Does anyone remember Double Trouble?
Or, if I may, let me rephrase that:
Does anyone remember Double Trouble in the way that I remember Double Trouble? Remember it as a fun, escapist half-hour romp featuring two lively and lovely identical twins.
Hmm... probably not.
Admittedly, the show had little going for it. Its storyline was the kind of mess you would imagine having been brain stormed by a group of middle-aged guys in $2,000 suits trying to outguess what some homely teenage girl in a suburban shopping mall would find appealing. If not that, then it was at least thought up as an effort to appease a group of middle-aged guys in $2,000 suits trying to out guess what some homely teenage girl in a suburban shopping mall would find appealing. I'm sorry to say it, but Double Trouble had committee mentality stamped all over it.
In DT's first incarnation (there were 2), it told the exploits of Kate (Jean Sagal) and Allison "Allie" Foster (Liz Sagal), identical twins attending high school in Des Monies, Iowa. The 8 original shows detailed their dating habits, their relationship with their widower father, their dancing aspirations, and the fact that though they look similar, their personalities are as different as ice is to fire. Yes, it was a woefully lame idea. Furthermore, if what DT had to say of life in Des Moines were true, then it's little wonder I never felt the slightest urge to visit the place. It looked like a dreadfully boring city.
But, hold on there! This web page isn't here to belittle the efforts of the cast and crew of Double Trouble. While the show's scenario was Midwest enough to send any self-respecting New York sophisticate running for the upper levels of the Guggenheim Museum, it did have something that took it beyond the limitations of its wholesome, sickly-sweet plot. And this is that it had the Sagal sisters, identical twin sisters that somehow managed to take this wildly maimed situation comedy and turn it into something quite special.
Rather than continue in the direction of a dissertation on the (nonexistent) social underpinnings of DT, I'd like to detail the affect the show had on me back in 1984. In this way, I hope to unravel the allure of the show by example rather than discourse.
...I'll never forget the first time I encountered Double Trouble. As with any TV program, I found it the old-fashioned way: I stumbled upon an ad announcing its upcoming premiere in TV Guide.
I was living in the basement of a mime theater on Bond Street, New York City (near the Tower Records on 4th and Broadway). I shared the place with three others, each as equally eccentric as myself. The place was a single, long room that we partitioned with boxes and whatnots. In all honestly, it looked like a refugee camp. For entertainment, we shared a 19-inch TV, a late-60s color thing that required pliers to turn channels.
It was during the last week of March 1984 when, leafing through that week's TV Guide, I was confronted with an ad featuring the sisters Sagal. My reaction? I laughed. Looks idiotic, I thought. For heaven's sake, I was a NY rock musician into The Clash and the Sex Pistols, not some inbred into the Osmond clan! Yet, despite my musical leaning, I'd always had a soft spot for wacky pop culture. When looking at this ad I felt these sympathies surface. Taking the ad, I tore it out of the mag and, jokingly, taped it to our community refrigerator. In a booming voice, I announced to my bewildered roommates, "this is my favorite TV show of all time and space!" They thought I'd finally lost it.
All that week I made a big stink about how my favorite show was coming -- and that I didn't want anyone messing with me on the issue! Of course, I got the desired amount of laughs out of this.
In no time, the scheduled day arrived -- the day Double Trouble premiered on national television. That morning our sole female roomie asked if I was really going through with this. Well, I thought, I've made such a fuss, might as well see what I've cornered myself into. Besides, I'd be lying if I were to say that I wasn't curious.
I may have watched it alone; I may have watched it with my roommates. To be sure, it was a long time ago. I can't recall well today. But there is one thing for certain, one thing I will never forget -- I LOVED the show! It had just the right amount of zany goofiness coupled with the exuberant charm of the Sagal sisters to floor this NY City snob. Hell, I probably loved the show just based on the far-out opening. It was incredibly edgy stuff. I don't mean in an arty sort of way, but in the way it was trying so hard to appeal to everyone and offend no one. It was duality at its American best: artless, yet full of art. DT was so over the top that it was spot on.
