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I enjoyed this short-lived series (although 13 episodes were shot, only 11 were ever aired). Sunday evening at 7 PM was an awful time slot for family fare, opposite ABC's Wonderful World of Disney. Replaced by the venerable "60 Minutes" - which continues to win that time slot until this very day. Veteran character actor Alex Rocco (usually known for playing mafia types, as in "Get Shorty") plays a photographer with two teen sons (TV teen idol Vince Van Patten - real life son of "Eight is Enough" dad Dick Van Patten and the then-unknown Leif Garrett). Rocco was cool in that 70s hipster dad way - long hair, relaxed attitude and a you-have-to-figure-things-out-for-yourself style of childrearing. As they traveled the country in their Vogue Motor Coach they naturally encountered troubled people and helped them solve their problems. In one episode ("Ghost Story") guest star Stefanie Powers believes her dead twin sister had come back to life and in another ("Prisoner in Sneakers") a teen contemporary of Endy's tries to stowaway in the motor home to escape a detention home. Often ended with one of the boys in trouble (usually Endy) - caught in an undertow, in danger while hang-gliding, etc... Fun for kids but apparently no one else. It'd be great to see it again.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Whither goest thou Karras, in thy Winnebago in the night?"
Some would punch me for that association (and not just because the preface quote is a riff on 'On The Road', not 'Dharma Bums'). So, I'll try to piece it all together without digging myself any deeper.
As short lived and prime-time cheesy as this series seems now and perhaps by the standards of the time, it has a spirit that seems to have been lost. I noticed that loss in the Star Trek retreads. The original Trek was about exploration of new territories, going someplace no man has gone before. Later versions became more like soap operas in space with a reoccurring cast of ET's that were more like troublesome neighbors than mysterious alien species.
Likewise, 3FTR was an Odyssian foray through a heartland that, while still a watered down prime-time construct that pandered to the moral prerogatives of white suburbia, managed to pose some fundamental questions here and there.
I am not really rating this high because it was such a great show, but because of the subtext, the break-away from it all meme... sort of like: What if 'Easy Rider's Wyatt had lived, settled down, had a couple of sons and traded his chopper for a Winnebago, all edited for family viewing.
It was the first TV series I remember missing when it went off the air. I was too young for the Star Trek craze, though I do remember seeing the premiere episode and being captivated by the sense of adventure and the Unknown. That theme is also part of my attraction to 3FTR.
I was in my mid teens and not really much of a television viewer. The standard fare that many from my generation took to heart, (Brady Bunch, The Waltons, Happy Days etc ) that have gone on to spawn spoofs and remakes and provide metaphorical backdrops for numerous Dennis Miller bits, weren't really attractive to me. But there was something about 3FTR that made me stay home to watch it something beside Vince Van Patton, I mean. He was admittedly the only reason I watched the first episode. But as strong as my teenage crush was, it would not cause me to be fascinated with this series to this day.
It wasn't until a few years ago, when I found a VHS rip of the pilot, that I realized what the real draw was and why so many of today's shows hold little attraction. 3FTR was a road show. As innocent and tempered by prime time sensibilities as it was, it was about the unknown; going new places, meeting new people, having adventures. Wandering protags, moving from one unpredictable adventure to another on new landscapes.
And like all road shows, it was a morality tale. Not the heavy-handed family values BS one got in white bread fantasies like The Walton's or Little Façade On the Prairie. It was more Zen.
In the premiere episode Alex Rocco defeats brawn with wits and a 'Kwai Chang Caine' detachment from the fight. In the end instead of serving up the expected kick ass he saves the day by removing the splinter from the lions paw. The writers didn't need to elaborate with some heavy monologue. They let the play say the thing.
And there was a believable connection between the actors, especially in their interactions while they were traveling. This little exchange captures what kept me watching after that 1st episode. The youngest brother, Endy (played by 13yo pre-disco, pre-heroin, Leif Garret) can't sleep for thinking about his dead mother. So he joins his father, Pete, who is at the wheel of the Winnebago, driving through the night:
Pete: Can't Sleep?
Endy: I just made myself dizzy.
P: How'd you do that?
E: Thinking about eternity.
P: Heavy subject for the middle of the night.
E: I started out thinking about Mom.
E: Can you imagine something that has no end to it at all? Where you live for a million years and never be any closer to the end than when you started?
P: That's what made you dizzy?
E: It sort of scares me.
P: Yeah. It sounds really scary. Of course, you don't know if time will be measured the same way.
E: What do you mean?
P: Well, if I were going to invent a heaven, I sure wouldn't build it around something that's going to make everybody miserable. And I figure God's a lot smarter than I am.
E:(laughing) That's real humility Dad.
I remember fantasizing about how cool it would be if Dad could get one of those Winnebago's and we could hit the road, just he my brother and I. Leave Mom and the sisters at home for the weekend and just see what lay beyond the desert horizon. It seemed to me that the characters had the perfect life. Unanchored. Free.
Not that my pondering will do anyone any good. It is unfortunately not available that I know of anyway. I hope the whole series will get released on DVD someday, so I can watch it and see whether I am on to something with this Kerouac business, or if it was actually really awful and this is just a bunch of heightened memory BS. haha!
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