For fans of The Ben Stiller Show, specifically Gen-Xers who were old enough and bright enough to watch it airing live, it was a sad day in 1992 when Fox made the call to cancel it. Then the show won a posthumous Emmy for outstanding writing in a variety series (counted among the writers: Judd Apatow, David Cross, Bob Odenkirk and, of course, Mr. Stiller).
It might have been this bit of vindication that led Fox, in 1999, to give Ben one more shot, this time to produce a pilot for a serial program. The result was Heat Vision and Jack, a sci-fi thriller starring Jack Black, Own Wilson and Ron Silver.
Black plays Jack Austin, a renegade astronaut on the run from NASA after overexposure to solar radiation renders him the smartest man alive – so long as the sun’s out. During his initial escape from NASA, Ron Silver zaps Austin’s roommate Doug (Wilson) with an experimental ray, permanently merging Doug with his motorcycle. Thus, Heat Vision is born, and the two make their getaway.
Heat Vision and Jack tries, often successfully, to create its own kind of camp; an amalgamation of tropes ranging from sci-fi to film noir at times subverts the easy plot turn, while at other times plays right into it. You’re just as likely to see a band of mirrored light across Austin’s eyes as you are to hear such original lines as, “All monkey sluts shall be absorbed.” These are, after all, Emmy award-winning writers.
For the late ’90s, it’s understandable that the show never launched. The special effects are a disgrace (humorously so), and the characters are pretty static and one-dimensional. Given that latter credential, the show would fit right in with today’s legions of static characters in every modern TV comedy from The Office to Archer.
So it seems odd to me that the pilot, in its entirety, only has some 60,000 views on YouTube. This is, then, a call to arms for fans of Stiller’s work, and of Black’s and Silver’s (did I mention Ron Silver plays himself?). Get online, watch it, love it and demand something like it, something that takes all we love in modern TV and makes fun of us for loving it.