Splitsider

Friday, April 6th, 2012

Bateman Begins: It's Your Move

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

Before finding success on The Hogan Family and long before his career resurgence that began with Arrested Development, Jason Bateman was appearing on a wide number of TV shows in the 1980s. His first regular gig was on the Ricky Schroeder vehicle Silver Spoons, and as the story goes, because of the popularity of Bateman’s character on that program, a starring vehicle was created for him which became the short-lived It’s Your Move.

As someone who knew the actor primarily from Arrested, I decided to take a look at his early work, and was particularly interested in It’s Your Move because Bateman was the lead and because it's never been released on DVD. The only episode that was in the Paley archives, however, was the series finale, entitled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.” Even though the title might lead you to believe that the writers had some idea that the show was ending, the episode itself is just a regular part of the series, with no closure or indication that this was the final curtain.

From what I’ve read about the show, the basic premise was this: Bateman plays Matthew Burton, a teenager who is constantly causing mischief and scamming his sister Julie, played by Tricia Cast (now on The Young and the Restless), his single mother Eileen (Caren Kaye), and her boyfriend, Norman (David Garrison, who played Steve Rhoades on Married… with Children). Apparently, when the ratings weren’t looking too good for the show, in the fourteenth episode it was retooled. Matthew was caught in a scheme by his mother and put on probation, turning the sitcom into a much more traditional family show. Four episodes later, by the time the series finale rolled around, Bateman’s character is without any fangs at all, and quite frankly, pretty bland.

It’s Your Move's farewell episode, which aired on February 23, 1985, focuses mostly on Matthew’s sister Julie, as she is tragically locked inside the school’s equipment locker by a saboteur, causing her to miss the cheerleading tryouts and thus destroy her social status. Now it’s time for her brother Matthew to solve the mystery of who is to blame. Because of this mysterious element, the show begins with a parody of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, in which a drawing of the director’s distinctive profile appeared on screen, which Hitchcock would then walk into frame and cover before introducing that week’s story. Matthew’s best friend Eli (played by Adam Sadowsky, who is now the president of Syyn Labs, the company responsible for the giant Rube Goldberg machine in OK Go’s music video for the song “This Too Shall Pass.”) takes the role of Hitchcock, introduces the mystery, and begins the show.

The episode begins with Julie telling her mom that she can’t find her special cheerleading panties. Though the undergarments themselves end up being a very miniscule part of the story, the word “panties” is said at least ten times in the first five minutes, and it gets a big laugh from the studio audience every single time. At school, Julie walks into the equipment room, when suddenly she is pushed forward, and the gate to the chain-link fence inside the room locks her inside. In the second act of the show, Bateman’s character is finally given something to do, and we follow him as he tries to solve the mystery of who trapped his sister, and made her lose her spot on the cheerleading squad. After some investigation and interviews around school, with the help of comic relief sidekick Eli, Matthew makes his accusations in the final third of the show, blaming all of the characters of the show one by one, including the school principal played by Saturday Night Live's Garrett Morris, only to learn that the true culprit was the mother Eileen, who opened a door, inadvertently locking her daughter in the equipment closet.

For a show that was conceived as a Bateman vehicle, for the one-time scam artist lead the series definitely goes out with a whimper. The show is, obviously, a family sitcom from the eighties so I wasn’t expecting this to be the edgiest or to even be all that funny today, but I did find it strange that just about anything in the episode that could be construed as a joke was given to the characters around Matthew. When the show was retooled it would seem that they took away the character’s defining trait of schemer and forgot to give him any new ones. The final act of the show, set up as the classic parlor room accusation scene of a classic mystery film, gives Bateman a little room to spread his wings and act a little and he does do a remarkably good job for a child actor, showing a few sparks that allowed me to recognize a young Michael Bluth.

While the show may have a soft spot in some nostalgic TV fan’s heart, I was unable to find too much to like about this particular episode. I’m willing to say that perhaps this was just the wrong example, coming after a massive change in the core of the show. Perhaps the lesson of It’s Your Move that would be learned later on The Hogan Family and Arrested Development is that Jason Bateman does his best work as someone who reacts. Perhaps he shouldn’t be the scam artist catalyst and instead perhaps he needs to be the put upon voice of reason trying to keep everyone together.

However, if fan outcry is enough to get them to make an It’s Your Move reunion movie, I’ll give it another shot.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

  • kevhines

    My brother Will and I watched this show when we were kids and loved it. I still remember it fondly. Of course, I was around 10 years old, so take it with a grain of salt.

  • http://shroatblog.blogspot.com TJ Shroat

    Thirteen-year-old-me loved this show's brief run too. Bateman's character was a cross between Eddie Haskell and The Great Brain, and presages Ferris Bueller. Plus, Tricia Cast, who played the (slightly) older sister, was often dressed as a cheerleader. Thirteen-year-old-me was just fine with that.

  • John Silver@twitter

    I loved this show. The best one was the 2 parter where they created a fake rock band using puppets for the school talent show. I remember that the band was called "The Dregs of Humanity." Definitely worth a look.

    • Carl@twitter

      @John Silver the 2 part Dregs episode is the one that stands out in my mind as the best of the series. i'm glad someone else remembered it! now that one is a show to watch and review.

  • illflux

    It could probably be argued that Bateman's first real regular role was on "Little House on the Prairie," where he played a recurring character when he was pretty young.

    • toony

      @illflux I was just watching a tragic episode (aren't they all on that show!) that starred him & Shannen Doherty. Fun times.

  • Dekkoparsnip

    I loved this show as a kid, and I re-watched several of them recently, thanks to the magic of a site of questionable repute online. It held up surprisingly well, especially in comparison to most of the other, more notable sitcoms of the time. (You ever try to re-watch "Webster?" Good lord, what were we thinking?)

    I think you're getting the wrong sense of it by only seeing the finale. Most of the series did center around Matthew and his scams, and he did get most of the clever dialogue, with David Garrison as his surly straight man.

  • J.R.

    Having watched and loved this show as a kid, I recently purchased bootleg DVDs of this show. I remember it as being an always-surprising chess match of con man against con-man, a sort of pre-Ferris Bueller. I definitely wondered if it would hold up.

    It totally did.

    This show was incredibly smart for its time. If you like con movies where one-upsman-ship and clever twists are the norm, this is the same thing in 80s sitcom form. Bateman plays a kid who has the school clocked. Making money from test scores, candy, etc. His single mother starts dating a new guy Norman, who Bateman can't stand. He tries to set Norman up for a fall, but Norman, a former bad-boy himself, catches onto it, and the battle for the mother's affection ensues. The twist? Neither of them wants to blow their innocent image in the eyes of the mother, so all of the battling has to be done out of her sight.

    It's really worth a watch.

    • bmorecoffee

      @J.R. I agree this show was definitely before it's time. I would love to see this sitcom back on TV.