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Man-Eating Space Lizards: When V Was a TV Smash

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

American broadcast television in the 1980s didn’t leave a lot of room for subtlety. Shows like Hill Street Blues were outliers, crowded off the schedule by head-hammering episodic series featuring mercenaries (The A-Team), car chases (The Dukes of Hazzard), or soapy melodrama (Dynasty).

On its surface, V appeared to be no different. A two-part miniseries airing on consecutive evenings in May 1983, it told the story of the “Visitors,” gregarious aliens who arrive on Earth in three-mile-long spaceships and greet humans with a bargain: Let the Visitors harvest a chemical needed for their continued survival and receive advanced medical knowledge in return.

As the humanoid aliens reveal themselves to be malevolent lizard-like creatures who prefer to dine on humans rather than prolong their lives, V took on the look and feel of a pulpy sci-fi epic—the kind of thing that could be easily summarized in one Amazing Stories cover image from the 1940s. But writer Kenneth Johnson had something far more subversive in mind. The Visitors were stand-ins for fascists, and V was a cautionary tale about the perils of complacency.

Jason Bernard and Robert Englund star in the NBC miniseries 'V' (1983).
Warner Home Video

A Carnegie Mellon graduate, Johnson had broken into television with a writing stint on The Six Million Dollar Man, for which he conceived a female counterpart in the form of Jamie Sommers (Lindsay Wagner). Sommers got her own series, The Bionic Woman, which Johnson produced until he was tasked with adapting The Incredible Hulk as a live-action drama.

It was around this time that Johnson became fascinated with a 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here, about a fascist group that rises to power in the United States. Johnson reworked the concept into Storm Warnings, a feature-length screenplay; that work landed on the desk of NBC president Brandon Tartikoff, who encouraged Johnson to adapt it into a television miniseries by casting Soviets or the Chinese as the antagonists.

Tartikoff’s request made sense. The miniseries format, which took off in the 1970s with Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man, was drawing record numbers of viewers. The Thorn Birds, about a priest who is tempted to break his vow of celibacy by a younger woman, was a hit; so was Shogun, about a 17th century man who shipwrecks in Japan and becomes a pawn in a war between samurai. (Both starred Richard Chamberlain.) Storm Warnings had an appropriately sprawling narrative with multiple characters, a feat of creative engineering Johnson was encouraged to use after reading War and Peace.

But the writer was less enthused about casting a foreign superpower as a rival. Tartikoff then suggested aliens, the allegorical turf of Rod Serling that had fueled many a socially-conscious episode of The Twilight Zone. Johnson later told Starlog he “ran screaming from the room” at the suggestion, but eventually warmed to it. Storm Warnings became V: NBC committed $13 million to produce the four-hour drama.

A scene from the NBC miniseries 'V' (1983).
Warner Home Video

While a generous budget for television, the scope of Johnson’s idea taxed every available dollar. A 60-foot-long model of one of the Visitor ships was built; a giant hangar intended to depict the inside was made to scale, albeit cut in half; matte effects, with the ships laid over a background painting, depicted their unsettling arrival over Earth’s major cities. A feature with those same ambitions might take months of pre-production planning: Johnson got three weeks.

Whatever was lacking in the special effects and costumes—Johnson opted for a regal, military-inspired garb for his aliens that hasn’t aged well—never diluted the real attraction of V. Following a television cameraman (Marc Singer) and a botanist (Faye Grant) as they grow suspicious of the true intentions of the Visitors, the series quickly turns into an examination of what happens when a population is seduced by the promise of a helping hand. Celebrities and world leaders endorse the Visitors; scientists questioning their motives are corralled and delivered to ships for “re-education.” By the time their foot soldier Diana (Jane Badler) is seen devouring a guinea pig, Singer and his cohorts have decided to form a resistance to push back against being turned into alien kibble. For viewers who didn’t care for the subtext, there was still the birth of a lizard baby to talk about with coworkers and friends the next morning.

In a departure from conventional advertising, NBC decided to take a conservative approach with V. Posters in subway stations and bus stops depicted illustrations of the Visitors in propaganda-style posters; later, a “V” would be spray-painted over the ads. There was never any mention of the series.

The premiere of V drew a 40 share, which meant 40 percent of all households watching television at that hour were watching the lizard people establish their dominance on Earth. Tartikoff even granted Johnson the ability to run 15 minutes past the allotted two-hour time slot, cutting into local newscasts. On night two, V maintained much of that audience.

What might have turned out to be a lucrative franchise for NBC quickly lost its way. Tartikoff wanted Johnson to oversee a weekly drama continuing the story of the resistance while ramping up their licensing efforts; Johnson argued that the premise would be too expensive for the format and suggested a two-hour movie air every month or two instead.

A licensed action figure from the 'V' miniseries
Amazon

In the end, neither quite got their wish. Another miniseries, V: The Final Battle, aired in 1984, but Johnson disowned it after extensive rewrites. V: The Series followed, but lasted just one season. Johnson lamented that the network had taken his cautionary tale and turned it into a spectacle, with gunfights and lizard people eating small animals taking the place of the allegory.

V was revived by ABC in 2009, but low ratings led to a quick demise after two seasons. Other shows and movies like 1996’s Independence Day had borrowed heavily from Johnson, wearing out the premise. In 2007, Johnson published V: The Second Generation, a novel based on one of his follow-up scripts.

The miniseries format would continue throughout the 1980s and 1990s before serialized dramas with shortened seasons edged them off television schedules. Like The Thorn Birds, V remains one of the most well-remembered entries in the medium, due in no small part to Johnson’s nods to levity. When the aliens arrive, a high school band plays the Star Wars theme.

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Thin Ice: The Bizarre Boxing Career of Tonya Harding
Al Bello/Getty Images
Al Bello/Getty Images

In 2004, the Chicago Tribune asked Tonya Harding about the strangest business offer she had received after her skating career came to an abrupt end in the mid-1990s. “I guess to skate topless,” she answered. In 1994, the two-time former Olympian became infamous for her ex-husband’s attempt to break the leg of rival Nancy Kerrigan. Although Harding denied any knowledge of or involvement in the plan—which ended with Kerrigan suffering a bruised leg and Harding being banned from the U.S. Figure Skating organization, ending her competitive pursuits—she became a running punchline in the media for her attempts to exploit that notoriety. There was a sex tape (which her equally disgraced former husband, Jeff Gillooly, taped on their wedding night), offers to wrestle professionally, attempts to launch careers in both music and acting, and other means of paying bills.

Though she did not accept the offer to perform semi-nude, she did embark on a new career that many observers found just as lurid and sensational: For a two-year period, Tonya Harding was a professional boxer.

Tonya Harding rises from the canvas during a boxing match
Al Bello/Getty Images

Following the attack on Kerrigan and the subsequent police investigation, Harding pled guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution, received three years’ probation, and was levied a $160,000 fine. (Gillooly and his conspirators served time.) Ostracized from skating and with limited opportunities, Harding first tried to enter the music scene with her band, the Golden Blades.

When that didn’t work—they were booed off stage in Portland, Oregon, Harding’s hometown—she disappeared from the public eye, offering skating lessons in Oregon before resurfacing on a March 2002 Fox network broadcast titled Celebrity Boxing. Using heavily padded gloves and outsized headgear, performers like Vanilla Ice and Todd Bridges pummeled one another on the undercard. In the main event, Harding used her physicality to batter and bruise Paula Jones, the woman who had accused then-president Bill Clinton of sexual harassment.

This was apparently the boost of confidence Harding needed. “I thought it was fun knocking somebody else on their butt,” she told the Tribune. Boxing, she said, could be an opportunity to embrace her self-appointed title as “America’s Bad Girl.”

