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ABC's Late '80s Gem: Free Spirit
A charming show that couldn't cast a spell over viewers.
When ABC introduced their iconic TGIF programming block, I was fully invested. It offered a weekly escape, a chance to relax, and, most importantly, a date with some of the quirkiest, light-hearted TV shows. These shows weren't striving for sophistication, but for a TV enthusiast like me, they were a cherished way to end the week. While many shows from that era are etched in our memories, a hidden gem among them that premiered, but didn’t stay on the Friday lineup, was "Free Spirit."
"Free Spirit," an American fantasy sitcom, had its moment during the 1989-1990 TV season. Starring Corinne Bohrer as the spirited witch Winnie Goodwinn, its a show that would find itself moved around, much to its detriment. Initially produced by ELP Communications (formerly Embassy), "Free Spirit" graced our screens from September 22, 1989, to January 14, 1990.
The story centered on the escapades of Winnie Goodwinn, a playful witch with a heart of gold, summoned into the lives of the Harper family by their 10-year-old, Gene (portrayed by Edan Gross). She wasn't just any housekeeper; she wielded magical powers. This supernatural twist added a distinct flavor to the show's premise. Winnie, hired as a live-in housekeeper, took on the challenge of caring for Thomas J. Harper's (Franc Luz) three children: Gene, 13-year-old Jessie (Alyson Hannigan), and 16-year-old Robb (Paul Scherrer). The Harpers were a family still adjusting to their parents' divorce and their move from New York City to suburban Connecticut.
The twist? Thomas, the father, remained blissfully unaware of Winnie's true identity as a witch. His children, however, were in on the secret. Winnie's powers, though well-intentioned, often led to comical predicaments for the family. So, in each episode, we saw Winnie managing her magical misadventures while desperately concealing her supernatural abilities from Thomas.
Originally, the show had an unaired pilot with Christopher Rich (Reba) playing Thomas Harper and Shonda Whipple (Purple People Eater) as Jessie Harper. Yet, the producers opted for a recast, and only the second version of the pilot, featuring Franc Luz and Alyson Hannigan, made it to the airwaves.
"Free Spirit" premiered as a preview broadcast on September 22, 1989, at 9:30/8:30c, marking the start of ABC's popular TGIF format. Two days later, the series settled into its regular time slot, airing on Sundays at 8/7c, sandwiched between two other freshman series, "Life Goes On" and "Homeroom."
Unfortunately, "Free Spirit" didn't receive the warmest reception from critics. In a poll conducted by Electronic Media, television critics voted it the worst show on television at the time. The ratings also told a tale of struggle. Despite its promising start, "Free Spirit" couldn't secure a stable viewership, leading ABC to cancel it in January 1990 after just 14 episodes.
Recently I was looking through some old tapes from 1989 when I stumbled across some Halloween programming that aptly included an episode of Free Spirit. I decided to watch it and I am glad that I did.
Corinne Bohrer, who played Winnie Goodwinn, was an absolute joy. Her portrayal of the mischievous witch had a unique whimsical appeal. She is just fun to watch act and embodied a flighty character archetype that has existed in sitcoms from the beginning and remains popular today.
Franc Luz, as the widowed father, T.J. Harper, is uniquely charming and brings some style to the role. The three Harper children, played by Edan Gross, Alyson Hannigan, and Paul Scherrer, all contributed something to the series. It was clear that Hannigan, who would go on to achieve great success in various TV shows and films, stood out, even at this early stage in her career.
Surprisingly, I expected the show's writing to be its weakest point, but I was pleasantly surprised. The writing was solid, with dialogue that often transcended the typical '80s sitcom fare. What made it really work was the cast's fantastic delivery, turning even the cheesiest jokes into TGIF-style gold. While some storylines may have followed familiar tropes, they did so with enough flair to keep them engaging.
The show was originally conceived by the creators of "Growing Pains," which explains the similarities in tone and humor. It also helps to explain how it got such a great theme song.
This quality 80s style theme was done by Steve Dorff and John Bettis. Famously, Dorff was the composer of the music score for the beloved family TV sitcom "Growing Pains," contributing to the memorable song "As Long As We Got Each Other," while the lyrics were penned by Bettis. While the “Growing Pains” theme is a bit better, their work on this show was top shelf.
Now, why did "Free Spirit" disappear as quickly as it appeared on our screens? Some may point to its competition, including "The Simpsons." However, only two of the show's final episodes directly competed with the long-running hit. I think the move to Sunday didn’t help. If the show had remained rooted in the famous Friday comedy block, I think its ratings might have held, despite the mediocre reviews.
Remarkably, "Free Spirit" hasn't aged as poorly as some other shows from the same era in its genre. Shows like "Small Wonder" or "Out of This World" (without knocking their charms) have shown their age, whereas "Free Spirit" still holds up as a hidden gem.
In retrospect, "Free Spirit" may not have left an indelible mark on television history, but it certainly holds a special place in the hearts of those who remember it fondly. It was a quirky, supernatural sitcom that dared to be different, and for a brief moment in the late '80s, it added a touch of magic to our Sunday (and briefly Friday) nights. So, if you ever come across an episode of "Free Spirit" while channel surfing, going through your old tapes, or just browsing YouTube, give it a shot. You might just rediscover its whimsical charm all over again.
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