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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