Jan 3, 2016

Charles in Charge: The First Teencom

Fresh from his tenure on Happy Days, Scott Baio made a dent in the "servant saves dysfunctional family" genre with Charles in Charge (1984-85), about a college student who works as a male nanny, a surprisingly gender-bending role for 1984.

Willie Aames, who had starred with Scott in the teen sex comedy Zapped! (1982), would play his girl-crazy best friend Buddy.

Charles' rather disturbed charges would include painfully shy teenager Lila (15-year old April Lerman), tween mad scientist Douglas (14-year old Jonathan Ward), and preteen juvenile delinquent Jason (Michael Pearlman).

Charles himself would be rather nerdy, fond of suspenders, ties, and shirts buttoned all the way up.  To preclude any gay suspicions, he would have a steady girlfriend, Gwendolyn (Jennifer Runyon), and Buddy would be indefatigably girl-crazy.

Charles in Charge premiered on October 3, 1984 in a block with John Stamos' teen-oriented sitcom Dreams. There were a few things to like about it, like Jason's blatant crush on Charles.  But the teens who were expecting a hot teen idol stayed away, and the adults were busy watching The Fall Guy and Highway to Heaven, so the show tanked after 22 episodes.

A retooled Charles in Charge appeared in first-run syndication on January 3rd, 1987.   Lots of retooling:

1. The theme song was revamped to sound sexy and risque ("I want...ooh...I want Charles in charge of me!").

2. Charles was now a collegiate hunk, with an updated wardrobe, when he wasn't wandering around the house in a towel (or a hot dog suit).  A Charles-of-all-trades, he supplemented his nanny income by working as a teaching assistant at the college, and at the local pizza parlor hangout.

3. Buddy's girl-craziness likewise faded away; he became a dimwit instead.

4. There were strong adult characters, grumpy Walter Powell (James T. Callahan) and Charles' mother Lilian (Ellen Travolta).

5. And Charles' new charges, the Pembrokes, were not at all dysfunctional: glamorous future model Jamie (14-year old Nicole Eggert), bookish future writer Sarah (13-year old Josie Davis), and preteen athlete Adam (12-year old Alexander Polinsky).  Justin Whalen played Cousin Anthony.

This time teen viewers took notice, and Charles quickly becoming the #1 syndicated program on the air (Mama's Family was a close second).  It lasted until 1990, and inspired a whole genre of beefcake-heavy 1990s teencoms.

Of the three kids in the first incarnation of Charles, only Jonathan Ward had a significant acting career as a teenagerHe starred in the "boys alone" drama White Water Summer with Sean Astin (1987) and in the E.T. ripoff Mac and Me (1988), plus his own "my secret" teencom, The New Adventures of Beans Baxter (1987).  In 1994, he wrote and starred in a Discovery Channel documentary, Understanding Sex. 

Of the three kids in the second incarnation, both Nicole Eggert and Josie Davis went on to successful acting careers.  Alexander Polinsky does voice-over work and is involved behind-the-scenes in model construction.

See also: The Sound of Music