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.
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.