originally published April 2, 2014
Posting a list of bests and greatests opens the door to debate, dissent, and the occasional inter-cubicle pelting of office supplies. Posting a list of worsts never seems to stoke the same ire. I have offered a tankard of derision for the insipidly successful sitcom According To Jim throughout my 823-day journey and have yet to hear one person defend the show’s quality. I appreciate my audience’s congruity. Perhaps it’s a rare thing for someone’s “worst” to be another someone’s favorite.
Even the shows I can’t stand today – and I make no apologies to fans of Two And A Half Men or The Big Bang Theory – I would hardly consider them to be among the absolute worst fare in the medium’s history. Just as I’m certain those folks who abhor shows I enjoy, like The League or It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, would likely not plunk them at the bottom of the proverbial barrel.
Sometimes it’s good to remind ourselves just how low art can sink, which is why once every month or so I like to pick apart the worsts of things – most often television because she was my third parent and we still keep very much in touch. Just as we eventually grow to learn that our actual parents are flawed and imperfect, we must also acknowledge the defects in TV’s past, the moments we all wish she could take back.
And these are just the sitcoms.
Concocting satire surrounding one of the worst genocides of the past century is a painfully delicate operation. The British nailed it in the 80’s with ‘Allo ‘Allo! and the Americans found a winner years earlier in Hogan’s Heroes. But check out this pitch for Heil Honey, I’m Home:
“It’s a parody of the cutesy family sitcoms of the 50’s and 60’s. We’ve got Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun living in an apartment building, and their next-door neighbors are… wait for it… Arny and Rosa Goldenstein, a Jewish couple! Oh, the hijinks! Oh, the hilarity!”
Oh, the humanity. I can appreciate what the producers were going for here, but the jokes simply weren’t funny. Plus, the satirical poke at old-school domestic sitcoms was poorly planned, popping up in 1990 at the tail-end of that subgenre’s second major wave when The Cosby Show and Roseanne were in their prime. Nothing about this show’s attempted goofiness hit home. Luckily, we can actually sit through this one-off horror (only one episode was aired, seven more were filmed).
The mid-60’s was a magical time on television. You could watch talking horses, flying nuns, and sexy genies, all sprinkled with the sounds of a laugh track (all with the same laugh track, actually). In My Mother The Car, Jerry Van Dyke (hoping to match his brother Dick’s success) plays a guy who buys a beat-up old 1928 Porter touring car, only to discover his dead mother talks to him through the car’s radio. And only to him, of course. Because that’s funny.
But wait – it gets better. This no domestic sitcom with a ghost-mother; the ongoing storyline here is that a crazed collector will stop at nothing to acquire the car, because that would actually ever happen. The show aired on NBC for a complete 30-episode season somehow. Co-creator Allan Burns would eventually redeem himself with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda and Lou Grant, while the other co-creator, Chris Hayward, would kick Barney Miller into gear. James L. Brooks, one of the staff writers, would have a hand in shaping Taxi and The Simpsons. So the lesson here is that sometimes you’ve got to sling some crap before you get to the gold, I suppose.
My first thought upon reading about this next show is, “How the fuck did Small Wonder last for four seasons?” Somewhere there exists an answer, though I suspect it shall elude me for the remainder of my days. For those of you too young or too fortunate to have seen this show, it was about a guy who built a robot named V.I.C.I. (which stands for something, but who really cares?) that looked conveniently like young actress Tiffany Brissette.
I watched the show because I was young, stupid, and as an only child with a twisted world-view and a distorted sense of technology I’d always wanted a fully sentient robot buddy. Small Wonder was a syndicated show, meaning it was crammed into the low-priority time-slots for local affiliates, and it eventually made its way around the world into several languages, no doubt embarrassing our western culture as a stunning display of consistent non-funniness.
From the files of the unfathomable comes the unlicensed TV spin-off from Look Who’s Talking, a hugely successful slab of cinematic dreck from 1989. Amy Heckerling, who had written and directed the film (don’t hold it against her – she also headed up Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Clueless), helped to create the characters for Baby Talk, the 1990 ABC series that somehow didn’t decide to cash in on the film’s name. This was exactly what it sounds like – a single mother with a baby whose inner monologue we can hear, though we’ll wish we couldn’t.
Tony Danza played the voice of the baby. In the first season, his mother was besieged with potential suitors, including creepy Uncle Lewis from Christmas Vacation and George Clooney. In the second season, the entire cast was scrapped except for the twins who played the baby and of course Danza as the baby’s voice. Scott Baio was brought in to be the new love interest. When asked why he’d join a show with such awful reviews, Baio shrugged and pointed out that Happy Days never got good reviews either. Mary Page Keller, who was brought in to play the new mom, said she had never watched the first season.
Hey, a job is a job.
One does not create a riotous sitcom simply by including a familiar face, even if that face belongs to the queen of comedy, Lucille Ball. Here’s the premise for Life With Lucy, which aired for 14 tragic episodes on ABC in 1986: Lucy is a widow. She inherits half of a hardware store from her husband, and insists on helping out in the store (fish out of water, haha). The store is co-owned by a widower (potential old-people sexual tension, haha). Lucy’s daughter is married to the widower’s son, and along with the grandkids they all live together in the same house (domestic hilarity, hah-oh god just shoot me now).
ABC gave Lucy the reins for this show – no pilot was required and no focus group testing was done. Lucille Ball was TV magic; she had proven herself to be a veritable sure thing in the past. But Lucy was 75 and Gale Gordon, her co-star, was 80. And despite featuring the writing team of Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Davis (who were heavily involved in the creative success of I Love Lucy in the 50’s), this show hit Saturday night audiences like an old balloon filled with creamed corn.
When it was pulled after less than two months, Lucille Ball was devastated. She never made another show or appeared in another movie before her death. It’s a sad way to wrap up, but such is the power of crappy TV – it can break hearts and cripple careers.
And sometimes it’ll stay on the air for FOUR GODDAMN SEASONS. Seriously… how?