Ten Shows In Search of a Cult

A Future for Forgotten TV

The decision by HBO to not renew John in Cincinnati, this past summer’s exercise in unwatchability from producer-writer David Milch and “surf noir” novelist Ken Numm, is a minor cultural tragedy in that it makes it that much more likely that the series will develop a reputation for having been too good for the medium. If it could happen to Cop Rock, clearly it can happen to any pretentious pantsload. Almost thirty-five years ago, Pauline Kael wrote, “Those who ask what of television will last are still going on the assumption that the future sorts things out, as ’the future’ has done in the high arts, and even in crafts. But popular culture operates on different principles: now whatever is considered to have the possibility of future revenue survives.” This is still basically true, but Kael was writing in the days when home video entertainment boiled down to the choices provided by three commercial networks, and before the nostalgia market and the beginnings of a pseudo-scholarly “expert” approach to trivia and trash and pop blossomed into the full, self-conscious geek culture we know today. In the 1980s, all manner of stuff, from classic black and white comedies to short-lived seventies crime shows, were revived on various cable channels that were desperate for cheap programming to fill out their schedules, and now the unlikeliest cult objects, from obscure tax write-off art projects such as the 1997 anthology miniseries Gun to famous fiascos such as Pink Lady and Jeff, are issued on DVD. So are full runs of new series, such as the NBC thriller Kidnapped, that were pulled from actual network broadcast before their opening credits sequences had had time to cool. The late cable channel Trio flew the motto Brilliant but Cancelled proudly from its mast, and even doomed but distinctive unbought pilots such as Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel’s Lookwell and Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab’s Heat Vision and Jack have acquired a second, or first, life through live-audience screenings organized by the outfit known as “The Other Network” and postings on the Internet.

As in every other area of the culture, this mass cult worship has largely resulted in the fetishization of a bunch of junk by people who, if they ever attain the level of knowledge of The Simpson’s Comic Book Guy, will someday be able to look up from their deathbed and make the claim, “I’ve wasted my life.” But it’s also kept alive a great deal of interesting and entertaining work that deserves to have the chance to delight discerning seekers of fun. Excellent series such as SCTV, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Wire, Dick Cavett’s visits with John Huston and Janis Joplin, made-for-TV films starring Michael Gambon as LBJ or Holly Hunter as Billie Jean King, classic small-screen documentaries — it’s a good thing that this stuff is available for the people who might want to seek it out. The amazing thing is that there are still a few forgotten or undiscovered nuggets waiting to be dug out from beneath the accumulated topsoil of time. I’m not saying that each of the shows that follow could whup The Sopranos in a steel-cage death match. But I do think that each of them has more business being preserved on disc than The Captain and Tennille Show.

MARSHALL EFRON’S ILLUSTRATED, SIMPLIFIED, AND PAINLESS SUNDAY SCHOOL (1973-1977) — This series ran on CBS on Sunday mornings as part of the network’s mission to supply children’s instructional programming back in the days when TV networks saw that as part of their mandate. Each week, Efron, a large, muffin-shaped man with a scratchy, nasal voice and a thick dark moustache draped over his friendly smile, would play-act two Bible stories, one from the Old Testament and one from the New. The show had a cast of one and a budget that must have scraped the mid-double digits. What it did have was a manic, happy air of showmanship. Efron would don a flesh-colored leotard to play Adam in the garden, then throw a blonde wig on to play, in cutaways, Eve. Or he’d play David, wrestling around with a mangy-looking toy lion while scary growling noises were heard on the soundtrack. Or he’d depict the story of the Tower of the Babel by playing various construction workers who, as they each begin speaking different languages, express their frustration by bouncing bricks off each other’s foreheads. Efron and his writing partner, Alfa-Betty Olsen, who described themselves as non-religious to a TV Guide interviewer, appreciated the stories for their dramatic potential, and reveled in the imaginative fun of finding ways to act them out with whatever inexpensive means they could get their hands on. Few shows have done as great a job of communicating the excitement of making theater while flying by the seat of your pants.

