Television is the picket fence that surrounds our “Global Village,” but when the topic turns to the worst series ever, one is walking a tightrope of wet tissue. For example, some would no doubt be adamant that “Cop Rock” belongs on any list of candidates for TV’s Hall of Shame. Myself I totally disagree. Others would argue “Petticoat Junction” deserves to be in the ranks of worst ever series. Dissenters would counter it ran on CBS from 1963 to 1970 and had fans then as now. Sadly there have also been unique and wonderful programs which, after too brief a stay among us, met unjust ends; “He and She,” “Frank’s Place,” “Earth Two,” “Hec Ramsey,” Linda Ellerbee’s News Overnight,” “Wonder Falls,” “Firefly.” In the world of television you have crap, and you have coprolite – which is durable crap. You know when you’re in the presence of authentically rancid TV. Watching them approaches the sublime, like “Zen and the art of gut crippling diarrhea.”
“The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” (1998)
When American TV executives attempt to mimic the success of a British counterpart the results are usually a mixed bag. Sometimes they manage to pull the rabbit out of the hat as with “All In The Family” taken from the Brit hit “Till Death Do Us Part, or “The Office” taken from …er…”The Office.” At other times their efforts amount to little more than a window seat on the Hindenburg, as with “Amanda’s (1983) and “Payne” (1999). Both series were patterned after the brilliant John Cleese series “Fawlty Towers.” “Payne” featured John Larroquette as Royal Payne, owner and operator of the “Whispering Pine Inn.” Whereas “Amanda’s” subjected the Cleese’s Basil Fawlty to a sex change operation allowing the lead to be played by Beatrice Arthur. Both shows caught on like barbed wire dental floss.
But the most forlorn and flattest flop of them all was “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer.” Airing on UPN. Pfeiffer (The “P” is not silent), is a black British aristocrat who through a series of misadventures finds himself employed as Abraham Lincoln’s man servant. Lincoln as it turns out is intellectually one step above a soggy cracker and his main interest is meeting strange women for sex in “telegraph chat rooms” (see instead of “internet chat room” they’re….oh never mind.) As the other members of Lincoln’s cabinet are bumbling fools as well, it’s up to Pfeiffer to save the union. It’s nearly mind numbing that somewhere in this world there was a TV exec who thought, “Hey slavery and civil war, that’s good for a few laughs!” The series was a bald faced rip off of the BBC’s “Blackadder the Third” which starred Rowan Atkinson. This is painfully evident especially in the relationship between Pfeiffer (Chi McBride) and his fluky Nibblet (Max Baker) and that of Blackadder and his chuckleheaded minion Baldrick (Tony Robinson) But their efforts at replicating the earlier series’ successes were all for naught as they forgot to copy the “funny.”
A NYU professor, when not busy grading papers, fights crime with his amazing ability to change into any animal! Watch him battle bank robbers as a three toed sloth, foil kidnappers in the form of the dreaded Scandinavian spitting otter! While Professor Jonathan Chase, played by Simon MacCorkindale one of the most unctuous personalities ever to slime the small screen, could shape-shift into any animal at will, the NBC series itself was doomed to remain a turkey.
“My Mother The Car” (1965-66)
While looking for a station wagon to be the family’s second car, attorney David Crabtree (portrayed by Jerry Van Dyke, Dick’s brother) finds himself mysteriously drawn to a broken down 1928 Porter. Buying the car for $200 he brings it home where he is shocked when the car speaks to him via its radio and reveals itself to be the reincarnation of his deceased mother Gladys! You know, when you can’t afford therapy writing a sit-com is the next best thing. Ann Sothern supplied the voice of Gladys in CBS’ reworking of the oedipal tale with a motor town twist.
The world is decimated when a nuclear day of reckoning is accidentally triggered leaving only six survivors. Not necessarily what I would have come up with if asked for a sit-com premise right off the top of my head, but who knows, maybe it looked funnier on the radioactive drawing board. Starring Fred Applegate as the surviving stock broker and Meagen Fay as the feminist this was a low even for the Fox Network and hell, they hold the Olympic record for low.
