That was the best ice-cream soda I ever tasted.
- Lou Costello
- Lou Costello
Missing: Chuck Cunningham. Richie’s older brother, last seen going upstairs on Happy Days. Never came down again. My working title is Finding Chuck©.
I am going to blog my idea for a TV show. It’s a spinoff of the show Happy Days that starred the character of young teen Ritchie Cunningham set in, let’s say, 1955. It’s not exactly a sequel although many of the original cast of characters appear in Finding Chuck.
Our protagonist is Chuck Cunningham, who now finds himself in 1995 living in El Centro, CA and wondering what happened because initially the last thing he remembers is exiting up the stairs stage left carrying a basketball. The series also includes some imaginary backstory characters that never appeared in Happy Days including Chuck’s wife of 40 years, Darleen, and his best friend, Jesus Chavez. Chuck, Darleen, and JC have aged as well: picture the couples in erectile dysfunction commercials.
While the audience knows nothing of these years, we soon find Chuck is strangely clueless about his past. This is the story of finding oneself by selectively remembering the past. It takes place in two distinct periods from 1955 when Chuck was 15 to 1995 when he is 55 years old. It is about filling in the 40 missing years. Each blog post/episode will explore some aspect of the intervening 40 years, and will include action in 1995 and flashbacks to the missing years from 1955 to 1995.
Finding Chuck is about how our lives can pass like the blink of an eye in a dreamlike fugue, as seen through the eyes of a Rip-Van-Winkle of a man who doesn’t remember a lot of those years. When he decides in 1995 to go looking for the missing years, he doesn’t notice he is entering the beginning of the end of days we’ve been terrified about since 2001. As a member of the lower middle class blissfully unaware that he is becoming an endangered species. Chuck wakes up in the middle of a day in 1995 and resolves to recover his missing history just as he is about to repeat it. In keeping with the meme of disappearing Chuck from Happy Days, plotlines, characters, entire story branches are left unresolved, unexplained but in some way filling in some blanks in Chuck’s history.
Pilot Episode: “Well, how did I get here?”
Finding Chuck is about how the fork in the path Chuck took in 1955 led him to where we find him in 1995 in El Centro, California. The opening scene of the series is also a glimpse of the dead-end path not taken.
The opening scene is Ritchie's exit scene in montage: Ritchie is drafted in 1965 and dies in Vietnam in 1967. Picture a series of brief, mostly silent scenes flashing by: Ritchie reading his draft notice, saying goodbye to Mr. and Mrs. C, being harassed in boot camp because he’s kind of a dweeb, and meeting a sudden violent end in a jungle. It flashes by fast but with enough detail to realize we are clearing the field of a pivotal character the same way Chuck was written out of Ritchie’s story. The final wordless scene of the montage ends as we zoom up into the sky, surrounded by raindrops falling around Ritchie’s grave, surrounded by his grown-up friends and family (sans Chuck). This is the path Chuck didn’t take. It turns out to be a dead end.
Ritchie remains ever young. Ritchie’s is a story of a fly in amber a frozen, unrealized dream of what never was and what never could be. The future imagined for Ritchie was instead destroyed by the chickenhawks, Ritchie’s friends who got legacy admission to their daddies’ schools and sidestepped Vietnam and became masters of the universe in the '80s. In the parts of the Finding Chuck that occur in 1995, we foreshadow the destruction to come.
From Ritchie’s funeral, we fade into mist and into what looks like a dream sequence. It’s filmed in a sort of sepia-edged 1955 low-def. The camera focuses on a blur that turns out to be a slow zoom in on the basketball Chuck is carrying up the stairs and off the show, held in front of his stomach, to a zoom back into focus on the stomach of a very pregnant young lady. I’m leaning pretty heavily on a visual metaphor here because that is old school Happy Days. Chuck closes the bedroom door behind him, places the basketball tenderly on the bed, climbs out the window, down the rose trellis, and into the arms of his pregnant girlfriend Darleen. Chuck does the right thing. Instead of staying and becoming Fonzie’s slightly cooler friend to Ritchie’s dweeby unspoiled innocence, Chuck takes Darleen’s hand and they run away. Again, this scene is wordless.
Cut to Chuck returning from a waking dream of the opening scene and finding himself at his mind-numbingly boring job in the IT department of a corporation managing a number internet pioneering streaming porn websites. (Get it? Porn is mind-numbingly boring. Boom!). The calendar on the wall - at first glance a retro-pin-up 1950s girl in a Santa Clause cap and not much else, turns out at second glance to be from 1995. Chuck looks a bit nonplussed.
In the extended-length pilot we also introduce the other two imaginary backstory characters that, while never in Happy Days, were there in Chuck’s life and have been with him through the intervening 40 years. We also learn that Chuck has been estranged or at least in some way out of touch with his family. In future episodes we will reunite and reintroduce how those characters from Happy Days have survived: for better and for worse.
Meanwhile, Chuck drives home in twilit gloom to a modest house and into the arms of Darleen Cunningham, aka, Mrs. Chuck Cunningham. Darleen too has some years she’d have liked to miss. There was that time when Chuck was in Vietnam and she got busted for selling weed and their daughter little Ricki bounced around foster homes for two formative years while Darleen had access to a top-notch prison law library. As a convicted felon, Darleen can’t actually practice law. But since her official boss is a well-respected local lawyer and he’s going down to Alzheimer’s, Darleen has actually been running the ship for years as his legal secretary and advising a clueless lawyer about how to do his job.
The perfect actor to visualize in picturing Darleen is Edie Falco: the iconographic flawed character with a heart of gold. She bought the bacon, fried it up, raised a kid alone, and did it all with a vodka tonic in her other hand. She is loyal, endearing, but also enigmatic, disappearing, incomplete character with that blank botox face where all the expression is in her raw eyes and a rare Mona Lisa smile. Darlene has some secrets.
The other major present-day 1995 character is Jesus Chavez, aka JC who is Chuck’s fellow high school basketball teammate, best man, and godfather of Chuck and Darleen’s now 40-year-old daughter, Ricki. A young JC is featured in a cameo in the Ritchie opening scene: looking like Jesus and protesting the war. JC also narrates the missing year flashback scenes and often does voiceover of 1995 scenes when Chuck can’t seem to recall some important detail of his past. There’s also this weirdly hilarious recurring joke that when they finally meet him after all these years, the Cunningham in-laws mispronounce his name like gringos and that’s the only time where there’s a brief tinny burst of echoing canned laughter.
Unlike his nuclear family, Chuck’s friend JC stuck by him when he was disappeared in the 1950s. In 1995, JC is a tenured professor of anthropology at the local community college, and has served as Chuck and Darleen’s lifeline during the 40 blank years between 1955 and 1995 – loyal to Chuck's nuclear family through good and bad while the rest of the Cunninghams went about their lives as if Chuck never existed – just like they did in Happy Days.
JC’s role is important because while all of these years are missing to the audience, there are some major gaps in Chuck’s recollection of the years, and lesser gaps in Darleen’s and Ricki’s stories. JC is the narrator of Chuck’s missing years. JC is grounded and mostly sane but mildly bitter around the edges because he barely made past all the hurdles thrown in his way as a first generation Mexican-American whose abuela appears in some of the flashback as a dusky Spanish dancer type who clearly knew some shit the cultural anthropologists specializing in JC’s culture will never know. He’s a Vietnam vet who has a small faded Purple Heart sticker on his bionic leg.
Preview of Next Episode: Did I Mention Chuck’s Bionic Leg?
Closing credits music - Rock Your Little Baby to Sleep by Buddy Knox