Day 38: Made For TV (For Now) – Hollywood On The Small Screen

originally published February 7, 2012

Is there anybody left who remembers Attack of the Killer Tomatoes? Keep in mind, I don’t mean this one:

I’m talking about this one:

The original Killer Tomatoes remains one of the finest B-movies in that smelliest of cinema vaults – really it’s a B-movie parody of the B-movie genre. It was released in 1978 and ascended to the high order of Video Cult Classic in the 80’s, along with Repo Man and The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across The 8th Dimension. What returned Killer Tomatoes to the cultural spotlight was, believe it or not, an episode of Muppet Babies.

I am really not making this up. An episode during the 86-87 season featured Fozzie recounting his capture of the ‘Silly Tomatoes’, using footage from the film. The episode was so popular, New World Pictures put up two million dollars for a sequel to the film. Return of the Killer Tomatoes was a surprising hit, so an animated series was ported over to the Fox Children’s Network in 1990.

The cartoon, which featured the voice-work of John “Gomez Addams” Astin, only lasted two seasons. The second season was cut after eight episodes, partly due to the elimination of much of the comedic content, and partly due to the restructuring of the series to have it unfold as a continuous storyline, rather than in serialized episodes. Also, they ran the shows out of order, which couldn’t have helped to maintain an audience.

I had never heard of this cartoon before the cosmic Wikipedian dice rolled it my way. I suspect that people will have the same reaction in a few years when they hear that Napoleon Dynamite was turned into (what I strongly suspect will be) a short-lived cartoon series, currently wearing out its welcome in Fox’s Sunday night lineup.

I wanted to know what other movies have been turned into TV series. I was rather surprised at the amount I’d never heard of.

The Real Ghostbusters was a huge phenomenon that took off shortly after the first Ghostbusters film and lasted five years. I was not, however, tuned closely enough to the cartoon world in 1997 to notice The Extreme Ghostbusters, which ran for two years on the Fox Kids Network.

Then we have Robocop. If I had to guess how many TV series were spawned from the 1987 film, I would have said “one”, not even being certain that there was one, but just from one of those wispy strands of maybe-memory in the reed field of my brain.

I would never have guessed four.

I don’t get it – a 25-year-old film gets two awful sequels and four unsuccessful series, and yet they’re still trying to reboot it again, in the form of another origin-story film.

I’m going to skip over the most obvious movie-to-TV adaptations. Writing about M*A*S*H, In The Heat Of The Night, or Buffy The Vampire Slayer is simply an exercise in the obvious.

But how about Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice? The 1969 film, which starred Natalie Wood, Elliott Gould and Robert Culp, was about two couples who may or may not engage in a foursome – I haven’t seen the movie. So how does a movie like that get turned into a 70’s sitcom? Drop the sex and replace it with such racy topics as ‘skinny dipping’ and ‘unmarried couples cohabitating’, then cast an eleven-year-old Jodie Foster as one of the kids. Seven episodes.

On the Blaxploitation side of this topic (and I do wish every topic had a Blaxploitation side), we have Shaft. The movie about a black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks was turned into a series of TV flicks during CBS’s 1973-74 season. Richard Roundtree reprised his film role, though John Shaft’s personality was toned down of course. Seven episodes.

He’s a complicated man, and no one understands him, which is why he was cancelled. (Shaft!) Right on.

Fast Times At Ridgemont High was welcomed to prime time in 1986. Moon Unit Zappa was brought in as a ‘technical advisor’ because she understood how teenagers spoke in 1986. Patrick Dempsey played the sleazy scalper Mike Damone, and CBS had the good fortune of snagging the guy who played Mr. Hand in the film, as well as the freaky guy who played the biology teacher. Seven episodes.

There’s something strangely calming about Vincent Schiavelli in a hat.

Speaking of teen comedies, few people probably remember that the definitive college movie – and I mean THE definitive college movie – was also made into a TV series. Delta House, spun wildly off of Animal House, was launched as part of ABC’s 1979 fall line-up. They actually enticed a handful of actors to reprise their roles: the guys who played Flounder, D-Day, Hoover, and Dean Wormer all felt this was worth their time. The show was surprisingly not short-lived because of ratings; it was the fights between executive producer Ivan Reitman and the network over content (ABC wanted it as watered-down as possible) that killed the show. Thirteen episodes.

Dirty Dancing was transformed into a TV show no one cared about, making it halfway through CBS’s 1988-89 season. It was put in the corner after eleven episodes.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding had the word ‘Wedding’ swapped for ‘Life’, and even held on to the up-and-coming-and-just-as-quickly-going star of the film, Nia Vardalos. Seven episodes.

A League Of Their Own – huge baseball film, great story, and a complete bomb as a TV series. Six episodes.

Clerks, the indie film from 1994 that launched Kevin Smith’s career, was made into an animated series that only lasted two episodes before getting yanked. This one is actually insanely popular among Smith’s fans (and there are many – at least one on this side of the keyboard), and the six episodes that were produced are available on DVD.

There are so many more I’d like to dig into: Serpico (14 episodes), Back To The Future (26 episodes – Doc Brown was voiced by Dan “Homer” Castellaneta, Biff by the same guy from the movies), Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (also animated, voiced by the movie’s cast, 21 episodes), Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (live-action, all different cast, 7 episodes), and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (starring Jennifer Aniston as Ferris’ sister – 13 episodes).

I could write another thousand words on this topic, but I’ll stop here. Currently, not counting a handful of cartoons bouncing around the cable channels, we still have Nikita, The Firm, and Parenthood lurking in prime time, which tells me the movies will always be a source of TV inspiration.

Hmm. I’m at 1138 words. That reminds me, we may have a live-action Star Wars series to add to this list someday soon, a gritty, drug-prostitution-crime-lord story about the Empire’s rise across the galaxy. That could be incredible.

Gotta be better than Napoleon fucking Dynamite.

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