Last week my high school class celebrated its 40-year reunion. I did not attend, as I now live about 1,700 miles from my high school.
Even had I lived closer, however, I probably would have felt out of place. As much as I delight in looking back at television’s past, I do not feel the same nostalgic reassurance dwelling on my own previous life and times. Plus, all of my friends now view the world and its issues differently than I do, which often results in awkward conversations and protracted silences.
I did go to my ten-year reunion, which was enjoyable. Most of the guys still had hair (including me) and the girl I crushed on from fourth grade through high school was still beautiful – and still indifferent to me. But ten is the easy one to attend; you don’t have to look down at the badges because the faces are now unfamiliar, and no one expects you to have your life figured out yet.
And because these events are so rife with the potential for happiness, sadness, humiliation, rekindled romance, and setting old scores aside, it’s not surprising they have found their way into so many Comfort TV shows.
The most common recurrent theme is a male character arriving with a beautiful woman to show up the girl he once loved, and all of the classmates that viewed him as a loser. It’s amazing how long old slights dwell in our memory banks, leaping out to grab us again when triggered.
“I just want to appear successful to these people, that’s all,” says Kip (Tom Hanks) in “The Reunion” (Bosom Buddies). “This is the class that voted me most likely to be on the methadone program.” Kip can’t wait to flaunt stunning girlfriend Sunny (Donna Dixon) – “Can you believe who I’m with?” Meanwhile, Henry (Peter Scolari) is dealing with another emotional trauma generated by reunions – the painful memory of being cruel to a sweet girl who liked him.
On The Bob Newhart Show, Mr. Carlin (Jack Riley) couldn’t find an actual girlfriend to escort, so he talked Emily into posing as his wife. And on The Facts of Life, George (George Clooney) convinces Blair (later replaced by Jo) to be his date to impress the one girl who would never go out with him. Both guys overdo it, as guys tend to do; Carlin tells everyone Emily was a Playboy centerfold; George introduces his date as a duchess and a Nobel Prize winner.
Wings offered a gender-switched variant on this storyline, in “Remembrance of Flings Past.” Helen, once the fat kid picked on by the cheerleaders, can’t wait to show off her new and improved self – only to find that the clique that once shunned her are still as nasty as ever.
Mary Richards had no such problems, of course, having been one of the most popular girls in her teenage years. But in an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show entitled “Didn’t You Used to Be…Wait Don’t Tell Me,” even the former Viking Queen of Leif Ericson High has a lousy time at her reunion, when only ten other classmates show up (one of whom is played by the always annoying Richard Schaal).
Donna Stone, as practically perfect in every way as Mary Richards, also had her share of calamities at her college reunion, including a black eye and her husband’s persistent grilling over an old boyfriend named Duke. But this Donna Reed Show episode (“Donna Goes To a Reunion”) features by far the most elegant soiree on this list, though I’d expect nothing less from Donna’s alma mater.
Didn’t anyone in TV land enjoy themselves at these affairs? John Walton did, though at first he dreaded the thought of his high school class returning for their reunion. As the only graduate who stayed on Walton’s Mountain, he was sure he’d be looked down on as the class disappointment. But he discovers instead that his classmates hold him in the highest esteem, and that few achievements in this life are as great as raising a happy, loving family. “The Prophecy” delivers a message that used to be more prevalent, and one that we need to hear more often now.
I’m sure I missed a few other examples of this trope, but surely none could be more bizarre than the one that aired early in Taxi’s first season. In “High School Reunion,” Louis (Danny DeVito) dreads the prospect of his 20-year reunion. Bobby (Jeff Conaway) attends in his place, pulling off a surprisingly accurate Louis impersonation – until Louis himself shows up and the event ends in a pile of rubble and broken bodies.
Thankfully, from the photos I’ve seen, my 40th reunion wrapped up with no property damage and everyone still upright. And on second thought, I’m kind of sorry I missed it now.