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Jennifer Slept Here

A confession: I watched a lot of TV during the eighties. A lot. I was intimately acquainted with most everything on from roughly 1983-88, including popular fare like THE COSBY SHOW, FAMILY TIES and CHEERS, as well as lesser-known programs like LOTTERY!, PARTNERS IN CRIME and JENNIFER SLEPT HERE.

     What the Hell is JENNIFER SLEPT HERE? It’s a forgotten 1983 NBC sitcom about a nerdy boy and a sexy ghost. It lasted thirteen episodes, which in 1983 constituted roughly half a season.

     If I remember correctly, the show was broadcast around the time period of DIFF’RENT STROKES and SILVER SPOONS, my two holy grails. These days I could care less about those programs but hold a special place for JENNIFER SLEPT HERE, having searched high and low for copies of it. Now that I’ve finally tracked down the desired copies I feel compelled to share my findings with you, if for no other reason than to feel I haven’t entirely wasted my life rewatching this dumb show!

     I’m not going to pretend JENNIFER was some kind of watershed event in TV broadcasting. There’s a good reason it didn’t last, and truth be told the show doesn’t play any better today than in 1983--and as I recall, it wasn’t much back then.

     The premise was this: 14-year-old Joey (John P. Navin Jr.) moves with his parents and little sister into a house previously owned by Jennifer Farrell (Ann Jillian), a deceased movie star/sex symbol. Yet Jennifer’s ghost still haunts the place, visible only to Joey.

     Yes, it’s the ultimate teenage boy fantasy, (which explains why this pre-teen enjoyed JENNIFER despite its crappiness), although no sexual relationship ever develops between Jennifer and Joey. Instead the thirtyish Jennifer acts strictly as a mentor, dispensing important life lessons in each episode.

     The show was marked by dumb-assed slapstick and surprisingly proficient special effects. I like it for the jazzy theme song (who can forget the lyrics “Jennifer Slept Here, She Lived Here, She Loved Here, Laughed Here and Wept Here…”) and the presence of the delectable platinum haired Ann Jillian. Although best known these days as a Bob Hope regular and breast cancer survivor, the woman was damn near the hottest thing around back in 1983 (her charms were also on display in the long-running sitcom IT’S A LIVING and the flick MR. MOM), and as Jennifer she was outfitted in a variety of revealing outfits. Good idea, since, outside her unassailable physical assets and natural charisma, Jillian was never much of an actress.

     In JENNIFER SLEPT HERE’S premiere episode Joey finds he for some never-explained reason can see Jennifer’s ghost but nobody else can. This sets up a running gag that has him seen from the point of view of other characters talking to inanimate objects. Another gag is that of the invisible Jennifer destroying something in the house every time Joey’s father (Brandon Taggart of CHRISTMAS EVIL), who’s not a fan of Jennifer, disparages her memory.
     The narrative, such as it is, has Joey bummed because his GF has dumped him. Jennifer encourages him to get on with his life, thus starting up another running theme: a moral delivered by the sassy but all-knowing Jennifer. Another touchstone introduced here is the serious monologue by Jennifer, in this case a sentimental dirge about her unhappy childhood. Similar monologues occur near the end of every subsequent episode, which only serve to highlight Ann Jillian’s shortcomings as a thespian.

     Episode 2 has a movie about Jennifer’s life being filmed in Joey’s house. The actress playing Jennifer is a bitch, so Jen sabotages the production by unplugging lights, ripping open film canisters, etc. It gets so bad the actress quits and Jennifer steps in to play the role herself.
     In this episode we’re introduced to Jennifer’s constantly shifting physical properties: she’s visible to Joey at some times and invisible at others, and can appear to other people for short periods--in this case “long enough to make a movie.” The problem is, her skin is invisible on film.

     In the third episode Jen tries to help Joey get a date with a babe. Said babe initially hooks up with Joey’s dorky buddy Marc but changes her tune upon learning Joey has tickets to a Rick Springfield concert. Joey is smitten but Jennifer sees the gal for the tramp she is.
     Jennifer gets the girl to admit her true nature by possessing her body in Joey’s classroom. The class boos the girl’s revelation that she uses people to get what she wants, and the teacher delivers an important message: “When you use people you lose your self-respect.”

     Episode four begins with a fun special effect: a tiny Jennifer sitting in Joey’s pantry. It’s all downhill from there!
     Jennifer’s dead mom, played by Debbie Reynolds, shows up. When Joey informs the ghostly coot he hasn’t died yet she replies “Don’t worry, you will!” But then she disappears, forcing Joey to perform a séance with Marc and a couple girls to call Ms. Reynolds back. Debbie reappears, but trapped inside an animated blob. Joey pulls her out, but she’s pissed: she feels Jennifer doesn’t appreciate her enough.
     The climactic monologue has Jennifer tearfully telling her mom how much she loves her. Boo-hoo.

     Episode 5 finds Joey looking to come up with $100. He and his dad decide to auction off Jennifer’s old stuff. She agrees to let Joey sell the contents of an old trunk, inside which he finds an old calendar featuring Jennifer in nude poses. Sadly we don’t get to see any of those pictures, although we do get a fun shot of a tiny Jennifer crawling around the strings of a piano looking for the calendar. Joey’s dad, it transpires, has hidden it.
     When the auction rolls around Jennifer decides to help Joey’s dad out since she doesn’t want Joey to have choose between them. But Joey ends up substituting the nude pic with a nude baby picture of Jennifer, which sells for a ton of money anyway.