If Sunday School has slipped off the radar and out of the memories of the aging boomers who’ve seen to it that The Electric Company and Schoolhouse Rock have been preserved on DVD, it may be because non-theists are scared off by the subject matter, while the show’s irreverent tone practically guarantees that it won’t find a place on contemporary Christian cable TV. But the show deserves to be remembered as the star moment for Efron, one of the great eccentric comic talents of his generation, a man whose veins seemed to be filled with helium. (Efron looks strikingly like Ignatius J. Reilly, the antihero of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, but it’s a part that Efron probably couldn’t have played; he’s such an infectiously happy spirit, it would be a real stretch for him to convincingly shout “Those children should be gassed!” while watching American Bandstand. ) Efron had already made his mark on PBS as host of the The Great American Dream Machine, a highly praised satirical newsmagazine show that also featured contributions from Albert Brooks, Chevy Chase, and Andy Rooney, and which is rumored to have been nudged off the air to placate the Nixon administration; I’ve never seen a minute of it, but I’d buy it in a second if it was offered to me by some guy on the subway. In the years since Sunday School, Efron has popped up sporadically, mostly in out of the way places, often as a voice actor in animated cartoons. He’s a man whose never gotten his due, and if anyone wants to see why that’s a damn shame, Sunday School is Exhibit A.

WEEKEND (1974-1978) — This late-night news magazine series, which ran on NBC one weekend night a month, was the brainchild of writer-producer Reuven Frank and the show’s anchor, Lloyd Dobyns, who in installment after installment pulled off the neat trick of seeming exhausted without being jaded. The show, which flashed topical one-liners on the screen between its reports on such subjects as the birth of extreme kick-boxing and the alarming rate of consumption of sugar in Scotland, had an intelligent, sardonic, often satirical approach to the world and the way that TV covers it that, compared to regular TV news, was balm to viewers in the seventies and would probably seem like a transmission from the Outer Limits today. With all due respect to Edward R, Murrow, if such old CBS docs such as Harvest of Shame have the historical value to justify their release on DVD, surely some madman might be hired to compile a representative Best of Weekend box for the half dozen or less of us who care. Such a collection would have to include the show’s landmark report on the early stirrings of the English punk movement, which ran in the summer of 1977, at the same time that most American news outlets were choking on the overload of vanilla coverage of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. (In his book Blondie, Lester Bangs wrote of seeing the show and how he eagerly anticipated that it would set off a wave of imitative, angry, transgressive youth culture in the United States; he was disappointed to learn later that most of the kids he talked to who’d seen the segment had been scared shitless.) Unfortunately, by mid-1978, Saturday Night Live, with which Weekend shared its time slot for three years, was such a hit that NBC wanted to install it in that extra week a month, so it “promoted” Weekend to prime time, where — in a shortened, hour-long, weekly format, with Dobyns joined by a well-coiffed, bewildered-looking Linda Ellerbee as co-host, it was almost instantly cancelled. (Ellerbee — older, wiser, and deglamorized — and Dobyns would later co-host Frank’s NBC News Overnight, an attempt to apply the Weekend spirit to a nightly, hour-long midnight-hour news broadcast, that developed its own cult while running for a year and a half during 1982 and 1983.)

OPEN ALL NIGHT (1981) — This explosively funny situation comedy was created by Jay Tarses, co-creator of The Bob Newhart Show. Open All Night, which starred George Dzundza as a middle-aged former rover who found himself managing a twenty-four-hour convenience store with his wife (Susan Tyrell) and goofball stepson (the late Sam Whipple), took the Newhart show’s trademark dry humor and stretched it in the direction of the surreal without ever becoming tiresomely random or whimsical. (In one episode, David Letterman, killing time between the cancellation of his 1980 morning show and the premiere of his first late night show, dropped by the store and spent part of his visit complaining that he hadn’t been provided with better material.) And the offbeat casting — one hardly thinks of Dzundza or Tyrell as sitcom naturals, and they were augmented by Bubba Smith as Dzundza’s assistant — paid off handsomely. Dzundza somehow communicated his character’s end-of-the-road misery — the sense that the poor bastard felt that he’d balled up his life and had landed in Hell — in a way that made it funny without your ever really feeling sorry for him; he grounded the show without dragging it down. Unfortunately, 1981, the first year of the Reagan administration, may not have been the best time to ask viewers to care about one of the low-income past-their-prime losers who rang up their nachos and Slurpees, and Open All Night just inexplicably died on the vine. More inexplicably, Tarses spent the rest of the decade grinding out a string of lesser shows — the well-cast but one-note Dabney Coleman vehicle Buffalo Bill, the pretentiously twee The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd with Blair Brown and The ’Slap’ Maxwell Story, also starring Coleman, that didn’t score in the ratings but were hailed so loudly by critics that their networks kept them on the air for undeservedly long stretches as if out of self-defense.

