TV Flops That Got Past Half a Season

Last time, we looked at oddball TV shows that couldn’t make it past 13 episodes, and I promised I had a similar list of shows that were marginally more successful. And here we are.

“It’s about time! It’s about space!”

A little background for the kids. In the olden days, before there was cable TV, on-demand viewing, home video, streaming, the internet, or even VHS, the TV world was pretty different. There were three major national networks (CBS, NBC, ABC), and most areas had at least one or two local stations, but even in the big city, that dial on your television set was a lie. It showed channels 2 through 13, but usually about half of them were dead static. In Los Angeles, we had seven channels: channels 2 (CBS), 4 (NBC), 5 (KTLA, owned by Gene Autry), 7 (ABC), 9, 11, and 13 (local channels). Then you could venture into UHF territory, which was mostly non-English, some educational channels, and at least one that just re-ran old movies and shows from decades earlier.

Because there were so few outlets, the networks adopted a standard schedule. The TV seasons began in the fall, usually October, with new shows premiering and old ones returning. The season was officially 26 episodes, with the episodes being rerun during the summer months. Unofficially, the TV season was really two short seasons, with week 13 usually falling around Christmas; if a show stunk, it could be ended there and replaced after the holidays with something else. If the fill-in show caught on, it could come back for a full season the following year. That’s why 13 episodes is the minimum; if a show got canceled before that point, it was considered really bad.

When syndication-based networks like Fox, UPN, and CW appeared, and “delayed viewing” (recording to watch later) came around, all those rules gradually changed, so there’s not really a big Fall Premiere season anymore. Shows come and go at random now.

Here are a bunch of shows from the olden days that were almost successful, making it past the critical half-season mark. As usual, I’m leaving out the ones that have gone on to become cult classics, like The Prisoner. It’s frankly a little unnerving how many of these old flops are available on Amazon. If one intrigues you and you click the link and buy it, (or anything else; how about some appliances?) I’ll spend the commission money on frivolous things like the electric bill, so click and shop.

Tenspeed & Brownshoe (14 episodes)

This 1980 series makes it to 14 episodes on a technicality; It was initially supposed to be a double-length pilot and 12 more episodes, but the pilot was later cut into two episodes for a total of 14. This show was a lot of people’s first exposure to Jeff Goldblum. Here he’s paired with the always charming Ben Vereen. Vereen is a fast-talking con-man trying to go straight, Goldblum is a nebbish accountant with a fondness for Noir detective stories. Together they fight crime.

The Immortal (16 episodes)

Christopher George stars in this 1970 series as a guy who doesn’t age and never gets sick, and it’s discovered that his apparent immortality is transferable by blood transfusion. An evil rich dude wants to keep him on tap for the occasional pick-me-up, but our guy doesn’t like the idea, so he goes on the run, just like the guys from The Fugitive, Run Buddy Run, Run for Your Life, Planet of the Apes, and The Incredible Hulk.

The Starlost (16 episodes)

So much promise, so much failure. Harlan Ellison has written at length about the implosion of this 1973 series, so I’ll just hit the highlights. Ellison signed on to do a high-profile, big budget, intelligent science fiction series to be produced by Sir Lew Grade and the BBC. It quickly collapsed down to a low-budget, cheesy, kinda dumb, production from a Canadian studio, to the point that Harlan took his name off it; every episode carried the credit “Created by Cordwainer Bird.” As an example of just how badly they messed it up, they changed the title of the first episode from “Phoenix Without Ashes” to “Voyage of Discovery”; can you think of a more trite and banal label to slap on a show? After Ellison finally quit, The producers called Gene Roddenberry to ask if he would take over. He refused. They asked if he could recommend anyone. He replied “Harlan Ellison, if you hadn’t screwed him over so badly.” Ellison later turned his not-stupid pilot for the series into a four-issue comic, Phoenix Without Ashes.

Voyagers! (20 episodes)

One of a long line of TV series about a special group of people who monitor and correct the timestream, Voyagers! had the popular gimmick of having the macho Voyager (time monitor) Phineas Bogg (Jon-Erik Hexum) accidentally get saddled with a 12-year-old sidekick Jeffrey (Meeno Peluce); each week they pop up wherever/whenever their Omni (time travel and monitoring gizmo) takes them, where they “help history along” and make sure it unfolds as it should. Unfortunately, Phineas lost his history guidebook in 1982 (the year the series premiered), but fortunately Jeffrey’s father is a history professor and taught him a lot about the past, so Phineas has to rely on the kid.

