Very Special Episodes – Fonzie Goes Blind

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[click here for another Very Special Episode]

Trope-wise, Happy Days has been very generous, giving us the phrases Jump the Shark, and Chuck Cunningham Syndrome, named for the sudden, unspoken disappearance of Richie’s older brother. It also popularised the way a show’s wacky nice-guy character will always refer to ‘grown-ups’ by the initial of their surname, “Eyy, Mr. C!” That last one’s hugely popular with British soaps, with at least one “Alright, Mrs. S?” chap in the cast at all times. But while Happy Days is remembered for its quintessential coming-of-age Americana, a cursory look through the synopsis of its 255 episodes reveals it to be way dumber than anyone gives it credit for. There’s one where Fonzie stages his own funeral to escape from local hoodlum ‘The Candyman,’ a Halloween special where the gang perform an exorcism on Al, who believes he’s been cursed, and a dream episode where Fonzie has to win back Chachi’s soul from the Devil’s nephew. 1978’s Fonzie’s Blindness, as suggested by the title, is on the more dramatic end of the super dumb.

Entering the diner to the big Kramer reaction, Fonzie’s not seen by Al, who accidentally catches him very lightly on the head with a tray. It’s a glancing blow which doesn’t connect hard enough to stun a fly, and one of those really thin diner trays that you couldn’t hurt someone with if you tried. Maybe if you stuffed it all the way up their arse, but certainly not from hitting them with it. Keeping in mind, Fonzie’s defining characteristic is being a leather jacket-wearing toughie, this ‘accident’ doesn’t get a laugh, with an audience hush that’s very disconcerting, to cue us in that this no mere slapstick, but a Very Special Episode.

01

The entire diner gasps, rushing over to check on Fonzie, who assures them everything’s cool, all the while staggering around on bandy-legs, with pleas to “give him some air,” as though he’s been run over by an elephant. Al can’t stop apologising, everyone open-mouthed in shock, again, at a glancing blow by a tray. Fonzie addresses Richie by looking entirely in the wrong direction, and then misses his chair and almost ends up sat on the floor. “I ain’t goin’ to see no doctor,” he says, until grabbing at what he thinks is a hot girl but is actually Al.

When Fonzie returns to the Cunninghams, he’s wearing sunglasses and feeling his way inside, but he’s still the cocky Fonz we know and love. It’s a different story the next morning, when a happy go lucky Richie, splayed backwards on a chair like A.C. Slater, can’t rouse a downcast Fonzie into breakfast. “I’m not hungry”, he says, before begging Richie not to leave him alone.

Richie: “Why not?

Fonzie: “I’m scared.

This very un-Fonz admission cues a dramatic soundtrack, and the slow removal of sunglasses with a long zoom to inform us “Richie… I’m blind.” Fonzie must have a papier mache skull, because I’ve hit my head harder putting on a woolly hat. The tray’s such a throwaway choice for a character who’s entire persona is that he’s cool. No offscreen motorcycle accident, or retina-popping make-out session with a hot chick? No heroically pushing a little kid from the path of a speeding hotrod? Other shows have used temporary blindness in a much more exciting way. Murdoch got powder burn from a terrorist’s gun in The A-Team, while Hawkeye from MASH had a boiler explode in his face. Even getting perfume sprayed in his eyes, like the WWF’s Jake the Snake during his feud with Rick Martel, would have been a more fitting end than a little boink with a tray.

02

Fonz’s condition is given the medical term of Optic Neuritis, which is a real thing involving inflammation of the optic nerve, also occuring as a plot device in Dickens’ Bleak House and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. It’s generally caused by MS, but can result after ‘cerebral trauma’, in this case, having someone tap you with a metal tray with all the force of a sneezing ant. Determined to keep things normal, Richie announces to the applause of a packed diner that Fonzie’s on his way. Their faces drop when they see the once-mighty hunk gingerly feeling his way around the walls and folornly gazing off into the middle-distance, robbed of his mystique. This whole section is a brilliant example of the cloying way chucklefuck sitcoms deal with the invasion of disability into their worlds, where every character immediately turns into Ricky Gervais in, well, everything he does, all patronising over-help and “Oh God, a wheelchair, better lay on the floor in front of it, or they’ll be upset by my working legs!

Richie takes him to his regular booth for a drink, where there’s an actual laugh to be had at feeling Al’s face, and confirming it’s him upon grabbing his massive hooter. But now it’s all about that Gervaisian awkwardness, with Richie super patronising, and Ralph Malph and Potsie nervously gibbering a bunch of sighted-people talk. Though perhaps the question “you see the new Playboy centrefold?” results in cringing, not because he’s blind, but in the sudden realisation that a highschool kid is asking a man in his 30s if he popped a nice big stiffy. The entire diner goads him into doing the jukebox bit, with Richie yelling “he’s gonna do it!” and a huge crowd cheering him on… as he accidentally hits Al instead. Lucky he used his fist and didn’t do the hip-thrust, or poor Al’s hole would be in for a rough old time. “Fonz, it’s been half an hour, just stop…” “Eyyy!

