A Very Special DVD Review/Interview: BLOSSOM and Mayim Bialik

Next Tuesday (Jan. 27), Shout! Factory is releasing seasons 1 & 2 of the popular ‘90s show Blossom in a 6-disc, 37-episode set. As part of the promotion, they’ve been offering interviews with the star of the show, Mayim Bialik. And when I mentioned that I had the chance to interview Blossom, the reaction from women in their ‘20s or early ‘30s was as follows: “Blossom? I remember Blossom. I loved Blossom. You’ve got to talk to her.” What I’m saying is, for anyone who watched it as a teenager, Blossom is a beloved viewing memory, and a very immediate one considering that it had next to no life in syndication after it was canceled in 1995.

I’ll say first of all that if you ever liked Blossom, this DVD is worth the money. You’ve got two seasons that include many of the best-remembered episodes – the very first show is about Blossom getting her first period – and plenty of work on the special features. But I’ll get to the review portion in a bit. For those who were not teenaged girls in the ‘90s, Blossom, created by Don Reo, is about Blossom Russo (Mayim Bialik) a 14 year-old girl who lives in an otherwise all-male household. Her father (Ted Wass) is a struggling musician who’s still bitter about his recent divorce; her oldest brother (Michael Stoyanov) is getting over his drug and alcohol problems; and her other brother (Joey Lawrence) is a horny idiot who, true to the tradition of “Dumbening,” gets steadily dumber over the course of these 37 episodes. The second season added a new regular in the form of Nick’s ex-father-in-law (Barnard Hughes); the ‘90s are the last time any show would feel it needed to add an older character. With her mother far away, Blossom’s only female confidante is her best pal, the fast-talking Six (Jenna Von Oy). “We were trying to show a regular slice of life in a struggling family,” Bialik says, “and also to show a divorced family, where the mom had run off because she wanted to have her own life and didn’t want to be a mom any more. That was unusual.”

The show was produced by Paul Witt and Tony Thomas, who had done Soap (also with Ted Wass), The Golden Girls, Empty Nest, It’s a Living, and as a drama change of pace, Beauty and the Beast. They usually did ensemble shows that combined broad comedy with some dramatic moments, and that’s the case with Blossom. Two things made it different from their other shows. One, it frequently incorporated fantasy sequences, and some fairly wild ones at that: the first episode has a dream sequence where Clair from The Cosby Show explains the ovarian cycle, and another episode is a full-length Madonna parody. (Some of that probably came from Reo’s own wild side: he created the cult adventure-comedy Wizards and Warriors, a deadpan parody of the medieval fantasy genre.) Two, and more importantly, it took the smart, spunky teenage girl, usually the second banana in any sitcom, and made her the star. Not that there had never been a show about a teenaged girl before, just not many, and certainly not many that made her problems the centre of the universe. Remember, we’re talking three years before My So-Called Life made teen-girl angst artistically respectable.

Bialik thinks that the very fact that Blossom had her own show, and wasn’t just a character on someone else’s, was what made Blossom connect so strongly with teenaged girls:

For a girl to have her own show meant something special for girls in the early ’90s: that they weren’t the sister, they weren’t the girlfriend, that they could see themselves personified as the main character, the main issue.

And you know, most teenagers, whether they’re male or female, think that the world revolves around them. So here we were giving girls an opportunity to see a girl that the show revolved around. And so I think that was special.

Look, I was 14 when the show started, I was also watching television at that time, and a lot of the females I saw on television were either the bimbo or the nerd, and really nothing in-between. I think what we tried to create with Blossom was closer to the actual female teenage experience, which is that sometimes you’re a little of this, and sometimes you’re a little of that. You want to look great at the prom, and have a nice date, but you also want to do well in school and be respected for your brains.

But you don’t get to be a show on TV for five years with only girls watching you. We had boys watching. The old adage is that girls will watch boys or girls on television, but boys will only watch boys. I think we broke that down to some extent. We also followed Fresh Prince of Bel Air in a lot of areas, and I think that helped too. We had adults watching too. We had families watching this family grow up on television.

The Show

I didn’t watch Blossom much when it was on, and had not seen it since; I actually think it holds up surprisingly well. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the episodes that find humour in serious subjects hold up better than some of the pure comedy moments (most of them involving how dumb Joey is). The evils-of-marijuana episode is a heavy-handed early ’90s relic, but other “serious” episodes are actually not so much serious as they are funny about stuff that actually matters to the characters. And that’s a good way to be. Reo is an extremely talented writer/showrunner who also created The John Larroquette Show, one of the darkest and most interesting comedies of the ‘90s, while he was still doing Blossom, and there’s a lot of dark humour, a lot of realistic humour, and a lot of wacky stuff (ALF makes a guest appearance) side by side. You can see the tension between Reo’s attempt to deal with real issues through comedy – “It was a kids’ show about pain,” he says on the commentary, and in 1991, that was uncommon – and the necessity to have ratings-grabber moments involving Joey, or hot girl guest stars, or crossovers from time-slot companion Fresh Prince of Bel Air. But at least at this point, this doesn’t really hurt the show that much.

