by ELIZABETH BARBEE
I discovered The Torkelsons where I discovered everything I loved in the nineties – the Disney Channel. Of the two children’s networks popular at the time, it was the only one worth watching. Nickelodeon seemed seedy and excessively juvenile. Even at the tender age of seven, I found youth, and the programs that accompany it, a little embarrassing. Neon colored game shows like Wild and Crazy Kids and Double Dare never appealed to me. I preferred dim lighting and convoluted plots. For whatever reason, I thought tears were more sophisticated than laughter. The Torkelsons had a little of both, so I gave it a shot.
I saw myself in Dorothy Jane, the show’s 14-year-old protagonist, who describes herself as “a woman trapped in a child’s shell.” Unlike the rest of her family she is sensitive and literate. While her hillbilly mom and gaggle of siblings make asses of themselves downstairs, she holes up in her attic bedroom. Sprawled on a window seat, she reads poetry, learns French, and laments the loss of her father, who abandoned the family to work on an oil rig. I guess he spends his money on booze and strippers, because the Torkelsons are dead broke. A washing machine is repossessed in the pilot episode. The children wear clothes made of curtains and dish rags. For a few extra bucks, Mama Torkelson lets a stranger live in the basement. Border Hodges is a Mr. Rogers type, but he has the eyes of a murderer. You can never be too careful. Especially when there are kids involved.
Nothing irrevocably terrible happens to the Torkelsons. Most of their struggles are just momentarily embarrassing. The most iconic episode, according to the three other people besides myself who watched the show, is called “The Cotillion.” It centers around Dorothy Jane’s first high school dance. She finds a dress at a thrift store that is perfect aside from an ink stain on the left hip.
Thanks to her mom’s sewing abilities, they’re able to conceal it with a silk rose. Things are going well until Dreama, the class bitch, recognizes the dress as one she used to own. To prove it, she yanks the rose off the fabric to reveal its imperfection. Dorothy Jane is horrified but smart enough to realize this reflects badly on Dreama, not her. Plus, she’s probably a little clairvoyant and knows that in ten years it will be cool to shop at Goodwill.
In addition to her remarkable ability to detect bullshit and predict fashion trends, Dorothy Jane has good taste and big dreams. She is also a little horny. Michael Landes plays the object of her affection, Riley Roberts. The casting is great. With his floppy hair and well-shined Doc Martins he’s the ultimate 90s babe.
When he moves next door it’s a wonder Dorothy Jane doesn’t hump him at once. Rather than act on her desires, she talks about them to the Man on the Moon, a secular stand in for God. “Man on the Moon,” she says in broad daylight, “He’s four years older than me and out of reach. The rest of my life will be unending sadness.” The girl is prone to hyperbole. In another episode she doesn’t get a scholarship to study abroad and decides she’ll live in Pyramid Corners, Oklahoma for the rest of her “pitiful existence.” As a reluctant Texan, I could totally relate.
Landes’ character never falls for Dorothy Jane because he is an idiot. She possesses all of the traits I covet: curly hair, intelligence, an attractive sort of melancholy. She’s the type who goes largely unnoticed in high school but thrives in college when she discovers cigarettes and Derrida. Though the series only documents her failed attempts at romance, I imagine she grows up to have many interesting lovers. Someone like Ben Gibbard would totally dig her.
The Torkelsons existed in its original incarnation for 20 episodes at which point it was re-branded as Almost Home and lost my interest. In the second season, two of Dorothy Jane’s siblings, Steven Floyd and Ruth Ann, disappear without explanation. Mama Torkelson moves the remainder of the family to Seattle where she takes a job nannying Brittany Murphy (R.I.P.). The scenery is better and money is not so tight. It was all a little too hopeful for me, so I switched to Dawson’s Creek. Thanks to YouTube most episodes of The Torkelsons are available for free online. I have attempted to get several friends interested in the show and failed miserably. “It’s like Roseanne but not as funny,” one said. Maybe. But who’s looking for funny anyway?
Elizabeth Barbee is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Dallas. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about a convincing French woman.