The Lamentable Eighties: A Look at Five Series That Weren’t Good Enough to Get a List of Favorite Episodes [I]

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! In several other places on this site, I’ve indicated my disappointment with many of the single season (or two-season) ’80s shows that have faded into obscurity. While the ’70s TV curiosities that we covered were generally fascinating, with ideas or talent that made them worthwhile for discussion, the flops of the ’80s seem to be mostly dire shlock — unfunny, conformist, and comedically deplete. So finding sitcoms that deserve a whole post of chosen favorite offerings has been a challenge, because while all five of the shows that will comprise this bi-weekly series were initially intended to get that full treatment, they were so severely flawed that I couldn’t justify featuring them here alongside the wonderful stuff that’s getting covered on Sitcom Tuesdays.

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However, I also can’t afford to waste my time on material that ultimately ends up not making this site. So I’m turning lemons into semi-sweet lemonade, and ensuring that all that work I put in while laboring through these flops isn’t for naught. In these five posts, I will be highlighting the shows that I initially chose and then rejected for full coverage, with a bit of my thoughts on why they don’t work, and as a special bonus, a full episode that I think illustrates both the best and worst of what each series has to offer (sort of like what we did with the rotten Hey, Landlord!). Let’s get started today with . . .

 

01. Filthy Rich (1982-1983, CBS)

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The first series created by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, Filthy Rich is notable for featuring Dixie Carter and Delta Burke, both of whom would go on to star in her future hit, Designing Women (which won’t be covered on this site). The premise of this series involved an eccentric Southern family whose patriarch, Big Guy (Slim Pickens), dies and stipulates in his will that the family, which includes his young second wife (Burke), his effete oldest son (Michael Lombard), the effete son’s greedy scheming wife (Carter), and his noble younger son (Charles Frank), must accept their illegitimate half-brother Wild Bill (Jerry Hardin) and Bill’s ditsy wife (Ann Wedgeworth) into the family mansion. Adding to the mix was Nedra Volz as Big Guy’s senile first wife and mother to the legitimate kids. An hour-long pilot was produced in early 1981 and the series was marked for a possible midseason premiere when CBS wavered, finding the show too broad and cartoony. They ordered another half-hour pilot in early 1982 that was, again, rejected. But when CBS decided to burn off both pilots (which now became three half-hour episodes) in August of that year, each broadcast ended up scoring big viewership.

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Believing they had a sleeper hit on their hands, the network immediately green-lit the series for an official first season (now technically called its second), and the company raced to get episodes done in time for late September. (By now, Slim Pickens was deathly ill and had to be replaced by Forrest Tucker in the role of Big Guy, who would occasionally be seen via video.) The season premiered on the first Thursday in October 1982, but was placed opposite NBC’s new hit Family Ties, making it difficult to secure a regular audience. Meanwhile, critics loathed Filthy Rich, finding it overly theatrical and utterly ridiculous — more campy than comedy. After six weeks, the show was pulled from the schedule, only to return for a few more Mondays in January/February 1983. The two additional episodes that had been produced (for a total of 15 half-hours) aired in early June, long after the series had been canned. Having seen all 15 offerings, I’m afraid that I have to concur with the critics. The show plays so broad that it’s painful to watch, with Carter being the primary offender. Meanwhile, the premise, which is clearly supposed to parody Dallas, falls into the familiar trap of having regulars who not only antagonize each other, but hate each other to the point where the setup structures the cast into two camps: heroes (Hardin, Wedgeworth, Frank) vs. villains (Burke, Carter, Lombard).

