Ferris Bueller’s TV spin-offs

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was arguably one of the greatest teen films of all time. Its main character broke the fourth wall by repeatedly addressing the audience, while he dealt with common teen issues: school, a best friend, a girlfriend, a social life and family. Yet what divided Ferris Bueller from the pack of other weightier teen films was that the film did not take place in regular reality, but instead a twisted dimension where a teen’s fantasy of being the center of it all and completely unbeatable was possible. Ferris was the extension of our idle high school fantasies – after all, who wouldn’t want to have Mia Sara fawning all over them?

In any case, this 1986 John Hughes comedy became a smash hit, a regular video rental staple ever since, and is one of the lead contenders in geekboy arguments over which is the best Hughes film (the other major ones being either The Breakfast Club or Home Alone 2).

When a sequel was out of the question, NBC took the possibility of a built-in audience for this style of teen humor and bore a television series based on the flick. Ferris Bueller (no days off here) debuted in August 1990 as a half-hour show. The cast was completely new (although they inherited the same names): Charlie Schlatter filled Matthew Broderick’s role as Ferris Bueller, Brandon Douglas was Cameron Frye, Ami Dolenz was the new Sloan, and a relative unknown Jennifer Aniston played Ferris’ younger bratty sister Jeannie. And before those trivia nerds out there point out that in the movie Jeannie was Ferris’ OLDER sister… well, you’re right. But they changed it for the show anyway.

Other changes included relocating Ferris’ stomping grounds from Chicago to sunny California. Because all TV shows have to be in NYC or California.

In its 13 episode run, Ferris Bueller boasted a few guest stars, such as Tone Loc, Buddy Hackett, and Danny Nucci. Yet even with that and riding the coattails of a highly popular movie, it took a heavy beating from the start. Even film director John Hughes fought the networks to keep the show from coming into being, and that’s not really a letter of endorsement.. TV viewers (if you can find any that remember this show) were lukewarm about the effort; some liked it for its own charm, some thought the girls were attractive, but others disliked the new “jerk” Ferris who lacked the charm of Broderick.

Another reason for its demise was that Ferris Bueller wasn’t the only Ferris offspring on the block: Fox brought out its own teen prodigy named Parker Lewis in September of 1990. Parker Lewis Can’t Lose was the underdog of the Ferris Bueller War, as critics voted against it, yet it smashed expectations by becoming a cult hit and lasting for three seasons on the ever-quirky Fox network.

Parker Lewis Can’t Lose took many of the elements of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off–breaking the fourth wall, fighting school authority, wacky events, teens-can’t-lose mentality–and reshaped it into a new vision. Parker Lewis (Corin Nemec, who played the evil Harold in The Stand) could have been Ferris’ cousin, as he deftly manipulated classmates and the principal to suit his needs. Whereas Ferris’ mantra was “Life moves pretty fast,” Parker’s was “Not a problem.”

The world of Parker Lewis Can’t Lose was again that alternate reality of teen school life. Parker’s best friends were cool Mikey and nerdy Jerry (the three often synchronizing their swatches to each plan). He had an annoying younger sister, Shelly, and fought against the evil principal Grace Musso and her Steven Segal lookalike cronie. And shall we never forget the mighty Kubiac (Abraham Benrubi, who went on to a recurring role in ER) as the ogre bully. The show was peppered with playful optical effects (most notably being the pixalating of the screen before and after commercials), Parker’s bizarre and colorful shirts, Jerry’s bottomless trenchcoat pockets, lots of jokes, and hysterical parodies. I personally loved how the guys had a secret hideout in one of the lockers. Critics praised the show’s innovative camerawork as well as not having a laugh track. And long before Ally McBeal started her streak of pseudo-fantasy moments, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose had these in spades.

Parker Lewis Can’t Lose had its own array of guest stars (both famous and soon-to-be-discovered), including Milla Jovovich, Ozzy Osbourne, Weird Al Yankovic, Donny Osmond, Ray Walston, Sonny Bono, Robert Zemeckis, Juliet Landau (as a possible vampire, who went on to play an actual vampire in Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Tori Spelling, Curtis Armstrong, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Phil Hartman, and Harry Anderson.

The battle between Ferris Bueller and Parker Lewis Can’t Lose was a short and one-sided. Each show took potshots at the other (for instance, episode 7 of Ferris Bueller was entitled ‘Ferris Bueller Can’t Win’), but the fans spoke, and they deemed Parker the true successor to the Bueller crown. (Interesting side note: the final episode of Ferris Bueller aired over a half year AFTER the 12th episode aired).

Parker Lewis Can’t Lose had its fair share of difficulties along the way, however. Casting was constantly retooled: in the pilot, Mary Ellen Trainor appears as Parker’s mom, who was then replaced by Anne Bloom for the remainder of the first season — but THEN Trainor returned for the last two seasons. And in the third season, Fox went a different route. Changing the title to just “Parker Lewis”, they severely toned down the more fantastic elements of the show and some of the humor to make room for a more Saved By The Bell-ish teen dramedy. Fans of the show almost universally denounced the third season changes, which probably led to its cancellation.

Yet Parker Lewis Can’t Lose had a lasting effect with its unique style: less than a decade later, a sitcom revolution would debut shows featuring no laugh track, characters who talked to the audience, fantasy scenes, and a hightened sense of reality.

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