Fame: The Complete First Season Review
For those that don't remember this TV show, it follows students at New York City's High School for the Performing Arts, which teaches talented students normal lessons alongside performing arts classes. The show was born from a film of the same name that appeared in 1980, directed by Alan Parker. Where the film stayed fairly gritty in its depiction of both the good and bad sides to being a talented teen, the TV show is much lighter in feel – which is a good thing when you have to sustain a weekly audience of teenage viewers.
So, it's essentially a weekly drama that follows students and teachers through everyday life at an extraordinary school. The setting is the brilliance of the series, as having talented students allows for many, many song and dance numbers which break up the action and ensure the show's unique selling point. In fact, the TV series was a huge success and launched several cast albums as 'The Kids from Fame', annuals, and five additional seasons... which really isn't bad going at all.
Like any other school drama, the show allows characters to develop and isn't centred entirely around the lessons, but it also doesn't venture too deeply into the home lives of the students – not unless there's a specific plot point needing to be made. So we do get to see Leroy's ramshackle flat, Bruno's musical cellar and Julie's discussions with her mother at their new apartment in New York. But the main action is kept resolutely within the school walls, with typical teen issues such a jealousy, drugs and maturity helping to keep storylines afloat. However, because the School for the Performing Arts is such a special place, the teenagers that are enroled there have additional problems coming to grips with their individual desires to succeed in such a harsh business, insecurities relating to their talents and also their need to keep schoolwork at a high enough level to continue performing – love of performing of course being the central core that keeps them together.
Four actors reprise their roles from the film: Gene Anthony Ray plays Leroy, a talented but unschooled dancer who struggles with his classwork but dazzles on the dancefloor; Lee Curreri plays Bruno Martelli, a brilliant musician dabbling with synthesizers and the modern sound as well as the classics; Debbie Allen - who incidentally also acted as choreographer for the show - stars as Lydia Grant, the dance teacher; and finally Benjamin Hague plays Mr Shorofsky, the teddy bear of a music teacher who frequently locks horns with Bruno over musical tastes. Joining the four listed here are many newcomers to the Fame world. Lori Singer (Footloose, Warlock) plays Julie Miller, the shy cello player who comes out of her shell once she makes some friends. Erica Gimpel (Veronica Mars, The Profiler) takes on the role of Coco Hernandez, the ballsy dancer/singer who is often seen seeking the limelight. Carlo Imperato plays Danny, Valerie Landsburg plays Doris, and P R Paul plays Montgomery, the three friends who major in acting and are often seen in cahoots with one another. Rounding out the teaching staff are Carol Mayo Jenkins as English teacher Miss Sherwood and Michael Thoma as Mr Crandall, the drama teacher.
There are some really standout performances in there too, and for such a show, talent is naturally very important. In fact, for me the only weak link is Lori Singer, whom I just found a little too wooden and simpering, though she does pick up over the course of the series at least. The teachers are all fantastic and foster a great working chemistry together, which permits them to come across believably as friends as well as colleagues. There's no denying the talent of Gene Anthony Ray (who died of a stroke in 2003), who brings life to the role of Leroy and who gets the biggest chunk of the dance roles, despite having little professional training himself. Likewise, Lee Curreri - playing Bruno - really is that talented a musician and contributed a number of musical numbers to the show before going on to work with artists such as Natalie Cole and Olivia Newton-John. I genuinely found all the performances likeable, if not always brilliant. Somehow it makes them all the more believable as teenagers trying to really hone their talents.
Fame works as a TV show because of our fascination with the performing arts. Watching the talented learn their trade is the basis of some of the reality shows that do so well with the public these days, and Fame captures that interest but keeps it in a pleasantly fictional framework. The stories are believable, the characters interesting and the musical numbers catchy enough for me to remember them from my first viewing of the show back in the '80s! (OK, so I may have owned some of the albums too… but why would I admit that?!). The episode guide gives a good idea of the kind of storylines the show tackled in its first season, a season that really did capture the imagination of many an '80s' child. Songs in this series include 'Hi-Fidelity', 'Starmaker', 'Desdemona', 'Life is a Celebration' and 'Shorofsky' as well as many, many others!
The school gains a new student in the form of nervous Midwesterner, Julie Miller. Julie tries hard to fit in, but it's only with some help from the central core of Fame friends that she manages and finally gets integrated into the group we're going to follow for the rest of the series.
2: 'Passing Grade'
When Lydia's ex-boyfriend turns up to ask her to audition for a part in his stage show, little does she know that she'll meet up with her student Coco at the auditions. Meanwhile, Danny talks his way into a job as a waiter in order to try and meet Johnny Carson. Coco and Lydia vie for a part in a show.
3: 'Tomorrow's Farewell'
When the School Board orders the School to have a gymnasium added so that students can do PE, Lydia takes it personally and organises a dance-off between her pupils and a group of football players. Leroy's troubled by the re-appearance of his brother who's on parole, and it takes his friends to make him see clearly how to handle the situation.
4: 'Alone in a Crowd'
Mr Shorofsky discovers Bruno has a fear of performing in public and finds a way to make him face his fear. Danny and Doris get closer when stuck in a lift during the big benefit they were supposed to perform in.
