Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What a rip!

I’ve always been amused by rip-offs. In a popular culture filled with derivative crap, these are some of the most blatant examples—and sometimes the most perversely enjoyable, for their sheer “oh no they didn’t!” awfulness. The first rip-off I can remember seeing was Mac and Me. For those of you unfamiliar with this little 1980s gem, its sole purpose was to promote McDonald’s… while ripping off ET. (Well, that’s not entirely true; Coca Cola backed the movie as well, so numerous references to them pop up.) A boy in a wheelchair (gag me) befriends a grotesque little lost alien and nicknames him “Mac” after his favorite Mickey D’s sandwich. (Great, as if the kid doesn’t have enough to deal with being in a wheelchair, now he’s a prime candidate for childhood obesity.) The two have adventures… or something. I honestly can’t remember a thing about this stupid movie, besides one scene with the mom getting dropped off at Sears (product placement #3!) and a later scene in which the boy’s female friend, dressed in her McDonald’s uniform, gives Mac’s dying mother a sip of Coke from a McDonald’s cup. According to IMDB, the film ends with the onscreen legend “We’ll Be Back,” but since it bombed, they, well… weren’t. What follows is my loose and by no-means-complete list of other notable rip-offs.
Battlestar Galactica—Calm down fanboys, I’m not talking about the critically acclaimed new version, which is apparently some of the most brilliant TV around. I mean the atrocious cheesefest original, which according to some was “like Star Wars every week!” even though it lacked that film series’ quality acting, writing, special effects, or anything. (Yes, there was a time when the Star Wars franchise was well written and acted.) The similarities to Star Wars were so glaring that George Lucas and co. supposedly considered taking legal action. Which is understandable, because we all know Lucas would neeeeever allow his Star Wars legacy to be tarnished.
Friday the 13th—Perhaps no horror film has inspired as many imitators as Halloween, the 1978 horror classic whose massive success ushered in a new era of “slasher films” with holiday based titles: Mother’s Day, April Fool’s Day, Happy Birthday to Me, New Year’s Evil, Graduation Day… the list went on and on. But the first was this slapdash concoction, a dull and irritating film that somehow managed to become a “classic” in its own right. Once again we’ve got killer POV shots, a mysterious stalker, and a creepy “holiday” setting, plus lots of promiscuous teens and one plucky virgin. Audiences were so starved for another Halloween that they flocked to this film, despite the fact that director Sean S. Cunningham and star Adrienne King were a far cry from John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis.
Sunset Beach—Okay, I confess, I loved this show. But in the grand tradition of daytime soaps, which have ripped off everything from The Exorcist (Days of Our Lives) to the death of Princess Diana (the kooky Passions, which was forced to scrap that storyline because of the uproar it caused), this sadly short lived sudser ripped off with abandon. The two I remember the most were its aping of MonicaGate, with an intern/politician affair and prosecutor Ken LaMoon (har, har); and a Scream-ish “Terror Island” storyline, with a masked killer stalking the cast. But it didn’t stop there; in a late-in-the-game bid to jazz ratings, the show had an earthquake and a tidal wave, which capsized a cruise ship filled with characters enacting their very own Poseidon Adventure.
Dawson’s Creek—Even nighttime soaps have a tendency to rip things off, as evidenced by this teen melodrama (another favorite of mine). In Season 2, the characters enacted kinky Titanic-esque scenarios like a nude portrait session (“Except, I’m Jack and you’re Rose,” Joey remarked to not-yet-out Jack) and steamed-up car make out session. In Season 4, a dramatic Perfect Storm take-off served as a larger-than-life backdrop for the deathless Dawson/Joey/Pacey triangle (cause hell hath no fury like horny, jealous teens!) and a goofy Blair Witch episode was less than successful.
Lipstick Jungle/Cashmere Mafia—Is it possible to rip off yourself? Seems that way, given that these two Sex and the Wannabes are from Candace Bushnell and Darren Star, the minds behind the original single gals in the city series. Viewers saw through one of these duds (the cancelled Cashmere Mafia, which deserved to die for the title alone), but Lipstick Jungle is back with the beyond-bland tag line “Bright lights, big city, best friends.” Personally, I prefer Saturday Night Live’s pitch perfect parody, Lady Business: “Now that I’m here there are gonna be some changes. Meetings are no longer mandatory—they’re womandatory!” At least the creators of that sketch acknowledged just what it was they were ripping off.


Michael J Murphy said...

I've never heard of anyone else who's heard of Mac 'n Me!

It's amazing how these programs become cultural artifacts; though not necessarily preserving anything we'd like to remember.

Justin Lockwood said...

Sometimes I feel like the more lousy and cheap something is, the more fondly we end up remembering it. I guess it's that magic mix of camp and kitsch.