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This format isn’t sustainable on a longterm basis, and the nastiness of the aggressors — especially when juxtaposed against the charm of both Hardin and Wedgeworth’s characters, who (along with the kooky Volz) make for the series’ brightest moments, with laughs that hinge often on character comedy, not just outrageous behavior — renders some of the players completely unlikable, and therefore, uncomical. (I’m speaking mostly of the two Designing Women ladies, actually.) Interestingly, the strongest episode is probably the second pilot, or the third aired episode, “Town And Garden,” which was broadcast on 08/23/82 and was written by Bloodworth (before she was married and added the hyphenate) and directed by Bill Persky. It’s the best because, well, simply, it manages to be the funniest while still maintaining its primary narrative objective. But, never fear, all of the show’s shortcomings are fully evident — the faulty premise, the nasty characters, the ridiculous performances. You’ll laugh… but maybe not when the show intended.

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post (and the week following for the next in this lamentable ’80s series)! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!

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36 thoughts on “The Lamentable Eighties: A Look at Five Series That Weren’t Good Enough to Get a List of Favorite Episodes [I]

  1. The show it knocked off the fall schedule – MAMA MALONE, with Lila Kaye – didn’t air until the spring of 1984!

    THE THORNS was a pretty big 80’s disaster -did you ever see that?

    • Hi, Jake! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I have not seen a full episode of THE THORNS, and given what I’ve heard about the show, I’m fine with keeping it that way. I’m a TV lover who only wants to love TV, so I don’t have a need to see it all. I used to think otherwise, but — and I’ve brought this up before here — after I subjected myself to THE ROPERS, I had a “come to Jesus” moment: no more getting distracted by television that’s fundamentally not enjoyable. It’s not worth it. So I no longer crave a full taste of everything; just a whiff of a stinker is enough for me!

      In the case of FILTHY RICH and the four other disappointing sitcoms you’ll see here over the next couple of months, they were each sought out and studied because I thought they were legitimate candidates for full coverage and a list of favorites, like many of the other unjustly forgotten shows to which I’ve enjoyed devoting some attention. How wrong I was with these lemons! When their respective stenches revealed themselves to me, I was in too deep and just couldn’t “eat” all the time I’d already dedicated.

      I can tease, however, that the second sitcom in this series (a flop from the ’84-’85 season), is the best of this bunch and probably would have earned a more favorable reaction had there been more to see. Stay tuned…

  2. I’m so glad for this show because it made DESIGNING WOMEN possible!!!
    And why the heck won’t you cover it??? Waaaa!
    PS You don’t remember Highcliff Manor, do you?

    • Hi, bobster427! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I’ve never seen HIGHCLIFFE MANOR, but I think at least one of the few episodes that made it to air is in circulation. Fond memories?

      Regarding my lack of favor for DESIGNING WOMEN, the simple answer is that there are more things about the series I don’t appreciate than things I do appreciate. (But I suppose that’s the case with every show I study and opt not to discuss here!) I’ll try to be more specific. The style of the show’s comedy just doesn’t appeal to my sensibilities, and the most accurate explanation I can muster — and I’ve thought about this more than I probably should have — is that I can’t shake the feeling that Thomason’s personal touch overwhelms the scripts to the point where, even in the moments that are both character driven and comedic, the material feels somehow forced and/or contrived. To put it another way, the show’s natural tone challenges my natural desire to invest in what’s being presented on the screen because I’m forced to contend with how it’s being presented. (I can’t even think of another sitcom showrunner whose work allows for this comparison, because often with other auteurs whose style is flamboyantly apparent or with shows where I’m more focused on the HOW than the WHAT, I find the final result a worthwhile justification for the moments of disconnect along the way.) That noted, I can recognize DESIGNING WOMEN’s appeal and don’t consider it weak or worthy of a critical teardown; I just consider it not for me.

      • Okay. :( I understand it ain’t perfect but it’s the kind of happy fun (with surprise messages) that I enjoyed. HIGHCLIFFE MANOR…I remember very little except that it was like a bad version of CLUE and no thruline.

        • I dog-eared the page years ago in my copy of Bob Leszczak’s book on single season sitcoms, but never really went any further with it. Only four of its six episodes made it to air.

