Forgotten Films: Serial (1980)

“These are exciting times, aren’t they? Gas is over a dollar a gallon and it’s okay to be an asshole.”

So sayeth Martin Mull in the opening scene of SERIAL, one of those transitional films of the late 70’s/early 80’s that slipped into the repetitious cable maw of HBO, ensuring at least one generation was exposed to its mellow charms. Based on a comic 1977 novel by Cyra McFadden called “The Serial: A Year In The Life Of Marin County” that originated in a Marin alternative newspaper, the film version was penned by Rich Eustis and Michael Elias (who later created the Howard Hesseman show, “Head Of The Class”). The story is a broad macrocosmic (and macrobiotic) jab at the Bay Area hot-tub Esalen Montessori Me decade at its tail end, detailing the lives and lovers of an affluent fringe society who have little economic problems so channel their energies into hyper-self-examination, unlimited personal freedom and expansive neurosis. Along with time for swinging orgies.

Martin Mull received one of his rare lead roles, the result of his fame from MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN and his cult classic 1977-78 show, FERNWOOD 2NIGHT, which was a pith-perfect parody of late-night talk show banality, introducing many of us to Fred Willard’s clueless sidekick. Mull had an established career as a smug and ironic comedian replete with popular records, and in SERIAL his Harvey Holyroyd acts as the smart-ass audience surrogate, verbally challenging every facet of the Marin laid-back lifestyle. His wife Kate (the always awesome Tuesday Weld) is more open to new experiences as is their daughter who calls her dad by his first name. Harvey’s circle of friends is almost Altman-esque, including Sally Kellerman in a funny role as the most susceptible to pop psycho-proselytizing female of the group. Bill Macy plays his middle-age crazy friend who ends up a victim of the culture and Peter Bonerz is the “let it all hang out” coked-out psychoanalyst to Holyroyd’s no-bullshit son. Tommy Smothers pops up as a flaky new-age priest who has some hilarious non-committal wedding vows – “I now pronounce you pair-bonded for as long as your relationship continues.” My favorite bit of casting is Sir Christopher Lee as Mull’s tough guy boss (sporting a faux-Texas drawl) who turns out to be more than meets the eye in one of the film’s best scenes. Lee had been a hit on “Saturday Night Live” and that allowed him to truly break free of his horror typecasting with roles in AIRPORT ’77; 1941 and this. There are funny bits from all the supporting players. SERIAL also contains what I believe is the first STAR TREK cultural reference in a motion picture.

Director Bill Persky was a well-known TV producer/writer/actor and SERIAL remains his only theatrical credit. The film doesn’t have much a style and some of the ADR is fairly distracting (along with an awful TV-level theme song) but the film recalls the low-key satirical tone of Paul Mazursky, who actually wrote the final word on the 70’s Me Decade in 1969 with BOB, CAROL, TED & ALICE. The main difference is that Mazursky has more gentle empathy for his subjects while the script here slams home the shallow hypocrisy of the group with excess superiority. Frankly, Holroyd is kind of a condescending square, even after his first and only orgy (ah, the 70’s…). He does “let it all hang out” and hooks up with the sexy Stacey Nelkin as an archetypal free spirit of the era, i.e., Will Make It With You Without Hangups, Man. He later leads an impromptu rescue of his daughter from a group of Moonie-type cultists, a subplot that TV’s brilliant “Soap” handled with more wit and drama. But minus Sir Lee on chopper.

Probably the film’s biggest drawback is the Marin characters are primarily caricatures while Holroyd is presented as the only sane man in a world gone narcissistic, when in fact he’s bland and disengaged (even though Mull plays him just right). Tuesday Weld is more interesting and she gets one of the film’s best shock lines. Despite the wonky tone, Persky keeps the rhythm flowing with some wonderful scenes, such as Kellerman inviting her black maid into a liberated rap session; the class/racial sub-text is smartly addressed and parodied. Robert Altman certainly could have done wonders with a sprawling story like this.

In the end, I appreciate SERIAL as one of the last of its kind, a 70’s film aimed at adults in a transitional cultural period. It’s clearly a harbinger of the 80’s Just Do It decade, and the mocking of personal spiritual expression is symptomatic of the Reagan era. After Harvey Holyroyd and family flee the self-help cocoon of Marin, he would likely end up a Yuppie (or in Martin Mull’s “History Of White People” HBO specials). Contrary to some reports, SERIAL was a modest hit and remains a favorite for those with nostalgia for late night cable, valium, cocaine, unprotected sex and naked jacuzzi parties…

18 Responses to “Forgotten Films: Serial (1980)”

  1. Bravo! I’m glad someone else on the planet has seen this.

    I’m thankful Altman didn’t get his hands on it — SERIAL has a flavor all its own.

    On another blog, someone wrote about Phil Kaufman’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, and I recommended he watch it back to back with SERIAL for the definitive portrait of late 70s Northern CA. But it fell on deaf ears. Too bad for him: those two movies together would make an awesome double bill.

    • christian Says:

      Glad you’re a fan too. As fer Altman, I just think he could have gotten into the characters in more depth than is presented here.

      I just watched the Kaufman version for the FIRST TIME a few weeks ago, and it would be a great double-feature. Strangely, I didn’t think Kaufman’s version was as satirical as I hoped. But Leonard Nimoy rules all over that film.

  2. By the way: have you ever contemplated the name Peter Bonerz?

  3. There must be an as-yet-unnamed genre of late-70s/early-80s American cinema reflecting culture recuperating from the 60s. SERIAL, HONKY TONK FREEWAY, COAST TO COAST… there’s an aura there.

  4. Haven’t seen this in years and I probably didn’t know what to make of it way back then, but you’ve got me curious to give it another look. What an amazing cast.

    Would THE OUTSIDE MAN count as a film with a Star Trek reference?

    • christian Says:

      To paraphrase Vincent Vega, You’d dig SERIAL the most, baby.

      As fer THE OUTSIDE MAN, wow, I’ve never seen it so if they ref the TREK, they win….

  5. Seek out THE OUTSIDE MAN. Seriously. Trek is actually seen on a TV someone is watching but if you ever see it you’ll thank me for not describing the specifics of the scene.

  6. […] A terrific review of Serial from the blog of Christian Divine […]

  7. hot tubs with ceramic heaters are the best and they are safer to use too because the heating element is fully enclosed ,:’

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  9. It bears mentioning that McFadden’s THE SERIAL is essentially a heterosexual ripoff of Armistead Maupin’s TALES OF THE CITY, and comparing the two adds sobering postscript.

    • Both THE SERIAL and TALES OF THE CITY were first published in the Marin County newspaper, Pacific Sun: both reflect that period from their respective sexual cultural mores…

  10. Just one mistake. Holroyd didn’t have a “no bullshit son”. Stokely was Sally Kellerman’s kid. Otherwise, gr8 review.

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