Confession: Three’s Company has never been must see TV for me. Unless I’m gawking at one of Mr. Furley’s denim ensembles, I rarely pay the show the attention that it deserves. But that all changed one recent Saturday while chasing my morning coffee with an episode called “Jack the Giant Killer,” enthralled by every minute of it.
From the get-go this is a compelling tale whose central scenes remain as clear to me today as they were when it first aired on Apr. 14, 1977. What I mostly remember is the sudden and unrelenting brutalism visited upon gentle Jack Tripper by the episode’s guest villain, a large, imposing yachtsman named Jeff.
Before Jack even enters the scene, the surly seaman establishes his character by boastfully implicating himself as a date-rapist and attempted murderer (he threw a woman overboard because she wouldn’t put out). Even my housemate, who overheard the dialogue while working on her computer across the room, said “ewww” and turned around to see who exactly was uttering these crass lines.
When Jack steps in to protect Chrissy from surly Jeff and his groping paws, things go from bad to worse. If there’s one thing Jeff likes better than molesting women, it’s antagonizing less imposing men.
Considering the New Zoo Revue-like feel of a typical Three’s Company script, Jeff’s unbridled aggressiveness at the Regal Beagle is all the more disturbing. Even 35 years later I wince with sympathetic fear for Jack Tripper each time the bully enters the scene.
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The episode’s middle-eight takes place in Jack, Chrissy, and Janet’s apartment, where Jack chews the scenery, agonizing through various poses of self-loathing and self-pity, acting out his newfound emasculation in full-throated anguish for his two Playboy Bunny-esque housemates, who futilely try to mop up what’s left of his bludgeoned ego.
“Jack the Giant Killer” resolves in straightforward sitcom fashion. Jack returns with the girls to the Regal Beagle and loads up on liquid courage to confront Jeff, who enters the Beagle and heads straight for the bar. Janet sees him first and goes over to whisper something in his ear before Jack can do anything.
Before we have a chance to know what Janet says, Jack steps up and gives the bullying buccaneer a verbal keelhauling followed by eight long seconds of limp-wristed judo moves and high-pealed screeching. Jeff, who has been so confrontational throughout the show, now backs away apologetically after Jack berates him for being such an awful human being.
Surprised he didn’t get slugged, Jack asks Janet, “What did you say to him?”
“I told him you had a plate in your head from rescuing your entire platoon in Vietnam,” she chirped.
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Wha-wha-whaa??? I almost spit up my sanka when Janet said that. It’s the way she blurted the words so casually, flippantly even, that made me do a double take.
Vietnam was a taboo subject in mainstream Hollywood in the Seventies. You just didn’t hear it mentioned on the big or little screen until 1978, when a sudden spate of studio films about that war and its vets emerged (Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now), and the “Vietnam in Hollywood” era was launched. Nam acquired instant TV gravitas during this time. Mentioning a wounded vet’s combat experience was a subject reserved for Emmy-winning dramas, not farce.
In later years, you might expect the “watch out, he’s a psycho-Vietnam vet” gag to be played in an edgy Fox sitcom, but it seems way too dark (not to mention complicated) for the pratfall-based plotlines of Three’s Company.
So what’s going on here?
Either Three’s Company has addressed the condition of the Vietnam vet a full year before Coming Home and the Deer Hunter famously broke down that barrier, or the writers for the show where the kisses are hers and hers and his needed a way to wrap the scene fast and came up with the plate-in-the-head-from-Nam line as if it were just an innocuous ‘you wouldn’t hit a guy with glasses, would you?’ gag.
I vote for the latter. The allusion to Jack taking shrapnel to the cranium to save his platoon was made in that simpler time, before the abovementioned films sensitized us towards the condition of the Vietnam vet. It’s still unclear whether Jeff the bully was supposed to have feared Jack as a lethal combat fighter or pitied him as a disabled war hero, but we’ll chalk that ambiguity up to mediocre writing.
This isn’t the only scene that is jarring to the modern psyche. There is also the episode’s very first shot, where Jeff establishes himself as a would-be date-rapist who throws women overboard when they spurn his advances.
“Jack the Giant Killer” is just the fourth Three’s Company episode ever produced, but it didn’t air until the fifth week of a six-week initial season. It was as if they knew this one had problems and were willfully holding it back as long as possible.
Either way, it’s an interesting pop culture footnote and a humble reminder that even something as empty-caloried and nougat-filled as Three’s Company can be mined for valuable nuggets of historical information.
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