Harding looked up a boxing promoter in Portland named Paul Brown and signed a four-year contract that would pay her between $10,000 and $15,000 per bout. The 5-foot, 1-inch Harding quickly grew in stature, moving to 123 pounds from her 105-pound skating weight. Following her win against Jones, Brown booked her a fight against up-and-coming boxer Samantha Browning in a four-round bout in Los Angeles in February 2003. The fight was said to be sloppy, with both women displaying their limited experience. Ultimately, Browning won a split decision.

Harding rebounded that spring, winning three fights in a row. Against Emily Gosa in Lincoln City, Oregon, she was roundly booed upon entering the arena. “The entire fight barely rose above the level of a drunken street brawl,” The Independent reported.

Of course, few spectators were there to see Harding put on a boxing clinic. They wanted to watch a vilified sports figure suffer some kind of public retribution for her role in the attack on Kerrigan. Following her brief winning streak, Harding was pummeled by Melissa Yanas in August 2003, losing barely a minute into the first round of a fight that took place in the parking lot of a Dallas strip club. In June 2004, she was stopped a second time against 22-year-old nursing student Amy Johnson; the Edmonton, Alberta, crowd cheered as Harding was left bloodied. Harding later told the press that Johnson, a native Canuck, had been given 26 seconds to get up after Harding knocked her down when the rules mandated only 10, which she saw as a display of national favoritism.

Harding had good reason to be upset. The Johnson fight was pivotal, as a win could have meant a fight on pay-per-view against Serbian-born boxer Jelena Mrdjenovich for a $600,000 purse. That bout never materialized.

Tonya Harding signs head shots on a table
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There was more than just lack of experience working against Harding in her newfound career. Having been a longtime smoker, she suffered from asthma. The condition plagued her skating career; in boxing, where lapses in cardiovascular conditioning can get you hurt, it became a serious problem. Although Harding competed again—this time emerging victorious in a fight against pro wrestler Brittany Drake in an exhibition bout in Essington, Pennsylvania, in January 2005—it would end up being her last contest. Suffering from pneumonia and struggling with weight gain caused by corticosteroids prescribed for treatment, she halted her training.

In an epilogue fit for Harding’s frequently bizarre escapades, there was remote potential for one last bout. In 2011, dot-com entrepreneur Alki David offered Harding $100,000 to step back into the ring, with another $100,000 going to her proposed opponent. Had it happened, it probably would have gone down as one of the biggest sideshows of the past century. Unfortunately for Harding, Nancy Kerrigan never responded to the offer.

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Pop Culture
10 Adorable Facts About Cabbage Patch Kids
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Although there have been other toy crazes throughout the 20th century, none have inspired the frenzy that met the 1983 debut of the Cabbage Patch Kids. Mass-produced yet all slightly unique—each was computer-sorted to have a distinctive combination of hair, freckles, and expressions—the dolls were in such high demand that shoppers risked bodily injury to try and grab one: In 1983, a Wall Street Journal editorial asserted that more Americans were worried about obtaining a Kid than the possibility of nuclear annihilation at the height of the Cold War. Check out 10 facts behind this dimpled phenomenon.

1. THEY WERE ORIGINALLY CALLED “LITTLE PEOPLE.”

When Appalachian artist Xavier Roberts began handcrafting a line of soft-sculpture babies in Georgia in 1977, he referred to them as Little People and created an elaborate marketing plan around their distribution. Gift shops and other retailers would never “sell” the creations—instead, they were to be “adopted.” Roberts also corrected anyone who referred to them as “dolls,” preferring to call them “babies” or “kids.” The fantasy worked, and Roberts sold well over 200,000 of his Little People before signing a deal to mass-produce them in partnership with toymaker Coleco in 1982. Under the direction of advertising agent Roger Schlaifer, they were rebranded as Cabbage Patch Kids after the stock explanation parents sometimes use to describe reproduction—that kids come from “the cabbage patch.”

