08 June 2011

My Secret Identity

On Facebook I love to post screencaps of old TV shows and movies that feature wine scenes, particularly with comedies. For so long, wine was merely a prop to signify an expensive restaurant, a special occasion, a rich person, or to engage in satire about those targets. While I agree with the idea that sacred cows make the best hamburgers, I do think this attitude stunted American attitudes towards wine for a long time. Ask most people to describe the working life of a vineyard and they'll imagine scenic vistas with people lounging around with lutes, reciting poetry. Occasionally there's a quick burst of energy where they pick all the grapes in one day so that the rest of the year can be spent in leisure. In reality it involves tractors and hoses and tanks and spreading manure and chasing wild pigs out of the vines. If anything it's closer to the solid American tradition of small farms and backbreaking labor rather than the vast mechanized grain farms of the midwest, yet is still perceived as some elitist pursuit.

Here's a detailed examination of a single half hour episode of a mostly forgotten show that illustrates my point.

Back in the 80s, there were a few syndicated TV shows that would air at odd times on those UHF channels. Quick vote: raise your hand if you ever circled through all the UHF stations over and over again hoping to extend your viewing beyond the regular four or five standard broadcast stations. Raise your other hand if you ever employed a younger sibling to adjust the antenna for you. One of these series was "My Secret Identity" starring Jerry O'Connell. The Canadian-produced series started right at the end of his short and pudgy Stand By Me phase and in season 2 he was tall and handsome, an early indicator that he'd star in Jerry Maguire and later steal Rebecca Romijn away from John Stamos. It went from a show about a kid with super powers to more of a teen drama that taught lessons each week. Explanation for those who haven't watched the link I posted: this was still during the Back to the Future era when it was considered OK for teenage boys to hang out with mad scientists and even go to French wine competitions for the sake of contrived plots.

I point out the Season 3, Episode 4 "Sour Grapes" because I think it's indicative of how wine tasting was perceived back in my childhood, and such perceptions demonstrate why a wine culture has struggled to take root here in North America. In the south of France, Dr. Benjamin Jeffcoat (a sort of nerdy Doc Brown who dabbles in multiple scientific disciplines out of his Ontario house) is demonstrating his synthetic wine powder that, when combined with water, can simulate any vintage of any wine. Even enough to fool those snooty French wine snobs. I'm curious as to how this went over in Québec.

Meanwhile, Jerry O'Connell and his friend try to impress the ladies of the Côte d'Azur with their awesome late 80s fashion. At one point around this time I owned a neon pink t-shirt, and while wearing it on a hike it was the first time I got hit by bird poop. I've mostly avoided the color since.

Since the show is kind of an action-adventure thing when it's not promoting lessons about teenage homelessness or whether it's OK to use your super powers to be a track star, Jerry gets into a bar fight with a guy wearing a beret and a striped shirt. It's a stereotype that was old even by the standards of the day. Also, the French wine mafia are trying to kill Dr. Jeffcoat with a tarantula that shows up various times and could be defeated with a shoe. Ahem, la chaussure, because a lot of the episode also involves Dr. Jeffcoat's computer translator device. Tarantulas aren't that dangerous and they're fun to hold. I've had several crawling over me at once and it was as much fun as a pile of kittens, except that tarantulas don't have claws and don't nibble on things like buttons or earlobes.

There is a pointless fight with paintbrushes with the two French chicks picked up by Jerry and friend. This doesn't have anything to do with wine, but does exhibit the general attitude of TV shows at the time that a trip to a French beach meant automatic PG-rated shenanigans from a variety of character actresses with bad accents.

I have to point out that aside from some exterior shots that were likely from stock footage, this entire series was filmed in Toronto. Yet they decided to include a lot of surfing, windsurfing, and other happy beach activities as the show went on. Let's call this the Baywatch Effect, Great Lakes Edition.

During beach fun time with fluorescent colors, Dr. Jeffcoat in pastels is being seduced by Genevieve, a representative of Chateau Blah Blah Blah. She presents a glass of the Chateau Blah Blah Blah 1929 in the cave. She chains him up in a Marquis de Sade contraption because, of course, that's what the French do.

Part of the plot by this point is that Dr. Jeffcoat can empty a packet of powder into a glass, add water, and have it taste like a 60 year old fine wine that can fool the experts. Because we all know that all them wine tasters is just deluded idiots like them fellers what was fooled by buying chimp paintings for millions of dollars. Happens ever day, I tell ya what.

Jerry shows up to save the day in the neon pink tank top. For anyone that's still reading, Jerry's powers are as follows: after being hit by a photon beam after walking in on one of Dr. Jeffcoat's experiments, he can fly (more like float using aerosol cans for propulsion), he has super speed, and is sometimes invulnerable. Nobody knows his secret... identity... except for Dr. Jeffcoat, and most of the time the only power he uses is to clean up the house really fast when he's accidentally burned the kitchen cabinets or gotten a car dirty. For a guy that uses his abilities to pass out flyers really quickly or play the drums really fast, he sort of uses the name Ultraman. (Again, the series dropped a lot of the comic book geek stuff as the lead actor had a growth spurt.)

Spoiler for anyone that hasn't watched the link but is still reading and still doesn't want to know how it ends... Turns out that the main bad guy is the snooty maître d'hôtel. Not only does he have the worst stereotypical French accent, but he's also a suicide bomber, because it's important to prevent a Canadian scientist from destroying the French wine market with dehydrated grape powder. (Note that people who like and enjoy real wine are almost always villains or buffoons, again, a common theme in 80s TV.)

Jerry uses his super speed to defuse the bomb, it turns out that Genevieve is not so bad after all, and they all regroup to the coast for the big wine tasting. Dr. Jeffcoat's synthetic wine is blind tasted by a panel of experts, and... well, I'm not going to spoil it for you. Take a half hour of Canadian kids' programming and enjoy it for yourself.

All photos are ©1990 Scholastic Productions.

1 comment:

Joe said...


I'm so glad you shared it with me. I like to tell my brother in law (who was born in 1989) that the 80's were exactly like all the shows and movies. USA! USA! USA!

I would also like to note that there was copious high-fiving on this show, and in the 80's.