The show was doing okay in the ratings, and was supposed to go to a second season, but NBC decided to try to counter-program against 60 Minutes with a news show of its own. Monitor tanked and was soon gone, but so was Voyagers! Probably the most noteworthy thing about the show is that co-star Peluce is the half-brother of Soleil Moon Frye, better known as Punky Brewster, but it does have a devoted fanbase.

In 1984, star Jon-Erik Hexum died of ignorance. During a delay on the set of his next series, Cover-Up, Hexum was bored and clowning around on the set and decided it would be funny to play mock-Russian Roulette with the blank-loaded .44 Magnum he was to use in the scene. He pulled the trigger, not realizing that blanks create a small explosion that’s harmless at a distance of more than a couple of feet. When pressed to the temple, a blank can shatter a skull.

Salvage-1 (20 episodes)

Andy Griffith plays a junkyard operator who gets the idea to collect NASA’s abandoned hardware from the moon, bring it back to earth, and sell it. To do that, he builds a DIY rocket called The Vulture out of scrap. (The main body of the Vulture is a Texaco gas truck tank, and the capsule is the mixing drum from a cement truck.) After completing their moon mission in the 1979 pilot, the Jettison Scrap and Salvage Co. crew went on a bunch of other missions looking for exotic junk. 20 episodes were filmed, but only 16 made it to broadcast in the original run. The last four eventually were shown on what was then the Nostalgia Channel in the 1990s. A couple of them are on DVD.

The Charmings (21 episodes)

Snow White and Prince Charming emerge from fairytale land and take up residence in 1987 Burbank, with the Evil Queen along as pain-in-the-ass mother-in-law. It seems that when Charming and Snow knocked the queen into a bottomless pit, it wasn’t actually bottomless, just deep. Ten years later, the Evil queen, named Lillian, climbed out of the pit and retaliated with a curse that put the young lovers to sleep for a thousand years. Lillian wasn’t all that good at spells, so it turned out she also got herself and one of the seven dwarves with the same spell. So now Snow and Charming, their two kids, a smartass dwarf, and the world’s worst mother-in-law are trying to adjust to life in the suburbs. Paul Winfield plays the sardonic Magic Mirror.

Mister Merlin (21 episodes)

Barnard Hughes as a crusty old mechanic who is secretly Merlin of Camelot; when Zack, a new employee, pulls a crowbar out of a bucket of cement, it turns out to be the disguised sword Excalibur, making Zack Merlin’s apprentice. The 1981 series spawned a few paperback books.

Search (23 episodes)

The unique idea of Search was that it followed three lead characters in rotation, so that the effect is three different series with a single premise. The three leads are operatives for a high tech private investigation company, and use the latest cutting-edge technology 1972 has to offer; they each have an implanted audio receiver in their skull and a dental implant microphone (they can also tap out Morse code in situations where they can’t talk), and they carry tiny camera/telemetry units on a ring or other jewelry.

The three agents are Hugh O’Brian, Tony Franciosa, and Doug McClure and they each handle different kinds of cases. O’Brian’s are pretty typical political intrigue or espionage fare, Franciosa’s usually involve organized crime, and beach bum McClure seems to often end up with adventures involving race cars or skydiving or beautiful women in exotic locations.

Burgess Meredith plays Cameron, the agents’ director at Probe Control, and B-movie queen Angel Tompkins shows up in a recurring role as the medical officer monitoring the agents’ vitals.

It’s About Time (26 episodes)

Here’s a show that flipped its central premise; in season 1, two astronauts accidentally go back in time to caveman days, where they have to learn to live with the cro-magnon family in a sort of Gilligan’s Island setup. Gronk (Joe E. Ross), Shad (Imogene Coca) and their children, Mlor (Mary Grace) and Breer (Pat Cardi) welcome the astronauts, but tribal leader Boss (Cliff Norton) and his enforcer Clon (Mike Mazurki) keep trying to kill them. In season 2, the show trades out Gilligan’s Island for the Beverly Hillbillies; the astronauts repair their rocket and travel back to the present day (which was 1967), bringing the caveman family with them to live in 20th century Los Angeles. Wacky hijinks ensue either way.

