Filmgoer’s Flamethrower #36 – Stay Tuned

Posted: September 4, 2022 in Uncategorized

© 2022 G.N. Jacobs

I’m not exactly sure why it mattered to me to go looking for Peter Hyams’ old movie Stay Tuned on Amazon Prime. I had remembered the movie from a long-ago previous foray into cable television as a mostly pleasant but entirely forgettable comedic romp satirizing television itself. But then I read an article comparing the movie to a more recent movie that borrowed the central premise, a couch potato ends up sucked into TV-land and must prevail over…

Truthfully, Stay Tuned doesn’t improve with a nostalgic re-watch three decades later. It is still a pleasant but ultimately forgettable movie. And until I somehow expended the mental effort the second time to think about a movie that doesn’t really justify the effort, I couldn’t have explained why. Now I think I can…as if it matters. The filmmakers pretty much created a movie that’s supposed to turn on a foundering relationship but only showed us one half of that relationship.

The Plot. Roy Knable (John Ritter) neglects his wife, Helen (Pam Dawber) not for the charms of another woman, but for the siren call of Mistress TV. Whether beaten down because former passionate champion fencers just perhaps shouldn’t try to sell plumbing supplies or passively aggressively annoyed the wife is doing better at her vitamin company executive job, Roy is now a couch potato. Way too much TV.

Helen breaks the TV in the living room during the latest Pay Attention Fight. This allows the mysterious man, Mr. Spike (Jeffery Jones) to appear and seductively offer a huge home entertainment system. There is, of course, the catch that the cable plan is a little off presenting shows designed to cater to an audience of one…someone who just loves sadism and misery. And with that Roy and Helen are sucked into the satellite dish to star in Hellavision. They have to survive a full day on shows trying to kill them to be released. What follows is a thinly disguised attempt to satirize TV and the shows found therein during the late 1980s through 1990s. Okay…cool, I guess.

Early on, the Knables are dropped into a Chuck Jones animation sequence as mice trying to do several things all at the same time: evade the robot cat trying to wipe them out, grab donuts left out on the kitchen counter and discuss the causes of their marital strife. Pretty much, this animated sequence defines the high-water mark for the whole movie. How do does a struggling couple escape a cartoon where they only have a limited amount of script immunity? How does anyone survive a cartoon? Generous access to the ACME Consumer Products catalogue.

Anyway, the rest of the movie proceeds through a serious of sight gags about TV. Wayne’s World becomes Duane’s Underworld and so forth and so on. Hanging on to various remotes gifted by Spike and/or finding a channel conduit is how you move from show to show trying to evade Satan’s TV minions. Yes, the filmmakers dropped Roy Knable played by John Ritter into a brief callback to Threes Company, yet Helen as played by Pam Dawber didn’t land in Mindy’s living room on Mork & Mindy

*Author rubs nonexistent beard in wonder* – “Gee, I wonder what’s going on there?”

Each sight gag is good for a chuckle, but only a chuckle. A second part of my epiphany about roads not taken in this movie is that I think the filmmakers needed to pick more shows and old movies that directly related to Roy Knable’s character. We see him enjoying old swashbuckler movies even waving an old rapier saying the dialogue long since committed to memory. So, this is where a smarty pants type suggests a slightly longer movie where more sword fighting takes place and to show character progression.

Yes, we did almost get a good moment out of the French Revolution movie “Off With His Head” that perhaps takes Tale of Two Cities to the woodshed. But maybe Roy Knable playing Le Baron de Knable Enemy of the People, needed to also be in an Errol Flynn pirate movie. A spoof segment that shows how people who haven’t picked up an epee in a while might just get their ass kicked?

Letting Roy recover his fencing skills on screen might also touch on what the movie is really lacking: Helen’s Why. She married a champion fencer, there’s a story that can be touched on with each thrust, parry and – “as I end the refrain, I thrust home!” Yes, fighting for her and his family is Roy’s Why to recover that younger better self. Why has Helen also been sucked into Hell TV?

We do see her getting on his case. She packs bags and expresses her regret that maybe Roy’s failure to keep fighting like the champion fencer he used to be is why their marriage is on the rocks. However, on screen it feels quite performative like filmmakers needing a reason why instead of diving in.

What if we saw a little more about Helen? She is the frustrated wife angry that her husband neglects her. We’ve seen in other movies what can happen when this sets in…

Does she start sleeping with her boss at the vitamin company (American Beauty)? Does she almost sleep with someone else willing to pay attention only to discover why she should stay with the husband (True Lies)? More importantly, due to being in the middle of a story about Hell and Lucifer what is the Devil going to do to use her needs to attack her relationship with her husband?

It came to me in a flash that if the Devil, whom I not sure we saw on screen, took a liking to Helen as the Conquest du Jour that suddenly you have real stakes for the Knables and the family. If, say, Spike tries to promise her he’d always be there for her. Would never throw her over for the Worlds Series. What happens in that movie? We don’t know…

In sum, Stay Tuned is a movie that maybe you’ve never seen because people my age thought it barely registered as interesting. I have my opinions about improving the movie by doing more with the wife…easily thirty years too late. And then we move on…

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