This year for Halloween, Primetimer is plumbing the depths of television's past to come up with the scariest TV episodes we've ever seen. And we're not just talking the usual suspects for horror — Buffy, The X-Files, The Twilight Zone — we're talking about shows that weren't usually out to frighten their fans. Because sometimes TV can get really weird. And unsettling. And straight-up terrifying.
In the larger universe of Webster, "Burn-Out," which aired early in the show's second season, was a bit of a narrative reset for the show, enabling the family — ex-football player George Papadapolis (Alex Karras), his wealthy socialite wife Katherine (Susan Clark), and their exceedingly adorable adopted son Webster (Emmanuel Lewis) — to vacate the apartment that was their home for the first season and a half and trade it in for the spooky old mansion that practically became a member of the main cast, packed as it was with secret passageways and hidden rooms. But the catalyst for getting the family there, which involved a defective chemistry set and the sweet-faced child who took it without asking, spawned one of the most terrifying episodes of '80s television ever. Especially for a 5-year-old with an intense fear of fire.
It's safe to say that much of this episode, as with much of Webster in general, doesn't hold up three decades later. Emmanuel Lewis's wide-eyed mugging definitely wouldn't play to a 2019 audience, and the supporting cast is comprised entirely of broad caricatures. Viewed through the eyes of an adult, the episode's actual plot is ludicrous, starting with the establishing shot of the Papadapolis' toy-filled living room.
The toys are there, as Katherine Papadopolis blithely explains to Webster, because she's doing a work-related investigation of consumer complaints. Put another way: for some reason, a woman who serves as legal guardian to a seven-year-old sees nothing wrong with temporarily filling her living room with defective, dangerous, and otherwise forbidden toys, nor does she directly warn Webster not to touch anything. In fact, Katherine and George even encourage him to play with the toys.
Webster is relatively indifferent to the chemistry set at first, which tracks with how, by the mid-'80s, chemistry sets were going out of fashion. Indeed, the consumer complaint triggered by the chemistry set is that it's "boring." (Curiously, there is no complaint about the fact that the set comes with explosive chemicals and a pack of matches.) But George's nostalgic rhapsodizing about a boyhood spent building model rockets intrigues Webster enough to sneak the set back to his room for further exploration, with predictable consequences. Before hastily abandoning the set mid-experiment, Webster unwittingly sets the stage for a fire that will ultimately engulf the entire apartment.
And here's where the true nightmare begins. Hours pass before a spark from Webster's hastily blown-out "safety" match ignites the chemistry set's flammable chemicals. Webster awakes, coughing, to a blaring smoke detector and a room full of flames. The episode is instructive to a heavy-handed degree as far as showing children what to do in the event of a fire, but thanks to the well-executed practical effects, the terrifying experience of watching Webster's childhood possessions disintegrate as he bolts from the room almost negates any useful lessons to be derived from viewing this episode.
When Webster — painfully tiny in his footie pajamas — sprints back into the flames to retrieve the only photographs he has of his deceased parents, there is an awful moment where it really does seem his life is in danger. While it wasn't completely unheard of to kill off the character whose name served as the title of an '80s family sitcom, it would have been a bridge too far to incinerate an eponymous child character. Still, the scene is so shocking that it's easy to forget in the moment. And even if you're sure Webster's going to be okay, it's not a given that George, who runs in after him and has to pry him away from the flaming bookshelf, will be as lucky. But they're lucky: Webster is completely fine, George suffers only a minor burn on his hand, and the beloved "memento box" is unscathed.
However intense the actual fire and ensuing escape might have been, things get even more unsettling when Webster, George, and Katherine return to their apartment once the fire is out. Few sitcoms of the era dared to wreak this level of destruction on their protagonists. As the camera slowly pans around the once-familiar luxury condo, now blackened and coated in ash, it sinks in that the family has lost everything.
Although George and Katherine are quick to assure Webster that they still have the most important thing — each other — there's no denying that losing every single possession would take an emotional toll on a real-life family. And a child, confronted with the hypothetical of losing their own toys, clothing, and mementos, would never so much as look at a book of matches or a chemistry set ever again, lest their own environs be as thoroughly devastated as Webster's.
Of course, Webster was a sitcom, and a relatively lighthearted one at that, so by the next episode, the family had found a new home and new possessions, and they rarely had occasion to mention fires, chemistry sets, or the old apartment again. But when it came to 1980s TV, Webster's terrifying fire and its devastating aftermath remained irrevocably burned into the minds of a generation of young viewers.
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Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie.