’80s Couch Surfing: Kids Incorporated

Welcome back to ’80s Couch Surfing, a series in which two episodes of a TV show from the 1980s are watched and reviewed. Today’s entry is Kids Incorporated (1984-1993), in which a quintet of rockin’ minors are confronted with dilemmas both ordinary and bizarre. But through the magic of sequin-studded costumes, keytars, and Bowdlerized pop song covers, everyone will learn A Very Important Lesson. At least until the next week, when we move Sliders-like into an ever so slightly different parallel universe where the previous episodes never occurred.

During my misspent youth, Sunday afternoons usually meant a trip to the home of my paternal grandparents. One of the entertainment options there was a collection of videotapes with recordings of Kids Incorporated episodes from before its move to the Disney Channel. My siblings and I viewed those tapes frequently, to the point where bits and pieces are still imprinted on my memory. Probably the only reason we didn’t take those tapes home is because our grandparents had a VHS while we had a Betamax.

Go ahead and laugh. Everyone else does.

Like so many shows, there was a central location where the bulk of the action occurred. In this instance, it was a sort of combination malt shop/music club called The Palace but known as The Place on account of the first “A” in the neon sign being burned out. Though it didn’t occur to me back then, nowadays I question the financial viability of such an enterprise, considering that the clientele consists entirely of kids. I suppose it could work if there was a large enough customer base. And since the title band that performs there is an amateur one, that’s one less expense to worry about. Still, I’m not convinced anymore.

Though it can vary, the episodes largely stick to the same structure. The episode opens with a song performed on stage, perhaps with a brief cutaway showing the person who will introduce this week’s conflict entering The Place. A break is taken to introduce the episode’s storyline before returning to the stage for a second song. The narrative then begins in earnest, which will feature two songs in the interim. One of these is usually a solo, while the other always involves a big dance number. Once the conflict is resolved, we cut to a final on-stage song before the end credits roll.

Season 1, Episode 7: The Ghost of the Place

As noted above, the basic episode structure was not always strictly adhered to. In this case, the episode opens with the tail end of a song, which (at the time I write this) the TV Tropes episode recap page identifies as the Van Halen song “Jump.” However, I am 99.98% certain that it’s really the Pointer Sisters song “Jump (For My Love)”. One of things that I immediately noticed is how the stage they perform on looks a lot smaller than I remember it being.

Rather than taking a break, this is almost immediately followed by a cover of the Kenny Loggins song “Don’t Fight It.” A couple things that stuck out as I watched this for the first time in over thirty years. To start with, the dancing our Front Five perform gives the impression that their bladders are about to hit critical (especially Renee and Kid). Then there are the outfits they wear. Because dear Gawd, that red and yellow combination they’re sporting is hideous!

A quick shot of the drummer. Hmm, he looks vaguely familiar.

Yep, that’s Mario Lopez of Saved by the Bell and the host of many other television programs. A not insignificant number of the kids who appeared on this show went on to successful careers in the Biz. He’s also the only one in this episode who is actually playing his instrument. But more on that later.

Once the performance is over, we cut to the Place being closed down for the night. Mickey proposes that they rehearse a new song before leaving, though youngest member Stacy is all tuckered out.

That’s when they hear an inhuman moan echo through the Place. Riley, the soda jerk who runs the snack counter, explains that it’s just the resident ghost making his presence known. Stacy is freaking out and Kid is somewhat perturbed. But Renee, Mickey, and Gloria aren’t buying it. Their skepticism is rewarded when Gloria spots Riley fooling around with a microphone. So they sneak up and give him a taste of his own medicine.

After a bit of hypocritical protesting, everyone laughs it off. This is followed by a cover of the Lindsey Buckingham song “Go Insane” with Stacy sitting out as she crashes from her adrenaline high.

A couple of thoughts. Gloria performs the lead vocals for this one, and she’s actually pretty good. Not so wonderful is the fake instrument playing to which I previously alluded. It’s not something you can spot in the below image. But watching the video with my older and more jaded perceptions, it’s painfully obvious that Mickey isn’t really playing that keyboard. Guess they figured us kids viewing it at home wouldn’t notice, and for the most part they were right. Except for the saxophones, but more on that later.