          Speaking of CLUE, thanks for reminding me — that’s a franchise with which I’d like to engage here at some point (in what capacity, I do not know yet). As a youngster, I collected all 18 of the CLUE chapter books and owned several original models of the board game, including one from ’56 and another (my favorite) from ’63. My friends and I once had a party where we all came as different characters from the film version — still a favorite!

          • I LOVE the movie of CLUE, I didn’t realize there were chapter books!! I had several versions of the game too–I STILL can’t believe there wasn’t a movie version!

  3. My God, that was a painful episode to watch! It just shows to go you that some forgotten shows are best left that way.

    • Hi, Rashad! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      It’s a tough lesson to learn, but you’re so right! More disappointments ahead — I’m not sure any will be as boldly horrendous as the above, but because they could have had more potential, their failures seem sadder. Sounds fun, right? Stay tuned…

    • Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      And thanks for bringing in your local expertise — obviously realism and authenticity were not concerns for FILTHY RICH!

      • For me, the lowest moment in “Town & Garden” was Marshall lacing the mother’s coffee with some form of sedative. Not only do I find nothing funny (not even in a satirical way) about a man attempting to drug his own mother, but also, why would he do it in front of her AND in front of Stanley? Even Snidely Whiplash would have been more discreet!

        Furthermore, why did Linda Bloodworth-Thomason have Volz’s character show up way before the editor was due, when having her appear unexpectedly in the middle of his interview with the Becks might have been more comedically satisfying? And why were Carlotta and Marshall going to such lengths to reform and refine Jerry Hardin and Ann Wedgeworth’s characters (a plot, by the way, which yielded little in terms of comedic payoff within the episode) when it might have been simpler (and funnier) to arrange for them to be out of town, or at least away from the mansion, during the interview (a scheme that would blow up in their faces, of course, once circumstances forced the two to remain with the rest of the family)? And why did it seem like even those ridiculous furry objects of Wedgeworth’s had more of a reason for being on the show in the first place than Delta Freaking Burke?

        Ugh, so many questions with this show….

        But you know what is my BIGGEST issue with FR’s premise? Now, granted, I’ve seen only the one episode you’ve posted. Ergo, I’m likely way off-base with this assessment. However, it seems to me that Stanley 1) was the most normal-seeming of the bunch, and 2) because he WAS more grounded than the rest of the family, he, rather than Hardin and Wedgeworth’s characters, should have been the outsider who joins the family fold. Even a series rooted in satire and parody needs a central character who shares the audience’s point-of-view and through whom they learn about, and learn to love, the other, more eccentric characters; and for me, and for FR, that character should have been Stanley. I realize LBT wanted it the other way around, but I feel like Bill and his wife were just too broad and off-putting as stereotypical “white trash” to serve that function.

        • I share your thoughts on the lack of logic within this episode’s plot. The sorriest truth is that the installment still is — if not THE series’ funniest, then — ONE OF its funniest. So you can imagine what it’s like to sit through an episode that is both without common sense and comedy: torture.

          I see your point about Stanley being more unlike the rest of the family than Bootsie/Wild Bill, especially in terms of the former’s comparatively distracting lack of broadness. However, I don’t think a related structural change within the premise, such as having Stanley anchor the weekly stories after his entrance into the house mirrored our own, would have done anything for FILTHY RICH or its viability. Even figures who serve as the audience’s POV or environmental “entry point” must be multi-dimensional. (In fact, one could argue that they must be even MORE multi-dimensional to earn our trust.)

          When examining sitcoms that establish themselves as having a more relatable character at the series’ center, we see that the design only works if the lead is as flawed as his/her cohorts. Mary Richards is a people pleaser whose lack of assertiveness and knowledge of the real world drives conflict. Alex Reiger is a shameless idealist whose apparently dichotomous resignation to his lot in life drives conflict. Jerry Seinfeld is a raging egomaniac whose emotional distance and inability to connect with others drives conflict. If they hadn’t been flawed, their points-of-view wouldn’t have been worthwhile (and they wouldn’t have been believably deserving of our investment).