This ABC comedy spun from the characters in the highly touted Geico Insurance commercials was perhaps the most anticipated flop in television history, which makes this missed opportunity all the more excruciating. An insightful probing of racial intolerance and social sensitivity from both the external and internal focal points, especially at this junction in our cultural history could have been a constructive and significant bridge to the development of new and needed attitudes. Unfortunately, “Cavemen” starting Bill English and Nick Kroll resorted to merely recycling old plot motifs from “The Jeffersons.”
“Heil Honey I’m Home” (1990)
The premise of this British sitcom is enough to have you believe somebody spiked the British Satellite Broadcasting Corporation’s water coolers with LSD. Presented as a recently discovered “lost sitcom” from the 1950’s the series presented Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun living their suburban lives contently but it all goes to hell in a handwaschbecken when new neighbors move in next door – Arny and Rosa Goldenstein! Mein Gott – Juden!
In the show Hitler, portrayed by Neil McCaul, was a lot like Mister Roper except with a funny mustache and an insatiable desire to invade Poland. The series attempted to lampoon American sitcom of the 50’s and 60′ down to the inane theme music and obligatory applause greeting every character’s arrival on the set. Unfortunately in the realm of comedy 70 million worldwide war causalities and 11 million concentration camp deaths seem to be the 800 pound gorilla in the room.
“The Hathaways” (1962)
Walter Hathaway (Jack Weston), a real estate agent, and his wife Elinore ( game show prototype Peggy Cass) want to build a family thru adoption. But as this was back in the days when China was really Red and the market for discount Chinese babies as yet untapped, they have to seek elsewhere for their toddlers. The answer comes in the form of family friend and theatrical agent Jerry Roper (Harvey Lembeck) who has trouble of his own in needing desperately to find homes for Candy, Charlie and Enoch. Well could it be any simpler, Walter and Elinore adopt Candy, Charlie and Enoch and everyone’s problem is solved. Oh, did I mention Candy, Charlie and Enoch are chimpanzees? (Hey if that isn’t zany then George W. Bush isn’t spending eternity picking up the soap in Hell’s shower room!) This ABC “high concept” show featured the Marquis Chimps who were the workingest sapiens in Hollywood during the fifties and sixties.
“The 100 Lives of Black Jack Savage” (1991)
Black Jack Savage (Steven Williams), an 17th century buccaneer has haunted a Caribbean fortress for two centuries when he meets a Wall Street con artist (Daniel Hugh-Kelly) on the run. The two of them enter into a deal with the eternal powers to avoid the fire and brimstone they both so richly deserve, and must save a life for every one Black Jack has taken, which is as you’d suppose from the title, 100. A splat of parrot crap on Jason Lee’s shoulder and it could be mistaken for “My Name is Earl.” The series would only last one season, but another of its co-star, Roma Downey would later re-vamp the concept, ditch the pirate and pitch it to CBS as “Touched By An Angel.”
This second TV mounting of the classic Bogart 1942 film fared no better than the first in 1955. Some idea are just bad from the start despite whatever else goes into them. This Casablanca featured a pretty solid cast, David Soul as Rick Blaine, proprietor of Rick’s Cafe Americain in the Vichy controlled Moroccan city, Scatman Crothers as the piano playing Sam, Ray Liotta as Sacha the bartender, and Hector Elizondo as Captain Renault. But for all the talent involved the NBC series found itself dwarfed by the shadow of the iconic original.
“Through the Keyhole” (1983 – ?)
Due to the unholy alliance of human avarice and corporate commercialism game shows have tended to display a unique brand of rabid goosiness. However “Bowling for Dollars,” “Supermarket Sweep,” and “Masquerade Party” wither before the raw absurdity of the British game show “Keyhole.” Hosted by David Frost (yes of Frost and Nixon fame) a trio of celebrity panelists, such as Willie Rushton or Eve Pollard, (I don’t know who they are either) are conducted on a video tour of a mystery guest’s household, and must deduce his or her identity by the décor and furnishings therein. Either the panelists are victorious in their efforts to unmask the mystery guest or Frost reveals them, and the program concludes with the mystery guest being interviewed by Frost and presented with a key shaped trophy commemorating his appearance on the program which he may keep by his bedside to prove the whole affair wasn’t just a bad dream. Amazingly this BBC series is still on the air.