     Episode 6: In the beginning of this episode we get a look at Ann Jillian in tights and leg warmers--she’s levitating in the attic and Joey’s parents catch him chatting with her. This leads his dad to call in an exorcist played by POLTERGEIST’S Zelda Rubinstein, who performs a goofy exorcism involving odor eaters, a weed whacker and a toilet plunger. It works somehow, causing Jennifer to become shut in a jar. Joey releases her, but she’s unable to walk through walls…and about to vanish forever. Or so she claims. Turns out she’s just trying to get Joey to admit his affection for her. Joey has the final line: “I’d kill you if you weren’t already dead!”

     Episode 7 has Jennifer discovering the joys of possessing peoples’ bodies. She begins with Joey’s little sister and then Marc, who under Jennifer’s influence comes on to Joey.
     The following night Joey’s father is inviting the hot-shot movie producer Enrique (Henry Darrow) over for dinner, so (addressing Joey) “anyone talking to a lamp or arguing with a chair is in deep trouble!” Enrique turns out to be a former love of Jennifer’s. On the night of the dinner Jen possesses the body of Joey’s mom and smooches the guy.
     This bit, to offer some criticism, could have funny but is too tame (although in the show’s defense, it was considered fairly racy in its day). To continue: the smooch is witnessed by Joey and his father, and Enrique is revealed as the shallow womanizer he is. Hence another message about the wrongfulness of using people.
     There is an honest-to-goodness laugh at the end, with Jennifer talking over Joey’s body and making him do a ridiculous Carmen Miranda dance in front of everyone.

     Episode 8: This episode begins with Ann Jillian showing up in a martial arts robe. She’s studying Karate, which comes in handy when a bully picks on Joey. The invisible Jennifer beats the Hell out of the guy and Joey takes the credit.
     This display of apparent toughness leads to Joey being made the leader of the bully’s gang. As such he turns into a conceited asshole. Jennifer renders it all better, though, by making another of her real-world appearances, this time on a flying motorcycle, which scares Joey’s gangbanger buddies off.

     In episode 9 Joey is left alone in the house when his folks take off on a road trip. He invites Marc over for a party but calls it off when the latter crashes a boat through the living room. Joey calls a repairman who agrees to fix up the room, but in exchange turns the house into an illegal gambling den. Jennifer again intervenes to make things right, by influencing the dice on a craps table so Joey wins all the gamblers’ money and then calling in a squad of ghost cops to take the scumbags away.

     Episode 10: This episode is particularly annoying in the way director Alan Myerson constantly breaks up the action with close ups of cast members smiling. It has Doug, an old flame of Jennifer’s, dying and joining her as a ghost. They decide to hold a ghost wedding at the same time Joey’s parents are getting remarried (couples were always renewing their vows in 1970’s/80’s era TV--practically every episode of EIGHT IS ENOUGH, you’ll recall, concluded with a wedding).
     Doug, however, is a shallow-minded swinger, which he reveals to Joey. This means it’s Joey’s turn to deliver the climactic message at his parents’ second wedding, which has Joey constantly interrupting their vows with asides to the invisible Jennifer: “Don’t go through with this!,” etc.

     Episode 11 is by far the deadliest of them all. It begins with Joey’s inventor grandfather Barney showing up to stay in the attic where Jennifer usually hangs out. She moves into Joey’s room and becomes irked at how Joey and his parents ignore the old man. But then one of Barney’s inventions blows up and he joins Jennifer as a ghost. The two have a weepy one-on-one, talking in low voices about how Jennifer was a “wonderful actress” and Barney a “wonderful grandfather.”
     Joey tries to talk with his dead grandfather but can’t. Jennifer explains that it “doesn’t work that way” (why not?) and that Joey can only see her and people in her life (how so?). John P. Navin Jr. concludes the episode with a blubbery soliloquy to his dead grandfather. Insert retching sounds here…

     Episode 12: Joey’s folks walk in on him playing ping pong with the invisible Jennifer, which somehow inspires them to get Joey a history tutor. Said tutor turns out to be a hot brunette named Pam (Gail Edwards). Jennifer becomes jealous and interrupts the tutoring sessions in unique ways, such as superimposing her head over George Washington’s in a history book.
     Apparently there’s “something funny” about Pam, and before long Jennifer discovers what that is: Pam is a ghost sent to replace Jennifer. Apparently the “higher-ups” feel Jennifer isn’t being a good enough mentor to Joey. In the end, though, Pam breaks down and admits J&J have a solid relationship, and the episode closes with Jillian turning up in a cheerleader outfit (no complaints there!).

     Episode 13 is the final episode. Joey starts up a diary, which his little sister reads. She promptly tells her parents about Joey’s relationship with Jennifer, and they come to believe he “doesn‘t have both oars in the water.” Joey himself begins to suspect Jennifer may not be real, so she proves her existence by making silverware move around on the dinner table and pouring milk in Joey’s father’s lap.
     Jennifer, you see, has a mission. She needs Joey to break into his father’s office to retrieve a phony will that has turned up in his employ. For this she dresses in skintight black leather and inadvertently sets off the alarm in Joey’s father’s office. The police and the family are called to the scene, and Joey ends up grappling with Jennifer, which appears to them like he’s having some kind of seizure.
     It concludes with Jennifer turning up outfitted as a Southern belle and Joey (and presumably his family) accepting once and for all that she’s real.

     And so ended JENNIFER SLEPT HERE. Like I said, it was a dumb show, though for eighties nostalgiacists (i.e. me) it’s a hoot. And anyway, just wait, as the REAL awfulness is coming up--in a few weeks I plan on writing an overview of another eighties TV disaster: MANIMAL! Be afraid, be very afraid!

 

--8/7/09  

     

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