Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Tremors; following the on-going plight caused by a species of underground-dwelling carnivorous megafauna known as “graboids,” as well as the struggles of the man who becomes their de facto Ahab, Burt Gummer. The franchise spanned four films from 1990-2004, and a failed television spin-off in 2003.
The Installment: Tremors: The Series (2003)
Body Count: Too high to keep track of.
The Story: Picking up where Tremors 3 left off, the denizens of Perfection, Nevada now live in awkward harmony with El Blanco, who is protected as an endangered species. Our returning characters are Burt Gummer (Michael Gross), general store owner Jodi Chang (now played by Lela Lee), and artist and mother, Nancy (now played by Honey I Shrunk the Kids‘ Marcia Strassman). Added to the mix is Rosalita (Gladys Jimenez), a relative of the deceased rancher Miguel; Tyler (Victor Browne), who has taken over Desert Jack’s graboid tour; and Twitchell (Breaking Bad‘s Dean Norris), the government agent tasked with monitoring the town. The show has a freak-of-the-week structure, as Burt and company investigate and battle an array of monsters, many of which were created by Mix Master, a top secret DNA melding substance the government had created in the 70’s inside a secret lab hidden somewhere in the valley.
What Works: The surprises just don’t stop. I had initially planned to suffer through only the pilot and maybe another random episode of Tremors: The Series for the purposes of this column. I ended up watching all 13 fucking episodes (what a great job I have, btw). Where was I when this shit was on TV? Who kept it from me?! Why was I not told that this series is secretly great? Well, great is a strong word. But it’s exactly the sort of cheesy fun series I enjoy.
Once more I credit the quality of this project with the continued presence of S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock (plus regular producer Nancy Roberts). I dig that the show is a direct extension of the films, and not a spin-off or reboot — which is what we generally get in these situations. Possibly that is why the show failed, as the entire premise is pretty wacko if you were coming into the pilot cold. But for Tremors fans this is manna from heaven.
Michael Gross is the lifeblood of the series. And it is a credit to Gross and especially a credit to the character of Burt Gummer that after three films and now a dozen television episodes, I never grew tired of Burt’s antics. In fact, a television show is the ideal medium in which to explore the character, as the writers are freed up from having to go for broke with Burt in every story. Now we can get some nuance. I particularly liked Burt in the episode “A Little Paranoia Among Friends,” which finds Burt and Tyler talked into investigating a potential graboid presence in another town, whose residents believe they are being abducted by aliens. The citizens uniformly view Burt and Tyler as government stooges trying to instigate a cover-up. It’s great to see Burt’s feathers ruffled by the accusation that he is not only part of the government, but is on the delivering end of a conspiracy.
Dean Norris is the other stand out actor from the regular cast. I’m glad Norris finally found success with Breaking Bad, because the guy is made for TV supporting work. And Twitchell is a fun character. He’s an antagonist, often showing up to blackmail Burt and the others into performing some task under the threat of evicting them from El Blanco’s natural habitat, yet he’s also lovable and helpul in equal measures. And as the series progresses he becomes increasingly invested in the problems of Perfection, while still bitching about his job and all the paper work a new batch of deaths will saddle him with.
Then there is Christopher Lloyd’s reoccurring character, Cletus, an eccentric hermit who once worked for the secret laboratory that created Mix Master. Lloyd’s performance is something else all together, completely inverting every single trait you associate with the actor. I guess when you’ve played a mad scientist as famous as Doc Brown, you need to pull a 180 the next time around. Gone are the actor’s signature frenzied “great Scott” deliveries, the forehead slaps, the wild eyes, the staggering body movements, the strange noises. Lloyd is so low key as Cletus he seems in danger of slipping into another reality. At times he does feel a little out of step with the tone of the other actors, yet it always works. And the show was wise not to over use him. Just enough Cletus to always leave you wanting more.
I also like the general level of detail on display in the show. Having to function around the necessities of an on-going television series, it would have been very easy for the creators/writers to ignore the threat graboids previously held in the films. It is part of the series’ creative success that El Blanco’s threat is routinely addressed. If the graboid isn’t directly involved with the plot, every episode features at least one scene in which our characters (alerted by the seismo-bracelets they wear at all times) need to stop talking and hold perfectly still until El Blanco passes out of range. It’s a great weird on-going bit, which can be played for danger or laughs depending on the circumstances.
