Special Topics In Gameology is an in-depth look at a specific corner of the gaming world, in miniseries form. For this edition of the feature—Games Go To Hollywood—we examine the terror prevalent in classic TV episodes about gaming. Previous entries covered ’90s Friday-night mainstay Full House and Nickelodeon spook show Are You Afraid Of The Dark?. This week, we look at the Mr. Belvedere episode “Pinball.”
It’s a longstanding rule of pop culture that “higher” forms of entertainment will crap on the “lower” ones. The cinema loves to shove its prestige in television’s face with a bit of artistic jiujitsu: movies that make TV the star. Network, Quiz Show, The Truman Show, Broadcast News, The King Of Comedy. Films like these place television on a grand stage to make the junior medium seem small and petty by comparison. And inevitably, TV is both a catalyst and a vehicle for the most corrupt tendencies of human behavior.
TV needs its own whipping boy, and games—well, they’re just sitting there, nearly devoid of cultural cachet. How can television resist? In modern portrayals, you generally see games employed as poster children for violence and mindlessness. Even nuanced, top-tier shows like Breaking Bad and Homeland portray video games according to an industry-standard template: A gape-mouthed adolescent figure sits too close to the television, rubbing his humanity raw with an endless sequence of grunts and bullets and headshots.
The 1980s ABC sitcom Mr. Belvedere was neither nuanced nor top-tier. But it, too, adhered to the template of its own time. For TV producers of the ’80s and ’90s, games’ addictiveness was their signature quality (aside from their tendency to emit cartoonish sound effects). In the 1985 second-season episode “Pinball,” then, it’s practically a given that the title character will become a “pinball junkie.”
The premise of Mr. Belvedere is that a sophisticated English housekeeper—that would be Belvedere—takes up with a typical American family. The title sequence depicts Belvedere traveling the world to all sorts of exotic locales, and then it shows him hitchhiking with a large cardboard sign reading “PITTSBURGH,” as if that is the natural next step after having experienced the greatest sights of Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Mr. Belvedere’s employers, the Owenses, are a typical household of well-to-do suburbanites. The parents are careerists—father George (played by national treasure Bob Uecker) is a sportswriter for the local paper, the kind of back-slapping, yuk-yukking man-child who will hang on every word of a Coors Light commercial.
His wife, Marsha, begins the series as a law-school student; she later finds gainful employment at an outfit called The Legal Hut—just one example of how Mr. Belvedere laughs at its characters’ desire to climb the social ladder and escape their upper-middle-class purgatory. That is the fundamental joke of the series, after all: What the hell are regular folk like the Owenses doing with a butler, anyway? Do they think they’re better than people? What buffoons!
The other members of the family are Wesley—a precocious and mischievous grade school brat—and his older siblings, Heather and Kevin, bland filler characters who exist mainly to utter expositional dialogue and provide Wesley with straight lines.
In “Pinball,” Mr. Belvedere becomes hooked on a vintage “Firebomb” pinball machine purchased by George. Belvedere’s work suffers, the Owenses become worried, he hits rock bottom, and the butler returns abashedly to the family’s warm, loving embrace. That’s how the episode is supposed to read, at least. But look deeper into the black heart of Mr. Belvedere and you will find the story of five passive-aggressive monsters who refuse to allow their employee and supposed friend enjoy a single moment of triumph.
The jokes in the first act work mightily to establish the childishness of pinball. Mr. Belvedere tries to figure out who brought this flashing, clanging machine into the house: “I was certain it was one of the children,” he tells Marsha. George arrives and claims the machine as his own. “I was right,” says Mr. Belvedere. The butler sneers at the lack of redeeming moral value on display. When George yelps that he got a “bonus ball,” Belvedere rolls his eyes. “Wonderful,” he replies. “Now, if we could just end world hunger.”
