Hey, do you remember that one time Donald Trump bought a haunted mansion in the Caribbean and teamed up with a black ghost pirate and solved crimes using a high-tech superboat?
Well, you should, because it happened. (Mostly. Sort of.)
In a recent episode of my podcast CANCELED TOO SOON (where we review television shows that lasted one season or less), we unearthed one of the strangest television programs ever produced: THE 100 LIVES OF BLACK JACK SAVAGE. It’s the story of Barry Tarberry (Daniel Hugh Kelly), a businessman based explicitly on Donald Trump, and yes, he most certainly does buy a haunted mansion in the Caribbean. That mansion is haunted by the ghost of Black Jack Savage (played by Stoney Jackson in the pilot, Steven Williams in the rest of the series), who was an escaped slave who became a pirate in the 1700s, and who was eventually lynched for trying to save his people. Now, Barry Tarberry and Black Jack Savage have to save 100 lives… or they’ll both be sent to hell.
Yeah, that’s pretty weird. The show gets even weirder but it’s probably worth pointing out first that one of the weirdest parts of the show – the fact that it’s an action-adventure series inspired by Donald Trump – wasn’t the weirdest part way back in 1991.
Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States of America, has been a celebrity for decades, making himself famous for being famous with guest appearances in game shows and movies and commercials. His outsized personality and lavish lifestyle gave birth to an unmistakable persona that soon came to represent our contemporary ideas of American corporate capitalism. There’s a reason why, when Marv Wolfman and John Byrne rebooted the SUPERMAN comics in the 1980s, they turned the supervillain Lex Luthor into “a Trump style billionaire.” Trump was famous for being a wheeler and a dealer, for being filthy rich, and for having a cartoonish ego.
It isn’t altogether unheard of for characters in fiction to be directly inspired by real-life figures like Donald Trump, and if you can catch the parallels, the similarities are irrefutable. Barry Tarberry is the richest man in New York City. He owns a chain of hotels with his portrait in every room. He wrote a best-selling book about making deals called DEALING NOT STEALING. He claims to have one of the most complicated tax returns in the country. He talks his way out of paying his contractors in every single episode of the series. The actor, Daniel Hugh Kelly, even looks like Donald Trump (although he doesn’t impersonate the voice).
In other words, Barry Tarberry isn’t Donald Trump in the same way Biff Tannen isn’t Donald Trump in BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II. The audience is supposed to understand these references, and they’re supposed to think that watching Donald Trump get into a series of action-adventure hijinks is a heck of a lot of fun.
And maybe, on a surreal level, it is. But when you actually sit down to watch THE 100 LIVES OF BLACK JACK SAVAGE, you quickly come to realize that something is terribly, terribly wrong with this series, from concept to execution.
Let’s begin with that set-up. The rules state Black Jack Savage can only be seen by the owner of his castle (to the extent that, as we learn in a later episode, this magical rule is entirely dependent on legal paperwork). This means that the hero of THE 100 LIVES OF BLACK JACK SAVAGE, Barry Tarberry, based on Donald Trump, kinda-sorta “owns” a former slave. It doesn’t help that when Barry first sees Black Jack Savage he assumes this ghost is his new houseboy. He shouts “You’re fired!” when Black Jack talks back, and then he immediately tells his real estate agent that “I just found a black guy in the kitchen” and “I want to change all the locks.”
It gets more uncomfortable. In the third episode, one of the bad guys keeps referring to “Barry Tarberry” as – and I’m terribly sorry about this – “Barry Tarbaby.” I wish I were making that up, but it’s actually a recurring gag in a television series produced by Stephen J. Cannell (21 JUMP STREET), co-created by Glen Morgan and James Wong (THE X-FILES) and presented on network television by THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY. The first few episodes were even introduced by Michael Eisner, who brags about how great THE 100 LIVES OF BLACK JACK SAVAGE is and then immediately boasts that he’s got to go, because he’s hard at work on Euro Disney. It would have been a baffling host segment even at the time but today it’s a perfect storm of irony.
The concept gets stranger. Again, Black Jack Savage can only communicate with the owner of the castle. He cannot physically interact with the living world. He can, however, possess “lower life forms” like dogs, dolphins and parrots. But if Black Jack Savage leaves the safety of his castle he becomes vulnerable to bounty hunters from Hell called “snarks,” which in the pilot episode look like the back half of a rat with chicken talons. (In future episodes they look like flying noses.)
Barry Tarberry enlists the aid of a scientific genius to build him a “Snark Disintegrator”. Barry takes this device, which looks an awful lot like a vacuum cleaner, with him wherever he goes. In multiple episodes the action stops dead so Barry can flail about with it, sucking up hell ghosts in order to save his pirate friend. And since none of the other characters can see these snarks, it looks as dumb as it sounds, with our Donald Trump character jumping around waving his vacuum cleaner at invisible enemies only he can see.