          Ultimately, it once again comes down to the battle for dominance between story and character. EVERYTHING must come from the latter — humor, conflict, pathos. None of this can successfully be derived from the plots, the premise, or how a series is designed. So if Stanley were to have anchored this series, he and all of the other members of the family would have needed MUCH retooling, irrespective of any changes in the format. There was no easy fix for FILTHY RICH; it was fundamentally ill-written.

  4. This was really kind of a fascinating show to watch, in a train wreck sort of way. Most of the cast plays their roles in a very broad manner that might have been appropriate in a short comedy sketch, but not for a weekly series. Then, among all these cartoons, you have Charles Frank, whose character is so normal and grounded that he seems to have wandered in from another show. So that was the situation? Each week, the bad guys cook up some scheme to rid themselves of the good guys, and each week, it backfires on them? I can’t see that sustaining for a single season, much less several.

    In looking for information about FILTHY RICH online, I ran across, in two or three places, a quote from Linda Bloodworth, complaining that the frustrating thing about this series was that no one understood what she was trying to do. I’d love for her to explain it to me. I don’t get what she was trying to do, either.

    • Hi, Jennifer! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I agree with everything you wrote — the premise is totally unsustainable, even if the aim was to satirize (which I’m assuming was at least part of what Bloodworth was trying to do). However, we see this quite a lot in flops, both comedic and dramatic, particularly those from the past decade: they’re so high concept snd story-oriented that there’s really nowhere for the characters to go beyond a few episodes.

      From my study, I find that ideas are not funny; points-of-view are funny — and that requires interesting, multi-dimensional characters. In a quality show, either the potential for its fictional leads is established from the very beginning or it becomes evident as both the show and audience gets to know the characters (during, ideally, the first 13 episodes). Yet because FILTHY RICH was based on ideas (or an idea), and not characters, it was doomed from the start.

    • “So that was the situation? Each week, the bad guys cook up some scheme to rid themselves of the good guys, and each week, it backfires on them? I can’t see that sustaining for a single season, much less several.”

      I can’t see it either, Jennifer. Not only are the characters just too broad and nasty to be worthy of ANY of our time, but if you were in LBT’s position as showrunner and chief writer, either you’d run out of schemes for the two to cook up (and THEN where do you go?) or your audience, needing more variety in the storytelling, would quickly grow tired of the show’s repetitiveness and move on (which, in a way, is what they did).

      LBT’s comments regarding public reception to FR are pretty much her defense for all her work. No one understood what she was trying to do with FR, like no one who wasn’t female or Southern understood what she was trying to do with “Designing Women” or “Evening Shade,” like no one at HBO understood what she was trying to do with “The Shakespeares,” her drama series, which the cable network cut the cord with before a single airing, despite a handful of episodes already in the can. Frankly, I think it’s a cop-out.

      • As discussed in the post, I definitely agree that one of the show’s basic undoings from a structural point-of-view stems from the pitting of two sets of characters against each another. This concept is story-driven and doesn’t yield a future beyond a few contrived outcomes. We’ve seen this construct in a lot of bombs here, including the oft-mentioned THE ROPERS.

        Regarding Bloodworth-Thomason, I also think it’s a cop-out whenever a creative person blames the audience for a show’s failure. (In fact, one of the things I respect most about Hugh Wilson is that in his reaction to the fate of FRANK’S PLACE, the most recent single-season show to get full coverage here, he didn’t fault the audience — he accepted culpability for not doing a better job of catering to their needs.) Yet I’m reluctant to say that the following for DESIGNING WOMEN was relegated to those who simply shared its creator’s point-of-view, because I don’t like to diminish the enjoyment others gleaned from a series by ascribing it to a collective circumstance — even if it doesn’t appeal to my personal sensibilities — as taste is, and should always be, considered personally subjective and applied as such.

