There are two rather strange trends about the ’80s that only added to the wonderfully strange culture of the time: The Adult Franchise Marketed Towards Kids and The Franchise That Shouldn’t Be. The former is an almost natural outgrowth of the Reagan era, where an America seemingly obsessed with traditional values consistently sold them out for a quick buck. The latter is a product of a string of surprising hits that, if they didn’t get a sequel, were the subject of years of rumors about one. Neither trend is particularly rare these days, in part because it actually paid off pretty well in the ’80s (I’ll spare you a full accounting).
The most famous intersection of these two trends is Ghostbusters, which if you haven’t heard, is being revived after years of rumors and discussion. And, as has been the case for much of the franchise’s history, Ghostbusters is changing into something significantly different from what it previously was, and certainly from what it has been perceived to be. The main reason, of course, is because the people involved with the new Ghostbusters are different from previous production crews, and more importantly, they have a much different agenda in mind (besides the all-consuming Search For More Money). But, if we’re being honest, this is the curse of The Franchise That Shouldn’t Be: the franchise was only intended to be one movie, but when it goes beyond that one film, the integrity of the one film’s world runs a very real risk of being compromised.
With Ghostbusters, this process happened before the film was even made. Firstly, Dan Aykroyd’s initial idea included some wild elements like time travel and tons of huge ghosts, which Ivan Reitman suggested was wildly impractical, leading to the working class feel that the movie has. In regards to the casting, Aykroyd envisioned roles for himself, Harold Ramis (with whom he wrote the final script), John Belushi, Eddie Murphy, John Candy, and Paul Reubens. Most of these plans never came to fruition: Belushi died, Murphy had a prior commitment to Beverly Hills Cop, Candy eventually passed for reasons that remain murky, and Reubens was jettisoned in favor of model/actress Slavitza Jovan. Instead, Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson, and Rick Moranis were cast.
These changes didn’t just work, they helped to make the film a smashing success. And with a strong score by Elmer Bernstein, the iconic title song by Ray Parker, Jr., and some absolutely superb special effects, there was plenty of praise to be had. And there was plenty of merchandising that popped up in response to the immense success of Ghostnusters (helped massively by the superb logo). However…..there was a problem.
During production, Columbia’s lawyers discovered (read: were threatened with a lawsuit) that Filmation had produced a live-action TV show named The Ghost Busters in the ’70s. Alternate titles were mooted, but everyone directly involved with the film demanded it after seeing dailies of a large crowd of extras shouting “Ghostbusters” repeatedly. So, a deal was struck (which involved Columbia pretty much completely screwing over Filmation), and the name struck. But when it came time to make Ghostbusters The Adult Franchise Marketed Towards Kids, things got ugly once more.
While Filmation had not secured a guarantee that they would be the studio to make a cartoon based on the movie, they did negotiate with Columbia. But Columbia wanted nothing to do with Filmation, and secured a deal with DiC to produce a cartoon that would air both on ABC and in syndication. So, Filmation decided to produce a sequel series to The Ghost Busters, titling it Ghostbusters. And DiC (which was in the process of being sold to Andy Heyward at the time) retaliated by naming their show The Real Ghostbusters. It was undeniably childish, especially since DiC had the advantage: their show was on network TV a full year before having to brave the wilderness of syndication. With that exposure, DiC was almost assured of victory, even without the saturation of syndicated cartoons by 1986 (which was greatly exacerbated by DiC). It’s a particular shame as Ghostbusters is a fairly entertaining cartoon, albeit a bit more hampered by Filmation’s stock system than the studio’s other shows of the decade. Of course, The Real Ghostbusters was a bit more than “fairly entertaining”…..it was an instant classic.
A key issue with The Adult Franchise Marketed Towards Kids is that it gets massively dumbed down as a result of its newfound popularity with children. And with Ghostbusters the movie, this was an acute issue: our heroes smoke, drink, and swear casually, Peter Venkman is a blatant womanizer, some of the ghost designs are rather graphic, and a key plot point hinges on a pretty blatant metaphor for sex. And while The Real Ghostbusters smoothes away most of these rough edges, the series is anything but dumbed down, especially in the syndicated episodes. Venkman is still a bit of a lech at times and the ghosts (especially in the syndicated episodes) are pretty horrific, and Shuki Levy’s score largely ignores the playful elements of Elmer Bernstein’s movie score for something much darker and moodier, even when taking into account the occasional songs from a Haim Saban-backed group named Tahiti. (Levy scoring for The Real Ghostbusters ended his and Saban’s relationship with Filmation, which was strained pretty much from the start since Saban had Levy scoring for every studio that would accept his terms.)
