Episode: Father Knows Less (1×03)
Director: David Trainer
Teleplay: April Kelly
Main Cast: Ben Savage, William Daniels, William Russ, Betsy Randle, Will Friedle, Lee Norris, Rider Strong, Lily Nicksay
Guest Cast: Willie Garson, Thomas Brown IV
Original Air Date: October 8, 1993
In the Matthews kitchen, Alan is packing his sack lunch, as Cory mimics his actions exactly. Cory exposits to Morgan that he Alan are going to see the Blue Angels do formations.
Meanwhile, in the living room, Eric is on the giant cordless phone, trying to convince Heather that a turtleneck will conceal…something. Amy overhears this conversation as she walks into the room, so Eric must confess that he gave Heather a hickey. He’s saved from a lecture by the doorbell. The nebbish visitor introduces himself as Leonard Spinelli, Alan’s assistant manager at the grocery store. Amy rolls her eyes at the introduction and says, “You’ve had dinner here maybe twenty times!” Poor Lenny says that he’s always unsure if he’s made an impression. She leads him into the kitchen, where he apologizes for interrupting the family on a Sunday… then he pauses and introduces himself to Cory, who of course already knew who he was. Finally getting to the point, Lenny informs Alan that the store’s Perrier shelf fell down into the produce and Alka-seltzer aisles. Alan apologizes to Cory for having to cancel their plans, and promises to make it up to him. And thus commences, what is it now? The 2nd son-and-his-dad episode in a row? Plus the pilot had a small subplot tucked in there. Oh well.
Cory and Eric are sound asleep in their respective beds, when Alan shakes Cory awake so that they can watch a Phillies @ Dodgers PST timezone game. Downstairs, they pile potato chips onto their sandwiches as they watch the game, in which a no-hitter was possible. Cory thanks his dad for waking him up for this, and Alan makes him swear not to tell Amy. I know, I know, “if you see my mummy, mum’s the word,” and all. Got it.The next morning in class, Mr. Feeny is giving a test to twentysomething alert 6th graders and 1 sleeping Phillies fan. Cory explains that his “coma” was because he was up past midnight watching the no-hitter. Mr. Feeny responds that he was hoping he was up to watch the Nobel Prizes be awarded instead (which Minkus was, of course).
That afternoon, Alan comes home and greets Amy and Morgan in the living room. Cory comes downstairs and tells Alan that he flunked the exam because he fell asleep… forgetting that Amy was standing right there. Alan responds to Amy’s lecture by saying he feels like he doesn’t get enough quality time with his son. Alan promises to convince Mr. Feeny to let Cory take a make-up test, and she threatens Alan, “Until you do, you’re grounded.” Cory is skeptical that Alan could be grounded, but Alan confirms that are ways she could do it. Cory, you’re going to understand this mystery all too well by the time the series is over.
Alan and Cory go to talk to Mr. Feeny over the backyard fence. Alan takes the blame for Cory being up too late, but Mr. Feeny points out that it was for a baseball game. Cory, ever the tactician, tries to spin it like he was watching a piece of history, and starts spouting off major dates significant to the Phillies franchise. Mr. Feeny counters by asking Cory what year Magellan’s circumnavigation was. Of course, Cory can’t answer. But neither can I… although I can sing just about every lyric to “The Ballad of Magellan.” So at least there’s that? Alan asks if Mr. Feeny will let Cory retake the test, but Mr. Feeny puts his foot down. The two go back and forth, Alan feeling that Mr. Feeny is being unreasonable for not understanding that he’s just trying to find some father-son time in his busy schedule, and Mr. Feeny feeling that is responsibility is to ensure that his students earn their grades and develop work ethic. I am siding with Mr. Feeny on this one… when I was a kid (and an adult, for that matter), if I chose to stay up to see a late game, I just gutted through the following day. And if I honestly was feeling like I couldn’t gut it out, for whatever reason… I just went to bed. It’s that simple. If Alan and Cory haven’t figured out how to manage sleep times, I just don’t get it. Mr. Feeny tells Alan that he’d understand his point of view if he was the one having to teach 32 sixth graders. Uhh… there are 32 desks in that classroom? By my count, the 6th grade classroom is 3 desks deep and 4 desks wide. Maybe Mr. Feeny isn’t as good at math as he proports to be? Alan tells Mr. Feeny he can’t understand his point of view because he doesn’t have a son. The laugh track did not go “oooh!” at Alan’s statement, much to my surprise. Mr. Feeny ends the conversation.