        However, in the next figurative breath, I must note that Bloodworth-Thomason’s work is often really problematic for me. Her style is the main issue, but it’s not in itself alienating; the root of the problem is actually that I think she uses her style to supplant — and distract from — substance. In other words, a comedic tone can often be used IN PLACE of comedic material, instead of merely offering support. This is anathema to my creative sensibilities, but there are some who find style just as imperative as substance, if not more, and I think that’s probably the case with Bloodworth-Thomason. (For what it’s worth, I also find many of the current single-cams from the past few decades to be more stylistically comedic than substantially comedic, but their tones are rarely as overbearing as Bloodworth-Thomason’s, which is also an issue I would take with her work.)

  5. “Ultimately, it once again comes down to the battle for dominance between story and character. EVERYTHING must come from the latter — humor, conflict, pathos. None of this can successfully be derived from the plots, the premise, or how a series is designed. So if Stanley were to have anchored this series, he and all of the other members of the family would have needed MUCH retooling, irrespective of any changes in the format.”

    You are absolutely correct, Jackson, and I apologize for leaving out that point in my previous comment.

    • No need to apologize; I was just reaffirming our mutual belief in the dire straits into which Bloodworth-Thomason had gotten FILTHY RICH — there was no easy way to make this stinker smell good!

      • I watched every ep of FILTHY RICH & there were maybe 5 minutes total that were funny. But I didn’t care, I wanted a bad show with fake glamour. Watching that episode again, I did flinch a lot and giggled a bit. But still, because of it we got DW with Carter and Burke that may not be in the top 30 best sitcoms ever–but I advise holding your tongue if you ever are in a gay bar and the show is on the monitor. :D

        • Touché! I can definitely relate in the ability to recognize a show’s shortcomings while still being thoroughly enthralled; there IS a need of entertainment for which we set varying and, frankly, lower, standards of quality. Especially for those of us who simply consume so much TV, we need stuff that tickles all different parts of the brain — or else nothing would be able to satisfy. In fact, sometimes there’s pleasure precisely in the rejection of elements that we commonly consider essential for “good” or “well-written” television. Also, it’s fun to point out in shows like these why things don’t work as they should — naysaying can be delightfully cathartic!

          However, I also wouldn’t suggest that DESIGNING WOMEN is a show, like FILTHY RICH, to which one most descend oneself in the hopes of enjoying. Its longevity is an obvious testament to the writing’s ability to speak to many, and I appreciate that those who love it do so in earnest; were I able to cultivate a commensurate interest, I would react the same. As with BARNEY MILLER, I remain glad that my intense attempt to spark an artistic enthusiasm for the show has allowed me to recognize why others enjoy it, and at the same time, try to work through exactly why I don’t. (This is different from works such as [redacted], from which I’ll never be able to understand why others derive legitimate entertainment. In fact, I actually have no problem voicing the opinion that [redacted] is garbage, because I think its flaws are much more fundamental and far-reaching, indeed requiring, no matter how many wonderful people really and genuinely love the show, a rejection of one’s standards to enjoy unashamedly.)

          However, with all this noted, there’ll be a wickedly problematic, but grossly entertaining show (a long-running show, yet) coming up in an upcoming Wildcard Wednesday series. Yet because I obviously hold comedies to higher standards than any other genre of television programming (and find it harder to appreciate sitcom trash than other TV trash), it’d be safe to assume that the show to which I’m referring is NOT a sitcom … Ah, heck, I’ll spoil it now: stay tuned for my thoughts on DYNASTY (1981-1989, ABC), beginning this August! Prepare to witness as I roast the primetime soap while nevertheless appreciating it immensely… Should be quite fun.

  6. As a once-aspiring soap opera scribe, I always looked to “Dynasty” as an example of how NOT to write a soap opera, primetime or otherwise. Nevertheless, I can’t wait to read your thoughts on the show and its signature excesses.

        • Hi, Brandon! Thanks for reading and commenting.