5: 'To Soar and Never Falter'
Bruno has a crush on Kathleen, a dancer who's about to take a big audition, and he's roped in to write some music for her performance. When Kathleen gets injured in training, her future at the school and with the audition itself seems in jeopardy. The teachers have to make some hard decisions.
6: 'The Sell Out'
To help pay for a new synthesizer Bruno takes a tacky job as an accordion player. Coco is choreographing a dance and seems really out of sorts when Julie is assigned to play music for the project. It's left to friends and teachers to build some bridges between the pair.
7: 'The Strike'
Just as the pupils are getting ready to stage a version of 'Othello', the teachers are called out on strike and it's left to the kids themselves to prepare the show, with a little sneaky assistance from Mr Shorofsky and Miss Sherwood.
8: 'Street Kid'
The acting class is told to each create a role very different to themselves and Doris hits on the idea of portraying a prostitute. During her research on the streets, she meets a young prostitute called Tracy and of course tries to help her out.
9: 'But Seriously, Folks'
Danny takes a job at a late-night comedy club and then tries to juggle work, school and the odd chance to actually test out his comedy act on real punters. Drugs seem to be a temporary answer. Meanwhile, Doris has trouble at a burger commercial shoot.
10: 'Come One, Come All'
This episode stars Gwen Verdon as Montgomery's famous mother who stops by the school and ends up running the latest school musical production. An interesting note on the cover sleeve reads that 'this episode has been musically edited', though of course it doesn't bother to specify in what way.
11: 'The Crazies'
Doris hustles Montgomery into making a pact with her that the two of them will be completely honest about everything for the entire day and of course, things don't all go to plan. When Shorofsky is hospitalised after an attack, Bruno gets to realise just how important his mentor is to him.
A very Julie-centred episode. First the poor girl is replaced by a mannequin in a musical number the students are working on, then she falls for a 'student teacher' that's really an undercover reporter! Meanwhile, Lydia tries to help Julie's mother find a job.
13: 'A Musical Bridge'
Montgomery tries to persuade Bruno to make some commercial music in a money-making scheme. Miss Sherwood, finally discovers what Leroy's home life is like and sets about trying to help him.
14: 'A Big Finish'
The students (and Miss Sherwood) discover that their janitor is an ex-Broadway star and that he's been helping an old friend out by letting him stay in the school's basement. They become determined to help the pair get a new start in life.
Leroy really wants his mother to come for parents' day and Danny helps out by playing pool for money. Mr Shorofsky is visited by an old flame, which brings back some painful memories for him.
16: 'A Special Place'
Due to cutbacks, the School for the Performing Arts looks set to lose one of its teachers, but there's a lot of uncertainty as to which it will be. Bruno discovers a composer has stolen a song of his.
The video is shown in 4:3 as originally broadcast and shows very few signs of its age, which was quite a surprise. Outside scenes (of which there aren't all that many) are of lesser quality than those shot indoors, with apparent dirt and some softness to them. But overall, this is an amazingly clean transfer of relatively old material – colours and skin tones work well and given there's a lot of movement in the dance sequences there isn't all that much grain at all.
The audio is delivered via a Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack which is all the show really needs and all it was made to deliver. The dialogue is clearly audible throughout and the musical numbers are solid and atmospheric. I can't imagine anyone expected a 5.1 remix here – I certainly didn't – and I wasn't disappointed at all with the soundtrack as it presented.
Extras, Packaging & Menus
First of all, let's get straight to the point. There are no Fame-related extras on this boxset at all, and this is despite there being some 'reunion shows' already in existence for Fame which could have found a happy home here. I'm guessing the fact that they were made for the UK and this is the Region 1 boxset may have something to do with their omission, but it also seems the producers of this set believed there would be some special features included before it went to print. How did I work this out? Well... for one, the discs and packaging are mislabelled.
According to the packaging (2 slim Amaray cases each holding 2 discs each, containing in a standard slipcase) and the episode descriptions on them, the first 2 discs should have 5 episodes on each, with the third disc holding 4 episodes and the final one only having 2 episodes, leaving plenty of space for special features. In reality, the 16 episodes are split completely evenly over the 4 discs… each holding 4 episodes each. I can't think of a reason for this (or for it not having been spotted before the packaging got the all-clear for mass printing) unless there were some special features planned which fell through for some reason.
In the way of pseudo-extras unrelated to Fame, we have some obligatory trailers for other films, especially those of '80s vintage, including Mannequin, Ghostbusters, Stand by Me, The Big Chill and The Karate Kid. There's also trailers for Camp, The Partridge Family and Christmas with the Kranks.
Menus are unsurprisingly static and based on the cover art. Luckily each disc does include the all-important 'play all' selection, as well as offering individual episode selection sub-menus.
Ok, so Fame isn't cool, but it is light-hearted and enjoyable to watch in a way I wasn't sure was possible after so many years. Originating in the '80s, it still manages to touch on perennial high school issues and to explore them through the eyes of an unusual set of teenagers who have additional personal circumstances to deal with. The DVD set is encouragingly good in its transfers and the show comes over very well. It's a shame about lack of extras, but hell, who cares… get the legwarmers out and enjoy!