Tasting the agony of defeat, Alan and Cory return to the kitchen, where they explain to Amy why they lost the argument. “‘Cause Feeny’s a butt,” says Cory. Alan scolds him, saying that Mr. Feeny is a good teacher, and then he tells Cory to get ready to go to the YMCA to hit tennis balls around. As Alan sets the dinner table, he tells Amy that he knows what she is going to say: He shouldn’t have let Cory stay up, and he shouldn’t be cajoling Mr. Feeny to let his son retake the test. She says she was only going to say that the table forks go on the left. Also, she says Alan shouldn’t make Cory’s life so chaotic, just so Alan wouldn’t feel guilty over the busyness of his schedule.
The doorbell rings. I suspect that it is Lenny again (and not just because this episode lists only one guest star not named “announcer”). I am correct. Eric answers the door, and Lenny introduces himself… even though Eric works at the store, as well. Lenny walks into the kitchen to see Alan and Amy sharing a smooch. Lenny apologizes for interrupting Alan’s giving Amy “mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,” but there’s another store emergency. Alan’s not surprised, saying that store problems is why they hired a manager. Alan then asks why the store has an assistant manager. “To tell the manager when there’s a problem at the store?” Lenny offers. Somehow, I think that the HR job description listed many other responsibilities for that position. Alan corrects him, and he’s supposed to be handling any problems when Alan isn’t at the store. Cory comes downstairs with his tennis racquet, and he and Alan start to head out the door. However, Lenny finally details the emergency, which turns out to be that the lighter fluid was stocked near the rotisserie chickens. Uh oh. The store was set on fire. Cory lets Alan off the hook about playing tennis, and tells him he doesn’t have to wake him later.
On the way out the living room door, Alan apologizes to Cory for not doing his job as a father. In an ideal world, school and work would be out of the picture, and the two of them could spend each moment together. Cory asks why they don’t do this. Alan: “I don’t know. I guess the family’s gotten used to eating.” He finally takes responsibility for keeping Cory awake (‘Bout time…), and admits that Mr. Feeny was right.
Cory is hitting the tennis ball alone in the backyard. As always happens, the ball ends up going over to Mr. Feeny’s side of the fence. Gosh, I hated it when that happened to me as a kid. It always started the internal (or external, depending on who the guilty party was) debate of whether to just quickly run over or around the fence/property line and get the ball, or to ask the neighbor for permission to retrieve it, or just wait for a parent to handle the business. All three options were intensely uncomfortable, so I imagine Cory’s stomach must have completely dropped, after losing his tennis ball to the garden of his teacher, with whom he just happens to be quarreling. Cory chooses Option A., and is surprised by a flashlight shining directly on his face.
Mr. Feeny, lounging in his lawn chair, asks Cory if he wants a drink. Underage Cory’s all, “cool!” and gleefully pours himself some brown stuff from a cut-glass bottle. They toast and begin to sip the… apple juice! Mr. Feeny explains that this was a Christmas present from his sister, who forgets that he only sporadically has claret with dinner. Cory asks why he’s sitting in out the dark. Mr. Feeny relates his childhood experiences, when WWII rationing meant that buttered toast was on the menu only two days a week, candy was scarce, and rubber-soled sneakers were a non-option. Each night, Mr. Feeny prayed for the war to end, not because he cared about bloodshed, but because he wanted butter and candy and proper sneakers. He heard that President Truman would be on the radio giving an address, so he pleaded with his father to let him stay up. Mr. Feeny, Sr., responded that it was a school night, and he didn’t want George to stay up with him. Cory assumes that this was because Mr. Feeny, Sr., prized education, but Mr. Feeny, Jr., replied that his father wanted young George in bed so he wouldn’t interfere with his drinking buddies. The next morning, young George was well-rested, but he can’t remember what he learned in school that day. Mr. Feeny explains that education isn’t about tests and random facts, but rather spending a lifetime learning to understand the world. He says that fathers spending time with their sons is important. Cory asks how he knows, since Mr. Feeny, Sr., didn’t let young George stay up with him. Mr. Feeny replies, “That’s precisely why I do know.”