Generally speaking, America is a nation of artophobics, and DT laid it out there for all to see: its contrived plots, its setting in Des Moines, its phoned in soundtrack, its incessant laugh track. Of course, the cherry on the top were the girls themselves. For good or bad, it was an unabashed display of the pedestrian sense that prevents America from being a truly great nation. And because of this, I loved the show.
I'm probably reading too much into DT. I doubt that this was the intention of its creators. They just wanted ratings. But art is interpretive, and whether Double Trouble was designed in this way or not, this is the way I took it.
Without intent to harm the feelings of one sister or the other, any fan of DT probably has a favorite between the two. Me? I like Jean. It took about one show to acclimate myself to their differences. Jean's got the sharper chin. She's also got the brighter eyes. Actually, I think Liz is the more classic looking of the two, but, for whatever reasons, it was Jean that floored me.
I've read that in real life the two are opposite of their TV characters. That Jean is the "reserved" one and Liz is the "wild" one. This, too, appealed to me. Jean played the role of wild cat Kate with such conviction that I felt she didn't need to be extroverted in real life. Knowing what wild is, enough to play at being wild was good enough for me. I imagined that Jean choose the more serious route out of a sense of purpose. Or, at least this was my take on the situation. I've been known to be wrong before.
As an instant fan, I set it upon myself to collect what I could on the show, which wasn't a whole hell of a lot. I carefully removed the TV Guide ad I had so abrasively taped to the frig, gently placing it into a scrapbook for future generations. (By the way, I still have this scrapbook, which is where the images on this site come from.) I didn't have a VCR (it was still a life option back then). However, I did go so far as to lug one from my office every time the show was on to make tapes. When I couldn't, I would beg someone at work who owned a player to tape it for me. And I still have the Betas to prove it!
I also did something I had never done and have never done since: I wrote fan letters. In particular, I wrote Jean Sagal fan letters. Reflecting on this today, I have to say that it was probably not the brightest move on my part. Not like I'm some G. B. Shaw now, but my writing was pretty atrocious back then, and without a computer to spell check, I'm sure Jean must have taken my letters as the flip side of the glamour of having her own show. That is, if they even got to her at all. I understand that people in the offices of TV often intercept these letters and use them as a form of entertainment, parading them around or taking them home to show their spouses and friends. *Sigh* I'm sure mine were right up there. Sorry Jean.
Another thing that set the show apart from others of the time -- Different Strokes, Facts of Life, Growing Pains, etc., (shows I loathed) -- was that it didn't preach. There were no sermons on racial coexistence, or coming of age tips for awkward teens, why there wasn't even one wise beyond her years' seven-year old to set the show's adults straight!
The conceit of TV shows, especially the situation comedy variety, that set out to clue its audience into some universal truth has always irked me. Do TV producers really think they are aiding social and philosophical advancement? Give us a break! This is about as absurd as thinking that you can teach morals to kids with cartoons. With the borderline exception of a show in which the fate of Kate's virginity is at stake, not so with DT. I can proudly say that I didn't learn squat by watching Double Trouble. And by being this way, it was honest and consistent with its intentions.
But the good times were short lived. For no sooner had DT begun than it was given the thumbs down by the powers that be at mother station NBC. When word got out, it broke my heart (my co-workers, however, derived delight out of my annoyance). I mean, I'd gotten quite fond of DT and though it didn't jibe with my usual viewing habits (I was and still am a Sci-Fi fan at heart), it ranked as one of my best TV experiences.
