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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Static Thoughts - Top 10 Real Ghostbusters Episodes

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Edited by Robert Beach

This Friday we’ll see the premiere of Sony’s Ghostbusters reboot.  The long awaited revamp of the 1980s comedy classic has had everyone talking pretty much since its announcement. Most of the chatter has been based entirely on gender politics and grousing but let’s not let that taint this particular moment for us.  

Instead, I’ve elected to look back on the Ghostbusters we came from in anticipation of the Ghostbusters we’re headed for.  However, rather than just gush about the movie, which is already rightly regarded as a classic, I’m looking back on the film’s spin-off animated series The Real Ghostbusters. 

I think I can say without any hyperbole of nostalgia goggles that The Real Ghostbusters was the best-animated show of the ‘80s.  I’m coming at this from someone who watched the show as an adult, and it holds up phenomenally well: great voice cast, well-written episodes, tons of great comedy ideas skewering horror tropes, it’s just a terrific series and is honestly leagues above a lot of its contemporaries.  Given that, I’ve elected to rank my top 10 best episodes of the show, with honorable mentions going to The Headless Motorcyclist, Station Identification, Knock, Knock, and Apocalypse- What Now. 

So the explanation for this listing is going to come with a great big asterisk but stick with me here.  The basic plot of ‘Flip Side’ is pretty great: the Ghostbusters end up whisked away to a bizarre alternate reality where ghosts are the main population and people are perceived as ghosts.  It’s a whacky concept, especially when the boys develop flight and intangibility as ghost powers and the local spooks call out the People Busters to deal with them.  

From this point, future adaptations of the Ghostbusters would go on to include multiple universes and parallel realities as a big part of the mythos.  The idea of a ghostly version of the team is a great concept, and the People Busters would return in subsequent Ghostbusters comics on some occasions.  Plus it was fun seeing the heroes end up the spooky specters for once and see how much fun there’s to be had with ghost powers. 

So, why does this episode come with a big asterisk next to it?  Well, at one point in the production of The Real Ghostbusters Bill Murray complained to the network that Lorenzo Music, the guy voicing Peter Venkman, didn’t sound enough like Murray.  The network quickly scuttled Music and replaced him with Dave Coulier, who was terrible.  

Okay, to Coulier’s credit he seems like a decent guy who can do decent work but his Venkman is an insufferable cartoonish goober and was a contributing factor in the show’s complete decline and, unfortunately, he played Peter Venkman in ‘Flip Side.’  It’s not exactly a deal breaker for the episode, but it does impact how enjoyable it is and how great it could’ve been.

Here’s a weird one but I like it, mainly because of the mythology geek in me.  The story is about a freaky, pasty bastard named Jeremy who, growing disillusioned when his girlfriend Cindy breaks up with him, decides to end the world.  Normally that wouldn’t mean much more than posting crappy things online about women but because this is Ghostbusters Jeremy finds a magic flute that he can play to summon the Norse Doomsday that is Ragnarok.  Oh, also Jeremy has a weird hunchback best friend named DyTillio for seemingly no reason.  Seriously, this episode is a delightful hodgepodge of bizarre elements you’d think it wouldn’t fit together, but somehow it does.

The Norse monsters are a blast as The Real Ghostbusters always did a great job with the action elements.  This is a good example of how much the show bent the rules on what constituted a “ghost” on the program but given that they did cool things with that bending of the rules.  The melodramatic elements of the episode, especially when DyTilio turns on his friend, are well done, and Jeremy himself is a unique element.  

He’s one of the only human villains The Real Ghostbusters ever faced and even more he was portrayed as something of a sympathetic bad guy.  Even though his motivations were pretty bogus, he does realize his mistake and manages to be redeemed by the end of the episode, making this one of the few episodes with a full character arc. 

*One of the great things about The Real Ghostbusters was that having so much additional space beyond the movie allowed them to develop characters the film hadn’t had space too.  This allowed Peter to develop beyond his initially sketchy, sleazy roots and gave Ray’s childlike exuberance for the act of Ghostbusting to shine through a little stronger, while also affording greater definition to Janine but we’ll touch more on that later.  The biggest thing it added was way more definition for Winston Zeddemore, to the point he’s my favorite Ghostbuster thanks entirely to the show. 

‘The Moaning Stones’ is a great example of this, as it involves Winston calling on the spirit of one of his ancestors for help defeating an African demon unleashed at the Natural History Museum.  It gives him a ton of focus while also playing up the divide between Winston’s everyman status as the outsider on the team with this weird personal history of Ghostbusting always running in the family.  