Having handled the grease fire situation at the store, Alan comes over to the fence and tells Cory it’s bedtime. Cory first asks Mr. Feeny if they will study that “European sneaker war” in class, because it sounded fascinating. I’d wager that yes, he must at some point, because crossing black cat warlocks cannot be avoided. I hope you appreciate your shout-out, Salem! After Cory departs for his bedroom, Alan informs Mr. Feeny that his son will adhere to a proper bedtime. Mr. Feeny responds that he’d have kept his own son up for silly baseball games or for no reason at all.
Cory’s tucked in for bed, and Amy pops in to say goodnight. Cory stops her with a conundrum. Tonight, Alan had said that Mr. Feeny was right, and Mr. Feeny had said that Alan was right. Amy explains that sometimes more than one person can be right. Alan comes in to say goodnight, and Cory starts arguing that he should stay up to watch the Phillies @ LA game. Alan says no, anything that happens can wait, “Because your father will always be there in the morning to tell you about it.” Alan turns to Amy and asks if he is still condemned to eternal groundation. She smiles and says that they’ll discuss it.
After the third father/son bonding plot/subplot in a row, I am rather ready for the show to move on to different ideas. The following episode will do so, thank goodness.
I do think that this episode treats this theme in a fairly sophisticated way for a 90s sitcom aimed at 10-year-olds. Alan’s internal conflict is that he can’t get past the nagging guilt that his busy schedule and role as provider doesn’t permit him to be a “Good Father.” If this had been a simple resolution episode, Alan would have just realized he needed to spend more time with Cory, and then they would just promise to spend more quality time together, hug-and-learn, The End. But there’s no simple resolution, as the episode ends with things in the same state as they were at the beginning. Cory still must go to bed at his bedtime to be well-rested for school, and Alan still must stay busy to earn bread, thus sacrificing potential father/son quality time. The time just doesn’t exist, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. And Alan’s not happy with the situation, either, and the episode doesn’t end with him being truly at peace. It’s definitely reflective of real life, in that often the best choices aren’t desirable choices.
I also enjoyed learning so much about Mr. Feeny’s backstory in this episode, particularly his myopic, adolescent perspective of WWII. This also is awfully realistic to me. When a local, national, or world event occurs, my first thoughts usually can be distilled to two questions: “How is this going to affect my daily life, and will I be inconvenienced?” I am fascinated by Americans/British/others, who went from enduring the Depression (with the limited economic resources associated with this era), into rationing food, Victory Gardens, and collecting scrap metal for patriotic purposes. I cannot imagine the United States’ post-Recession era (whenever that will begin…hopefully soon?) population going along with being inconvenienced in the slightest bit, much less to the extent where we can’t use sugar when we want. We need our Skittles, fast food, and electronics, after all. Of course, Mr. Feeny eventually understood the gravity of what was occurring in the 1930s and 40s, and that it went way beyond homefront rationing–all the bloodshed, the political ramifications, the lack of a good night’s sleep for so many. I think the message here is that the process of learning (which is too often confused with the process of memorization) leads to one’s perspective being broadened beyond just one’s self.
So, even though I am absolutely ready for other supporting characters to have the spotlight (I actually do quite like Alan, don’t get me wrong here), I thought this episode was pretty great and had a lot to say. Even if Alan was being illogical.
Wait, that was who?!/I know them from ___
“The announcer” was played by Thomas Brown IV (aka Thomas Wilson Brown), who is Little Russ Thompson from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids! Weird! That movie’s “French class” joke totally went over my head, the first time I saw it. He’ll be back in a few more BMW episodes, in similar roles.
“Leonard Spinelli” was played by Willie Garson, who is a prolific character actor. In spite of his role diversity, for some reason I haven’t seen a lot of his work… but I did see his Star Trek: Voyager episode (It’s the one where Tom Paris tries to save the space ocean or something and ends up demoted and in prison. An at least halfway-dumb episode, to my recollection.). He’ll also be back for a few more BMW episodes.
Continuity (or lack thereof)
Eric’s still dating Heather, for the 3rd consecutive episode. Mr. Feeny mentions his sister, as he had done in the prior episode. Mr. Feeny had also alluded to having a difficult relationship with his father in a prior episode.
The wisdom (and snark) of Mr. Feeny
“In my 35 years of teaching, I have heard every excuse imaginable for why someone fails a test. What’s my excuse if somewhere down the line, a child fails at something because I once abrogated my responsibility to impart knowledge?”