Sometimes TV is so bad it's not even "bad" in a good way! And sometimes it's memorable for all the wrong reasons.
As my mother would be happy to tell you, as a kid and young adult I watched way too much TV. I’ve seen the good, the great and the guilty pleasures. And I’ve also seen the very, very bad. Some TV is so corny and so bad that you just kind of love it in spite of yourself and itself. The Brady Bunch Variety Hour falls into this category. And some TV is more bad by reputation than in actual experience; My Mother the Car is infamous for its very strange premise but, in actuality, wasn’t any more strange nor funny nor unfunny than many other shows on the air at that time.
Thankfully, over the years, good fortune, common sense or dumb luck has allowed me to miss Cop Rock, the XFL and The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer. Sadly, though, I’ve still seen my share of stinkers. Even though most of them didn’t last very long, their awfulness lingers.
If you haven’t seen any of these, please consider yourself lucky; I’m sorry to inflict them on you now. If you have seen them, my apologies for bringing back some brutal memories.
The Thorns (1988)
This sitcom was there and gone in nearly the blink of an eye. It ran only from January to March of 1988. Trust me, that was enough. Created by Mike Nichols, The Thorns was supposed to be a satire on rich, upwardly mobile New Yorkers. But what’s that that they say about satire? Filled with (not even enough) unfunny lines and a critical lack of warmth or likability, The Thorns played more like a Pinter play than TV sitcom. I would not at all be surprised if stars Kelly Bishop, Tony Roberts and Lori Petty (who played a nanny!) have since deleted this short series from their resumes (and memories!).
Leo and Liz in Beverly Hills (1986)
It's doubtful you remember this show or the equally unsuccessful show that spun it off. In 1985, George Burns returned to TV in the series George Burns Comedy Week. The weekly, half-hour series consisted of Burns introducing various short comedy sketches with rotating guest casts. The show wasn’t a success and aired only 13 episodes. Nevertheless, one of the show’s sketches, Leo and Liz, was deemed worthy of being revamped and expanded into a weekly series. Starring Harvey Korman and Valerie Perrine as the title couple, Leo and Liz were a nouveau riche couple who, like the far funnier Beverly Hillbillies before them, decamped to Beverly Hills. Korman is a brilliant comedy actor but the show’s ill-defined characters, an inconsistent tone and tired execution turned this middling bad sitcom into one of the all-time worsts.
The New Monkees (1987)
Frankly, I was never a huge fan of the original Monkees but can nevertheless recognize that series’s charms, influence and the catchiness of many of its songs. I can’t say as much for this retreat that came to first-run syndication exactly 20 years later. In keeping with the spirit and history of the original, a national casting call was held to find a brand new group of musical and telegenic young Monkees. The resulting cast were plucked from obscurity…a place they have since all returned to.
The New Monkees were: Dino Kovas, Jared Chandler, Marty Ross, and Larry Saltis. If the original series had certain surrealistic aspects, the downfall of the revival seemed to be going too far with this same idea. The new group lived in an expansive mansion that they were still exploring, wandering into strange rooms that opened up into odd spaces. One room in the house was supposedly a working diner, complete with full-time waitress (played by Bess Motta, formerly one of the exercisers on TV’s 20 Minute Workout). The guys also had a friend in a computer named Helen that often spoke to them or narrated the episode. Well, something was certainly needed with this high-concept mess that was way too cool for its own good.
Aliens in the Family (1996)
Let’s take the worst, most cloying aspects of any family sitcom and further burden it with life-size puppets who are not only not funny but kind of gross. Such seemed to have been the idea behind this so-called sitcom. A single dad marries an alien woman and inherits her equally alien kids each of whom have names like Spit, Snizzy and Bobut. The baby alien (Bobut) was supposed to be the breakout star of the show with his cuteness and mature humor (think Stewie on Family Guy) but unfortunately he just came across as obnoxious. An artificial-looking pastel set and overall color palette that made the whole enterprise look like cheap public access didn’t help matters, nor did a clumsy laugh track. Two interesting footnotes about the series however: Jim Henson’s company designed the alien costumes for the show and Todd Rundgren provided the show’s theme music.