But one of the interesting things about it is that it was a kind of TV show that was very common in 1991, when it started, and was totally wiped out by 1995, when it ended. In 1991, NBC was the network of hip family comedies: “We premiered after The Cosby Show,” says Bialik, “so that’s how old we are.” In the next few years, NBC came up with several huge hits about hip single urbanites (it’s hard to believe that the first season of Blossom ran concurrently with the debut of Seinfeld as a regular series; they seem to belong to different eras), and all the other videotaped, family-oriented shows vanished from its schedule. At the same time, NBC put its foot down about dark or realistic humour, or humour that didn’t appeal to an 18-49 urban audience: the biggest victim was Reo’s own The John Larroquette Show, which was retooled from a dark comedy of pain to an upscale, Seinfeldian show about trivial problems. But it affected any show that tried to balance comedy with drama.

That might be why Blossom has a reputation, tweaked and discussed in the special features, for doing “Very Special Episodes.” I don’t think the NBC promos for Blossom actually invented this term, and neither does Bialik (see below). But by 1992 or 3, when Seinfeld had created the “no hugging, no learning” mantra, it was weird for a sitcom to have dramatic moments, and so any Blossom episode with a serious issue in it might be promoted by NBC as something unusual. Whereas in the ‘80s, most sitcoms had dramatic moments and an episode had to be really super-serious to be promoted as “very special.” (Also, remember: in the ‘80s and early ‘90s there were very few hour-long dramas that had actual character development or growth. Sitcoms were the place to go for that stuff, and in that sense, sitcoms were more inherently serious than dramas at that time. It’s different now.) So the show is also worth looking at as a sort of time capsule of early ‘90s TV, a look at the pre-Seinfeld, pre-Friends status quo.

Interview (cont.)

But enough from me; back to Blossom herself. Here are Bialik’s thoughts on whether there was any pressure to compete with the new breed of sitcoms:

In the first two years, which are the ones coming out on DVD now, we didn’t have the great ratings that we had in the third or fourth season. Over the course of five years, you have to struggle to get ratings, and by the time you get them, then the show is almost on its last legs, and you don’t have time to compete with those other shows.

But I think there’s always a lot of pressure, on any show, to compete for ratings. We had a lot of Playboy bunnies on in the second or third season, and that was a ratings thing. There were a lot of different things that were done. But I think we were pretty set on being a family-style sitcom.

On Don Reo, whose other credits include running Everybody Hates Chris and the cult Hollywood satire Action, and some of the other writers on the show:

Don Reo was great. And we kind of got the best of him in those first couple of years, because then his life got very exciting, and he got to spend more time away from us doing other projects. He did The John Larroquette Show at the same time as our show in the last couple of years. But he was really spectacular. He cared for the show very much, and he was like a dad to all of us. He’s a really funny man; he started as the straight man for a comedian when he was a teenager back East, so he’s kind of old-school comedy, but also, he works with Chris Rock. He’s still hip. He’s a really special guy.

We had some very strong female writers in the first couple of years, who wrote some really beautiful episodes. Brenda Hampton was one of our writers, and obviously she’s gone on to much success with Secret Life of the American Teenager. But we had some really skilled female writers who were trying to write what was true to their experience, and I think that was really conveyed. We wanted to show a character who respected herself and earned respect from others.

On the “Very Special Episode” thing, she also doesn’t think Blossom actually invented the phrase:

It’s funny, everyone keeps bringing that up, but I remember seeing that on ads for other shows when I was a kid. I don’t know why it got associated with our show. I know we did do some more intense episodes, and people keep asking about that; we did an episode about a guy trying to kiss Blossom, and she doesn’t want to, and she runs out of the car. But for the most part, I really think of us as more of a fun show.

On whether there are any episodes in this DVD set she particularly likes:

Actually, I was never a big fan of watching myself, or hearing my voice on answering machines. But I got to watch the episodes we did the commentary on for the DVDs, and we did a takeoff on the Madonna documentary Truth or Dare. First of all, it was great fun to film, because we got to film on location, and for a half-hour sitcom to get to film on location around Hollywood was pretty cool. We made that our little movie in 24 minutes. And I think it’s one of our best episodes.

DVD Review

There are three audio commentaries featuring creator Don Reo and cast members (including Bialik on two of the commentaries), and disc 6 has three fairly substantial and very watchable featurettes: In “A Very Special Friendship,” Bialik and Jenna Von Oy discuss their professional relationship and how they helped each other while giving each other some space. “A Very Special Style” has the show’s costume designer, along with Bialik and Von Oy, talking about the famously quirky clothes, particularly the famous hats – usually worn by Six, but more associated with Blossom because she wore them in the title sequence.

The longest special feature, “A Very Special Show” is a very good half-hour making-of documentary with Reo, Bialik, Von Oy, Ted Wass and teen hunk Joey Lawrence, who is now amusing but no longer particularly hunky. Among other things, Reo discusses the origin and development of the show (originally it was a Catcher in the Rye type of story about a teenaged boy, but the network asked him to switch the focus to the girl), and Lawrence discusses the origin of his one-word catchphrase, “Whoa!” For the uninitiated, it’s like the direct ancestor of Friends’ “How you doin’?” The last special feature is the original pilot, where Blossom’s parents are together and have a relatively stable marriage, because NBC’s Brandon Tartikoff wanted nuclear families. The pilot didn’t work, so Reo talked NBC into accepting a single dad, which is what he wanted in the first place. Ah, network TV.

The episodes look as good as early ‘90s video is going to look, except for the original pilot, which looks like it was taken from a lower-quality source. Sitcoms Online has the running times, which seem right for an early ‘90s NBC show (mostly just under or over 23 minutes). Music, mostly performed by guest stars, appears to be intact.

I can’t predict how a show will do on DVD, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this did well: the sight of Blossom on the cover, wearing that flowered hat, is the sort of memory-triggering sight that naturally leads to impulse buying.