When it's good, network television can be a transcendent experience.
When it's bad ... well, that's when TV is a "vast wasteland," as former Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton N. Minow famously referred to mindless network programming. That was in 1961.
God knows what he would think of it now.
In the fall we had such thankfully short-lived shows as NBC's Animal Practice, a sitcom about the comic misadventures of an unorthodox New York veterinarian, and the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-inspired Do No Harm, a drama about a successful neurosurgeon with an evil personality after dark.
Just this week we had the debut of the ABC celebreality series Splash, a contest between high-diving stars. Splash proved a ratings hit, and earlier this year Fox foisted on viewers its own diving with the stars special, Stars in Danger: The High Dive. Can resurrections of Battle of the Network Stars and Circus of the Stars be far behind?
But Splash isn't My Mother the Car, at one point the standard-bearer of bad TV, nor is it Supertrain, my pick for best of the worst. Supertrain, by the way, was NBC's failed response to ABC's The Love Boat. Only instead of finding love on the high seas, guest stars would fall into romance on a nuclear-powered bullet train that crisscrossed the country. And when not busy romancing, they could enjoy the train's swimming pool and discotheque. That a train could provide such amenities explains the flattering adjective in its name.
Despite the colossal wreck of Supertrain in 1979, NBC cranked out spectacular flops into the early 1980s, including the legendary triumvirate of awful TV: Misfits of Science, Mr. Smith, and Manimal — series about a group of super-powered nerds; a genius orangutan who talks and is hired as a government advisor; and a detective who shape-shifts into animals.
Yes, every decade has seen its share of classic network bombs, but the sheer volume of bad television in the 1980s is staggering.
Like ABC's The Phoenix, a science-fiction drama about a humanoid from another world, Bennu of the Golden Light, awoken after 1,500 years of slumber and on a mission to find his still-sleeping alien wife. During his search Bennu used his powerful amulet to help good people in need. Yet he was powerless to prevent the cancellation of The Phoenix after half a season, putting the show — and us — out of misery. An equally questionable ABC programming decision was the Tron-inspired Automan, the cop-meets-computer avatar series starring Desi Arnaz, Jr. Given the failure of Tron to attract audiences in movie theaters, did ABC really expect viewers to tune in at home?
Not to be outdone in terrible TV by their rival networks, CBS showcased the Dukes of Hazzard spin-off Enos, a bumbling series about a bumbling Hazzard County deputy sheriff moved to Los Angeles; Freebie and the Bean, a cop comedy-drama series based on a 1974 film of cop movie clichés; Mr. Merlin, a sitcom about the ageless sorcerer from the King Arthur legends who takes up residence in modern-day San Francisco; and The Powers of Matthew Star, a drama about a teenager from another planet escaped to Earth with his guardian (Louis Gossett, Jr.).
And lest you forget — try as you might — the 1980s gave us TV sequels like The Brady Brides, Still the Beaver, The New Gidget, New Monkees, and What's Happenin' Now!, as well as wholly original shows like The Highwayman, Dreams, Just Our Luck, Hollywood Beat, and Women in Prison, one of the first of many failed sitcoms for Fox.
If the 1960s were a "vast wasteland" for TV viewers, then surely the 1980s were the apocalypse.
How else to explain Pink Lady other than as an End of Days sign? Considered the worst variety show in network history, the NBC series paired the English-challenged Japanese pop duo of Pink Lady with the wisecracking American stand-up comic Jeff Altman. This comedy of mispronunciations and cultural misunderstandings lasted a month. Its legacy of awful, however, will last a lifetime.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.
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