Strip Mall (2000)
I'm a fan of Julie Brown. From her brilliant novelty album, Goddess in Progress, in 1984, to even her go-for-broke MTV show Just Say Julie in 1989, I admire her. It’s a travesty that this unique talent has never found a niche for herself despite a handful of opportunities over the years.
Hollywood still never knows what to do with naturally funny women.) Xertainly this Comedy Central original, though created by Brown, was not it. The series was set inside the low-rent world of a Valley-based strip mall anchored by a Chinese restaurant and a photo mat. But being set in a low-rent environment didn’t have to mean that a show’s humor should also be as low-rent as you could get. But for, Strip Mall, it certainly was. Every gross out opportunity and double entendre that could be crammed into a half-hour was done. Having one of the strip mall’s stores serve as a front for a porn producer didn’t help either, in fact, it just opened the door to endless penis and masturbation jokes. In the process, Brown lost all her charm and wit. Close this mall down!
The Chris Wylde Show (2001)
If the theory is that if you put a group of monkeys in a room with a typewriter, in 1,000 years they will write Shakespeare, I think it stands to reason that the very first thing they write will be the production script of The Chris Wylde Show. Wylde is a stand-up comic and comedic actor who previously had a reoccurring role on the equally aberrant Strip Mall. After Strip Mall closed up shop, Wylde, for some unknown reason, was given his own comedy-variety talk show by Comedy Comedy. Humor on the show—what there was of it—was as low-brow as could be found and seemed to come more from a place of shocking the audience than actually making them laugh. An excellent example of this was on of the series ten episodes (!) where Wylde opened the show stark naked. Rather than funny or irreverent, it just looked desperate. We can at least be thankful that during this sequence, most of his pasty body was pixilated over.
Good Sports (1991)
Good Sports starred famous on-and-off show biz couple Ryan O’Neal and Farrah Fawcett and was TV’s latest sitcom built round a real-life couple (Lucy and Desi, anyone?). Unfortunately, O’Neal (though once a TV star and good comedy actor at times) had lost most of his charm over the years. Fawcett, though an icon and often an effective dramatic actress, was never known for her comedic touch. Teaming up these true-life lovebirds generated as about as much romantic heat as Huntley and Brinkley had between them. Also not helping the show was, as I recall, a heavy use of directorial flourishes, almost Hithcockian in nature, that did little to keep the show or its supposedly comedic mood buoyant
Denise Richards: It’s Complicated (2008-2009) / House of Carters (2006) / Anna Nicole Show (2002-2003)
Someday the E! Channel is going to have to atone for its sins. As if springing the Kardashian Dynasty on us wasn’t enough, the network has also packaged various other “stars” into half-hour, personality-driven, reality show half-hours. What worked so charmingly for The Osbournes on MTV fell flatter than a headless bat with this lazy trio of series.
Denise Richards was attempting to repair her image and revive her career after her disastrous marriage and divorce from Charlie Sheen. Richards and her family (daughters and elder father) came across fine but the whole enterprise was too ill-focused and too bland to justify why it existed in the first place.
House of Carters followed pop stars Nick Carter (of Backstreet Boys) fame and Aaron Carter (of far lesser musical fame) as well as their sisters as they co-habitated in a California crash pad. Dysfunction seemed to become this family as they seemed to do nothing but fight with each other. And fight, and fight, and fight some more. The raised voices on the show quickly became so cliché that the brothers were even parodied on Saturday Night Live during House of Carters (thankfully) short run.
Of course no show of recent memory has been worse nor more tragic than the one E! built around former Playboy model and sometime actress Anna Nicole Smith. Smith wasn’t particularly interesting in even her most lucid moments and in this show, seemingly drugged and despondent, she was both boring and terribly sad. That this became a series that endured for several seasons is forevermore a dark mark on American television.
Unfortunately, E! is not the only cable net in recent years that has attempted to package fading stars into wacky reality entertainments. The Game Show Network attempt to find humor and something interesting in the life of Chuck Woolery with his show Naturally Stoned and Bravo’s attempted to understand and document Paula Abdul with their one-season wonder Hey, Paula! It makes you sort of sorry someone ever invented videotape.
Dishonorable Mentions are awarded to: Margie (1961-1962); Dance Moms> (2011- ) and Dinosaurs (1991-1994); John and Leeza (1993-1994); Life with Bonnie (2002-2004).