Although DT had only just gotten up onto its baby legs, on reflection, we had been given a fairly solid peek into the world of Kate and Allison Foster. Who can forget the driver license switch Kate pulled on the very first episode? Or, did you, like me, watch in suspense as Kate and Allison broke into their school's science lab (aided by Miles (John P. Navin jr.), that sandals and socks guy), only to get caught red handed by the janitor? Remember weathering the bizarre twin testing and the subsequent fall out of the sisters in "Separate Birthdays"? And then there was Kate's misguided infatuation with no-brain jock Eric (Cameron Dye) that nearly cost her steady Michael (Jon Caliri). However, my personal favorite was "Dueling Feet". In this episode both Jean and Liz turned in two kick ass dance pieces! For what it was, it was a great eight episode run.
Forward ahead nearly 6 months: Good news came toward the end of fall that year when my boss tossed a copy of The New York Daily News at me. In it was a blurb about DT being given an unprecedented second chance to score some ratings. I could hardly believe it. In the world of TV, I always thought this went under the heading of 'This Never Happens'. Yes, it was too cool to be true. Furthermore, the show was to be revamped, with the setting to be my home of New York City!
Soon after, the show premiered. From the get-go things were different. For starters, the girls were more -- how can I say? -- mature. There was a lot less trivial midwest nonsense in their act, which, depending on how you looked at it, was both good and bad. I found the updated situation -- Kate aspiring to be a performer / Allison a designer -- a tad contrived, but it was enjoyable enough and the girls made it believable. If there was a downside, it was that the new characters, with the exception of Mr. Arrechia (Michael D. Roberts) and Aileen "like my mama always says" Lewis (Anne-Marie Johnson), were stale. While the male pair of "funny boys" Jonathan Schmock and James Vallely were in no way bad, I couldn't figure out what it was they were doing on the show. With all respect to their abilities, it sounded like some marketing agents contrivance to inject unnecessary "zaniness" into the show. The boys should have never been on DT and should have instead been given a show of their own.
Barbara Barrie as Aunt Margo was fine. If she didn't come across as fervent, at least she came across as a professional. Probably too professional. While her long experience no doubt helped to keep the show on its feet, her presence seemed out of place, as if it were a means to sell the show as something legitimate. Or worse, as an apology to the older primetime viewers it secretly hoped to woo. Yet, there were aspects of her personality that I liked. I thought her indifference to Christmas in "O Come All Ye Faithful" was very NY. That she was a writer was cool, too. But that whole "Bongo Bear" bit should have been laid to rest on the very first meeting covering the direction of the show.
Personally, I preferred the original format. But that may be because it was fresher when it took me by total surprise earlier that year. And it was so utterly alien to my life. The new DT was set where I lived and worked, which while fun, meant that I could scrutinize it against real NYC life. This isn't to say that the second season was worse. I think it had better actors, the experience of the first season behind it, and a wider premise in which to work. It's no surprise, then, that this incarnation of DT lasted longer than the first. Still, after just 15 episodes it was canned again.
One thing that sort of freaked me out when watching the 2nd season for the first time was the title sequence. You know, the opening with the montage of the girls hanging around NYC? At this time in my life there was nothing I wanted more than to meet the Sagal sisters, particularly Jean. Back then I was convinced that she was the coolest chick around. (And today she may even still well be the coolest woman around.) So, imagine my surprise when watching the opening and seeing them jumping in front of the Times Square marquee, a sign mere feet from the entrance of my day job office. When was that taken? I thought as my jaw came unhinged. Or, when were those photos by the Rockefeller Center Ice Rink not five minutes from my window shot? But the clincher were the pictures of them at the Macys Day Parade. The photos show the two near the parade's end in front of Macys. Well, believe it or not, but I was directly across the street at this same time unaware of what was transpiring before me. Oh, the humanity!
Over the next few months I began having what I called "DT Encounters of the 3rd Kind." For instance, one slow Saturday in January 1984 when stopping by my Times Square office I shared an elevator with Barbara Barrie. Soon after the show's run was over, I went to see Jonathan Schmock and James Vallely in their "The Funny Boys" routine at Carolines. I spent time with them after their enjoyable act, chatting about DT, the sisters and life in general. (I still recall that great snake tie bit, guys!)
