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

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!). We started last time with Filthy Rich (1982-1983, CBS). Today . . .

 

02. Off The Rack (1984-1985, ABC)

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The shortest running show in this series of posts, Off The Rack starred Ed Asner and Eileen Brennan as unlikely partners in a garment company after she must take on the responsibilities of her late husband. There were co-workers and kids (she had two) around to fill out the ensemble — which included Dennis Haysbert and Claudia Wells — but it was essentially a star vehicle for both headliners, each of whom were coming off of past hits (his with Lou Grant, the first season of which arrived on DVD this week, and hers with Private Benjamin). Created by Dan Guntzelman and Steve Marshall, both of whom were prolific scribes on WKRP In Cincinnati, a pilot was produced for the 1984-85 season, finally airing in December. The reception was warm, but the general consensus was that it only stood out due to the stars and because of the (lack of) competition. However, given the pilot’s comparable success, ABC ordered six more episodes, which they perhaps vindictively (should you believe Asner’s take on the situation) scheduled on Friday nights opposite Dallas, which closed out the season as the second most watched show of the year. Well, I don’t have to tell you what happened then, do I? (I will anyway.) Few watched and after the six-episode run was finished, so was Off The Rack.

OFF THE RACK, Claudia Wells, Eileen Brennan, Cory Yothers (seated, front), Dennis Haysbert, Ed Asner, Pamela Brull, 1984. © Warner Bros.

I’ve only seen four of these seven half-hours , but I have to note that out of all the five shows in this blog series, Off The Rack is the one that presents the most obvious potential. (The scarcity of offerings, even if I had seen all seven, is what keeps me from being able to choose favorites, not necessarily the quality — although it’s not a cause for celebration). The joy of seeing Asner and Brennan, two gruff customers, playing off of one another is a natural treat, and their chemistry grows with each episode. Although Asner is playing the experienced businessman who doesn’t want a woman invading his turf, he gets to display the trademark sweetness that made Lou Grant redeemable. And, in fact, despite the stories wanting to put the two leads at odds, he exudes more warmth towards her than you’d expect. Brennan, meanwhile, is deliciously cutting, and sort of assumes the dominant role in their interactions, despite being the unknowing underling in the business relationship. Needless to say, it’s an interesting dynamic that sometimes mines humor from unexpected places. Unfortunately, the scripts are only adequate, and none of the characters work as well as the two leads (particularly the annoying kids — which we see too often in ’80s flops).

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Now, the pilot itself is fairly strong, and it’s easy to see why more scripts of the show were ordered. However, the actual six-episode run (of which I’ve only seen three) is very uneven, as an offering’s success is very dependent both on the quality of the premise and how naturally funny the writers have made the script. Neither is a guarantee. The installment I’ve chosen to highlight here reveals the weaknesses of the concept (chiefly the two kids and how the show uses them), but also displays the humor that can exist in these good-but-not-great scripts. Titled “Who Do You Trust?” and written by Lissa Levin (another WKRP vet), this episode aired on 04/05/85 and was directed by Noam Pitlik. See the way the two stars play off one another — squandered potential that needed time to build, right?

 

 

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

  1. So many bombs – some with beloved stars. I have a few in mind that I’ll wait to see if you mention. (hint: CBS)

    • Hi, Jake! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I’m afraid CBS will not be represented again in this bi-weekly series. In fact, unless there’s a radical change of plans, the Tiffany Network will only be invoked here twice more in 2016 — with E/R (1984-1985) in July and THE GOLDEN PALACE (1992-1993) in October. However, I am in the process of tracking down two or three other CBS ’80s “flops” for possible coverage in the first quarter of next year, although, as of right now, I wouldn’t anticipate my efforts proving successful.

