We’ve talked about this before, how back in the olden days, if you wanted to be a true geek, you had to work at it. You had to catch a show on its first run, because often it didn’t get a second. Shows that got canceled after a single season or less didn’t get syndicated; it generally took 100 episodes to make a show viable for reruns; notable exceptions include Star Trek (79 episodes) and The Prisoner (17 episodes). There was no home video, no on-demand, no streaming; if you missed it, you missed it. That meant that if a show looked at all like it was going to push any of the nerd buttons–sci-fi, fantasy, horror, superheroes, or just goofy as hell–you had to sit down and watch the damn thing when it aired or never get a second chance at it.
Of course today we live in a world where shows that vanished after a handful of episodes are now turning up on Blu-Ray, or MeTV, or at least on YouTube, so that even the most obscure flops can have a second life. I am genuinely surprised at how many quirky flop shows are available on Amazon for you to purchase (which nets me a few pennies when you do, so go crazy).
It’s been my gift (and curse) that I seem to remember hundreds of terrible TV shows that only aired for half a season and dropped into the abyss half a century ago. I can’t tell you what my bride asked me to pick up after work tonight, but I sure as hell can tell you who starred in A Year at the Top 42 years ago, because that’s how the blob of electric jello in my skull works. If I have to know this crap, so do you.
So let’s look at some of these flops, in descending order by number of episodes…
All That Glitters (65 episodes, but only 13 weeks)
Norman Lear came up with this bizarre soap opera — or possibly satire of a soap, it’s hard to tell — which riffed on a clever notion; what if all of human history had favored women instead of men? What if, from the day Adam got them kicked out of the Garden, women were the leaders and rulers, and men the subservient supporting players? The show ran five days a week, but for whatever reason, it didn’t click with viewers. But before it disappeared, it produced a hit song. Neil Diamond’s “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” was written for the show, intended to be a torch song sung by a lovelorn guy who feels rejected by the woman he loves. Barbra Streisand then recorded it and drained it of all the sarcasm and comedy.
When Things Were Rotten (13 episodes)
I mentioned this show in my tribute to the late Dick Gautier; it was Mel Brooks’ first pass at the Robin Hood legend, almost 20 years before Men in Tights. In true Mel Brooks fashion, it’s delightfully absurd and often stupid; at one point, Robin competes in an archery tournament against “Sir Ronald of MacDonald and his Golden Archers,” while on another occasion, a poacher, convicted of poaching (eggs), is boiled for three minutes. The cast is terrific, and Brooks was able to bring in guest stars like Dudley Moore, Lainie Kazan, and Sid Caesar. I’m not sure it ages well, but it’s in many ways better than Brooks’ later version of the story. Bernie Koppel, Dick Van Patten, and Hee Haw‘s Misty Rowe have choice roles as Friar Tuck, Alan-A-Dale, and Maid Marian.
Duck Factory (13 episodes)
Jim Carrey plays a hopelessly naive aspiring cartoonist who comes to Hollywood to get into animation based entirely on a misunderstanding. He had submitted some art samples to his favorite animation studio, and got back an insincere letter that included a vaguely encouraging comment like “if you ever make it to Hollywood, drop by the studio,” which he mistook for a job offer. He arrives at the studio just after the boss has died, and discovers that his hero was something of a monster, universally hated, and his studio is going to shut down. When he is the only person willing to speak at the animator’s funeral, his comments inspire the trophy-wife-widow to hire him and keep the studio open, so this goofy kid is suddenly the boss. The supporting cast included Jack Gilford. All thirteen episodes are up on YouTube, so catch them before they get deleted.
Run, Buddy, Run (13 episodes)
Jack Sheldon (Johnny Carson’s long-time trumpet player and occasional comedic foil, perhaps best known as the singing voice for several episodes of Schoolhouse Rock, including “I’m Just a Bill”) plays a hapless schlub who happens to be in the wrong steam room one day, and overhears two nefarious characters talking about “chicken little”; they discover he’s there in the fog, and he realizes he needs to run for his life, without ever really knowing what it is he knows that’s so dangerous. Each episode finds Buddy in a new city, trying to find some safety in anonymity, inevitably being found out and taking it on the road again. Run, Buddy, Run was a clever parody of the plethora of “man on the run” shows that were all the rage in the late 1960s, starting with The Fugitive and running all the way through to The Incredible Hulk.
Bearcats! (13 episodes)
All I really remembered about this show is that it was about two guys wandering the WWI-era Wild West in a 1914 Stutz Bearcat, which remains an awesome car. But a quick perusal of the IMDB fills in the gaps: Rod Taylor and Dennis Cole are mercenaries for hire who solve problems. The gimmick is they never quote a price up front. “If you have to ask how much, you don’t need them badly enough.” They do the job in exchange for a blank check and fill in a number afterward based on how difficult or dangerous the job was. The show got slaughtered in the ratings by The Flip Wilson Show, partially because it hit a lot of the same notes as the more traditional western Alias Smith and Jones. There was a
Hanna-Barbera DePatie-Freleng rip-off cartoon called The Houndcats, because of course there was.