But, forget all that! For my greatest DT related moment came when I attended MTV's 1985 New Year's Eve party on the night of Dec. 31, 1984. It was a gala, invitation only affair, with a bevy of bands in musical attendance: Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Joan Jett, UB40, General Public, etc. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it was the hottest ticket in the US that night. And as such, when leaving my apartment that night, I speculated that if ever there was the possibility...
Sure enough, as Frankie Goes to Hollywood took the stage I looked over to my left to see through the sparse crowd one of the Sagal sisters. I can hardly begin to describe how thrilled and excited I was. It was truly one of those 'I can't believe my eyes' moments, as there before me was a real Sagal sister. It was Liz.
Needless to say, I wanted to talk to her very much, but the band had just begun and she looked into it. This was while F.G.H. was at the height of their trendiness (remember those dumb "Frankie Says Relax" shirts? Later on in the series, Liz made a reference to the band and the shirt.). Here I was, one of the few who could see them live in the states, yet all I could think of was Liz standing not more than ten feet off. It was the longest half-hour of my life.
Finally, the music ended. Wasting no chance, I walked over as smoothly and innocuously as possible. She was yapping it up with some friends, her face beaming and happy. "Liz," I interrupted. She turned, gifting me with a big, inviting smile. "Yes?" she asked. To my great relief, she was approachable and easy to talk with.
During our conversation I didn't say anything ground shaking or mesmerizing, just that I enjoyed her show, and how nice it was to meet her, etc. Not wishing to come across as too star struck, I spoke to her friends too. At this point another partier cut in to talk to Liz. He only said that he liked her show. It was obvious he couldn't tell if she was Liz or Jean. For me, after watching the show so intently, the two were as easy to tell apart as Reagan was from Khomeini.
Not looking to wear out my welcome, I took my leave. But first, I removed a studded, black leather "punk" strap that I had on my wrist. It was a prize possession of mine, one that I'd worn to nearly ever show I'd played since 1980. I told Liz that if she didn't mind, I'd like to give it to her. She laughed, and said "OK." I took her arm and snapped it around her wrist. She picked up her hand to inspect it and the thing slid down to her elbow! Her arm was that slight! Still smiling, she offset the awkwardness by adding, "I wear these things all the time! Thanks." Nice!
Following this I bumped into my friend John. He was excited over something. "They're here! I heard that the girls from Double Trouble are here!" In a surprisingly calm voice I told him of my Liz encounter. He was dumbstruck.
I never found out if Jean was there that night or not. In fact, I find it ironic that of all the main cast members, Jean, the one I wanted most to talk to, is the one I never met. Isn't that so like life?
Double Trouble was canceled several months after the MTV party, almost one year to the day following my discovery of the ad in TV Guide. For a while I held onto hope that it would be renewed, but it never was. I always kept an eye out for the girls, but it seemed that it was easier to spot a UFO. But they did turn up here and there. For instance, I was happy to discover Liz as a drummer in Howard The Duck, a film I don't think sucks as badly as everyone claims.
In the end, Double Trouble played a small, yet important role in my early 20s. I'll never forget the enjoyment I derived from it. I still think that both Jean and Liz were and are something special. I also think it would still be neat to talk with Jean, who, like me, is in her forties. I imagine that she has some interesting memories of the show, and seeing as she is a director and writer today, she probably has a lot to say about the world.
As for me, I can't say how DT affected me beyond this. It didn't give me any career insights or cause me to move to Iowa. I did, in fact, move to Japan, which is where I live today. I am a teacher and a writer, and on occasion even do some acting. I don't often think about DT, but when I do, I find nothing but found memories. And when I list icons of the 80s, for me, Double Trouble is up there with the best of 'em.
Thanks Jean. Thanks Liz. You're the greatest.
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