9:45am PT by Pete Keeley
'Parker Lewis Can't Lose' at 25: Like "Going to the Juilliard School of Cinema"
When execs at Fox Broadcasting Network handed Parker Lewis Can't Lose a series order and slotted it into their fall 1990 lineup, what they thought they were getting was a stylish, smart high school comedy. That the show wound up capturing the zeitgeist of the era so perfectly, making fans of everyone from Steven Spielberg to Ozzy Osbourne, was probably unexpected. That the show's creators, Clyde Phillips and Lon Diamond, would foster an on-set environment referred to by one director who worked on it as "the Juilliard school of cinema," and that their innovative approach to storytelling would alter the TV comedy landscape in such profound ways, almost certainly so.
But Phillips and Diamond — freed somewhat by the fact that cancellation was unlikely, given that Fox was still in its infancy and couldn't really afford to replace them on the schedule — instilled an ethos of "If you could think of it, you could do it" in their small team of collaborators. The result was a cult classic whose influence can be seen in nearly every single-camera comedy that has aired since.
The show starred Corin Nemec as Santo Domingo High BMOC Parker Lewis, who, along with "best buds" Mikey Randall (Billy Jayne), a moody rock bro delivered to Fox in the same shipment that year as Dylan McKay and Brandon Walsh, and Jerry Steiner (Troy Slaten), a geek (or rather, "former geek," due to his close association with nongeeks Lewis and Randall) with a magic trench coat that could produce seemingly any object from its lining, tried to make high school as interesting as possible. Their main antagonists were Grace Musso (Melanie Chartoff), the colorful (in speech and wardrobe), totalitarian school principal, and her "assistant" Frank Lemmer, a black-wearing, Nixon-loving sycophant whom she summoned with a dog whistle — and who's maybe actually a vampire.
"It just was a bunch of writers sitting in the room, thinking about, 'How crazy can we get and still tell a story?' recalls Phillips, who cites everything from the Marx Brothers to Tom Sawyer to Monty Python as influences.
"We were like bouncing off the walls with possibilities of what we could do. There was nothing that was off the table," adds Diamond.
Indeed, aside from the magical realism elements (along with Jerry's magic coat and Lemmer's teleportation abilities, the school bully, Larry Kubiac, was imbued with superhuman strength and appetite, and Musso possessed a Force-like ability that allowed her to, for instance, shatter a glass door with only her anger), the series made ample use of voiceover and cartoonish sound effects, original music, dream sequences, parodic set pieces and breaking the fourth wall. But where the show really separated itself was in production, where Phillips and Diamond would constantly push their directors to find creative ways to use the camera to tell the story.
"I always felt like I was chasing the scripts, which were so inventive, and our job on set was to be as inventive or more inventive as the scripts were," says four-time Emmy nominee Rob Bowman, who directed 12 episodes of the series before moving on, a few years later, to a director-producer role on The X-Files.
"We would also have these meetings called 'look of the film' meetings where we would talk to the director about what he or she had in mind. And then we would make suggestions and we'd say, 'You can go farther than that. It doesn't have to look like anything else that's on television. We have already gotten permission to go that far,'" says Phillips.
"A lot of shows, they want you to shoot what's on the page and not be creative and not transcend it. And Parker Lewis was all about transcending and bringing it to life on the screen and making it three-dimensional and creating a world," says Bryan Spicer, currently a co-executive producer on CBS' Hawaii Five-0, who directed 21 episodes of the series, more than anyone else.
"You always felt like Clyde was looming on set saying, 'Is that the most creative thing you can do, here?' And not, like, 'Hey, man, just give me a couple sides and a close-up and we're good.' That was never the case," says Bowman, who also recalls a healthy competition among the directors to outdo one another, a sentiment echoed by Diamond, who describes it as "a very friendly rivalry. We were all the beneficiaries."
"It was just making up the coolest stuff you could that supported the narrative," Bowman adds.
In some cases, the innovations were technical, such as in one shot where a camera was mounted to a guitar, which was in turn sent down a wire stretching from the roof of a building to the ground. "We put a guitar cam on there," says Phillips, "decades before that stuff was done. Now you'd put a GoPro on that thing. I'm not sure we invented it, [but] we had to figure it out because we knew the shot we wanted and it turned out great."
At one point, Spicer even paid someone to fabricate a camera mount he dubbed the "Spicer Spinner" that allowed the camera to quickly and smoothly swing in a horizontal arc, capturing shots that would often be accompanied by a whiplash sound effect.
"For a few years there it was like going to the Juilliard school of cinema," says Bowman. "It was the highest-caliber creative environment, with your professors, Lon and Clyde, pushing you to go well beyond your own preset boundaries, and that might have just set a different course for all of us directors for the rest of our careers was: 'I'm not limited by anything except my own imagination.'"
The show's unique approach to visual storytelling did not go unnoticed by their colleagues in the industry. Phillips and Diamond were fielding calls from celebrities of all stripes asking to appear in an episode, including the then-husband of actress Mary Ellen Trainor (who player Parker's mom): Robert Zemeckis.
"He loved the show and he loved how we shot it and he loved the tone of it and he was just so impressed with it," recalls Bowman. "And I thought it was about as cool as it gets, that Bob Z. would come and say, 'Hey, I just came down to tell you guys I think you're doing a great job.'"
Another prominent director was also a fan, enough so to offer Spicer a job. "After being on the show for two years," he recalls, "I got a call from Steven Spielberg, and he had been watching the show. And next thing you know I was working for Spielberg at Amblin." When asked what appealed to Spielberg about the series, Spicer says: "It was a live-action cartoon. It brought the world to life instead of just being static. Spielberg's all about telling stories with shots, and that's what we were doing."
But fans who wound up being the most important were the scores of young writers and directors who made it a point to be in front of their TVs at 7:30 on Sunday night. All four men describe a constant stream of creatives who, over the last 25 years, have approached them to say how much they loved Parker Lewis. Its influence can be felt most strongly in series like Scrubs, Malcolm in the Middle and any number of live-action series on Nickelodeon and Disney Channel.
Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence recalls appreciating the pacing of the series, specifically, in an era of static multicams: "Fun quick cuts, pops back to what's going on somewhere else, and a hard cut to a joke. It flew along. It took time for nice moments and interpersonal character stuff, but in the comedy it just rocketed through, and that became kinda part of all my half-hours." Though he does regret at least one association. "My one nightmare about Scrubs is after 10 episodes we removed all the sound effects. It was too much for our show, especially if we had 'em in and out of a scene in which a patient was dying. (Laughs.) It worked on Parker Lewis and did not work on my show."