The Second Hundred Years (26 episodes)

One of my favorite oddball flop series, it played with the “fish out of water” trope in ways that were somewhat similar to It’s About Time. The setup: Back around 1900, a prospector in the Alaska gold rush was swallowed up and flash-frozen by a glacier, leaving behind a wife and infant son. 67 years later, the prospector is discovered, and when thawed out, turns out to be alive and perfectly preserved at age 33. He returns home to find his son, Edwin (Arthur O’Connell), is now a 67-year-old retiree who lives with his 33-year-old son. As it happens, grandpa Luke and grandson Ken look exactly alike and could be mistaken for twins. Both are played by Monte Markham, an actor vaguely reminiscent of Adam West. It turns out that Ken is the mature and responsible one, Luke the wild party boy, and Edwin the poor schlub who has to put up with them. Think of it as a gender-flipped Patty Duke Show.

My World…And Welcome to It (26 episodes)

William Windom plays a guy very reminiscent of James Thurber, whose imagination generates animated Thurburesque cartoon sequences in what is otherwise a fairly typical family sitcom circa 1970. Lisa Gerritson, one of those kid actors who turned up in damn near everything back then, plays the daughter.

He & She (26 episodes)

A fairly typical domestic comedy along the lines of the Dick Van Dyke Show, this 1968 series was notable for two things; the young He & She of the title are played by an actual married couple, Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss; Dick is a cartoonist and Paula a social worker. Jack Cassidy shines in a supporting role as Oscar North, the egomaniac actor who plays the TV version of Dick’s character, Jetman, in a riff on the Batmania of 1966. The creators of the Mary Tyler Moore Show later got permission from the creator of He & She to model the character of Ted Baxter after Oscar. The show was apparently too hip for the room, airing immediately after Green Acres. Despite four Emmy nominations, it only lasted one season.

Bob (33 episodes)

Bob Newhart followed his two previous successful shows with a third series, but the third time was not the charm. In 1992’s Bob, he plays Bob McKay, a former comic book artist turned greeting card artist. In the pilot, a comics company buys the rights to Mad-Dog and wants to bring the character back with Bob on board. Bob has to deal with the comics company wanting to modernize his strip for the then-current “grim & gritty” fashion. The show was notable for including a lot of real comic book artists in guest roles. Bob’s art for the Mad-Dog comics was done by Paul Power, who also shows up in the background in several scenes. After the first season, the producers did a massive overhaul, eliminating most of the supporting characters and throwing out the entire comic book premise, sending Bob back into the greeting card business. It didn’t help.

31 Comments

  1. Alaric

    Funny how your memory plays tricks on you.

    I had no idea The Starlost lasted that long. I only remember watching the first episode- I always had a sense it dies soon after that.

    I also had no idea Tenspeed & Brownshoe only lasted that long. It was one of those shows that kept popping up when I was looking for something else- sure feels like it lasted a couple of seasons, at least.

    My World- and Welcome to It was actually the name of a Thurber book, published in 1942.

  2. William Wilson

    This might be nit picking, but. In the section on Starlost you talk about Lew Grade and the BBC. Well it would be one or the other, Lew Grade produced for ITV not the BBC.

    And to be a real pedant it isn’t Sir Lew Grade, it’s a living honour and ceases after death.

    1. Thanks; it’s been years since I read Ellison’s account of the events, and not being British, I’m not conversant in British television. I’ve only ever heard of the BBC; ITV isn’t something we hear a lot about.

      Interesting about knighthoods. What about Lords? Is Olivier just Lawrence Olivier now?

      1. William Wilson

        Lawrence Olivier would have been a life peer, so his descendants would have no claim to a title, I assume if a knighthood is removed at death a life peerage would be as well.

        ITV productions include both the Avengers and the Prisoner, so you may not know it but you are aware of ITV.