03

The whole episode seems designed to destroy Fonz’s image as the World’s Coolest Man, blindly fumbling his way through the sea of people in a panic, and screaming Richie’s name while he pulls things over, like a greaser Baby Jane. During dinner at the Cunninghams, Fonz explains all food tastes the same when you’re blind anyway, in a seeming reverse of the old enhanced-senses deal. “I’m deaf now too. And I cum diarrhoea. Eyyy!” In a scene which becomes even weirder in hindsight (see the end of the episode), Richie literally screams at Fonzie’s pitiful requests for help in passing the salt or buttering his rolls. They’ve arranged his food in a specific pattern on the plate — vegetables at 10 o’clock, meat at 2 o’clock, potatoes at 6 — and by this point, it’s accepted that Fonzie is blind for life. This may have worked in a longer show, but we’re halfway through a 20-minute episode, and cutting straight from Fonzie’s anxiety attack at the diner, making Richie seem psychotic; the kind of man who’d berate a child trapped beneath the wheels of a cement truck for being late for school. The scene closes on Richie’s explosion of anger.

     “Help me! Salt me! Pick up my fork! Fonzie, I never thought I’d say this to you, but you’re a coward!

     “I’m useless! I’m blind!” yells Fonzie, smashing a jug, and leaving Winkler’s face and leathers dripping with milk, in an image begging to have the Brazzers logo pasted into the corner.

     “You may be blind, but it’s your decision to be useless!” Richie then does a dramatic flailing run out of the room.

04

Fonzie’s next seen laying on the bed, having Joanie describe the funny pages to him, before Richie shows up to stop him being such a big baby, which he does by having Ralph and Potsie dump the pieces of Fonzie’s beloved, now-destroyed motorcycle on the floor before scarpering. “I hate your guts, Cunningham!” yells Fonz, while Richie bravely watches through the safety of the window, at his buddy’s full-on breakdown, gesturing at the sky with a pained cry of “How could you do this to me? I thought I was your favourite person!” It’s not clear if he’s aiming that at Richie or God, before symbolically smashing his fists into his eyes and collapsing back onto the bed, in an image more suited to an allegorical European art film about a poverty-stricken farmer suffering the trials of Job than the show which brought the world Scott Baio.

Though there are nowhere near enough pieces to build a full bike, we of course cut to Fonzie, still blind, sat astride the rebuilt and polished vehicle. He thanks Richie for the tough love, and has him hand over the leather jacket, so he can become symbolically become the old Fonzie again. There are plenty of organisations in Milwaukee that can help, says Rich, and maybe he can get “a seeing-eye chick.” Incidentally, now a blind man’s got to get a motorbike down a flight of stairs. And what’s he going to do with it anyway, swap it for some Playboys on audiobook? “She’s got her knockers out. And her muff. You can sorta see the side of her butt too.

05

In the final scene, clearly some some weeks have passed; even months, as Mrs. C talks up how well ‘Arthur’ has been getting on with his cane and “blindness instructor.” So Fonzie’s definitely blind for life now, I guess? Richie grossly jokes about all the making-out Fonz has missed out on, and that they’ve closed off the local fingering spot so he can catch up. Enter Fonzie, dramatically tossing his white stick into the umbrella stand and making a point to tell Joanie “I think pink looks very good on you.” Well, how about that? So what brought on this 11th hour miracle cure? Expensive, experimental surgery? The realisation it was purely psychosomatic? Even better, according to Fonzie, he went to a doctor who “started playing with my eyes,” and suddenly he could see. Oh that’s very specific and fast. Jolly good. He thanks everybody, and tells them how hard it’s been “when you’ve been in darkness like I have for a week…

A WEEK?! So, when Richie was yelling at him over dinner, he’d only been blind for a day? Jesus. Twenty-four hours, and he spends his first sit-down meal as a blind man being screamed at for his cowardice. If this is how people behaved in the sixties, maybe we really are Generation Snowflake. Despite the fast and thoughtless tying of loose-ends, it’s a shame they didn’t stick with it for a while. Imagine Fonzie with a growling seeing-eye dog in a studded collar, or identifying girls by feeling their pointy 1950’s boobs. I’m going to stop there, as when Googling this episode, I discovered that someone wrote fanfic of an alternative version, and I don’t make nearly enough buck to get into that.

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~ by Stuart on December 9, 2018.

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