The 10 Most Spectacular Screwups in Television History

by Kerrie Mills

17 October 2011

5 - 1

5. Before you refuse to quit while you’re ahead, take a good look at what you’ve got left.

Exhibit A: AfterM*A*S*H, CBS, 1983

It’s understandable that CBS would be reluctant to abandon the critical and commercial icon that was M*A*S*H; especially after the finalé earned the highest ratings in history. On the other hand, the burnt-out stars also had a point: the damn thing had been running for almost four times as long as the actual war.

So when this spinoff debuted, the cast was reduced to the people who had absolutely nothing better to do elsewhere: Harry Morgan, William Christopher and Jamie Farr—whose Cpl. Klinger had stopped dressing in drag some few years past. VA hospital setting notwithstanding, there was just no good reason why this thing should be on the air. Only the faint (but unrealised) possibility of an Alan Alda cameo kept it going for a season-and-a-half.

4. Your auteur is never quite as reliable as you think.

Exhibit A: Cop Rock, ABC (US), 1990

OK, now we’re getting serious. Failure to heed this warning will lead directly to an attempt to combine Hill Street Blues with a Broadway musical… what? Oh yes, that really happened: the morning briefing becomes a snappy song-and-dance number; a courtroom scene climaxes with the jury rising to sing “He’s guilty, guilty, guilty…”; gang members go all Sondheim on a midnight-slick city street.

Come again? No, nobody really knows what was going through creator Stephen Bochco’s head at any stage of the proceedings. The best guess is that he got bored with standard law-and-order melodrama and decided to see how much he could get away with. Turns out, not nearly as much after Cop Rock stumbled offstage 11 episodes later, that’s for sure. (Amusingly, Hugh Jackman would demonstrate years later that even if produced by a Hollywood A-lister and based off a hit UK series, the concept still won’t fly here. Viva Laughlin!... except not.)

3. Don’t rip off a legend unless you’re prepared to do it right.

Exhibit A: Emily’s Reasons Why Not, ABC (US), 2006

After the premiere airing of Emily’s Most Awkward Sitcom Title Ever, ABC execs admitted that they’d approved it—then hyped the living daylights out of it—without ever seeing a script. Their reasoning thus stood revealed as: “OK, so Heather Graham is known for her impressive cleavage, and Sex and the City is a huge hit because they also have cleavage, right? Hit that green light, boys!”

Not surprisingly, even viewers actually expecting a Disneyfied version of SATC were disappointed. Graham gave it her best shot, but Emily’s Reasons Why Not kicked off with the kind of plot, setting and swishy best buddy that were already making the most diehard rom-com fans groan. By the end of the half-hour the only people who still cared were the gay rights activists… just enough to get it cancelled on the spot.

2. When you’re shocking an entire zeitgeist, make damn sure it’s worth it.

Exhibit A: Turn-On, ABC (US), 1969

Turn on, tune in, drop… your jaw to the floor. That was pretty much Mr. & Mrs. America’s reaction when the producers of Laugh-In decided to take their fast-paced, taboo-busting concept to the outer limit. The resulting show was so cutting-edge it was ‘hosted’ not by humans but by computer—which in 1969 meant quick-cut sketches (Wikipedia lists 30-plus in a 25-minute show) against a sterile white backdrop scored by non-stop Moog synthesizers. At least there wasn’t a real person to feel sorry for when the plug was pulled.

So, the humour must’ve been a little too sophisticated for the heartland, right? Well… no, actually, that was the problem. One outraged station manager accurately likened it to ‘dirty little boys scribbling on walls’. Punchlines were on the order of “President Nixon now becomes the titular head of the Republican Party.” Watching Tim Conway’s head bobbing over a flashing S-E-X sign was disturbing no matter what your family values. At least one station pulled it at the first commercial break, and some West Coast stations never aired it at all. As for ABC… when given first crack at cutting-edge comedy All in the Family a few years later, they just shuddered and turned away.

1. Don’t make sitcoms about Hitler.

Exhibit A: Heil Honey I’m Home!, Galaxy (UK), 1990

Yeah, we know. Took us a lot be convinced it wasn’t a gag, too. True fact, though: this small UK satellite channel once decided to pull in viewers by invoking Der Führer’s face for fun. Displaying a breathtakingly omnidirectional insensitivity, Heil Honey was nominally a spoof of ‘50s American ‘family’ sitcoms, recasting Adolf H. and Eva Braun as an uptight suburban couple whose life is turned upside down by their offbeat new neighbors, the Goldsteins.

Defenders pointed out that, y’know, Hogan’s Heroes, and stuff. Detractors promptly countered with, y’know, Hitler with Jewish neighbors. Any coherent response was obviously way beyond Heil Honey’s creators, who were still stuck back at “Hey, look, a genocidal maniac with a laugh track! And chipper theme music! Are we not cute enough to kiss?” Miraculously, it made it through an entire pilot episode before Galaxy brought down their own final solution.

Special bonus footnote: According to the online British Sitcom Guide, this little interlude in appalling taste came in only 61st in the UK’s"The 100 Greatest TV Moments From Hell” special. Truly, learning from the mistakes of television producers past is a never-ending study. Thank goodness.

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