A Look At: Breaking Away (the TV series)

The 1979 film Breaking Away has had a huge impact on many around the world – from bicyclists to just the average movie buff to anyone in between. It has inspired bicyclists, marked the beginning of the careers of some actors, and other things. But what about the not-so-popular TV series it spun off?

Many people either forgot about or don’t know that the film was responsible for a spin off TV series on the same name. And no wonder when you hear that only eight episodes were produced, with only seven of those aired.

People are quick to criticize the series, saying that it can’t possibly be as good as the movie. Others are more forgiving, especially after hearing about the fact that the series was produced during a actor’s guild strike, pushing it off schedule. While ABC did its best to publicize the series, it failed.

The show was forgotten about until 1985, when the Arts and Entertainment Network (now commonly known as A&E) brought the show back to air via syndication. Unfortunately, A&E just showed reruns, and it wasn’t long before the show fell back into obscurity – forgotten by many.

Thankfully, with the power of the internet, I was able to uncover the episodes – including the “lost episode.” (The last episode, which was never aired. Unfortunately, the version I have is only 3/4 complete, with the ending cut off.)

So, how does the series stack up against the movie? What’s different, what’s the same? Is it a pile of garbage that can be considered a waste of film and talent, or diamonds in the rough that was just cut off due to issues of its time?

Introduction to the “universe”

It is important to realize that majority of the series is set prior to the movie in its universe. The only exception is the “lost” episode – which can be assumed to take place directly after the movie.

Similar to the movie, the series is set in Bloomington, Indiana and parts take place on the Indiana University campus. Unlike the movie, however, you’re not really seeing the B-Town or IU campus. You’re actually seeing Athens, Georgia and the University of Georgia campus. It even says so after the credits roll. With this change in location, nearly everything looks different – from the surroundings to the houses to even Ray’s car lot.

Dave’s bike isn’t a Masi, either. That’s because the series mostly takes place before the movie, which means he hasn’t won the Masi yet. (Unfortunately, we don’t get to see that.) Rather, he wins a La Strada (according to the above note, a Huffy road bike of some sort) in the first episode.

You get all of the same characters from the movie back, although most are played by different actors/actresses. Mike, Cyril and Moocher all join Dave on the “small screen”, while Ray and Evelyn Stoller are Dave’s parents. The only actors to reprise their roles from the movie is Jackie Earle Haley (Moocher), Barbara Barrie (Evelyn Stoller, Dave’s mother), and John Ashton (Mike’s brother.) Most of the characters have retained their traits from the movie, while some have changed ever so slightly.

The quartet… from left: Moocher, Mike, Cyril (in rear), Dave

Cyril is the only character in the series that had tremendous changes to his personality. In the series, he is “dumbed down” and likes to perform long-winded monologues or songs. Cyril also appears to be a huge Chicago Cubs fan in the series, as in nearly every episode he is wearing Cubs apparel. In the series, Cyril is portrayed by Thom Bray rather than Daniel Stern.

Singer/actor/screenwriter Shaun Cassidy as Dave Stoller

Dave is mostly the same. His bicycling and Italian obsessions are featured less in the series. When looking at other reviews of the movie on Amazon, I found someone criticized the movie because it didn’t have “enough bicycling.” If you felt the movie didn’t have “enough bicycling”, then you may as well skip the series. It has even less bicycling (although some… not as much) and focuses more on the characters and the issues between them and the outside world. Dave is played by Shaun Cassidy in the series instead of Dennis Christopher, who played him in the film.

Mike is mostly unchanged, while his jock/gearhead traits are heavily utilized in the series, with one episode centered around him getting to play football with a frat. Another episode centered around him racing his car. (His car is also different in the series… it is no longer the Buick Skylark found in the movie.) In the series, Mike is portrayed by Tom Wiggin. (In the film, Dennis Quaid.)

Moocher is perhaps the most sensible of all. He is also portrayed by Jackie Earle Haley, who also portrayed him in the film.

Is it any good?

The film was really good, at least in my humble opinion. How does the series, which lasted only eight episodes after being unlucky enough to be produced during a strike, fare in comparison?

I believe that it isn’t that bad. Before finding the episodes, I read premonitions of it being horrible. Of course, a series that doesn’t make it through it’s first season isn’t providing a lot of hope, either.

IMDb ratings, however, revived my hope for the series. With mostly positive (although not 10-star) reviews, I was feeling that perhaps it wasn’t that bad. Rather, it just got lost to the mix-up it unfortunately faced during production.

Steve Tesich, the screenwriter behind the film, wrote two of the episodes. It should also be noted here that Peter Yates, who produced the film, also produced the series. So there’s that going for it.

With the mention of Tesich writing two of the episodes, the writing in the series is actually fairly decent – but not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Some of the episodes are boring and fall flat in the re-watchability category, with one or two even hard to sit through for the first time. But some of the others hit it out of the park.

One thing that helps the series is the timing of the episodes. In the first seven episodes (rather, all of them except the “lost” episode), the story takes place prior to the film. (Acting as prequels.) The series starts when Dave, Mike, Cyril and Moocher (who I often call the “quartet”) are graduating high school. The lost episode takes place after the movie, with Dave’s obsession moving away from Italian to French.

SPOILER ALERT: There is one episode worth mentioning that could’ve worked better. La Strada. In this episode, Dave gets his bike (the La Strada) stolen. I feel this episode could’ve been rewritten to make it more appealing. I actually plan on “rewriting” this episode in my spare time. (“Fan fiction?”)

The production quality isn’t bad either. Despite being made as a lower-budget TV series, it probably wasn’t the best, but I’ve seen worse. (It still looks decent despite being transferred from 30-year old VHS tapes.)

I really wish the series could’ve brought back more of the actors from the film. Cassidy is a good stand-in for Dave, but his performance doesn’t hold a candle to Dennis Christopher’s performance. While Tom Wiggin and Thom Bray do a good job in many episodes as Mike and Cyril, it would’ve been nice to see Quaid and/or Stern return. Of all the actors from the film, I would’ve least expected Jackie Earle Haley return due to his developed career.

Vincent Gardenia, however, does an excellent performance as Dave’s father.

Jeff Daniels makes his film debut as a college student in the series pilot episode

Also worth mentioning is the fact that the series was the first (ever) appearance of Jeff Daniels. Jeff Daniels can be seen in the pilot episode as a college kid buying a car. Daniels, like Daniel Stern in the film, would eventually go on to become a big star.

The Verdict

So, you may be asking: is it worth watching?

It depends. If you’re like that one guy on Amazon who criticized the film for
“not having enough bicycling”… forget it. There’s an entire episode (of the eight) that don’t even feature Dave’s bike once. Dave’s bicycling obsession is featured less in the series, although it is still present in a couple of the episodes.

If you’re looking for something that tells you the backstory of the quartet and what they were like before the movie, or perhaps their struggles beyond the bike racing track – look no further. The series shows their struggles between themselves, their families, and in general.

If you want to watch it, most of the episodes are (as of current) uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo, although the different parts of each episode are scattered around. Most episodes have four parts. I’ll spare you the trouble and embed the pilot episode below the end of the post.

It is unfortunate that the series ended so quickly. It was getting to a good point – continuing the story of what followed the movie. Now you’ll have to rely on your imagination and fan fiction to conjure up what happens to the quartet after the Cutters win the Little 500.