As a direct extension of the films, the series does a good job of calling back to the films, but not in dopey ways. I enjoy the continued, yet very minor nuisance of Melvin (Robert Jayne), still building his suburban empire nearby. Melvin would have made a terrible primary antagonist. He only appears in two episodes here, and that’s the ideal amount. Then there’s a nice, very minor gag where we learn that the password for Burt’s security system is his ex-wife’s name (someone is still pining for Reba). I also enjoyed that the episode “Blast From the Past” addressed one of the stupider gags in Tremors 3. At the end of the film, Nancy sold the assblaster she captured to Sigfried and Roy. Seemingly sensing how idiotic this decision would have been in real-life, the writers give Nancy some surprisingly dramatic comeuppance, when the assblaster escapes from the magicians and goes on a killing spree, which Nancy (somewhat rightly) blames herself for — cause she didn’t just kill the thing. Details like this showed that some good minds where behind this show.
The low-end FX on display in Tremors 2 and 3 are a lot more tolerable on a TV show too.
What Doesn’t Work: It probably didn’t help the show’s ratings that it aired wildly out of order. While the show isn’t Lost or anything that complex, there is an organically evolving storyline. The air-date order (which is how the eps are ordered on Hulu) is confusing enough that I stopped watching the second episode to investigate… and discovered the “second” episode is in fact that the sixth episode. Cletus, Mix Master, and Burt’s obsession with the secret lab come out of the no where with this illogical air-date ordering. And the re-shoot cold-open added to Cletus’ actual first episode – designed to make the episode seem like a flashback so it fits within SyFy’s shitty ordering – is embarrassingly clunky. I really don’t understand why SyFy selected the order that they did. If you plan to watch the series on Hulu, here is the proper order:
- Feeding Frenzy
- Shriek and Destroy
- Blast from the Past
- Hit and Run
- Project 4-12
- Ghost Dance
- Night of the Shriekers
- A Little Paranoia Among Friends
- Flora or Fauna?
- Graboid Rights
- Water Hazard
- The Sounds of Silence
- The Key
That is also the episode order on the DVDs.
The show certainly isn’t a masterpiece of television. While Gross, Norris and Victor Browne are all fine actors, the three women leave a little something to be desired, talent-wise. Marcia Strassman in particular is rather grating. I’m curious why Charlotte Stewart did not reprise the character. Same with Susan Chuang as Jodi Chang. I’m also curious why Desert Jack isn’t a character at all, considering they kept his tour and replaced him with Tyler, who is the exact same kind of guy; he even looks similar. The upheaval of the cast from the films makes Michael Gross and Robert Jayne’s presence feel almost weird.
While I loved the reoccurring Cletus, I didn’t love Larry (J.D. Walsh), a spastic fanboy who appears mid-season, then returns to permanently live in the town for the final two episodes. Possibly this problem was compounded by the fact that Burt isn’t in either of the final two episodes (I’m sure this is why SyFy chose to air Ep#2 last). But Burt’s absence shines a very bright light on the deficiencies in the rest of the cast.
But all-in-all I don’t actually have many negative things to say about the series.
Best Human Kill: When Michael Rooker (yup, Michael Rooker) tries to hunt El Blanco with a whale harpoon mounted on the back of a truck, but gets his own harpoon in the chest. Then eaten. A fitting end for The Rook.
Best Graboid Kill: When Burt arms a baseball league with vintage muskets to take out a group of shriekers threatening a town fair.
Best Burt Gummer Validation Moment: After having chastised the other characters for not owning back-up generators earlier in the episode, the gang is trapped in Burt’s home during a power outage. Then Burt’s back-up generator goes out. But miraculously the power comes back on, to which Burt smugly responds: “Backup backup-generator.”
Should There Have Been A Sequel: No more films, but the show shouldn’t have been canceled. It definitely had at least one or two more decent seasons under its belt.
Franchise Overview: The Tremors franchise is extremely solid. I imagine casual fans of the original film won’t be able to get into the sequels or the series, as there is a fairly noticeable drop in production values and general quality starting with Tremors 2. But it’s a great franchise for actual fans. Only Tremors 4 is a dud, and even that can still be viewed as a harmless out-of-continuity lark.
While it generally feels kind of embarrassing to see a supporting character vaulted to hero status in sequels (since we all know it only happened because the previous leads turned the films down), viewing the Tremors franchise as a whole I think losing Valentine and Earl was a good thing. They’re great characters, but keeping them would’ve involved a lot of questionable pretexts for why those two would continue to battle graboids (frankly, the excuse to involve Earl in Tremors 2 required some suspension of disbelief from me). And from the TV show’s perspective, I’m not sure I ever could’ve bought Valentine or Earl moving back to Perfection. But you believe Burt Gummer will waste his time hunting graboids, and you definitely believe he’s crazy enough to want to stay in Perfection. Fighting graboids and monsters is his dream come true.
Ranking the franchise from best to worst:
Tremors: The Series
Tremors 3: Back to Perfection
Tremors 2: Aftershocks
Tremors 4: The Legend Begins
Up Next: Alright gang, time to vote again. I’m tossing in some non-horror franchises to spice things up too. Feel free to toss out other suggestions to see if they catch fire. But still vote for one of these too.
Children of Corn