The Chicago Teddy Bears (13 episodes)
After Hogan’s Heroes ended, John Banner, AKA Sgt. “I Know NOTHING!” Schultz, went looking for a new gig. He settled on The Chicago Teddy Bears, apparently figuring that the Chicago gang wars of the Prohibition era would be a chock-full of wacky setups for comedy; of course, coming on the heels of a hit sitcom about a Nazi prison camp, this might have been a reasonable assumption. Banner plays Uncle Latzi, a German immigrant who co-owns a Chicago speakeasy with his nephew Linc (Dean Jones); Linc’s cousin Nick (Art Metrano) is a would-be mobster bent on taking over the joint, but naive Latzi can’t believe his nephew could be anything other than a nice boy. Marvin Kaplan and Jamie Farr round out the cast.
Barbary Coast (13 episodes)
After Star Trek and before he found a new career in self-satire, William Shatner had a couple of other TV series, one of which was Barbary Coast. The show was set in the 1890s and took place in the notoriously lawless section of San Francisco that gave the show its title. Shatner plays Jeff Cable, a federal investigator who operates out of the back room of the casino owned by his con-artist pal, Cash Conover, played by Doug McClure (Dennis Cole played the role in the pilot). Fighting against homegrown gangsters and foreign spies, The two engaged in byzantine plots that usually involved Cable disguising himself and going undercover while Cash ran a scam on someone, in a series that felt very much like a mash-up of Mission: Impossible and Wild Wild West (the TV shows, not the movies).
Masquerade (13 episodes)
Rod Taylor plays Mr. Lavender, the head of a covert operation organization called Operation Masquerade, in which Kirstie Alley and Greg Evigan are CIA agents who manage ordinary citizens recruited for their specialized skills to carry out spy missions. Critics at the time described it as a cross between Mission: Impossible and The Love Boat, the latter primarily because every episode involved a different cast of guest stars playing the dilettante agents.
Braindead (13 episodes)
This show, which you can watch on Amazon Prime right now, perfectly captured the political zeitgeist of 2016. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a struggling documentary filmmaker whose brother happens to be a Democratic congressman; while reluctantly working in his office, she stumbles upon the fact that alien insects are eating politicians’ brains and turning them into extremist whackjobs. Tony Shalhoub kills it as a right wing congressman who goes full Trumpanzee as a result of brain-bugs. The best part? Each episode’s “previously on…” recap is sung by Jonathan Coulton.
Fantastic Journey (10 episodes)
What do you get when you throw the Bermuda Triangle, Atlantis, alternate dimensions, time travel, extraterrestrials, pirates, and a mysterious island into a TV show? This mish-mosh of a series is what. Fantastic Journey seems to have been systematically undermined by conflicting demands from the studio execs. Characters were randomly added and dumped, plots took arbitrary sudden turns, and subplots were abandoned in mid-stride. DC Fontana tried like hell to make something that made sense, but it couldn’t get past the tenth episode. Roddy MacDowall gets to go full Roddy MacDowall playing their version of Lost in Space‘s Dr. Zachary Smith.
Quark (8 episodes)
Buck Henry tried to apply the Get Smart treatment to Star Trek, but he was a couple of decades too early; the show premiered a week before Star Wars opened, and audiences weren’t ready to laugh at science fiction yet. Nonetheless he loaded it up with gags that were either groan-provokingly dumb (“He’s over there by the roddenberry bush…”) or too hip for the room, like the character of Jean/Gene (Tim Thomerson), a transmute who vacillates between being male and female, riffing on gender stereotypes. Quark (Richard Benjamin) is the captain of an intergalactic garbage scow with a motley crew of oddballs, and they constantly get shoved into missions far above their pay grade.
Future Cop (8 episodes)
Future Cop aired virtually simultaneously with Holmes & Yoyo (13 episodes), followed by Mann & Machine (1992, 9 episodes), Total Recall 2070 (1999, 22 episodes), and Almost Human (2013, 13 episodes). rebooted on NBC two years later as a TV movie called Cops and Robin. All of these shows have essentially the same premise, in which a human police officer is assigned an android partner, but this one is best remembered as the subject of a lawsuit by Harlan Ellison and Ben Bova, because the network swiped the premise from their short story, titled “Brillo”. (For those of you too young to get it, “Brillo” is a riff on a bit of ’70s slang; back then, it was hip to refer to police as “the fuzz”; Brillo is a brand of steel wool, which is metal fuzz, and the android cop is metal fuzz, and you know what, it’s a terrible joke not worth the time….)
