Watch enough TV, and the programming landscape can start to feel a bit repetitive after a while; if you’ve seen a handful of sitcoms, soaps, procedurals, or reality shows, sometimes it’s easy to assume you’ve seen them all. But this is not to say that every so often, network execs aren’t capable of indulging the occasional flight of fancy. In fact, the dial is often littered with memorably idiosyncratic shows — some of which we later look back on with befuddled bemusement and wonder what the people behind the scenes could have been thinking. This week, we raise a glass to those not-so-noble failures, so start practicing your most quizzical facial expressions — it’s time for Total Recall!
The Premise: Really, the “premise” was that CBS wasn’t ready to give up on M*A*S*H‘s viewers after the show bade the airwaves farewell following 11 acclaimed seasons. But conceptually, the show was supposed to follow the post-Korean War adventures of three M*A*S*H characters (Colonel Potter, played by Harry Morgan, Klinger, played by Jamie Farr, and Father Mulcahy, played by William Christopher) at a veteran’s hospital in Missouri.
The Problem: As younger readers no doubt recall from the sadly shuffling exploits of Joey, ratings lightning rarely strikes twice — and although AfterMASH was a Top 10 hit during its first season, all it took to burst the show’s bubble was a little program called The A-Team, which showed up on NBC the following year and chased poor AfterMASH off the schedule midway through Season Two. W*A*L*T*E*R, M*A*S*H‘s final spinoff, which was supposed to follow the popular Radar character into civilian life, was taken out of development before it made it to series, eventually airing as a one-off special in the summer of 1984.
The Premise: You love the talking caveman in those GEICO insurance commercials, so you’d definitely be interested in seeing him star in a half-hour sitcom.
The Problem: Attempts at turning product mascots into stars in their own right are nothing new, and as these things go, Cavemen at least tried to build on its subjects’ unlikely origins, pitching itself as a “unique buddy comedy that offers a clever twist on stereotypes and turns race relations on its head” that just happened to take place in an alternate reality in which modern man coexists uneasily with his prehistoric forebears. Alas, critics simply didn’t find it very funny, and audiences stayed away in droves; when the Writers Guild went on strike in November of 2007, Cavemen was quietly taken out back and made to go extinct.
The Premise: Snow White (played by Caitlin O’Heaney, then Carol Huston) and Prince Charming (Christopher Rich) move from the Enchanted Forest to modern-day Burbank.
The Problem: Part of the anything-goes spirit at late-’80s ABC that led to such delightfully unorthodox fare as Max Headroom and Sledge Hammer!, The Charmings bore a kernel of a cool idea (not to mention a Magic Mirror voiced by Paul Winfield), but it was smothered by a laugh track and silly scripts revolving around stuff like Snow White getting a credit card. To add insult to injury, the network scheduled it across from Family Ties during its second season, thus ensuring the show’s speedy demise.
The Premise: A serious police procedural from Hill Street Blues creator Steven Bochco… with singing and dancing!
The Problem: The knock on modern Hollywood is that it’s far too risk-averse, but reflecting on this short-lived 1990 ABC series, that complaint is thrown into stark relief against the pure lunacy of Cop Rock. Looking back, it’s exceedingly difficult to imagine how anyone thought this would find an audience — even with Bochco at the reins and music from the genius mind of Randy Newman — but all the same, we’re awfully glad it happened, if only so we’d one day be able to say a police drama aired a trial sequence concluding with a gospel number called “He’s Guilty.” Perhaps strangest of all? Cop Rock lasted 11 episodes.
The Premise: A pair of astronauts (played by Flex and Darryl Bell) travel the universe in a car-shaped ship dubbed the Space Hoopty (piloted by a talking computer named Loquatia).
The Problem: There’s a certain delightfully weird charm to the idea that a person can be streetwise in outer space, but it seems more suited to a Saturday Night Live sketch than a full-on sitcom. An early example of the UPN network’s see-what-sticks approach, Homeboys in Outer Space was widely panned by critics and mostly ignored by viewers, but managed to hang around for 21 episodes during the ’96-’97 season.
The Premise: A former NASA chimp finds itself a new human family, creating laff-a-minute hijinks for beleaguered dad Mike Reynolds (Ted Bessell).
The Problem: Bessell would eventually go on to win an Emmy for his work behind the scenes of The Tracey Ullman Show, and Me and the Chimp co-creator Garry Marshall would close out the ’70s as the TV kingpin behind Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. As Matt LeBlanc and Jason Alexander would later discover, however, chimp-based humor is a fairly thankless medium.
The Premise: A circus orangutan is separated from his trainer, drinks a mixture bestowing him with a 256 IQ, and gets a job as an adviser to the president of the United States.
The Problem: That Mr. Smith was probably the biggest programming boondoggle of 1983 should be so immediately obvious that we won’t even bother listing the reasons for its quick cancellation; instead, we’ll point out that the orangutan’s voice was provided by executive producer Ed Weinberger, who’d co-created Taxi and would go on to do the same for The Cosby Show and a number of other series. The moral of the story: No one is brilliant all the time.
The Premise: You say “weird TV show,” and for a lot of people, this one-season wonder is the first thing that springs to mind. For good reason, too: For 30 episodes between September of 1965 and April of 1966, My Mother the Car sought to squeeze laughs from the idea that a lawyer (Jerry Van Dyke) buys a run-down used car after hearing the voice of his mother (Ann Sothern) speaking to him — and only to him — through the radio.
The Problem: Hand this show to David Lynch or Tim Burton, and it’d end up in some potentially delightful places. In the context of the ’65-’66 TV season, however, it was merely grist for wacky comedy, a la shows such as The Flying Nun and My Favorite Martian. Instead of being committed to an insane asylum or wallowing in existential anguish, our hero simply tried to stay one step ahead of an unscrupulous collector (Avery Schreiber) who wanted the car and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Car quickly crashed, but as with some of the other entries on this list, it boasted a creative pedigree that included some future stars, including Simpsons executive producer James L. Brooks and Mary Tyler Moore co-creator (with Brooks) Allan Burns.
The Premise: A gold miner (Monte Markham) heads off to Alaska to make his fortune in 1900, only to be caught in an avalanche — and held in suspended animation until 1967, at which point he returns to civilization and moves in with his now-67-year-old son (Arthur O?Connell) and dead ringer grandson (also played by Markham).
The Problem: Culture clash comedy is nothing new, but The Second Hundred Years might be the most high-concept show ever to make it on the air. Unfortunately, the laughs were rather low — and after viewers’ curiosity faded, so did the ratings.
The Premise: A black Englishman (Chi McBride) is chased out of his native country after racking up excessive gambling debts, and after arriving in Civil War America, finds work as President Abraham Lincoln’s butler.
The Problem: Some of comedy’s loudest laughs have been mined from painful truths, and American slavery is one of the most painful of all. But it requires intelligence and wit, neither of which were in abundant supply on the short-lived The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer. Beset by problems even before it aired, Desmond‘s pilot (which included at least one joke about slavery, a blackface sequence, and a cotton-picking gag) was pulled in favor of a later episode, but even with all that notoriety, the show failed to generate much interest; after airing it four times in October of 1998 to low ratings and poor reviews, UPN pulled the plug.