Golden Years (aka, Stephen King’s Golden Years)/Season One (1991)
“Why, Harlan, sometimes you make me so mad, I could kick you right in the slacks!’
After elderly janitor Harlan (Keith Szarabajka) survives an explosion in a secret military bio-lab, though contaminated by experimental chemicals that leave him glowing with a rather low-rent optical green hue and aging rapidly in reverse – not to mention imbued with the convenient super-power of suddenly going into eyes-rolled-into-the-back-of-the-head convulsions and causing huge seismic events, to soon find himself on the run, along with his wife (Frances Sternhagen), and with the help of a female government security official gone ‘good’ (Felicity Huffman), from a nefarious operative (R.D. Call), hired as a cleaner by the fictional King-created (multi-book spanning) shadow government agency concerned with all things paranormal The Shop, his task to bury all evidence of the accident and bring in the janitor, by any means necessary.
My King retro continues. Only now, alas, it’s time to bid adieu to the consistently inspired 80’s output, in which the author’s mass market superstar emergence serendipitously coincided directly with my own feverishly horror-consuming coming-of-age story (a boring one, but it’s mine), as master cinematic craftsmen like Brian De Palma, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg – and even Stanley FUCKING Kubrick, for fuck’s sake – elevated the fresh-feeling source material from this newly exploding horror writer on the block into something even better (which each of them did – while I was captured by the original written works, I would argue each of their adaptations outclassed its source adding a level of heft to the overall perception of the King Universe that the author I’m not sure would have attained otherwise).
With television and its mediocre standards (at the time anyway), as well as a more spotty group of filmmakers, jumping aboard the chugging adaptation-train of the author’s endlessly churned out books, chinks in the author’s armor began to show in the 90’s, and the whole thing got a lot less exciting (if no less crazily prolific, right up into today – I mean, who is even reading all these books anymore? I gave up after It, way back in the late 80’s, only occasionally reading a random one here and there).
Not to say there weren’t a few gems (which I look forward to revisiting), as well as some plain decent ones (and hopefully a few discoveries I’m gonna make that I haven’t seen yet), but King’s increasing involvement in the projects also revealed, with the more frequent exposure (and nothing breeds contempt like familiarity), the sometimes grating limitations of his artistic voice… as well as the wild (likely at least partly cocaine-induced, as he himself has admitted to) expansion of his ego (an inevitable pitfall, I guess, when you’re not only the bestselling author of all time, but have a taste for mind-altering indulgences).
As for “Golden Years” (or “Stephen King’s Golden Years” as he prefers you call it)? Well, it kinda feels like a veritable checklist of all those aforementioned emerging flaws and faults all bundled up tightly into a single nutshell.
Attempting a deliberate awkward ‘quirkiness’ with the characters and storyline that clearly had King seeing himself (I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and imagine it happened during a long bender of delusion-inspiring cocaine-binging) as so masterful now he could create his own Lynchian Universe (I can only hope sobering up a decade later and re-watching this taught him a valuable lesson on staying in your own lane) falls terribly flat (and reminds again just how precious and unique – a once in a lifetime artist – Lynch is). And, man, those increasingly desperate attempts at spinning middle American home-spun colloquialisms; with the example being that quote above – I mean, you can even tell the way Sternhagen, normally a fine actress, reads the line that she herself doesn’t believe it. If only a few would have spoken up and said ‘Uh, no, Stephen… this doesn’t sound sublime and quaint like your feverish state is convincing you it does, but… well… just dopy’.
There are some of those 90’s television probs with the show as well. It’s saddled with a budget too low for a show that’s supposed to be about large military operations (you’d think from the show there’s around four people running everything). It also has that rushed production, familiar to that era, with mostly second-tier actors (including Huffman, who has a sexy bod, sure – and fortunately the show likes to display it for us – but comes across as a lesser version of Gillian Anderson’s Scully from “X-Files”).
To be fair, there is Sternhagen, and she adds some clout (even with the overly-precious homespun dialogue). The usually reliable Ed Lauter plays a military officer having an affair with Huffman’s security officer gone rogue, but their relationship seems entirely mismatched, feeling like the case of the only two actors available at the time of production, as they have little onscreen sexual chemistry.
I will say that I have always enjoyed the game of King’s device of cross-pollinating characters and events across his work. For instance, his fictional favorite Main town Castle Rock’s Sheriff Bannerman, who first showed up to help psychic Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone, is mentioned in passing in a number of his other books, to be eventually chomped up into a bloody pulp by the titular dog in Cujo (two excellent adaptations, by the way) is an example I look at fondly. And I like the off-handed mention, even if he doesn’t appear in the show, in hushed tones of agent/assassin John Rainbird in “Golden Years”, noted as the Shop’s scariest operative (an eye-patched Native American who will appear in the imposing flesh of George C. Scott in Mark Lester’s Firestarter, a film most people for some reason don’t seem to love as much as I do, as well as apparently Malcolm McDowell in “Firestarter 2”, a 2002 TV miniseries I will certainly get around to seeing, though my hopes aren’t that high, especially as I only recently even became aware it existed by looking up the name Rainbird).
So I guess that labyrinthian device, sorta like easter eggs for the obsessive King fanatics, is a plus for me for the show (even if it ultimately reveals more of King’s inflated sense of the importance to his books – I mean, keep in mind, this is the guy who once said he thought of writing The Shining as his calling to create the next great American novel – which was also what he said about writing It, in which he clearly mistook the concept of creating ‘great’ with indulgently churning out something ‘massively unendingly bloated’).
Lasting only seven episodes then quickly cancelled (with an unsatisfying sigh of an ending that clearly speaks of King and his fellow showrunners forced to suddenly abort mission), “Golden Years” (sorry, Steph-o, “Stephen King‘s Golden Years”) might not have been captivating, but it was quick to get through and not particularly painful… while also providing a few reminders why I stopped obsessively following his work right about the time this show aired.