      2. John King

        Regarding UK Televison
        ITV (Independent TeleVision) was originally a loose group of regional channels who shared news and would often show each other’s programs but each would have their own schedule – programs would start with the logo of the regional channel concerned (ATV, Thames, Yorkshire, HTV, Granada, Tyne-Tees, LWT, etc). Now many have merged together and all have a standard schedule
        Other channels such as Channel Four and Channel Five appeared before the change to digital massively increased the number of channels.
        Some independent companies like KUDOS make programs for BBC and ITV

  3. Shows I loved from this list: Ten Speed and Brownshoe, The Charmings (until they replaced Caitlin O’Heaney as Snow with a much blander, more middle American actor), Bob, My World and Welcome To It. I suspect Bob Newhart working in the comics industry was just too weird for most people, but the jokes were spot on and the cast was excellent.

  4. Voyagers was dreadful. Hexum has the charisma of a block of wood and everything was just kind of pat. Plus I always wondered, as nobody was tampering with history (until they got an evil Voyager near the end of the series) why would it go wrong? Wouldn’t the events that happened before their intervention (e.g., the Wright brothers don’t invent the airplane) be the true history?
    Of course the same could be said about Mr. Peabody, but he’s entertaining. Ditto Cartoon Network’s Time Squad, which had alt.histories where instead of inventing the cotton gin, Eli Whitney invents cannibal killer robots, or Abraham Lincoln runs wild as “Dishonest Abe.”

  5. Donmilliken

    There were a ton of one season genre shows in the 90’s thanks in no small part to the rise of the UPN and WB networks. One of my favorites was UPN’s Nowhere Man, featuring a “Fugitive” style man on the run plot merged with a truly ridiculous conspiracy plotline about a photojournalist whose life is erased by a mysterious organization because of a photograph he took in South America apparently connected to their activities. The big twist in the final episode of the one and only season is that he’s actually been a deep cover FBI agent all along, the life that was “erased” never existed and the big conspiracy and everything connected to it was all apparently part of some weird training exercise.

    Of course, I’m sure there’d have been more weird twists to come if the show had gotten a second season, but since it didn’t we’re left with the FBI having apparently brainwashed one of its own agents into believing he was someone else and then tormenting him with an elaborate fake conspiracy for… reasons.

    1. Alaric

      Heh. I used to watch Nowhere Man sometimes, but I didn’t see the final episode, so I have no idea that’s what they did- I just assumed it was one of those shows where the premise never ended up getting resolved at all.

      1. Donmilliken

        Considering how they resolved it, it probably would have been better if it hadn’t been though I honestly have no idea if the finale was actually intended as an ending or if the creators of the show were anticipating a second season. It would be hilarious if there’d been a season two and Thomas Veil/Gemini/Whoever just kept on learning that each new revelation was a lie as the ridiculous conspiracy just keeps getting deeper and deeper with new, weirder levels.

  6. Edo Bosnar

    The only one of these I ever watched, and only about 2 or 3 episodes, was Mr. Merlin. I wouldn’t say I had discriminating taste at the age of 13 (or even now), but I recall not thinking it was very good.

    By the way, I just remembered one that barely fits into this category, a sitcom spoof of shows liked Dallas, called Filthy Rich. It had 15 episodes in all, as it rather oddly debuted in the late summer of 1982, when three episodes aired. It then resumed in the autumn and continued into early 1983 before it was axed after 12 episodes. I recall watching and rather enjoying it back then. No idea what I’d think of it now (looks like I’ll be spending more time on YouTube…). An interesting detail is that two of its cast members were future Designing Women co-stars Dixie Carter and Delta Burke.

  7. Donmilliken

    I’m also reminded of another favorite short-lived series, Sledge Hammer, a sitcom about a Dirty Harry-esque cop who finds himself partnered with… *gasp* a woman! The show actually made it to a second season and the renewal was a surprise to everyone, especially the producers who, certain of cancellation, killed everyone of with an atomic blast in the final episode, forcing them to carry on as if that hadn’t happened in season two.

    1. The second season was initially billed as “Sledge Hammer β€” The Early Years!” That was a fun show.
      Plans for the second season of Nowhere Man would have had the protagonist infiltrate the conspiracy (the conspiracy was real) under the assumption he was a fed, though conscious nothing he’d learned about himself might be right.
      The creator never actually intended to resolve the show β€” he simply liked using the concept as the basis to tell various stories and only made any headway on explaining the conspiracy because the network nudged him. Which explains why I never cottoned to the show.