      In the meantime, there’ll be a little ABC, including LIFE WITH LUCY in August, and a whole lot of NBC, including the three remaining posts in this current Wildcard series. Stay tuned…

      • As for CBS’s 80s flops that could be mentioned in this column:
        * Beyond Westworld
        * Mary (13 Episodes)
        * The Van Dyke Show (10 episodes / 4 unaired)
        * Foley Square
        * Charlie & Co. (a CBS take on the Cosby Show)
        * Checking In (a spinoff of the Jefferson’s)
        * Doctor Doctor (tail end of the 80s)
        * Roxie
        * Trial and Error (sitcom)
        * Flo (spin off of Alice) — though it did manage 29 episodes

        Mary and The Van Dyke Show are both interesting. Together, Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke had massive chemistry (and amazing scripts) that carried the Dick Van Dyke show in the 60s, but in the 80s even that clout couldn’t carry a series but for a few episodes. Though, the Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 70s could (primarily again because of great scripts and a great cast). I guess lightning doesn’t always strike multiple times in the same spot, at least not in the 80s. The 80s seemed like mostly a bad era to retry series using familiar faces with familiar formulas.

        Flo highlights the importance of the right time slot, though I also think this character wasn’t strong enough to carry a series by herself even if the show had had the right time slot.

        • Hi, commorancy. Thanks for reading and commenting — and subscribing!

          I discussed MARY two years ago during full coverage of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. You can check that out here. However, Moore’s second CBS sitcom of the ’80s, ANNIE MCGUIRE, is still fair game and is indeed one of the several shows to which I was alluding for potential coverage in early 2017 (or even the last week of 2016, as that’s currently the only Wildcard Wednesday post I don’t have written and/or scheduled at this time).

          THE VAN DYKE SHOW seems like an obvious companion to ANNIE MCGUIRE because of both THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW connection and the way CBS paired them on Wednesdays in 1988, but I’ve seen a little of the series and actually have no interest in pursuing a set of episodes, regardless of my fondness for Van Dyke. However, both his ’60s series and his ’70s series, still unreleased on DVD, have been covered on Sitcom Tuesdays, and I’m still quite proud of being able to discuss the latter. You can revisit those posts, starting with Season One, here.

          Speaking of Sitcom Tuesdays, DOCTOR DOCTOR, which ran for three seasons, is in my collection and was considered for full coverage before ultimately being rejected.

          As for the other shows you mentioned, I can emphatically guarantee that I have no plans to cover dubious spin-offs like CHECKING IN, which would have been paired with my full coverage of THE JEFFERSONS had I so chosen, or FLO, which was an easy choice to avoid given my complete aversion to ALICE, my disfavor for which has been brought up a few times in the comments on this site, or ROXIE, which sprang from the overrated KATE & ALLIE, also rejected.

          Meanwhile, you did happen to list another one of the early 2017 possibilities (also, I rounded low when I said I was only looking at two or three) in the form of Diane English’s FOLEY SQUARE, which I am MOST vigorously trying to seek out — so far unsuccessfully — for full coverage to complement Sitcom Tuesdays’ survey of MURPHY BROWN, which I can confirm here for the first time as upcoming next spring. Stay tuned!

      • I was thinking of THE CAVANAUGHS and COMING OF AGE, which at least had some good people.

        Diane English also created MY SISTER SAM, which started as a hit and turned into a flop due to incompetent scheduling. I was unimpressed with it but Rebecca Schaeffer could have been a star…

        • Great minds must think alike, Jake, as those shows are in my thoughts as well — although I’ve all but given up on COMING OF AGE, as only three-ish episodes seem to circulate.

          But as always, I aim to insure against dashed expectations by insisting that it’s more likely none of the series mentioned in this thread, with the exception of MURPHY BROWN, will be discussed here. I’d rather surprise than disappoint! And, believe me, there are some surprises ahead…

  2. I remember some friends being insulted sometime in the 80s when another friend accused them of having a lifestyle that was “off the rack”.

    It looks like I didn’t miss much, not watching network TV in the 80s, apart from the near-magnificent Tour of Duty and the wonderful Mama’s Family (net+synd), which you have covered here so well!

    • Hi, mahler9! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I wouldn’t write network television off wholesale — either now or then. In the ’80s alone, you would have missed both CHEERS and THE GOLDEN GIRLS, the latter of which is coming up here in September. Stay tuned…

  3. For some reason, I always confuse “Foley Square” with Margaret Colin’s other ’80’s TV flop, “Leg Work.” Either way, though, I’ll be happy if and when you do find enough material to cover, as I have been a fan of Colin’s ever since she was Margo Montgomery Hughes on “As the World Turns.”