Sable (7 episodes)
Boy, was I stoked when this show was announced in the pages of Jon Sable, Freelance. Boy was I whatever is the opposite of stoked when I actually saw it. The TV show managed to completely reverse every clever thing Mike Grell had put into the series; in the comic, Sable is a mercenary who masquerades as a children’s book author, wearing a fake mustache, glasses and blond wig when he has to appear as B. B. Flemm, but his real identity is Sable. In the show, this subversion of the genre trope is discarded. Sable’s complicated relationships with the women he works with, his editor and artist, are turned into standard TV soap opera or played for comedy. They turned a terrific comic into just another detective show, but with added dumb. The whole thing is up on YouTube if you want to subject yourself to it.
A Year at the Top (5 episodes)
Greg Evigan and Paul Schaffer inadvertently sell their souls to the devil to become rock stars in this show from Norman Lear. They quickly discover that they will only be stars for a year and then will be consigned to hell unless they can find some way to negate their contract. Yes, B.J. & the Bear was actually a step up for Evigan. Paul Shaffer actually left SNL for this series, but I guess it worked out okay for him in the end. The show was stupid even for a sitcom, but Paul Shaffer’s parody of Elton John was amusing, and Gabriel Dell clearly had the time of his life playing Satan’s idiot son.
The Phoenix (4 episodes)
Back when I was in the drama department of Citrus College in Azusa, there was a bit of talk about local boy made good Judson Scott, who played Joachim, the young lackey to Khan in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. It looked like the guy was on the way; he had a unique look and he could act. After his Star Trek stint, he landed this TV show, which went a scant 4 episodes, and then was relegated to little guest parts for the rest of his career. I never met the guy, but I think he may have deserved better than this.
Once a Hero (3 episodes)
This one aired in 1987, but only three episodes made it to broadcast; a fourth was advertised but never aired. Seven episodes were reportedly filmed and may possibly have been aired outside the US. Today they seem to have disappeared.
The series played with some cliches of the comics, best illustrated by the difference between the Superman TV series of the ’50s and the Superman movies of the ’70s and ’80s. The premise is a simple one; Abner (Milo O’Shea), an aging cartoonist, creator of a long-running comic book called Captain Justice (Jeff Lester), is starting to lose his edge. He’s repeating plots, going through the motions, and his character is the kind of one-dimensional paragon of virtue that made the Superman of the 1960s such a boring guy. The comic company wants to cancel the title, and within the comic itself, the characters are starting to notice that they are stuck in a rut. Finally Captain Justice breaks through the Forbidden Zone to enter the real world. In the real world, Captain Justice has no powers, but he still attempts to fight crime anyway. He inspires Abner to reinvigorate the strip, while neighbor and snoopy investigative reporter Emma Greeley tries to figure out what’s going on. And of course Emma is a single mom whose son is friends with the cartoonist, he knows the truth about Captain Justice, and he has to hide the facts from his mom. Naturally Emma is attracted to Brad Steele (Captain Justice’s civilian identity), but the real complications begin when Brad’s comic book girlfriend Rachel (Dianne Kay) crosses over to the real world; she looks just like Abner’s late wife, and he can’t handle it.
I watched Once a Hero because (a) it was superhero material, of which there was precious little available, and (b) because it co-starred Caitlin Clarke, the actress who was so good as Valerian in Dragonslayer, playing Emma. She really tried here, bringing sincerity to her role that was vital to selling the central conceit, just as she had made the threat of a dragon seem real in her previous role. Here she was very much a real world Lois Lane.
Ultimately, the show was the fatal mix of poor production, corny writing, and an unsustainable premise, and it was canceled after the third episode.
The unaired fourth episode sounds like it would have been a hoot. The plot: A movie studio is making a big-budget film version of Captain Justice, but the poor washed-up has-been who played the character on TV years earlier is eking out a living making personal appearances in costume at conventions and car shows, so they sue him to “protect the brand”. Eventually he crosses the Forbidden Zone into the fictional world and discovers he has Captain Justice’s powers there. This episode, which is obviously inspired by the similar lawsuit against Clayton Moore brought by the makers of The Legend of the Lone Ranger, even went so far as to cast Adam West as the has-been actor just to be a little more meta.
Stick Around (1 episode)
Before he landed on Taxi, comedian Andy Kaufman made appearances on many comedy and variety shows as his “Foreign Man” character, who eventually became Latka Gravas. One of those appearances was a pilot for a sitcom, Stick Around, in which Kaufman’s Foreign Man is an android servant to a 21st century Yuppie (that’s ’80s slang for “Young Urban Professional” for you youngsters) couple. The pilot was broadcast in 1977, but it didn’t sell. It lives on at YouTube, so you can watch it above.
Believe it or not, I have barely scratched the surface of this topic; Here’s a collection of about a dozen-and-a-half ’70s flops, most of which I had completely forgotten about or never even saw before. (Like I said, we used to have to work at it to catch these shows.) This list is just the detritus that stuck in my head for all these years. I have a whole second list of equally oddball shows that made it past the 13 episode line. Maybe next time.