It was a quiet Thursday morning, a lone bird chirping in the backyard as the sun came up. I stumbled downstairs, poured myself a cup of day-old coffee, and sat at my computer to read the news.
Suddenly, I sat up straight, reading and re-reading the announcement. With one swift motion, I flipped up the protective cover on the wall and hit the big red button that squatted there ever since we moved. An ear-splitting alarm rang out through the entire house, joined by my baby’s startled howls.
My wife ran downstairs to find me hurredly pulling on some pants. “What’s going on?” she demanded. “The neighbors can hear that! God can hear that!”
“It’s happened!” I declared. “I pushed the big red button!”
“The big red—“ Her eyes grew wide. “I’ll get the car.”
We left so quickly that one might assume that hell itself was on our heels. For on that day, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose season 1 had released, and nothing was going to stop me from procuring a copy.
Maybe I’m being silly. After all, this is a show that’s almost 20 years old, a product of the garish early 90’s where colors kept getting brighter, pants grew more poofy, and flattops reigned supreme until Kurt Cobain said, “No more!” It’s a good show, an amusing comedy, but nothing side-splitting – a sort of bastard child of Ferris Bueller, Saved by the Bell and the early Fox network, and a distant ancestor to late 2000 shows like Scrubs. So why is Parker Lewis so important to me?
Part of it comes from personal history and taste: at the time Parker Lewis launched, I too was in high school, which made this a rare conjoining of TV virtuality and my personal reality. I grew up loving the “kids reign supreme over dummy adults” genre, especially in school settings. I would’ve killed for friends like Parker or Mikey or even Jerry during those lonely years of my life, so watching them in action was the next best thing.
But part of it was that this was a solid show, innovative before its time: it was a comedy without a laugh track, it featured lots of crazy camera work, and the main character had an inner narration that both broke the fourth wall and drew us into the story. The characters all existed on a more cartoonish plane of existence than us, but not so far removed as to be fully unbelievable.
I went through the history of how this show came to be in a much earlier article on MRFH, which you can read here. In a nutshell, Parker Lewis was created as a Ferris Bueller ripoff/homage, but at the same time when there was an actual Ferris Bueller TV series. Fox stuck with Lewis for three seasons, whereas Bueller bombed after a mere 13 episodes (and only became notable for the fact that a young Jennifer Aniston had a role in it). Parker Lewis enjoyed a decent run, and was retooled in the third season as less comedy, less zaniness, more serious drama. After that the show was canned, but the cult love for it remained.
There’s something about Parker Lewis Can’t Lose that perfectly encapsulates the 1988-1993 era, and going through the first season is a true blast from the past. When Milli Vanilli is mentioned as there’s a Die Hard 2 poster in the background and colorful, “wacky” credits are flashed on the bottom of the screen, you can tell that this was a show that was desperate to connect with the pop culture teens of the day. Sure, the look and references might be completely laugh-worthy today, as those years are often cited with the same tone of one disposing of roadkill, but at the time, that’s what we liked. We liked those stupid plastic neon sunglasses, we thought incredibly baggy button-down silk shirts were cool, and we knew all of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles inside and out. Don’t be ashamed of the past; embrace it!
Parker (Corin Nemec, S.S. Doomtrooper) is a cocky, self-assured leader of sorts at Domingo High School. He wears untucked shirts that are an offense to the eye, has a plan for everything, and is at constant war with the school’s ultra-evil principal Grace Musso (Melanie Chartoff, Dr. Dolittle 3). Parker survives and thrives in the high school environment with the help of his two “best buds”: rock ‘n roller Mikey (Billy Jayne, Extreme Ghostbusters) and trenchcoat-wearing nerd Jerry (Troy W. Slaten, Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad). The three buds operate from their secret HQ in a room above the gym, and more or less have the school wrapped around their fingers… until things fall apart, as they are wont to do.
The best buds have some solid opposition, however. In addition to Principal Musso, they have to contend with Steven Segal-lookalike Frank Lemmer (Taj Johnson, Samantha), Parker’s snitty little sister Shelly (Maia Brewton, Adventures in Babysitting), and human wall-thing Kubiac (Abraham Benrubi, Miss Congeniality 2). Not to mention that Parker is far from invincible – many of his schemes backfire to varying degrees of horror – but he always seems to have another plan waiting in the wings.
The show really is a parody of high school and its conventions, which are still true today as they were back then. Among their adventures include discovering and re-staffing a pirate radio station in the basement, giving a dating confidence seminar, Parker trying to deliberately lose the race for class president, and the clash of “old school” and new, as the 1970 class reunion shows Parker that his dad was a lot more like him than he previously realized.
As I said before, this isn’t a laugh-out-loud-every-minute type show, but it still earns quite a few chuckles for me, at least when I’m not amazed by how much Parker Lewis is like J.D. from Scrubs. There’s a great balance achieved in many areas here: there’s enough fantasy elements to be interesting but not too many to make this into a cartoon; Parker is smarmy and confident, yet doesn’t cross the line into annoying arrogance; and no matter what the story of the week is, the show keeps the tone light and zippy. No “on a very special episode of Parker Lewis” stories here.
Parker Lewis made high school a bit more bearable for me, and I guess that’s why it really can’t lose even 20 years later. Sirs, we have achieved coolness.