DVD Review: Serial (1980)

SerialDVDSTUDIO: Olive Films | DIRECTOR: Bill Persky | STARS: Martin Mull, Tuesday Weld, Sally Kellerman, Bill Macy, Nita Talbot, Peter Bonerz, Christopher Lee
RELEASE DATE: 1/19/16 | PRICE: DVD $24.95, Blu-ray $29.95
BONUSES: none
SPECS: R | 93 min. | Comedy | 1.78:1 widescreen | mono

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio | Video  | Overall

 

A flop at the time of its release, Serial looks better with each passing year. While it appears like a bigger-budgeted sitcom on first look, it’s actually an underrated social satire that nails Seventies self-help culture and West Coast movements of all kinds (social, political, religious) while still offering a laugh line every few minutes.

The plot is simply a collision of events. Harvey Holroyd (Martin Mull, TV’s Two and a Half Men) and his wife Kate (Tuesday Weld, Thief) split up and consider the “swing” culture enjoyed by some of their friends, up until they reunite to retrieve their daughter, who has been suckered into joining a shady cult. In the meantime their friends continue to swap partners and attend a number of “bonding” ceremonies presided over by a hippie priest (Tom Smothers).

Based on Cyra McFadden’s bestselling novel (which had been serialized in a Marin County newspaper, thus the title), Serial is one of those comedies that serves as a perfect distillation of the era in which it was made. The film may have been released in 1980, but it is a pure product of the Seventies, with an “incorrect” sense of humor that shows the influence of Norman Lear and National Lampoon. The targets are indeed low-hanging fruit —therapy, health food, women’s lib, religious cults — but the dialogue is delightfully nasty and jaded.

Martin Mull checks out with Stacey Nelkin in Serial.

Martin Mull checks out with Stacey Nelkin in Serial.

Sitcom veteran Bill Persky (The Dick Van Dyke Show, Kate & Allie) establishes a good comic pace, while taking time to accentuate the elements that elevate the film out of the realm of the network sitcom, namely swearing and nudity. (Seventies movies always found time for nude scenes.) The film’s best asset isn’t its script (by Rich Eustis and Michael Elias) or its direction, though — it’s the terrific cast of familiar faces.

Martin Mull excels as the Everyman who gets to pass judgement on all the strange things his contemporaries are doing. It’s an interesting role for Mull, who had come to acting from a career as a musical comedian and a supremely deft ironist (as the star of the cult comedy Fernwood 2-Night). He is best known to today’s audience for his roles as authority figures in Roseanne and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, but he acquits himself quite well here as an average Joe (who is always nattily attired and sports an immaculate mustache).

The most interesting bit of casting finds Tuesday Weld as his wife. Weld, who forged a career at first as a sex kitten and then a very credible actress (Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Play It As It Lays), lends Serial a credibility that it might not have had otherwise. Her character is a rather bland “wife who wants to leave housework behind,” but she invests her with an interesting degree of world weariness that takes her several steps closer to reality. She also delivers her joke-lines very well (including repeated uses of the word “cunt” to sum up a catty friend).

The rest of the cast was also ideally chosen. Most of them were sitcom regulars in the Seventies, but each does their supporting parts justice. Bill Macy (TV’s Maude) is excellent as Harvey’s best friend, a breast-obsessed, friendly lout who can’t deal with his wife’s new-age obsessions. Sally Kellerman (Welcome To L.A.), Nita Talbot and Barbara Rhodes make an impression as Kate’s “sisters” in consciousness-raising. Peter Bonerz and Tom Smothers are quite good as, respectively, a money-grubbing therapist and a money-grubbing hippie priest.

The most memorable supporting character, though, is Holroyd’s boss, who is leader of a weekend motorcycle club that likes to “dress up like Hell’s Angels and listen to a lot of Judy Garland records.” (They’re indelicately titled the “Road Reamers.”) The actor who brings this cartoon character to life, oddly enough, is the late Christopher Lee (Scream and Scream Again), who displays a rarely glimpsed (for mainstream audiences) deft touch at silly comedy.

 

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”