2. PEOPLE GOT TRAMPLED TRYING TO BUY THEM.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact appeal of the Cabbage Patch Kids, which were perceived by some as homely. Some psychologists interviewed at the time believed that the adoption fantasy appealed to children who were looking to be caregivers themselves, while others pointed to the idea that parents could “prove” their worth by securing a Kid for their offspring. Whatever the case, the 1983 holiday shopping season drove consumers into a frenzy. Stores receiving small quantities of the Kids saw shoppers stampede into stores, suffering broken bones, being trampled, and even attempting to bribe employees into reserving them before they hit the sales floor. One manager resorted to wielding a baseball bat as a form of crowd control.

3. XAVIER ROBERTS MADE ONE KID CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD.

As president of Original Appalachian Artworks (OAA), the company incorporated to produce the dolls in 1978, the colorful Roberts enjoyed perpetuating the fantasy of the Kids as actual personalities. One of his earlier creations, Otis Lee, was named Chairman of the Board and frequently traveled with Roberts, rarely leaving his side.

4. ONE DESPERATE PARENT FLEW TO LONDON TO GRAB A KID.

A vintage photo of a child receiving a Cabbage Patch Kid
Dennis Harper, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Frustrated with the lack of supply in North America, a Kansas City mailman named Ed Pennington flew to London during the 1983 season in order to pick up a Kid for his daughter, Leana. (In England, demand wasn’t quite as strong and few had to risk bodily injury to secure one.) Pennington bought five of the Kids and gave four of them away to charity.

5. COLECO HAD TO PULL ITS ADVERTISING.

With demand for the Kids prompting violence, Coleco was chastised by consumer advocates for a form of “false advertising,” running television commercials that attracted consumers when they knew they would be unable to produce enough supply. James Picken, the consumer affairs commissioner in Nassau County, New York, complained the ads amounted to “harassing small children.” The company soon backed off on their ad campaign, pulling TV spots. It was hardly a problem, though: The furor over the Kids brought them headlines—and free advertising—virtually around the clock.

6. ADOPTION GROUPS WEREN’T BIG FANS.

A child examines two Cabbage Patch Kid toys
alamosbasement, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The marketing for the Kids, which involved an “oath” to treat them with care along with a birth certificate and adoption papers, spoke to adolescent consumers but didn’t find support in the actual adoption community. Feeling the toy trivialized actual adoptive parents and their kids, adoption groups spoke out against the idea, fearing it would prompt children to believe people could be “bought.”

7. THERE WAS AN EASY WAY TO SMELL A FAKE.

With any consumer product sensation comes a parade of counterfeit merchandise, and the Kids were no exception. Consumer advocate groups pointed out that bogus Cabbage Patch items possessed an oily smell due to the industrial rags they had been stuffed with. Thought to be highly flammable, consumers were told to avoid Kids that reeked of kerosene.  

8. THEY SUED THE GARBAGE PAIL KIDS.

A Cabbage Patch Kid sits on top of a dumpster
Al Pavangkanan, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Roberts and OAA didn’t find a lot to laugh about when Topps released their line of Garbage Pail Kids trading cards in 1985. Featuring the same rounded heads and cute expressions as the Cabbage Patch Kids, OAA charged that the booger-infested cards were infringing on their copyright. After a court battle, Topps agreed to alter the design of their cards.

9. ONE MODEL HAD TO BE RECALLED FOR EATING THEIR OWNERS' HAIR.

Cabbage Patch mania was on full display through 1984, when Coleco sold 20 million of the toys before demand finally began to wane. In an effort to bolster sales later in the decade, new Cabbage Patch licensee Mattel released Snack Time Kids, which were intended to gobble up fake French fries. Instead, the mechanism could bite down on their owner’s long hair and automatically begin chewing. After complaints—and one 911 call for a child in Connecticut unable to free herself from the Kid’s maw—Mattel offered refunds and withdrew the toy from stores.

10. THEY INSPIRED A MORBID URBAN LEGEND.

A set of Cabbage Patch Kids wearing hats
lisaclarke, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Cabbage Patch Kids that had suffered indignities like dog maulings, sibling amputations, or other misadventures could potentially be repaired by doll hospitals. But one morbid rumor sprang up in newspapers: if your Kid was beyond repair, Coleco would issue the toy a death certificate.  

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