Before long, George loses interest. “I guess it’s not like when I was a kid,” he says, and he walks away from the machine, all grown up. Belvedere sees an opportunity: George couldn’t beat the machine, and maybe Belvedere can. It only takes 100,000 points to become “King Of The Fire Gods,” after all. Is it any wonder that this cultured, prideful, intellectually deft person is tempted by a chance to prove himself superior to the loogie-hocking cretin who employs him? That’s why we love to win—because it proves something. And you’ve got to figure that, confined to this generic Western Pennsylvania cul-de-sac, Mr. Belvedere does not get many chances to win.
So of course he plays the machine. He blows off work. He wakes up in the middle of the night. With his lizard brain electrified by the aroma of victory, now he needs to taste it for himself. Is Lynn Aloysius Belvedere not a man? This overweight tea-sipper needs the world to answer, yes. Yes, he is.
The suffering of the Owens clan is trifling in comparison to Belvedere’s crisis of identity. They must make their own beds. They have to cook a few meals. Yet they act as if they have been left to die in a piss-soaked ditch while the heartless Mr. Belvedere ignores them, off somewhere injecting a stream of pinball into his track-marked veins.
Is it possible for reasonable people to be this distraught by the prospect that they take care of themselves for a little while? The Owens certainly put on a good act, but no. That’s not what scares them. They’re afraid that Mr. Belvedere, the servant, the inferior, will get one lousy win. That would shatter their illusory order of things. You don’t let the help take a dip in the swimming pool of success.
Belvedere hits 85,000 points, and the Owenses respond by removing the pinball machine from the house. Enough is enough. Belvedere won’t be so readily thwarted, though. He’s too close now, and the aroma is stronger than ever. Belvedere heads to the local arcade, presumably by crafting a cardboard sign that reads “ARCADE” and hitching a ride into town. When Wesley et al. track him down, his score is climbing past 89,000, and he’s on a roll. The family panics.
George approaches Belvedere and invites him to come on home. But George is a sportswriter, after all, and anyone in the sports world has an innate love for the thrilling pursuit of victory. So he finds himself distracted, even entranced, by Belvedere’s ascent up the scoreboard. “Nice save!” George remarks, despite himself, when Belvedere keeps the ball in play. (The Englishman’s success is all the more remarkable given his preferred technique of wobbling his torso a little bit and unaccountably fondling the plunger used to put a new ball in play.)
Caught in Belvedere’s cresting wave of triumph, George signals for his family to help. Belvedere is surging toward greatness, and at the last moment, Wesley makes a last-ditch effort. He grabs Belvedere around the torso and cries, “I love you!” The butler yelps and turns around. His ball drains. George whistles at the final tally: “Ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred ninety,” he intones. Belvedere cinches his necktie up tight, rather like a noose, and declares that he’s fine with it. The camera lingers on the machine’s backlit display: “GAME OVER.”
At breakfast the next day, Belvedere apologizes and then launches into a remarkable speech explaining his actions. “Eccentric behavior is sort of a trademark of us English,” he says. “Rigid class structure. Everything and everyone in its place. From time to time, we buckle under the pressure of our ingrained formality and go a little bonkers.” By seeking the holy grail of 100,000 points, and its according title of “king,” Mr. Belvedere stepped outside his “place,” you see. And now, having narrowly avoided the upset that ascension might have caused, he can return to the gray monotony of plumping pillows and cooking eggs for the privileged social climbers who sign his paychecks.
The Owenses are all smiles. Insecure in their own standing—perhaps rightly so—they like existing atop this inferior stratum. It makes them feel elevated. And TV is the same way. Perhaps the most explicit lesson of the “Pinball” episode is that it’s folly to seek delight from games, that lower form of entertainment. It’s far more admirable to while your time away in front of the glowing tube, cosseted by its safe morality and lulled by the rhythm of its push-button laughs. Sure, maybe you’re not ending world hunger when you plunk your ass down for 30 minutes of Mr. Belvedere and toothpaste commercials. But at least you’re not playing pinball.