The Films of David Lynch: On the Air (Episode 1) (1992)

On the Air – 1stEpisode (1992)
Directed by:  David Lynch.
Written by: Mark Frost & David Lynch.
Starring: Ian Buchanan (Lester Guy), Nancy Ferguson (Ruth Trueworthy), Miguel Ferrer (Bud Budwaller), Gary Grossman (Bert Schein), Mel Johnson Jr. (Mickey), Marvin Kaplan (Dwight McGonigle), David L. Lander (Valdja Gochktch), Kim McGuire (Nicole Thorne), Marla Rubinoff  (Betty Hudson), Tracey Walter ('Blinky' Watts), Raleigh Friend (Hurry Up Twin), Buddy Douglas (Buddy Morris), Raymond Friend (Hurry Up Twin), Irwin Keyes (Shorty the Stagehand), Everett Greenbaum (ZBC Announcer).

A year after Twin Peaks went off the air, David Lynch and Mark Frost returned to network television for the surreal, half hour comedy On the Air. More than a decade before 30 Rock or Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Lynch and Frost’s show was a behind the scenes look at a live variety show – this time set in the early days of television in the 1950s. The network, ABC, apparently hated the show – and ended up only airing three of the seven episodes that were made in the summer months before pulling it off the air forever. The show has developed a cult following – of course – in the years since though. Lynch directed the first episode of the series, but none of the rest. Having never seen the show, I thought I’d take a look at that first episode to decide if I wanted to venture through the next six. The short answer to that question is no. Had I been a Lynch fan in 1992 (when I was 10), I probably would have stuck with the show to see if it went anywhere. Watching it 23 years later though, I felt the first episode was an unfunny mess – and I don’t see much point in continuing the series.

The show was takes place on the set of fictional television program The Lester Guy Show. Lester Guy (Ian Buchanan) was a movie star coming over to TV, because according to the network, the research shows that the audience wants that. The pilot episode has a series of bad things happening before the show that they work out, and then the show itself – which went out live – was a complete and utter disaster. Anything that could go wrong, did go wrong. The punchline being, of course, that the show was an immediate smash hit because of all the screw-ups.

I found the pilot episode of On the Air to drag – a lot – but not in the way most pilot episodes do. Many pilots are mediocre at best, because you have to spend so much time setting up the characters, their relationship to each other, and the basic outline of the show. By the time you get that out of the way – especially in a half hour sitcom – there’s no room for anything else. I didn’t find that to be the case with On the Air – which spent most of its time dealing with just a few characters, which is smart, but ones who are horribly unfunny and one joke characters, which is not smart.

So, for example, there was Betty Hudson (Marla Rubinoff), the blonde co-star of the show, whose one character trait seems to be that she is the dumbest dumb blonde in the history of the world. She doesn’t understand anything, and has to have it explained to her multiple times (the part about her mother ironing was painful). Then there is Valdja Gochktch (David L. Lander), the show’s director “from the old country” who is supposed to be funny, I guess, because he has an accent. The star of the Lester Guy Show isn’t actually in the opening scenes – as they prepare the show – very much, but once it gets started, he has a lot of slapstick comedy (which, admittedly), is pretty good. There are lots of other characters – like Miguel Ferrar playing the network executive you would expect him to, and a strange soundman named Blinky.

I didn’t really laugh during the first episode of On the Air. The show did get better as it moved along, but in general, I found the whole thing so overtly silly that none of it landed for me. For the most part, I believe you need to have something ground a show like this in reality – that allows you to take weird flights of fancy – but in this show everyone and everything has to be so zany at every second that grounding is impossible.

I’m not surprised the show didn’t last on ABC – hell, I’m surprised it even made to air on ABC at all, or any other network. Perhaps now, with so many channels looking for content, Lynch and Frost could have created a show this outlandish for a small and passionate audience – but not back in 1992. I loved many of the zanier aspects of Twin Peaks, but there they had something to balance them out. Here, they don’t – the whole pilot seems like its cranked up to 100, and this ends up making it the weird combination of boring and exhausting. Yes, it’s certainly a David Lynch TV show – but in this case, just not a very good one.

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