Up goes the curtain…
Muppet Show alum Valerie Harper was always a versatile lady, and one of my favorite credits of hers is The Great Mom Swap. Released in 1995, the year of my high school graduation, it’s vaguely based on the Betsy Haynes novel of the same name and is unusually well-done for a TV movie.
Terry Vanessi (Mary Kate Shellhardt) and Karen Ridgeway (Hillary Tuck) couldn’t be more different. Terry is a straight-A student who lives with her mom, Grace (Valerie Harper) and grandpa, affectionately known as Papa (Sid Caesar) above Mama Luna’s, the family deli. Karen lives in a fancy neighborhood with her mom, realtor Millie (Shelley Fabares) and dad, car dealership owner Jack (Vasili Bogazianos), big brother David (Andrew Kavovit) and little sister Tiffy (Kelsey Mulrooney). Karen’s got her own phone, a boyfriend, Chad (Hunter Garner), and is a star cheerleader. Grace and Millie were best friends in high school but had some kind of falling out, and whenever they see each other they bicker endlessly.
Terry and Karen don’t like each other very much, either, trading barbs and sabotaging each other’s work. It’s been going on for years. When Karen ruins Terry’s science project, Terry puts a stink bomb in Karen’s locker and the school has to close for a few days.
The school principal has had enough, and he’s turned the case over to the local juvenile delinquent officer. Karen and Terry can either be expelled from school and spend a month at a work farm, which means having a criminal record and missing the ninth grade prom (gasp), or they can stay in school, do cleanup duty, and swap houses for a month. As in, each one will see how the other lives. The girls aren’t too jazzed about it but the adults think it’s a fine idea.
Swapping is not without its adjustments or its compensations. Karen complains about the smell of salami from the deli and is shocked to find out that she only gets two minutes of phone time a day, which, to be honest, is barely time to say hi, but it’s a shared line with the business. On the other hand, Grace is a good cook and Papa is a fun guy.
Terry tries putting her clothes in Karen’s closet only to have the clothes bar fall off, Tiffy is kind of a pest at first, and Karen’s friends keep calling her on Karen’s phone and acting like, well, fill in the blank. Plus Terry is expected to babysit Tiffy all the time, which cuts into her studying. On the other hand, Terry, who’s been saving for a laptop, gets to use Karen’s computer when she finds the time to work, and David is an intriguing fella.
Predictably, Terry and Karen find ways to meet in the middle and they get to be real friends, not to mention Terry gets a makeover, and of course prom is coming up. The swap is the fix they never knew they wanted.
OK, when this movie first came on TV it was love at first sight. Naturally I had to tape it, and I watched it over and over again even though the VCR only caught half of it.
Looking back on it, of course, it’s a little cheesy, but it’s also a mondo nostalgia hit because these aren’t perfect Disney kids or sassy but still perfect Nickelodeon kids. They look the way kids and teenagers in the nineties really looked. They wear scrunchies and flannel and Docs. The laptops are chunky and, by today’s standards, ploddingly slow. None of the kids have cell phones and they read books. It’s really fun.
The cast is great, too. Hillary Tuck and Mary Kate Shellhardt, both of whom have gone on to healthy long careers after Mom Swap, give very natural performances, holding their own against a prestigious adult cast, such as Shelly Fabares, who’s no stranger to playing teenagers herself, what with, among other credits, her famous stint on The Donna Reed Show and the unfortunately failed series, Meet Me In St. Louis. Sid Caesar is awesome; he was always a welcome sight in everything he did, and he gets to play a saxophone in Mom Swap, as well as challenge Tuck to a game of poker, with the winner getting a slice of chocolate cake.
Valerie Harper, though, is probably the biggest scene-stealer of the movie. She lights up the screen, trading snatches of Italian with Caesar as if she’s been doing it all her life and fixing peppers with eggs which look delectable. My favorite bit, though, is on prom night when Chad shows up with his brother to pick up Karen, and when Karen’s brother honks his horn Grace leans out the window and yells, “Hey, buffone! You’re her prom date, not a cab driver. You come up here and get her like a real man, or she’s not going!”
I like it. I really, really like it. And I like that The Great Mom Swap has a home on Amazon Prime, where more people can discover the wonderful Valerie Harper and Company in what I think is an underrated movie.
For more of great Muppet Show guest stars, please see my post here and Gill’s Day One and Day Two posts. And since February begins tomorrow, here’s what’s coming up (besides the Fifth So Bad It’s Good Blogathon, of course). As usual, click the images for more info:
As always, thanks for reading, all, and see you tomorrow with a new Page To Screen. Yeah, it fell during the blogathon. Oh well, they can co-exist, and a Muppet Show guest star may be hidden in there somewhere. See you tomorrow…
The Great Mom Swap is free to stream with ads on Amazon Prime. Betsy Haynes’ original novel is available here.
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3 thoughts on “Going Italian With Mama Valerie”
Not heard of this one, but loved Valerie Harper in Blame it on Rio and Rhoda, you are right she does light up the screen. Thanks for joining me as a co-host, always love our January blogathons.