The best television series you’ve never heard of is Remember WENN.
Remember WENN holds an odd place in television history. It was written, both scripts and music, by Rupert Holmes, an accomplished playwright/author/composer unfortunately somehow known best for the song “Escape,” itself better known as “The Piña Colada Song.” But you might have encountered some of this other work as well, including Drood and Curtains and Say Goodnight, Gracie.
After 56 half-hour episodes (57 if you count a special double-length Christmas episode), new AMC management canceled Remember WENN. This cancellation was perpetrated in strange and devious ways, with AMC running a contest to win a walk-on role in the next season even as the sets were struck. Writer Rupert Holmes and even some of the cast learned from fans that the show was cancelled, as AMC did not tell them directly.
Even today, “What happened to Remember WENN?” is one of the top FAQs on AMC’s web site, more than fifteen years after they denied the series existed by promoting The Lot as “AMC’s first original series!” And AMC has steadfastly refused to release the series on DVD. (I like to imagine there’s some desperate murderous cover-up going on, because why else refuse to profit from a back catalog?)
Like the original Star Wars films, the masters may be lost forever. But Han shot first, and Remember WENN was the best show you haven’t seen.
WENN is a struggling radio station in Pittsburgh, featuring a Stagecoach-like social mix of cast and crew. (Firefly later boasted a similar cross-section of society, for those who aren’t familiar with Stagecoach. It’s a great character technique.) Aging Broadway star, con artist, organist, clueless handyman, clever writer, mute sound effects genius, and their friends keep the station and their lives afloat through historical and fictional events through the late ’30s and then World War II. The cast featured many notables both as regulars and guest stars — too many to mention, but one of the many Broadway faces was Carolee Carmello, who played Maple the burlesque-dancer-turned-radio-actress and who gets a specific shout-out because I have a photo of us together. Guest stars included everyone from Jason Alexander, Molly Ringwald, and Mickey Rooney to Malcolm Gets, Roddy McDowall, and Patti Lupone.
The show, which swung smoothly between hilarious comedy and touching drama, has a remarkably dedicated fan base even today. (No, really — over a decade and a half later, fans still meet weekly to watch and converse live together online.) Yet despite such active demand and continuous requests, AMC still refuses to release the show. What, do they hate money?
Fans were forced to resort to salvaged copies of aged VHS recordings, but you can find episodes online. (Beware, the Wikipedia entry contains numerous spoilers!) You can read more about the series and its stars at Linda Young’s site and Rodney Walker’s.
A nod to WENN
So why do I mention Remember WENN now? Well, this isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned the show here on the blog, but this is the first time I’ve included it in my fiction.
Con Job (releasing next week) features a number of characters who are angry at being denied the right to view media they love, as licensing corporations choose to limit release or drop shows from their catalogs, leaving no legal way to acquire or view the material and no way for creators or artists to profit from their work. Remember WENN is alluded to as a lost desirable, along with references to other shows unavailable to their fan bases through no fault of their creators. In Con Job, this denial may even be a motive for murder.
(Incidentally, one of my beta readers initially expressed disbelief that a corporation holding the license for sole distribution in North America would neglect to release new episodes for several years. In fact, I reduced that scenario from life — in reality, the distributor for one long-running ongoing series has not released a new episode from anytime in the last decade, but still dutifully sends cease-and-desist letters to anyone trying to acquire or share the show from overseas, circumventing the North American distribution license. We might have a problem with our rights system, folks. First step in fighting piracy is to make the product available for legal purchase.)
I also borrowed two lines of dialogue from Rupert Holmes’ Remember WENN for an acting audition scene, both of which are clearly identified in the book and their use explained. It’s my little homage to a series not given the appreciation it deserves.
Got some time on a pleasant evening? Return to the golden days of radio and browse for an episode of Remember WENN.