It’s a weird combination but one I think works, especially since in the show’s continuity Winston wasn’t a marine and always had doubts about his ability to work as a Ghostbusters as he wasn’t a scientist.  Finally, this was one of the last Winston-centered episodes where he was voiced by Arsenio Hall, who does an incredible job with the comedy of the character, adding a dry and sarcastic wit to his role as the outsider on the team that’s infectiously hilarious. 

This is a pretty fun one along similar themes as ‘The Moaning Stones,’ only revolving around Peter rather than Winston.  Written by comics’ legend J.M. DeMatteis, the episode plays a lot like a page out of Justice League International, my personal introduction to mainstream comics and easily the best era of the Justice League ever.  

The plot revolves around Necks, a lord, and ruler of the sea elementals, declaring war on the surface world for our rampant pollution.  This makes it an environmental story but don’t let that fool you, aside from Necksa’s motivation this is still a pretty character heavy episode and mainly focused on action and development.  See, after Necks first tangles with the Ghostbusters he scoops up Egon, Ray, and Winston, leaving Peter alone as humanity’s last hope. 

What I love about this plot is how much it confronts Peter as an underachiever on the show and, by extension, the films that birthed the franchise.  The show tended to ignore pretty much the fact Peter was a scientist, even if his degree was in parapsychology that’s like a real science in this universe.  That approach fit with his character in the film as someone who used science to try and get laid and it fit with the show where Peter was always the sarcastic, cool guy of the team, all of which gave him excuse never to be as smart as he honestly could be.  

But stripping him down of all his friends, alone at the end of the world, Peter manages to dig deep and come through for his friends by building an all new ghostbusting device to defeat Necksa.  It’s a great arc that emphasizes how much the role we adopted for ourselves can impact what we think we’re capable of and how we can still rise to the occasion even when things are at their worst. 

This episode is such a blast, though admittedly it’s gotten a little less unique as Cthulu has metastasized into a more memetic element of nerd culture.  The idea is that all of the Cthulu mythoi exists as part of the Ghostbusters universe in both a real and fiction sense.  See, in this world, H.P. Lovecraft didn’t invent all his ideas but instead discovered them and presented them as fiction.  

That might seem like a weirdly circuitous and pointless idea, but it comes super in handy at the end of things.  See, the plot is your standard Dunwich Horror riff where a Cthulu cult steals the Necronomicon and uses it to incarnate Cthulu into the world of the living.  There’s some cool business in there about the boys teaming up with a Cthulu scholar from Arkham, Mass to try and stop them but ultimately they’re too late, and Cthulu attacks reality. 

Now facing down terror from beyond the realms of time and space, the only option open to the boys is to read through a ton of old H.P. Lovecraft pulp novels and magazines to try and find where he says how to defeat Cthulu.  It’s a wonderfully junky idea, and it all leads to a showdown with a massive Cthulu in the midst of the Coney Island amusement park.  If you’re a fan of the Lovecraft mythos this is a great tribute to it that manages to blend elements of humor and sincere tribute perfectly with plenty of action; it’s great fun. 

As I mentioned, The Real Ghostbusters went a long way at affording the characters more depth and identity beyond the limited space of a movie, and there’s no better example of that than Janine Melnitz.  Voiced excellently by Laura Summer, Janine went from a minor fun character to a series regular and one of the funniest and best parts of the whole franchise.  

She was a smart, sassy, lady who would go to bat for the boys but also wouldn’t take any of their nonsense.  She even got to pursue a longstanding relationship with Egon that was pretty much his only vaguely human moment.  And in a bunch of episodes, she got to suit up and be a Ghostbuster herself. 

In the case of ‘Janine Melnitz, Ghostbuster’ the boys get captured by a powerful elder God like Gozer known as Proteus.  With no other option, Janine grabs a proton back and a jumpsuit and heads out to save New York.  It’s a fun episode with a menacing bad guy, great action, and a real chance for Janine to shine as she goes solo.  Plus, this episode served as the foundation for a crossover between The Real Ghostbusters and the main movie Ghostbusters continuity.  

See, Real Ghostbusters pretty much broke with the movies timeline and aesthetics, so when IDW started making Ghostbusters comics, they decided to stick with the films rather than the animated series.  But, in a 2015 mini-series Ghostbusters: Get Real, the two continuities crossed over when Proteus came back for revenge.  It’s a great story to spin out of a great episode. 

One of the unique things about Ghostbusters is that they’re superheroes (crazy tech, specific costume, patrolling the city, secret headquarters,), but they lack a strong roster of bad guys.  The movies have about three memorable baddies between them all, and one of them is a snotty EPA agent while the show only really notched three iconic villains in its right.  

