Childhood, Re-viewed

Watching television I loved as a child is like spending time with a previous version of myself. I imagine most people have a similar experience — we can remember the characters and story lines as we first understood them, but we are now privy to the jokes, allusions, homages, and double entendres of the adult world (the Elmer Fudd Wagner moments). Of course, sometimes adulthood deals out another one of its disillusioning blows as we realize for the first time how truly awful the thing we loved actually is. For me, the experience is often a mixture of nostalgic highs and embarrassing lows.

Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre, a live-action anthology series that ran from 1982-1987, was perhaps the very first television show I ever loved. It’s not uncommon for established, serious actors to appear in children’s entertainment, but this show somehow managed to cast astonishingly famous people into every retelling of a classic fairy tale. The show also brought in well-known guest directors, including Tim Burton, Eric Idle, and Francis Ford Coppola. Each of the episodes’ set designs were inspired by famous artists, filmmakers, or illustrators such as Edmond Dulac or Gustav Klimt.

Carole King and John Lithgow star in a scene from Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre.

Obviously, I was oblivious to these details as a child. I wonder if established artists enjoy the anonymity of performing for children, an audience to whom their fame and acclaim mean nothing. It may also be an opportunity for serious actors to become comedians or for musicians to try acting. When I watch episodes now, the experience is almost surreal; there are so many famous faces, cultural in-jokes, and moments of surprisingly adult humor that the fairy tale plot becomes secondary.

One of my favorite episodes (then and now) is the Norman Rockwell-styled adaptation of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Goldilocks and her parents are played by Tatum O’Neal, John Lithgow, and Carole King, respectively. Carole King spends most of the episode sitting on her front porch embroidering a tapestry, a joke that was clearly lost on the show’s general audience. Hoyt Axton of Three Dog Night and The Kingston Trio makes a memorable appearance as the gruff (non-musical) forest ranger. Three actors in bear suits and makeup complete the cast. The show comically reinterprets and embellishes the story, adding bear hibernation jokes (an alarm clock with four settings corresponding with the different seasons) and consequences for Goldilocks’ breaking-and-entering.

That earlier version of me appreciated the show on a level I never will again. Some of the episodes that failed for me as a child because they were too slow or confusing now seem like casualties of a low-budget collaborative experiment that allowed artists and performers to take risks in the name of children’s entertainment (Mick Jagger as the Chinese emperor in The Nightingale, I’m looking at you). But the truly great moments — Jeff Goldblum’s Big Bad Wolf facing off against Billy Crystal’s Little Pig, Susan Sarandon’s Beauty — are enough to inspire anyone to take a break from grown-up endeavors and risk making a fool of themselves in the name of fun.

Jessica Bates shares her name with Debra Winger’s character’s
undercover persona in the 1987 neo-noir thriller Black Widow. However,
she doesn’t really recommend that movie.

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