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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Today's Special Is...Today's Special

I used to hate going into department stores when I was a child.

Unless we took a detour to the toys and games section of a store, having to be dragged from store to store by either my parents or two sisters was incredibly boring.  Keeping in mind that this was during a time before Nintendo Game Boys, it was pure torture to stand around and look at the floor while they browsed through clothing racks.  Especially when a trip to the children's department never came out of the whole visit to the store in the first place.

There was another reason why I didn't like going to department stores.  I hated mannequins.

Mannequins used to creep me out for some unknown reason.  The fact that they were people dressed in the latest fashions from 1985 or whatever staring at you with porcelain eyes and not moving an inch.  It wasn't really a good feeling.

Even worse still were those mannequins that were only half completed, or only showed the upper half of the mannequin's body to show off a dress shirt or a blouse.  Some of them were even headless.  The four year old version of myself was thinking to myself "what the heck did that poor mannequin do to get his/her legs chopped off"?

I think I was only like that for a couple of years.  Over time, I began to accept the fact that mannequins were always going to be there, and that they weren't really as scary as I initially thought they could be.

Although part of that could be because my parents were introducing me to the wonderful world of TVOntario, and a certain show where the main star was a mannequin that came to life was very popular at the time.  It was a show that I grew to love, and watch loyally for years.  Even at the age of 30, I still find myself watching old episodes, wishing that children nowadays could have shows like this to watch today instead of Teletubbies, or whatever non-educational kids show happens to be on now.

Today's Special was a show that originally aired in Canada on the TVOntario network.  It originally ran from 1981-1987 on that network, and played on reruns for many years.  The show proved to be successful in Canada, and even aired in the United States on Nickelodeon. 

The show took place at a department store in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and the show was actually filmed on location at the old Simpson's Department Store on the corner of Yonge and Queen Street West.  You can't go and see it though, because Simpson's was bought out by the Hudson Bay Company years ago, but The Bay is now in the location today.

Below, you'll see the main cast of the show.

From left to right, there's Jodie, Sam, Jeff, and Muffy.

Jodie works the overnight shift at Simpson's, in the children's department.  Her job is to come up with new and exciting displays for the children's department each week.  It usually relates to the theme that the episode is based on, such as hats, ice cream, and adventure.

Working alongside Jodie is Sam Crenshaw, the overnight security guard.  He does his rounds through the store to make sure everything is safe and secure.  He does so with the help of his trusty computer, TXL, who also serves as entertainment for the viewer.  TXL will often cut into the show to display an activity or a game for the viewer to play.  She also is our link (and narrative) to the Mime Lady, a woman who mimes everything she wants to say because she cannot speak.

Also living in the store is a little mouse named Muffy.  Granted, with health codes and practices being very strict nowadays, the idea of a mouse in a department store could get the place shut down.  Apparently in the early 1980's, such practices were lax, because Muffy lived in a hole in the wall of the store without a care in the world.  Although she did not like Sam's cat Penelope, she was a kind-hearted mouse who had the quirky trait of speaking in rhyme all the time.  She had a great relationship with Jodie and Sam, and while she could be a bit of a prankster at times, she meant well.  (On a personal note, Muffy was my favourite character in the whole show.)

There were other guest stars on the show as well.  Mrs. Pennypacker worked in the storage room, and appeared sporadically.  Muffy's cousin, Mort was a frequent visitor as well, and just like Muffy, he talked in rhyme all the time.

Perhaps the star of the show is Jeff, and what makes Jeff unique kind of ties to the whole opening paragraphs of this blog entry. 

Jeff was originally a mannequin. 

Whenever Jeff puts on his magic plaid hat though, and someone says the magic words, then Jeff will miraculously come to life.  And, do you know what those magic words are?

I'm sure you do.

Hocus Pocus Alimagocus!

Whenever Jodie, Sam, or Muffy said those words, Jeff would transform from mannequin to human.  Although Jeff had only been a human for some time, he learned rather quickly about what life was like out there through Jodie's mentoring and the friendship that he had with Sam and Muffy.  There were some restrictions though.  For one, Jeff could only stay human as long as he was wearing the hat.  If the hat was knocked off, he would revert back to mannequin status until someone said the magic words.  Jeff could also never leave the store, because if he did, he would turn back into a mannequin permanently.  There were some ways he could get around that, such as being able to go on the roof of the store.  One time he even got to appear on a stage production by stowing away in a life-size suitcase, but for the duration of the series, Jeff never really got a chance to leave the store. 

On a side note, I wish that Today's Special had a proper series finale where Jeff finally got the chance to be a human full-time and have the life that others did.  I suppose that would be kind of an impossibility though.

I really struggled to find an example of this wonderful show that I could show you.  Every single episode is worth posting in this space because I have so much love and affection towards this show.

In the end, I decided to post the 1983 two-parter episode 'Our Story'.  It shows how each of the characters arrived at the store, and their fight to stop the store from being demolished.  You can see it below.

So I suppose you're wondering what the point of this article is.  What did I learn from Today's Special?

Oh, heaps of things.

Because each show had a theme, you learned lots of basic life lessons and tricks along the way.  It worked really well for children, because each child had their own interests.  More often than not, Today's Special focused on such topics that kids could really enjoy.  I know I had my favourites.

The show even had holiday themed shows for Halloween and Christmas, which was nice to see.

Perhaps some of the most poignant lessons that the show taught children were life lessons.  And some of these episodes were serious in nature, and some of them had really sad endings.  I thought that was okay though.

Remember how I lamented that Jeff never got to be a human being at the end of the series?  He almost got his chance.  On the episode entitled "Wishes", all the characters were given a wish to use, and Jeff thought it would be the perfect chance for him to wish that he could become human forever.  However, Jodie, Sam, and Muffy were careless and made wishes that they did not want, such as turning themselves into sandwiches accidentally.  Jeff had no choice, but to use his wish to make everyone back to the way they were.  Everyone was celebrating this, until they realized that Jeff had made the ultimate sacrifice.  Seeing Jeff staring through the window at the world that he would never know still breaks my heart 25 years later.

Although not all the episodes were serious and sad in nature, they seem to be the ones that I remember the most, because of the lessons that I took away from them.

Take the episode "Phil's Visit", for instance.  Phil was a photographer who was hired to take pictures of the display that Jodie worked on for hours, and he had asked Muffy to be his personal assistant.  Phil was regarded as one of the best in the business, and he had won much accolades for his work, so naturally everyone in the store was excited about his appearance. 

Phil did have one major flaw.  He was an alcoholic. 

When Muffy accidentally stumbled across Phil sneaking a drink from his flask, he initially got very angry at Muffy.  But when Muffy promised not to tell anyone about it, it was business as usual.  Still, Muffy was very conflicted as to what to do.  When Phil sneaked another drink and verbally berated Muffy, Muffy got scared and worried.  When Phil stumbled and destroyed the castle display that Jodie made, Phil yelled at Muffy to the point where she was in tears, and Jeff and Jodie tried to find her.  Muffy found her way to Sam's computer room where she told Sam everything, and really, as uncomfortable as it was to watch, it served as a valuable lesson.  At the beginning and end of that episode, Jodie was explaining to all of us that if we knew someone had a drinking problem that we should tell a responsible adult even if they are told not to by the person.  Because Muffy told Sam what was going on, there was a possibility that Phil could have been rehabilitated, although we never did get any resolution as to what happened to him.

There were other memorable shows as well.  The episode on "Hospitals" made me fear hospitals less after we saw Muffy get her tonsils out without much trouble.  The episode on "Fire" taught me a lot about fire safety.  And while the episode about "Butterflies" was a sad one to get through, it effectively taught kids about the death of a loved one.

I will be one of the first people who will readily admit to wanting Today's Special to come back on TV, or at the very least get released on DVD.  I don't have any children of my own yet, but I know that when I do, I would want to show them this wonderful show.

Today's Special was just...special.  It didn't have any bells or whistles, or famous faces, or aliens with televisions in their chests.  It was just great children's television.

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