          A working knowledge of the other major primetime soaps of the era has been fundamental in my coverage of DYNASTY — the first five posts of which, from August to December, have already been drafted — and I will specifically address DALLAS, KNOTS LANDING, and FALCON CREST within that first entry (some more briefly than others).

          But in answer to your question, my survey of FALCON CREST has thus far been comparatively meager and utilitarian, and I have not yet been compelled to seek out a complete series collection. The same can be said for KNOTS LANDING, although my reason for not yet exploring the show in its entirety is really based on an intense hunch about its strength and my accompanying reluctance to devote the necessary attention to a work that, despite perhaps deserving full coverage, would require a commitment that’s beyond my capability at this point in time.

          In complete transparency, I’ll tell you that I actually toyed with covering DALLAS instead of DYNASTY, as I have complete sets of both series (and actually believe the former to be the more narratively sound), but there were three big reasons that ultimately persuaded me to cover the latter this August instead.

          1) I know DYNASTY better, having first seen the entire series about a decade ago (when I was but a middle schooler battling chronic insomnia), while most of DALLAS I’ve screened only once — if that often. So at this moment, I feel more qualified to discuss DYNASTY.
          2) I think DYNASTY is easier to enjoy sans “strings.” When it’s good, it’s good; when it’s bad, it’s bad. From this simplicity comes an ability to embrace its consistent entertainment value without ignoring its unending (and I mean UNENDING) list of missteps. In contrast, the qualitative “shades of gray” that exist more readily on DALLAS require a sharper critical eye to dissect, thus making the series’ entertainment value less durable in the wake of its faults. In other words, DALLAS commands greater respect, which means the unrespectable moments are more heartbreaking — even if, for the sake of argument, they’re never as low as DYNASTY’s.
          3) I believe DYNASTY represents the ’80s better than any of the other dramas — artistic merit (and DALLAS’ seminality) aside. And with the decade’s other televisual entertainment being highlighted on Tuesdays of this year, the ’80s became the angle through which I wanted to introduce coverage of another drama. From my perception of the two shows’ contrasting styles, DYNASTY ultimately felt due for coverage now (or never), while DALLAS could and might be discussed at any time and during any era on this blog.

          Of course, I’m still much more interested in situation comedies than primetime dramas, but the state of ’80s television requires that I steer some of my focus away from sitcoms — for a little while, anyway. The decision to cover DYNASTY, warts and all, along with MOONLIGHTING (which concludes this week) has been enjoyable so far, but I wouldn’t anticipate seeing any other non-comedies here within the next year. (I write this because I’d rather any more dramas that pop up be a welcome surprise to all of us, instead of an obligation that we’re all waiting to be fulfilled.) One thing I can promise, however, is pointed individual commentary. As discussed above in response to bobster427, DYNASTY is one of those shows that entertains me, in spite of my remaining in full observation of its textual deficiencies; reckoning with these frailties had made for a fascinating time. Stay tuned…

      • Cool. Can’t wait. I think you would enjoy Falcon Crest if you gave the whole series a chance. In my opinion, it used humor more effectively than any of the others.

    • You know I always say Dynasty as a rip off of Dallas and still do. And it pains me how Dallas was trying to copy its flashiness during that “dream season”

      • Hi, Track! Thanks for reading and commenting.

        Well, there would certainly be no DYNASTY without DALLAS first having proved successful, but DYNASTY itself had a huge impact on the culture, and as you pointed out, had an influence that permeated into the other primetime soaps as well. Stay tuned for more on this series, starting in August…

  7. OK I just watched and wow that episode was awful! I vaguely remember this series but didn’t take much notice at the time. I did like DESIGNING WOMEN, but this show – wow it’s a stinker.

    I really enjoyed the conversation here about DESIGNING WOMEN and I totally get what you’re saying. It’s often compared to THE GOLDEN GIRLS, but that was always more textual I think. DESIGNING WOMEN was always about attitude and look. The writing was less important than the tone. Completely different and not for everyone. But I enjoy them both!

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