  8. Jeff Nettleton

    The Charmings was actually pretty good, for a while. Salvage One had a great pilot and was a decent show, with a great cast that afforded it a lot of forgiveness for implausibility.

    Bob had at least tangental involvement of Mark Evanier and had an award episode with real comic people, including Kirby. I was kind of lukewarm to the humor and only watched the first few episodes. CBG used to bring up stuff in it.

    Another good one was Best of the West, about a city guy that moved his family west and became a marshal. It got a full 22 episode season and was on the fence for renewal, when Joel Higgins took the part in Silver Spoons, leading the network to cancel it. Good cast, including the criminally underrated Valri Bromfield and Tracy Walter.

    Technically, the Bad News Bears tv series got two seasons, but they were a mid-season replacement, with 12 episodes, then got canceled halfway through the second, for 26 total episodes.

    Battlestar Galactica is an odd one out, in this. it was a big ratings hit, at first, that declined as it went along; but, budget vs ratings was what killed it, after the one season. However, it had been enough of a ratings earner that they tried retooling it, on a smaller budget, as Galactica 1980, for 10 episodes (with only the season premiere and a Starbuck episode, set in the past, the only notable ones.) Because of a writer’s strike delay, Buck Rogers felt like the same deal, when the second season came around, with a major overhaul, which bombed.

    1. Alaric

      Hmm. The only episode of the Buck Rogers TV show I actually really liked was the first episode of the second season. It was so rare for a standard unbeatable television hero type to go up against someone who was actually an even match.

    2. Edo Bosnar

      That second season overhaul of Buck Rogers, turning it into some kind of watered-down Star Trek, was a big letdown for me (although I dutifully watched it all, and sometimes even the reruns later). The first season was such campy, ridiculous fun.

  9. Voyagers and Mr. Merlin were part of my viewing, particularly Voyagers. When I discovered Doctor Who I remember thinking how ripped off Voyager’s premise seemed to be–with a wandering time traveler from a special group of time travelers and his human companion. Yet how much more limited, with it always being set in the past.

    I always wanted to see an episode where they had to right history by ensuring that Lincoln was assassinated or something terrible like that.

      1. In that case, I think Old Kennedy assassinated himself, right? It gives it all more of a ludicrous air, which of course is fitting for Red Dwarf. But it lacks what would have been the absolute gravitas of having a young Meeno Peluce staring past the camera as the assassin makes his approach, teams welling up in his eyes, while the camera slowly zooms in on his face, and the music builds up, early 80’s style.

    1. Oh God, that gives me a terrible idea for a series. There’s a rogue time guardian changing all the big horrors of history, and our guy has to put them back. Every week, he’s assassinating Lincoln, saving Hitler, starting the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, blowing up Nova Scotia harbor, causing the Boston Molasses flood….

  10. papercut fun

    I loved Buck Rogers but I was pretty young when it aired and I saw it only sporadically in afternoon reruns…and always wildly out of order…so I never really knew what the hell was going on with characters and settings coming and going at random. Now I finally get it! πŸ™‚

  11. jccalhoun

    I was a kid when Voyagers was on and I remember me and all my friends loving it. I’m sure if I watched it now I would be much more critical of it!

    I remember Salvage-1 as well but more for the premise. I think I was too young to connect that the main actor was the same guy from Andy Griffith reruns.

    I remember watching a couple episodes of Bob but not liking it enough to keep watching.

    When I was a kid, we lived in the country but we had a good antenna with a rotor on it so we could turn the antenna to get stations from Cincinnati and Indianapolis pretty well (and on good days Dayton and Louisville as well). So even though there were only three networks I had access to a number of channels (and in those days Indiana didn’t observe daylight saving so during the summer we could watch Cincy channels and if something was on at the same time we could catch it an hour later from Indy.

  12. Rob Allen

    I remember being a devoted viewer of It’s About Time, and a somewhat less-devoted viewer of The Starlost and The Second Hundred Years, but the one I remember best is Search. It seemed like very-near-future sf, a lot more plausible than Six Million Dollar Man. As you mentioned, their HQ was called Probe Central, and the show was supposed to be titled “Probe”. At the last minute they discovered that they couldn’t use that title. So they searched and searched for a new title…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.