THE MAX HEADROOM SHOW (1985) — The 1987 ABC sci-fi series Max Headroom, which starred Matt Frewer, Amanda Pays, and Jeffrey Tabor, is often roped into discussions of “brilliant but cancelled” programs, which is a sad comment on the whole phenomenon right there. That series was a misguided and unneeded attempt to provide a context for the character of Max — the “computer-generated” TV chatterbox played by Frewer — and prolong his existence after he had already served as a commercial pitchman for Coca-Cola, a figure in a music video for the Art of Noise, a non-book “author”, and general media freak. (Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, who created Max in the British TV film 20 Minutes Into the Future originally, prankishly maintained that he — it — really was a computer-generated entity, a Frankenstein’s monster of the cyber age. Dan Rather was among the gullible who bit.) In fact, Max peaked early, in the telefilm and in this, his first talk show — broadcast in the U.S. on Cinemax — where he rolled pop music clips and “interviewed” such celebrities as Sting, Bob Geldof, Tina Turner, and Robin Williams. Max’s interview style tended towards talking over his guests, yawning in their faces when they became gaseous, and generally inviting them to bow low before him. Max would never develop beyond a one-joke character, but in its first flowering the joke really crackled and sparked. Today, bootleg copies of Max’s ABC series, his second Cinemax show from 1987, and even his goddamn Coke commercials can easily be found for sale on the net, but this — the only Max anyone needs — seems to have vanished from the earth.

THE COMPLETELY MENTAL MISADVENTURES OF ED GRIMLEY (1988-1989) — This Saturday morning cartoon series represents one of the most successful of many attempts to partially continue SCTV by other means. Martin Short provides the voice for an animated version of his stalagmite-headed character from SCTV and Saturday Night Live and is joined on the soundtrack by his old comrades Joe Flaherty, Andrea Martin, and Catherine O’Hara, as well as eternal ringer Jonathan Winters. They make a joyful noise, only slightly reined in by the requirement of not traumatizing the show’s intended demographic audience. The show also features regular live-action segments in which Flaherty revives his own old SCTV character, the TV horror-movie host Count Floyd, in front of a demanding and unimpressed room of youngsters.

2000 MALIBU ROAD (1992) and PASADENA (2001) — These two series represent the most imaginative and entertaining takes on the prime time serial genre since Twin Peaks. 2000 Malibu Road, which ran for six episodes as a summer series on CBS, was created by Terry Louise Fisher, a writer-producer who’d worked on Cagney and Lacey and L.A. Law, and who just went nuts here; having cooked up an overheated West Coast soap opera built around the lives of four young women (Lisa Hartman, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Beals, and Tuesday Knight), she brought in the loopy but visually gifted movie director Joel Schumacher to give the proceedings a real rococo lift. The show was actually a big hit in its time slot; CBS’s failure to renew it for the fall may indicate that, between the steamy and sometimes violent material and the reported production costs of a million dollars an episode, the Tiffany network had decided that it had signed on for something it couldn’t deal with. (It probably didn’t help that Drew Barrymore, then a blooming young adult starring in tabloid headlines and the controversial movie Poison Ivy, was still firmly in her Courtney Love period.) If the network had sucked it up and stood their ground, they could have hooked the audience that later swarmed around the far cheesier Melrose Place.

As for Pasadena, it was the engagingly twisted creation of the writer Mike White (The Good Girl, Year of the Dog) and sported an amazing cast that included Martin Donovan, Dana Delaney, Alison Lohman, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Mark Valley, Phillip Baker Hall, Lupe Ontoveros, and Balthazar Getty, who did his part to set the show’s tone with a scene where his notionally heterosexual character woke up in bed with a naked man and had no idea whether they’d had sex or not. Thirteen episodes were produced, and White was thoughtful enough to wrap up the first story arc in the last of them, just in case, but Fox only aired four. Pasadena premiered in the wake of 9/11, and there were murmurings that its free-wheeling, transgressive spirit didn’t jibe with the new spirit of Everything Changed, U.S.A. Since then, however, the show has had hugely successful full runs overseas, and has been seen here on the SoapNet cable channel. Still, one wishes that White would sneak a clause mandating its release on DVD into his next movie contract.