I won’t be talking about Real Ghostbusters’ Sandman as, even though he was a cool villain, his episode is only so-so and touches on a lot of the stuff I already mentioned in ‘The Moaning Stones.’  Instead, let’s focus on Samhain, the Celtic spirit of Halloween that was released from a centuries-old prison and managed to freeze time for All Hallow’s Eve to last forever. 

There’s nothing character wise that special about this episode it’s just a great premise featuring superb villain design and execution.  Samhain is such an amazing bad guy they even brought him back for the opening credits of the sequel show Extreme Ghostbusters, and he had a reoccurring part in a bunch of Ghostbusters comics.  He’s such a creepy looking bad guy with cool powers that perfectly fit the spooky, Halloween nature of the Ghostbusters as a concept.  

What’s more, there’s the interesting dynamic of Samhain as an eldritch force of ancient power going up against the ‘Busters, who are patently modern and advanced.  Even though Samhain only ever fought the Ghostbusters twice on the show, it just goes to show impactful and popular one appearance can be.   

The only reason Samhain isn’t the best Ghostbusters version is this episode and this monster: the Boogeyman.  A freakish, giant-headed monster with a mouth full of freaky bad teeth and a perpetual smile that haunts the nights of children everywhere.  

He’s a terrifying monstrosity made all the more creepy by the fact he preys on children and even though it’s not made explicitly clear what he does to kids we can pretty much assume it’s nothing good.  This guy is so evil he even terrorized Egon when he was a child, an event that was so traumatic and horrible this episode manages to shock Egon out of his normal stoicism and push him to the limit. 

The plot is that a pair of children come to the Ghostbusters for help because the Boogeyman has been terrorizing them for several nights.  The boys agree to help at Egon’s instance and discover an entire dimension of closet doors the Boogeyman uses to terrorize all the children of the world.  Eventually, this leads to a final, deadly confrontation between the Busters and the Boogeyman in his realm that pushes the team to the absolute edge.  

Aside from featuring the best bad guy in all of the Ghostbusters, this is also a great Egon episode, affording him a level of humanity he normally resisted.   If you do go looking for this episode, be aware that a redub of it with Dave Coulier does exist and should be avoided at all costs if you’re hoping to enjoy the experience. 

It’s a Ghostbusters Christmas!  Written by show runner J. Michael Straczynski, this episode has the greatest premise of all time easily: the Ghostbusters accidentally travel back in time to Victorian London where they bust the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future.  

Upon returning to the present, they find that Scrooge, who is a real person in this continuity, managed to destroy Christmas as a holiday and turn the world into a miserable bunch of humbugs.  Now in a race against time, Egon tries to free the Christmas ghosts from the containment grid while Peter, Ray, and Venkman head back to Victorian London to go through the motions of a Christmas Carol themselves to try and change Scrooge’s ways. 

This is such a great premise it’s transcendently beautiful, not the least of which is owed to the hilarious contrivances that go into it.  Like, firstly Ebenezer Scrooge existed in this universe as a real person but also as a popular story by Charles Dickens, and the fact that the ghosts of Christmas redeemed Scrooge also made Christmas a popular holiday.  

That’s an insane amount of nonsense just to drop on the audience without any explanation and starting from the word go.  What’s more, the busters having to go through tons of shenanigans to fix their screw-up is hilarious, and the alternate Christmas-hating world is pretty great.  Oh, also Santa Claus exists in this world as well it turns out…donot know what that was about.

A point people have rightly raised about the Ghostbusters franchise is that it’s thoroughly infused with the conservative outlook that gripped a lot of America at the time.  Now there’s nothing wrong with that fact but it’s certainly accurate: the Ghostbuster conceptually are working to privatize what should be an emergency service, their approach to law and order is based on incarceration rather than rehabilitation, and their greatest human antagonist is government oversight.  All of that is fine as we don’t need to agree with something’s politics to find it excellent, but it also creates an ethos that’s worthy of self-critique on occasion and ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ is that critique. 

The episode revolves around one of the most ingenious twists on the Ghostbuster’s existence when a dying billionaire creates a machine to open a doorway to the afterlife.  Using his machine he starts to try and funnel through all his money, possession, and even his servants.  It’s an incredibly creepy concept that plays on the rampant greed and avarice that so defined ‘80s conservatism.  What’s more, it was a great bit of world building as it’s something that could conceivably happen if our society learned that ghosts exist.  

Sick billionaires, so insanely self-centered that they’d rather rob the world of their wealth than risk any of it going to make the world a better place are things we have now; this is just another form of the same problem.  The whole episode serves as a brilliantly chilling critique of the ethos that informed the Ghostbusters from the very start, after all, these aren’t men who fight ghosts out of a passion for it or a need to right wrongs; they do it for the money.    

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