We cut to Stacy waking up to find herself alone and locked in the Place. She gets worked up into a state of high panic, which becomes worse when a spoooooooky voice informs her that she’s not so alone. The malignant specter reveals itself and…

Well that was lame. Stacy’s hysteria quickly dies down and the ghost gets all mopey over how he failed to scare her. He explains that to get in the prestigious Ghost Society, a spook needs to scare two hundred people. He’s been going at it for eight hundred years and is currently four short, and just can’t clear this final hump. The lights briefly flicker, which he explains indicates that another ghost has made it into the Ghost Society.

Eh, it’s better than yet another “What If X Had Never Been Born” scenario.

Stacy sympathizes with his feelings of alienation, since as the youngest member of the band she occasionally feels shunted aside. She then belts out an original song by the show’s musical director called “When I’m All Alone.” My only response is, “Blarg!” First off, the lyrics are pure Narm. Then there’s the singing. I try to be understanding, and I get that she’s only nine. But at this point in her career, she’s not a very good singer. I just hope she had improved considerably by the time she joined the Black Eyed Peas.

Following this auditory agony, Stacy proposes to the ghost that maybe he could scare her friends, since they’re the exact number required for him to fill his membership quota. All that’s needed is a pretext to get them to come to the Place after hours. The ghost cuts to the chase and immediately teleports them over. Just because he’s terrible at scaring people doesn’t mean he can’t pull off some impressive supernatural tomfoolery.

It takes them a bit to notice the change in location. Once they do, it’s clear something unnatural is afoot, which lurks at the edge of human perception.

Since this is 1984, we then get a big dance number to the hot song from one of the hottest movies of the year: Weird Al Yankovic’s “This is the Life” from Johnny Dangerously.

I josh. Of course they perform a cover of “Ghostbusters,” though Kid’s lead vocal performance is about an octave higher than Ray Parker Jr. Despite their insistence to the contrary throughout, turns out they ain’t not afraid of no ghosts and our hapless haunter finally cracks his membership quota.

That’s when Stacy wakes up. Turns out she was dreaming the whole time. Still, it seemed so real, and she tries to tell the others about it all. Even with the sudden flickering of the lights, their reaction is much like the farmhands at the end of the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz.

We finally cut to the next evening, where they perform a cover of the Prince song “Let’s Go Crazy”. Along with the prior Lindsey Buckingham song, we can see a theme forming here. That all this talk of a Ghost of the Place and a Ghost Society is a load of horse hoo. A mere delusion conjured up by a sleep-deprived mind.

Or iiiiiis iiiiiit?!?!?

Season 2, Episode 18: Rock of Ages

As is the case with many shows, the second season saw some changes. A dressing room set is added. Kid becomes more of an egomaniac with braggart tendencies that often get him into hot water. It was more explicitly presented that Renee and Stacy are sisters. Gloria switches to a less eyesore-ish hairstyle. But the most important change was Mickey being replaced with Ryan. According to the show’s Wikipedia article, Mickey’s actor Jerry Sharell did not care for some of the more fantastical storylines. If true, I’m betting it was the one with the talking bicycle that drove him over the edge.

Truth be told, my sister and I liked Ryan better. He’s what you might call a Punk Bookworm. He possesses the external trappings of a rebel, with his spiky hair, his leather jacket, and the way he plays guitar left-handed. But he’s a rebel in a different way in that he isn’t afraid to express his love of the printed word. Compared to the rather blah Mickey, Ryan is awesome.

Anyway, the episode opens with Stacy and Ryan co-leading on a cover of the Phil Collins song “Only You Know and I Know”. A couple things to note. While Stacy’s singing has marginally improved since the last season, she’s still not very good. But more important is how the conversational style of the song draws attention an issue that bugs me even more now than it did then, the age disparity of the characters. On one end, we have Stacy (10), Kid (11), and Renee (also 11). On the other we have Ryan (14) and Gloria (16). Had Mickey stayed on, he would be 15. I just have trouble imagining why the teenagers would put up with a bunch of preteen snots in their band. It’s not like they’re tagalong siblings. Anyone feel differently, and why?

