four year old toddler...except his body has been changed into a overweight adult. Played by George Buza, a Canadian character actor.
Harry Orca (aka Harry the Fly):
Fred's brother-in-law, who was accidentally transformed into a fly before the series began. Played by John Hemphill, whose SCTV
character was an alcoholic who broadcast a children's show from a bar!
Harry's wife, who is stuck at the mansion while Fred tries to restore her husband to normal. Played by Mary Charlotte Wilcox, another SCTV
alum, who is now an Anglican priest!
The episodes revolve around Fred and his family facing a variety of problems, ranging from normal sitcom dilemmas (trouble at school for the kids, a bothersome neighbour, etc.) to the bizarre events that come about due to Fred's experiments (someone being shrunk, mutated, sent back in time, etc.). Think of it as a less macabre version of The Munsters
, or the later seasons of Family Matters
(with Stefan Urquelle, time travel and all that).
The series also tends to rely on dream sequences and meta-humour in order to create unusual situations, a testament to the quality of the writers. The first episode itself is a dream sequence where Fred thinks he is on a sitcom celebrating its 10th anniversary. The second season begins with Fred telling the audience about alternative pilots for the series. The creators must have seen the fourth wall-breaking humour from the game and incorporated it effectively into the series.
Why you haven't watched (or even heard of) this show
Well, there are a few reasons why most of you have never seen this show. Being broadcast on the Family Channel and YTV limited its audience, though I suspect we Canadians are more likely to have seen it, given YTV's popularity and the SCTV connexions. You probably have to be at least 20 years old to remember watching it. As a middle-of-the-road family comedy/sitcom, it didn't follow the path of any other video game adaptation, which have usually been a cartoon on TV, or a live-action film of dubious quality. The only other live action TV show based on a game that comes to mind is the short-lived (and awful) Mortal Kombat: Conquest
The original game itself was obscure, relative to Mario, Sonic and other games that were adapted for TV. When I watched the show, I had never played the game, and only vaguely knew about it from old issues of Nintendo Power. I wonder how many other viewers thought the same way. Perhaps the lack of "baggage" from the video game actually helped the show to be as successful as it was, since the show could stand on its own, rather than be compared to the game (which I tried to do sparingly in this article).
Finally, the show is almost impossible to find now. A few VHS tapes were created, and used copies go for over $25.00 on Amazon.. Their are only a couple of YouTube clips other than the openings, and they don't capture the show's humour very much. As of yet, there hasn't been a DVD release, and I doubt it ever will unless someone at Lucasarts rediscovers it while working on the inevitable Maniac Mansion
Why this show matters
Why did I write this (too) long article about this forgotten TV show? Well, I consider this to be one of the most successful video game to TV/film adaptations. At 66 episodes, it is slightly longer than both the Super Mario Bros. Super Show
and Sonic the Hedgehog (SatM)
, which are the most well known TV shows based on games. More broadly, a sitcom on cable that is able to run for three seasons can be considered a relative success.
Most other video game adaptations have failed when they try to shoehorn the unique forms of storytelling from games into traditional film/TV formats, making them seem ridiculous: Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Hitman
, etc. Other times, when the producers realize that the game doesn't offer much in terms of characters and plot, they go off in different directions that rely on the quality of the writers (which usually isn't very good, e.g., Super Mario Bros. The Movie
got it right. The creators of the show managed to mold the source material into a format that captured the basic concept and style of the original game while still making it appealing to a general audience and critics, not just video game fans. They had a solid writing staff and cast, with a succesful comedy series under its belt, to bring forward original ideas and quality humour that could help the show appeal to people who had never played the game. They weren't there to make a half-hour advertisement for the game, or leach off of its success. They wanted the show to stand on its own, and it did.
I guess I will summarize by saying that Maniac Mansion
was an exceptional show in that it adapted a video game into a family comedy, and was able to last three seasons. Regrettably it is difficult to find now, and few people remember it. I also doubt whether any game now can be adapted in a similar way.
If anyone wants more information about the show, go here
. So, what do you think of my first article? Any questions? Anyone actually remember this show?
LOOK WHO CAME: