|Charles in Charge: Season One (1984)
Starring: Scott Baio, Julie Cobb, James Widdoes, April Lerman, Jonathan Ward, Michael Pearlman, Willie Aames, and Jennifer Runyon
There’s a new boy in the neighborhood. He lives upstairs, and it’s understood that he’s there just to take good care of me, like he’s one of the family. Well, okay, not me personally. Actually, he’s taking care of the three Pembroke kids: Lila, Douglas, and Jason. Oh, yeah, and the new boy…? He looks a lot like Chachi.
Scott Baio was just coming off his success on “Happy Days” as well as his unabashed failure on the infamous spin-off (and eternal punchline) known as “Joanie Loves Chachi,” when he got a shot at carrying his own, brand-new series: “Charles in Charge.” The premise is pretty well set up in the show’s theme song, as paraphrased in the above paragraph, but Charles – who was apparently never given a last name (or, if he was, IMDB.com never got the word) – is a college student who also serves as housekeeper and babysitter for the Pembroke family. Father Stan Pembroke and mother Jill Pembroke were played by James Widdoes and Julie Cobb, respectively; Cobb spent her time before and after the series playing random roles on any number of TV series, but Widdoes will forever be remembered as Robert Hoover, from “Animal House.” (In recent years, however, he’s built a solid reputation as a sitcom director, from “The King of Queens” to “My Wife and Kids.”) As far as the three kids, however, none of them ever managed to maintain anything resembling a proper acting career once this series came to an end.
You might be unsurprised to hear that news, since “Charles in Charge” is, in and of itself, just about as much of a punchline as “Joanie Loves Chachi.” Even your humble critic remembered it as being an absolutely stupid show and only took on the assignment because he thought it would a fantastically kitschy experience. Well, keep in mind, it IS a pretty cheesy show more often than not…but the problem is that there are two versions of the show: the one that spent a year on CBS, and the one that ran for three years in syndication. Those syndicated years are dumb, dumb, dumb – the only thing about them worth watching is Nicole Eggert…and given that she was a teenager at the time, you feel a little creepy about it – but this set consists of that first year…and, surprisingly, it holds up pretty well as a family sitcom. It was done in conjunction with Scholastic Productions, an organization you probably remember from when you were in elementary school (or, if you don’t, you would if you saw their filmstrip-inspired logo). As a result, every episode has a nice, tidy ending with an equally nice, tidy moral, but the dialogue tends toward being wordy rather than dumb; it’s in no way realistic when you hear the kids reciting it, but their delivery and timing is solid. There are even some episodes which could be put in a sitcom time capsule as perfect examples of ‘80s television; one in particular is “Slumber Party,” which features a pre-“Married with Children” Christina Applegate as one of a plethora of teenaged girls getting giddy over Duran Duran (going so far as to hold up a Simon Le Bon poster and screech), singing “Sunglasses at Night,” and dancing to “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.”
Okay, maybe I’m just making excuses for enjoying it. Let me clarify it a little bit more: the show is video heroin. You can’t walk away from it. And even if you somehow succeed in doing so, you’ll soon find yourself drawn back for another fix. Part of it is because Charles’s best friend, Buddy, is played by former “Eight is Enough” star Willie Aames – and may I just ask, when is that show is coming out on DVD? – and you never know what ridiculous line is going to come out of his mouth. Another part is because any time James Widdoes is on the screen, it’s inevitable that he’s going to be the funniest person in the scene simply because of his delivery. And, okay, maybe it’s because Douglas, the glasses-wearing middle child – played by Jonathan Ward – is a sci-fi / Dungeons & Dragons geek who reminds me wayyyyy too much of myself as a kid, and I’m working up a drinking game where I have to take a sip every time he says something that I would’ve said at that age. Mostly, though, it’s that damned theme song, which forever keeps you coming back for more.
“Charles in Charge” is not one of the best sitcoms of the ‘80s. It is, however, an easy recommendation for parents to pick up for their kids. It’s clean, innocent fun with a surprising number of laughs. If you’re thinking about picking up any season beyond this one, however, watching the second-season episode that’s included as an ostensible “bonus” should be enough to change your mind; the entire cast – minus Baio and Aames – changes, but a ridiculous plot device is used to keep the same house (and save the producers from having to pay for an all-new set)…and it goes downhill from there.