Over the holiday I spent a few days visiting my aunt Jasmine and uncle Crosby in rural Cales County, VA. If you’ve never been to Cales County, don’t bother. There are more bodies in the cemetery than living residents, and only three stop lights, all of which Jasmine and Crosby own and lease to the county.
I hadn’t seen Jasmine and Crosby in five years, since before my cousin Oliver, their only child, announced at Thanksgiving dinner that he was moving to Berlin and did the next day. He funded the trip with money he made selling bootleg DVDs. No one knows why he chose Berlin, or what he’s doing now. His only communication with his parents comes in the form of occasional postcards with no return address.
Anyway I visited for Christmas. The night I arrived Crosby told me he knew Cales County wasn’t the most exciting place to spend a couple days and gave me a tin cup full to the brim with anise seeds and promised me a crisp twenty dollar bill if I could accurately tell him how many seeds the cup held by the time I left to go back home. Jasmine said she’d heard I was “kinda interested in writing” and handed me a wooden crate full of red paper folders crammed with typewritten pages. Something Oliver had been working on, she said. Maybe you can make heads or tails of it, let me know if it’s any good.
So here’s what I found out. For something like three years, leading up to his departure for Berlin, my cousin Oliver had been scripting what would be, if it had been produced, a weekly television series called “Honey! I Shrunk the Wizard of Oz.” Twelve episodes per season, three seasons completed.
Needless to say, I didn’t get around to counting those anise seeds.
The premise of the series is pretty well laid out by the title. A man named Quinn who lives in Manhattan, where we he works some kind of vague office job, gets a hold of a shrink ray, shrinks the cast of a small community theater production of “The Wizard of Oz” (Dorothy, Tin Man, Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, Glinda, Wicked Witch, Wizard) and keeps them in his apartment like pets. In the pilot episode this has all already happened– the cast has been living with Quinn for some time. They live in a big Lego Batcave that Quinn has set up inside an enormous aquarium. It’s never made clear why he shrunk these people, how he got a hold of a shrink ray, or if he still has it.
Oliver is two months older than me, and we saw each other a couple times a year as kids. All the big holidays, weddings, funerals, typical family events. The most time we ever spent together was the summer we were thirteen, when Aunt Jasmine won a bunch of money in a lawsuit against the Richmond Botanical Gardens and decided to blow it all renting a house near ours for the summer. That summer Oliver and I spent some time auditioning one another for real friendship, I guess… he tried teaching me to rollerblade, I introduced him to my friends. I don’t have the balance for skating, he told my friend Scott that Total Recall was better than Star Trek for two reasons—that fighting for control of oxygen and mining rights on an alien planet was a much more realistic conflict than anything Star Trek had to offer, and because Total Recall had “lots of titties in it.”
We were cousins, not friends. I never knew he was creative, or maybe more to the point, weird.
Beyond the premise, the focus of “Honey! I Shrunk the Wizard of Oz!” changes a lot from season to season. The first year plays out a lot of storylines that, aside from the shrunken theater troupe, wouldn’t be out of place in a typical sitcom. Quinn tells the group they can create a playlist to listen to while he’s at work all day and before long they’re all at each other’s throats, bickering and choosing sides. There’s a will-they-won’t-they romance between Tin Man and Dorothy, there’s one where the Cowardly Lion performs the Heimlich on the Wizard when he’s choking and then drives the Wizard crazy holding the debt of his life over his head.
There aren’t any jokes, though. He’s got this crazy set-up and sitcom plots, but for the most part the tone is serious. And then, in season two, things get downright dark. In the first season, Quinn is this godlike figure that enters the scene to either instigate an adventure or resolve whatever’s happened, kind of like the Nanny on Muppet Babies. He’s the cast’s captor, for sure, but there doesn’t seem to be any hard feelings. The second season opens with an episode that’s almost entirely devoted to a day in Quinn’s life. At work, a co-worker bullies him into taking the blame when some important paperwork goes missing, and his boss screams at him. When he breaks down and tells her who was actually responsible for the fuck-up she accuses him of lying. After work he goes on a first date with a woman he met online. They make small talk that borders on flirtatious banter for a few pages, and then Quinn launches into this long story about how, as a kid, he found an orphaned baby rabbit out in the woods and brought it home. His father and stepmother helped him feed the thing and keep it warm in a pile of blankets on the floor of his bedroom. That night his father and step-mother got into a screaming argument, so to keep the bunny calm Quinn sat on the floor and read it stories from the The Jungle Book aloud until his stepmother drunkenly stumbled into his room to shout at him to go to bed, accidentally stepped on the bunny, and impaled it on the heel of her pumps.
This is obviously a crazy story to tell a woman on a first date, and the woman responds accordingly, cutting the night short. Quinn heads home. When he gets back to his apartment we find out that he’s got a secret microphone taped to his chest, that he recorded the conversation he had on his date. He listens to the tape, transcribes it, and forces Dorothy (playing his date) and the Wizard (playing himself) to perform the transcription over and over while he watches.
The bulk of seasons two and three are about the cast attempting to escape Quinn’s apartment. A typical episode finds them hatching some kind of plan that falls apart at the last minute due to either their inability to work together or Quinn’s outsmarting them. There are at least three episodes where the cast is close to freedom only to discover that Quinn has been toying with them, that he let them get however far out of curiosity or cruelty or to teach them a lesson. Season three also introduces (I guess Oliver had been watching Lost) flashbacks into each episode that flesh out the cast’s lives pre-shrunken captivity. Prior to this the hostages are never given names aside from those of the characters they were playing when Quinn shrunk them. Suddenly we find out that Dorothy is actually Jemma, a porn star who’d hoped that her role in the play might serve as an entry into mainstream acting, that The Wizard is (secretly) her father, who ran away before she was born and joined the cast in order to get to know her. He’s also an operative for the KGB, and the Cowardly Lion turns out to be a CIA agent (named Daniel Fyre) who’s in the play to spy on him.
I don’t want to insult your intelligence, but just in case you’ve been giving me the benefit of the doubt I need to make it clear that this is all made up. I don’t have an aunt Jasmine or Uncle Crosby or cousin named Oliver. Cales County isn’t a real place. The other night I watched that new NBC show Emerald City (what if Oz was Westeros minus the intrigue and nudity?) and Honey! I Shrunk the Kids back-to-back and this comes from that. I made it up because making crazy stuff up and passing it off as real is really, really fun.
But this week I’m a little wary of being the boy who cried wolf, because this week we found out that there might be a video of Donald Trump engaging in watersports with Russian hookers sitting in a drawer in Vladimir Putin’s office. We’ll probably never know for sure if there is or isn’t, which means Trump and his Trumpkins get to deny, deny, deny and decry anyone who reports the story, and what the story of the boy who cried wolf gets wrong is that in real life you don’t cry wolf every time, you raise the stakes. First you cry wolf, then you claim there’s a whole pack, then you say you saw a pack that has learned to walk upright and wield machetes and by the time the real wolf shows up it isn’t so much that the town doesn’t care because you’ve got no credibility left as much as it is that the idea of one single, solitary wolf suddenly sounds boring and mundane.
But one single wolf is enough to kill the boy, and after it has killed the boy there’s nothing to stop it from wandering into the town and killing all those motherfuckers, too, or at least whoever hasn’t already died from diabetes or something after losing their healthcare because they were too worked up looking out for wolves to pay attention to the actually horrendous stuff going on all around them.