Not for nothing but the inventor character, Logan “FX” Murphy, played by Steve Hytner (ROSWELL), also built that sci-fi superboat that Barry uses to fight crime, as well as a laser/electromagnetic pulse generator that hooks into Barry’s car battery. In a later episode he builds a robot to negotiate financial terms with Barry, who – in a recurring gag – always talks his way out of paying Logan’s bills, even when he hires him to do something absurd like build a spy satellite and launch it over the course of an afternoon. (Which happens.)
Once again I would like to stress that THE 100 LIVES OF BLACK JACK SAVAGE is a real show. I’m not making it up. I had a hard time believing that it was real myself until I saw, with my own eyes, Donald Trump (essentially) dressing up like a black pirate and jumping in a sci-fi superboat to save the life of TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL star Roma Downey after Tobin Bell, the villain from the SAW movies, strapped her to toxic waste barrels in the pilot. And as you can imagine I was still having trouble believing it when Barry/Trump saved the day, dressed like a black pirate, by blowing that same toxic waste up in the middle of the ocean. Like it was some kind of a good thing.
Speaking of dressing up like a black pirate, that’s also exactly what Michael Chiklis does in the fourth episode of THE 100 LIVES OF BLACK JACK SAVAGE, when the future star of THE SHIELD tries to scare native villagers off of their land by impersonating a ghost so he can buy the land and turn it into a health spa. Strangely enough he’s defeated by a billionaire real estate tycoon who also spends part of his time impersonating the same ghost. It’s like an inverse SCOOBY-DOO episode in which all of the characters are the bad guys.
And make no mistake: Barry Tarberry is a bad, bad guy. The second episode of this family-oriented WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY adventure series begins with a husband and wife being murdered in front of their infant. That infant is now lost at sea, starving to death for days in a sinking ship. And when Black Jack Savage suggests that he and Barry should try to save that child, Barry argues that the baby is probably already dead so it’s not worth the trouble. Then, of course, he shares the same body as a woman – the baby’s dead mother, played by Caroline Williams from THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 – and learns for the first time in his life what love really feels like. So they save the baby and immediately give it away to a nice couple who, just a few scenes earlier, confessed that their first baby died because of their negligence.
It’s possible that, as the series went on, Barry was supposed to gradually become a better person. As they approached the 100th life they were meant to save, perhaps Barry would even seem like he was genuinely redeemable. But in the seven episodes of THE 100 LIVES OF BLACK JACK SAVAGE that were produced (before the series was promptly canceled) there’s no sign that any change is possible for our protagonist. He’s still a self-centered serial liar who only does “the right thing” when it’s in his own personal best interest, and who has a tendency to accuse women with any strength of character as being a “poster girl for PMS.”
It doesn’t help that by turning all this behavior into lighthearted family entertainment, and by frequently rewarding him for it, Disney effectively “normalized” this sort of casual sexism, racism and selfishness. This series argues that being underhanded, sexist, racist and selfish can be charming. After all, if the opposite were true, why would Disney make an expensive live-action television series about someone who embodies all of those qualities?
The only reasonable answer, I imagine, is that it’s because they thought he would have time to change. It may be best to think about THE 100 LIVES OF BLACK JACK SAVAGE as a sort of contemporary riff on Charles Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Both are stories about how a hellbound capitalist becomes a better person due to divine, supernatural intervention. But the creators of THE 100 LIVES OF BLACK JACK SAVAGE apparently took one look at Donald Trump – back in the early 1990s, no less – and decided that divine supernatural intervention would have to go to even more absurd lengths to redeem him. A few ghosts in one night wouldn’t do. He’d need to actually live with a ghost twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and save a hundred human lives with superboats and lasers in order to get into heaven.
Maybe THE 100 LIVES OF BLACK JACK SAVAGE was ahead of its time, but I rather doubt it. It’s such a bug nuts, tone deaf, casually racist and sexist and morally questionable program that maybe it could only have come out at a time when nobody was really paying attention, and when weird tv shows were coming out of the woodwork all the time. But sometimes these shows are so remarkably “off” that they deserve to be rediscovered, if only to prove that they exist.
THE 100 LIVES OF BLACK JACK SAVAGE is not currently available on home video. I suspect it never will be. I suspect the makers of this series would prefer to sweep it under the rug completely. But it’s real, folks. I saw it. I reviewed every single episode of THE 100 LIVES OF BLACK JACK SAVAGE in agonizing detail at Canceled Too Soon. And I will never be the same.