The problem is, once the first season for ABC and the one-and-only syndicated season was completed, ABC decided to hire consultants to take a look at all of their Saturday morning shows, and The Real Ghostbusters never recovered. Besides declaring that the horror elements be curbed, these consultants decided that Slimer, the first ghost busted in the movie (who became a sort of pet in the cartoon), needed to be brought into the spotlight, as well as fostering the creation of the “Junior Ghostbusters”, or children that help the cast bust ghosts. All six lead characters were fit into more strictly defined roles, but Winston, the black man, was, in a patently racist move, became the driver and mechanic of Ecto-1 (roles that had previously been assigned to Ray). And Janine…..poor Janine. While none of the character designs were particularly consistent with the appearances of their actors from the movie, Janine was one of the biggest deviations visually, as she was now a redhead with a wild hairstyle, pointy glasses, and typically seen wearing a tank top, miniskirt, and heels. But her voice, as provided by Laura Summer, was a dead ringer for that of Annie Potts, and the characterization was consistent with the film, right down to her unrequited interest in bookish brainiac Egon. The consultants completely nerfed the character, forcing a total redesign and recasting to make her more motherly.
J. Michael Straczynski (yes, that one), having written for the show’s first 78 episodes (including serving as story editor for the syndicated run) left in protest of the onerous changes, and was eventually proven right, as ratings were never again the same. Coupled with the recasting of Peter Venkman from Lorenzo Music (famous as the voice of Carlton the doorman on Rhoda as well as Garfield) to Dave Coulier in an attempt to placate Bill Murray (who was the main obstacle towards making a live-action sequel), the show had its heart ripped out, and even a brief return by Straczynski to right the ship (which was swiftly reversed) couldn’t help the show. Worse, Ghostbusters II was made during this period, and was far from successful. Taking its cues from the later seasons of the cartoon (while also taking care to negate the Egon/Janine romance, which Harold Ramis was not a fan of), the movie was safe, unfunny, and disappointing. (It also suffered from Murray being visibly disinterested.) And after these disappointments, the franchise faded away.
That is, until Extreme Ghostbusters. Serving as a sequel to The Real Ghostbusters, the show was a bit of a tough pill to swallow at the time, as it explicitly ages the original cast (though Egon’s stated age is ironically the same as Harold Ramis’ when the first movie was released). The thing is….it’s actually a pretty decent show. It’s painfully late ’90s in its naming, cast makeup (the new Ghostbusters consist of a goth girl, a wheelchair guy with a decidedly awesome first name, a skeezy Latino, and a straight-edged black guy), animation (it’s done by the same people responsible for the late ’90s Godzilla, Men in Black, and Jackie Chan Adventures cartoons, and has the same oddly bland color palette and character design), use of CGI, and darker tone. But it understands where The Real Ghostbusters went wrong, and cares about its legacy. The problem was that it was a syndicated show right as the market for syndicated cartoons was dying its final death, and it didn’t have the entire original cast-just Egon, Janine, and Slimer.
As unsuccessful as Extreme Ghostbusters was, it did prove that there was some life in the concept, but with that it needed the original cast. But Bill Murray, who was and is the biggest star of the core Ghostbusters cast (as the cartoons proved, Sigourney Weaver and the character of Dana Barrett were not an integral part of the franchise’s success), still held out, and it wasn’t until Harold Ramis died that hopes of a true sequel were finally laid to rest. Now we have the well-intentioned if dubious in application all-female reboot (which seems to operate on the principle that the franchise lacks strong female characters when Janine and Kylie prove this to be a false statement) and a much more dubiously-intentioned “traditional” male Ghostbusters movie. Without getting into the SJW/Gamer Gate debate (which I’m not only completely over, but I know for a fact would end badly, even if my rant on Willow’s sexuality has actually been well received when I was certain that it’d end badly), it seems like The Franchise That Shouldn’t Be is taking a turn towards a desperate ploy for attention (especially in light of Extreme Ghostbusters‘ rather understated and natural move towards equality). And considering all that it has survived with a staggering amount of its integrity intact, it would be a shame if Ghostbusters got derailed trying to play both sides of a messy, misguided political debate.
Next week, it’s back to 1965, and one of the most popular TV specials of all time.