“My Living Doll” (1964 – 1965)
Robert “Bob” Cummings (1908-1990) is best known for the two Hitchcock films he starred in “Saboteur” (1942) and “Dial M for Murder” (1954), but his contributions to the early days of television are all too sadly forgotten and due in large part to this, his final CBS series. Psychiatrist Bob McDonald (Cummings), is given the prototype of a life like robot (played by Julie Newmar the original and best Catwoman on the series “Batman.”) Robot AF 709 shows up wearing only a sheet and is expected to live with McDonald in order to be programmed to function as a real woman. This was 1964 though, so being a “real woman” meant knowing how to cook and clean house. Good thing they didn’t send her to my house or her programming as a “real woman” would have involved a leather lace up bustier and handcuffs.
Apparently behind the scenes Newmar and Cummings fought like catwomen and dogmen which lead to Cummings walking off the show with five episodes still left to film and thus all but ending his television career.
“Alexander the Great” (1968)
Television will occasionally tussle with historical figures, usually with disagreeable results. Julius Caesar, Sam Adams, the Tudors, Custer, have all had their slice of prime time, and while Alexander the Great only got as far as a pilot the very notion of a series is pretty ludicrous. But what actor is selected as having the gravitas to portray one of history’s seminal figures and conquerors? William Shatner. Enough said.
“The Flying Nun” (1967-1970)
I live in fear sometime in the far, far future, that an alien culture will come to earth long after the history of mankind has concluded. That these alien explorers will shift through the decay and
dust of ten thousand years of human civilization and all that will be left for them to judge us by
will be a DVD of the 82 episodes of “The Flying Nun.” Sally Field starred as Sister Bertrille, a diminutive novice nun from Chicago who comes to San Tanco, Puerto Rico and the Daughters of Charity Convent. Now partially due to Sister Bertrille’s mere 90 pound frame and partially due to the starched cornette of her habit, whenever a stiff wind blew, Sister Bertrille took flight. Sister Bertrille once explained this aerial oddity by saying, “When lift plus thrust is greater than load plus drag, anything can fly.” Which ranks for logic right alongside of “If the glove doesn’t fit you must acquit,” and “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.” For whatever reason though, the series was a hit with the viewing public. Go fish.
“The Second Hundred Years” (1967 – 1968)
A light hearted comedy starring Monte Markham as Luke Carpenter who struck out for Alaska in the Gold Rush of 1900 only to be buried beneath the ice of an avalanche. (Got you tittering all ready I bet – but wait!!!) Sixty-seven years later Luke is found and thawed out, no worse for wear, and moves to Woodland Oaks, California where he is reunited with his now elderly son Edwin (Arthur O’Connell) and grandson Ken (well what do you know – also played by Monte Markham.) Well if you’re wondering where the series could go starting with a premise like this the answer is nowhere.
“The Black and White Minstrel Show” (1958 – 1978)
Well speaking of the longevity of the inane we come to the granddaddy of them all. The series entertained the British public with country Western songs straight out of the Grand Ol’ Opray and – wait for it – traditional American minstrel numbers performed by the show’s Dai Francis, Tony Mercer, and John Boulter among others in blackface! No, this is not the synopsis of a bungled Spike Lee film; this is an actual BBC variety show that first aired on June 14, 1958. It continued to be a favorite of the airway for the following twenty years, but in a sense it is also its own doppelganger. TV floods the world’s stark reality into our households. Like film or even some live theatre, cloaking commecialization as “entertainment” succeeds best when the producing corporation has by some means managed to “send your brain to the cornfield.” But unlike theatre or film TV has the capacity of extending this confinement and at the same time “upping your meds” until its “reality” has annihilated the viewer’s own, making it seem perfectly reasonable to visit Andy, Opie and Aunt Bea for eight years and never notice there’s not one non-white faces apparently in all of South Carolina. It doesn’t bother you after travelling for five years the wagon train still hasn’t gotten to California, or that a series runs nine years longer than the war it’s set in. TV offers a reality of its own, which make any listing of the worst series ever….well that tightrope of wet tissue.