(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Show: Heat Vision and Jack
Where You Can Stream It: YouTube
The Pitch: Jack Austin (Jack Black) was a NASA astronaut who flew too close to the sun. Exposure to solar energy gave him super-intelligence – but only when the sun is out. Heat Vision (the voice of Owen Wilson) is Jack’s motorcycle, imbued with the voice and personality of Jack’s former roommate, Doug. Together they roam the country solving crimes, all while being hunted down by NASA employee and occasional actor Ron Silver, playing a fictionalized version of himself.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: I’ve been meaning to watch this for years, but quarantine finally gave me the time to check it out. One of the great cult discoveries of the internet age, Heat Vision and Jack never aired on television but became a hit in comedy circles after the pilot made its way online. Fox ordered the pilot in 1999, but made the boneheaded mistake of not picking it up to series. That’s normally the end of the line for a show…but this one had such a talented group of people involved, and such a ridiculous premise, that it seemed destined for cult status from the start.
Let’s break down some of the talent here, all of whom were still many years away from the peak of their careers. Ben Stiller directed the pilot, a few years after The Cable Guy but still before Zoolander. Jack Black played the lead, a year before his breakout film role in High Fidelity. Owen Wilson lent his distinctive voice to Heat Vision, after Armageddon and The Haunting but before Shanghai Noon and Meet the Parents. Stiller’s wife, Christine Taylor, appears here long before starring in Dodgeball. The only actors you could argue had better days behind them than in front of them were Timecop actor Ron Silver as the villain (what a great concept of having him play himself), and recognizable oddball Vincent Schiavelli (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Escape to Witch Mountain) as the diner cook whose body is taken over by an alien lifeform.
Rob Schrab (The Sarah Silverman Program, Monster House) and Dan Harmon (Community, Rick and Morty) wrote the script, marking what would have been the first mainstream, significant project of either of their careers. Robert Greenblatt, who would go on to be the president of entertainment for Showtime, the chairman of NBC Entertainment, and the chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment, was an executive producer.
But Heat Vision and Jack would have been nothing more than a forgotten IMDb credit if all of those talents didn’t come together to form something special. Thankfully, they did: the pilot, which falsely claims on screen that it’s the 14th episode of the series, is a tight, hilarious piece of writing that perfectly sets up this heightened world, the dynamics of its characters, and a case-of-the-week structure that had a heartbreaking amount of potential. Stiller perfectly walks the line of a cheesy, 6 Million Dollar Man-style sitcom with a comedy that felt subversive in 1999 but firmly entered the mainstream years later.
Heat Vision and Jack was probably about a decade ahead of its time, but you can catch up with its one and only episode below.
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