VENGEANCE UNLIMITED (1998-1999) — This big, fat guilty pleasure of a show was created by John McNamara, who has a penchant for shows that violate the golden rule of network TV — the one about constructing shows around “likable” protagonists. (McNamara is probably best known for the 1996 Profit, a black-humored take on the corporate soap opera that starred Adrian Pasdar as a psychotic son of a bitch; a standby of “brilliant but cancelled” lists, it has deservedly been collected on DVD.) Vengeance Unlimited stars Michael Madsen as a mystery man called Mr. Chapel who lumbers from one screwed-over victim to the next, offering to devise some baroque, Rube Goldberg punishment trap for some bastard who richly has it coming to him. When the show debuted, it was greeted with squeals of horror from the kind of writers who base their reviews on the press synopsis; if they’d bothered to look at the show, they might have been seduced by the playfulness and wry humor it applies to its dirty revenge fantasy set-up. Not the least of its achievements is that it serves as a reminder of how much fun it can be to watch Michael Madsen, who since his breakthrough as a two-stepping psycho in Reservoir Dogs had allowed his hulking physique and crumpled face to be exploited by too many cloddish directors in too many humorless, brutalizing neo-noirs. Madsen handles his fantasy avenger role with a sweet, amused deftness, and he’s well paired with the eccentric, red-haired Kathleen York, the actress-singer who now records under the name Bird York. (At one point she asks him how it is he’s lived this long. “I have no idea,” Madsen says thoughtfully as he tucks into his chocolate cake. “Maybe it’s the diet.”) In the end, the critics who lamented this series’ existence had no need to worry; ABC ensured its continued obscurity by slotting it a death march slot directly against Friends. Typically, the show chose to react to this decision, and its inevitable result, with a joke: the series’ final episode, entitled “Friends,” ended with Mr. Chapel paying a street singer to torture his latest subject by following him around singing, “Ya gotta have friends ... ”

ROBBERY HOMICIDE DIVISION (2002) and KAREN SISCO (2003) — Michael Mann served as executive producer and co-creator of this Los Angeles-set crime drama, and he basically took charge of the production and made the series in his image, driving off a couple of would-be collaborators in the process. Compared to such earlier Mann series as Miami Vice and Crime Story, it was a rather conventional show, with self-contained episodes built around the crime-fighting activities of a team leader, played by Tom Sizemore, and his faithful underlings, played by actors who looked more like cops than male models. But it was strikingly well-played and well-written, with some gritty location shooting and a storytelling sense that stuck to the viewer’s ribs. And in its unflashy way, it was also striking visually: some of the footage of L.A. at dusk and late at night had a low-tech, ominous beauty that Mann would later develop in the digital cinematography look of his feature films Collateral and Miami Vice. Unfortunately, the show’s focus on shoe leather detective work instead of forensics or legal strategy may have caused viewers to take it for a dinosaur in a CSI/Law and Order world; it never attracted an audience. And any inclination that CBS may have felt to let it have the time it would need to build one evaporated in the wake of Tom Sizemore’s continuing legal and drug problems. Thirteen episodes were produced, and CBS aired ten of them; the series was later run in full on the USA network before disappearing.

Karen Sisco, starring Carla Gugino as the FBI agent created by Elmore Leonard and played by Jennifer Lopez in the 1998 movie Out of Sight, also feels like a throwback, to the relaxed, funny hang-out style of The Rockford Files. With the capable Gugino (who, for all her model-of-the-year loveliness, is much more convincing as a working cop than Lopez) supported by Robert Forster as her dad and the angry boulder Bill Duke as her boss, and with scripts supplied by the likes of screenwriter Scott Frank (who wrote Out of Sight) and the brilliant comic novelist Peter Lefcourt, it’s as much fun as anything that’s been seen on American TV this past decade, but ABC axed it after broadcasting seven of ten completed episodes. Once again, USA came to the rescue, airing the full run. But the series, like the others here, still aches to be made available on DVD.