They head back to the dressing room to find Riley indulging in his new character shtick as a Wacky Inventor. The ungawdly contraption he built that is currently taking up their private space is a time machine, or so Riley claims. Needless to say, our Front Five are skeptical and make a few disparaging parting shots as they head back to the stage.

Riley soon Shows Them All as he activates the time machine and sends the Place back to 1965. Not only do they find themselves performing a cover of the Chubby Checker song “Let’s Twist Again”, but they also sport bellbottoms and go-go boots while having contracted a serious case of Sixties Hair.

Ryan also gets a saxophone solo. Take a good look at the screen capture below. I’ll come back to this again later.

A trip back to the dressing room reveals that it’s now a storage closet. The Front Five demand an explanation from Riley, but he’s too ecstatic over how his invention actually worked. The others aren’t so enthused, though Kid briefly considers the possibility of taking Michael Jackson’s place (this was before the more unsavory pursuits of the King of Pop were widely known). They demand a return to 1985 as they head back to the stage. At the very least, it might do something about that eyesore of a suit Riley is wearing.

No such luck. Not only do they end up in 1955 (where they perform the rockabilly standard “Blue Suede Shoes”), but they’ve gone monochrome.

Those skirts the girls are wearing look pretty silly now. But the fashion scene isn’t entirely bad, thanks to leather jackets being timeless.

This time around Kid gets to perform a saxophone solo. Only not really because…

This drove my band geek sister insane with rage. Here’s the thing. Though it may look like a brass instrument, the saxophone is a single reed woodwind. What this means is that you don’t just go huffing and puffing like you’re working a noisemaker at midnight on New Year’s Eve as Kid is doing in the screen capture above. That will only get you silence. Steadiness of breath is more important, as is forming your lips in a particular way.

Back in the dressing room (now an office), Riley confesses that his invention is going wonky. Renee and Stacy speculate on checking on their mom (who would be five) to see if she’s as much of a recalcitrant brat as she accuses them of being. Riley now thinks he’s figured out what’s wrong and is ready to take them back to 1985. Of course, they might end up going to 1945, a time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and a combination of unstable tectonics and the Nazis attempting to initiate the Fimbulvetr meant kids had to walk to school uphill both ways in the snow.

Instead, they get sent into a temporal pocket (which is not as big as I recall it being), where they perform a dance number to “Time Warp”. Yes, THAT “Time Warp”.

When I watched this episode as a kid, I had never heard of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. So I had no context in that respect. You’ve probably guessed already that the more brazenly inappropriate lyrics were cut. The only potential one left in is the refrain line, “But it’s the pelvic thrust,” which gets changed to, “But it’s the way you shake.” Also, the dancers have a rather odd interpretation for, “Put your hands on your hips.”

They make it back 1985, and all is well. Later on, they reminisce on how their experiences weren’t that bad. That’s when Riley announces that he’s been fiddling with his time machine, and he can now send it into the future. But since the future is where we’re going to spend the rest of our lives, the others prefer to take the scenic route.

We close with a cover of the song “Time Machine”, which was originally performed by… Barbra Streisand? Huh. I was vaguely aware that she’s primarily a singer, but I’ve always known her best through her film career. While the performance is decent enough, that jacket Gloria is wearing is another matter.

I mean, dear Gawd! If you wanted to put together a gallery of Eighties Fashion War Crimes, that would be an excellent choice for inclusion.

In closing, I was expecting to be bitterly disappointed as something from my childhood that hadn’t already been an established classic would mock me with its crappiness. To my surprise, it wasn’t all that bad overall. Though there was the occasional wooden delivery, the acting was halfway competent. Certainly better than a show of this caliber would normally merit. And the songs of the Eighties which form the backbone of the series hold up well, even if the fashions don’t.

One final thought. In my introduction, I made a crack about keytars and their presence in the series. Yet neither of the above episodes really features this occasionally maligned instrument. So, Keytars!

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