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Something Weird on TV: Friday the 13th: The Series

Part One – Curious Goods

Before Buffy the Vampire Slayer, before even The X-Files – but, it must be said, not before Kolchak or Ultra Q – there was Friday the 13th: The Series. Originally commissioned by producer Frank Mancuso, Jr., whose credits include most of the Friday the 13th movies starting with part 2, the series was originally going to be called The 13th Hour, but Mancuso thought that a name tying it to the popular slasher franchise would help sell it to studios.

That name became the only overt connection between the series and the films, however, in spite of various suggestions to work in Jason’s hockey mask or other Easter eggs from the franchise. Though he obviously wasn’t above borrowing the name, Mancuso wanted the series to stand on its own, and was afraid that nodding any more toward the Friday the 13th films would take audiences away from “the new world that we were trying to create.”

Instead, the premise of Friday the 13th: The Series is one more familiar to fans of turn-of-the-century ghost stories and vintage anthology films like From Beyond the Grave (1974): An antique store whose wares are all cursed. In this case, Vendredi’s Antiques (“Vendredi” is French for “Friday”), whose late proprietor – played by veteran character actor R.G. Armstrong – made a deal with the devil. In the opening scenes of the first episode, we see him renege on that deal, at the cost of his life.

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It seems that Mr. Vendredi has left the antique store to two relations who don’t know him or each other. Micki (played by singer, model, actress, and later Countess of Burford Louise Robey, credited simply by her stage name Robey) is sophisticated and fashion-forward while her cousin-by-marriage Ryan (John D. LeMay) is … not. Together, the two decide to sell the antique store and all its contents, only learning later about the curse and taking it upon themselves to get the various items back so they can be safely locked away in a vault beneath the store.

The Golden Age of Horror Anthology Television

Premiering in 1987, Friday the 13th: The Series came out in the midst of a sort of golden age of anthology horror on TV, kicked off by the success of shows like George Romero’s Tales from the Darkside and HBO’s Tales from the Crypt. What set Friday apart from the rest of the crop – including Freddy’s Nightmares, another anthology series spun off from a popular slasher franchise – was its continuity.

While most of the horror series that were its contemporaries told standalone stories, each episode of Friday the 13th followed the same trio of characters: Micki and Ryan, their deceased uncle’s former friend Jack Marshak (Chris Wiggins), and, later in the series, Johnny Ventura (Steve Monarque). Their relationships with one another changed (if only somewhat) and their various subplots developed over the course of the series, even while each episode very much followed a “monster of the week” (or, in this case, “cursed item of the week”) format.

It was not an entirely novel approach – Kolchak, for one, had obviously staked out similar territory years before – but there was nothing else quite like it on the air at the time that Friday the 13th was running. Even Freddy’s Nightmares, which took place in Krueger’s old stomping grounds and often had characters who recurred from one segment to another – not to mention Robert Englund as Freddy himself playing Cryptkeeper to introduce the segments – kept to a more traditional anthology format for most of its episodes.

The adventures of Micki, Ryan, and Jack (and later other recurring characters) proved a popular setup, helping to make Friday the 13th one of the top three syndicated dramas on TV during the years that it aired, not to mention prefiguring other hit shows like the aforementioned Buffy, X-Files, and Supernatural. While all of those series eventually accrued a lot of continuity baggage, however, making them more closely resemble the “prestige TV” that we’re familiar with today, Friday hewed pretty closely to its “item of the week” plotting for most of its three seasons.

Despite all this, and my affection for anthology horror TV, I had never seen even a single episode of Friday the 13th before sitting down to work on this column. I picked up the DVD set on the strength of several raves from people I trusted and, at the time of this writing, have watched only the first few episodes. So, we’ll be going on this journey together, you and I.

According to the Wikipedia entry from Friday the 13th, the series “pushed the limits” of what was considered “acceptable content” for network television at the time. Often, at least in the first few episodes, that comes in the form of violence, such as a doll slicing a guy’s throat early in the pilot. But it also manifests in other forms of “adult” content, such as in the genuinely disturbing “Cupid’s Quiver,” directed by Atom Egoyan, of all people.

The episode (third in the series) features a cupid statue that can make its victims fall in love with the owner, only to then compel the owner to kill them. After authorities capture its previous wielder, who slew his victims in the honeymoon suite, the statue passes to a frat house.

Watching the statue’s victims brings instances of the real-life victims of sexual violence on college campuses skin-crawlingly to mind, while the episode’s put-upon incel antagonist would have been posting about Chads and Stacys on 4chan if he were around today. It’s also a good Valentine’s Day episode, if you fucking hate Valentine’s Day.

For this first column, I stopped at the show’s fifth episode, “Hellowe’en,” a Halloween episode which sees the ghost of Uncle Lewis (once more played by R.G. Armstrong) returning temporarily from the dead on a quest to make the transition a little more permanent. “All I wanna do is rest,” Ryan says, after the trio have foiled their uncle’s plot. “And enjoy the fact that we don’t have to go through this again until next year.”

“Don’t be too sure,” Jack replies. “Two weeks from now it’ll be Friday the 13th.”

That’s it for tonight. Next time, we’ll dig a little deeper into the early episodes of the show, including one helmed by its most famous guest director…