    Meanwhile, what say you on covering “It’s Your Move,” the one-season (1984-85) wonder from NBC, starring Jason Bateman, then fresh from his recurring role on “Silver Spoons,” and created and produced by Ron Leavitt and Michael G. Moye? At the very least, coverage on IYM might make a good companion of sorts with that on Leavitt and Moye’s more successful “Married…with Children.”

    • Hi, Rashad! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Most episodes are on Youtube and I’ve watched several for study, ultimately deriving no interest in discussing the series here.

  4. I just watched this episode and found it much better than FILTHY RICH. I really enjoyed Brennan. I don’t know how sustainable the concept was but I wish it had some more time to explore.

    And after the mention of IT’S YOUR MOVE, I went and watched two episodes. I didn’t dislike it but it just felt like a flop. I don’t even now how to say it but it just left me feeling like it couldn’t ever be a hit because it wSnt good enough. What did you dislike about it?

    Oh and BTW– I’m very excited about MURPHY BROWN!! Is that coming right after MARRIED WITH CHILDREN?

    • Hi, Elaine! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Although I appreciate the discernible Moye/Leavitt wit, I don’t feel that IT’S YOUR MOVE, based on the six episodes I viewed last year, ever compellingly justified the choice to subject us to a premise centered on a teen, a structure that acts as the death of intelligent comedy if not handled adroitly. I understood the writing’s evident anti-conformist aims, and even appreciated most of the cast, but I ultimately concluded that the buzz belied more hype than honey – not capable of delighting beyond what existed on the surface (the cast and the mildly “subversive” tone). Thus, I couldn’t ever be genuinely entertained.

      Now, I do know that I naturally make it harder for shows starring kids/teens to regularly succeed by setting for them higher standards, but I simply have a habit, in general, of demanding elevated forms of quality in sitcoms (and everything about which I’m passionate, for that matter) and I believe that any non-negligible differences in the way I set critical roadblocks are often warranted based on the construction of the shows themselves. In other words, I approach every show with my own point-of-view, absolutely – just like all of us – but I’m always open to what a show itself brings, and I think I do a fairly solid job of adjusting myself based on how a series effectively does what it tells me it wants to do.

      But I’m not an easy sell. In fact, I find it absolutely necessary for a series that chooses to engage itself with what I consider “easy” sources of comedy – in this case, both the sentimentality of youth and the ostentatious tone, which rejects said sentimentality (but still makes use of it through its very existence on the series) – to be excellent in order to remain laudable alongside works that don’t need these hooks in order to achieve their comedic aims. I also feel that it is my duty to be harder on kid/teen shows because very few others are willing to do the same. Yet if a teen/kid show wants to “play” with the adults, then it has to be treated as an adult. I’d argue that IT’S YOUR MOVE actually does want to be considered a show for grown folks, and as a result, there can be no shortcuts, no gimmicks, and no free passes.

      But in order to enjoy IT’S YOUR MOVE, I feel that I’d have to compromise and descend; and I only do that when I decide it’s worthwhile – a subjective conclusion, for sure, but one that’s generally consistent because, as always, I look to whether the end justifies the means: was the comedy worth the ploys used to get there? I ultimately wasn’t satisfied with IT’S YOUR MOVE, although I could see how others might feel differently. I should also note that the removal of the kiddie/teen factor wouldn’t ever be enough to alter my opinion, for the root problem would remain the same: the effectiveness of the comedy. I demanded that IT’S YOUR MOVE be really good (because of its construction), but my expectations were firmly set at mediocre (because of its construction) and I was still disappointed anyway – (because of its execution).

      This is exactly the same thing that’s happened with many ‘80s sitcom flops – heck, even some ‘80s hits – with which I’ve come in contact. I know the construction is bad, but it’s the execution that causes the actual disappointment. This time I wasn’t masochistic enough to watch the whole series, as I was with FILTHY RICH, for which I question my own judgment in deciding to screen all 15 episodes when I knew it wasn’t getting any better after the fourth. (What can I say? It was a train wreck and I wanted to see it all.) None of the other upcoming flops are quite so bad, but there’s another lowlight ahead next month – only its run was mercifully much shorter…

      This was a long-winded way of saying that IT’S YOUR MOVE didn’t comedically cut the figurative mustard for me when we had our metaphorical dinner date.

      As for MURPHY BROWN, I don’t know yet if it will be here directly following MARRIED… WITH CHILDREN, but it’s a possibility.

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