Television knows how to make great TV…now. Before the present day, however, TV was considered a second-class form of entertainment that beginners and has-beens would work in. But considering how much money was being pumped into TV, and how much garbage was being produced with all that money, it’s hard to feel sympathetic about the medium’s once-low status in American culture.
Continuing from our last article about garbage TV shows from the 80’s, here are 10 more terrible shows that were inexplicably produced and aired on television back in that big, confused decade of excess and poor decisions.
Maggie Briggs (1984, 6 episodes)
Maggie Briggs, a reporter at The New York Examiner, is used to writing major hard-hitting stories, but finds herself demoted from working on feature stories to writing human-interest pieces. Starring Suzanne Pleshette (who co-created the series) in her first TV role since The Bob Newhart Show, Maggie Briggs suffered from a big old case of Who Cares? Syndrome, and as a mid-season replacement didn’t find an audience. CBS, having little patience for a low-budget, low-rated sitcom, told the show to hit the bricks after just six episodes and it ended up in the obituary section instead of primetime TV.
Hell Town (1985, 13 episodes)
Who doesn’t love murderer Robert Blake? Well nobody now, but in the 1980s before he sullied his reputation by killing another human being, Blake was doing pretty well as a TV actor. After his popular series Baretta ended in 1978, Blake kicked around from one unsuccessful small-screen project to another before starring in the 1985 drama series Hell Town.
The premise of Hell Town makes it easy to figure out why the show wasn’t popular: focusing on Catholic priest Noah “Hardstep” Rivers, a foul-mouthed, gambling, and surprisingly violent man of the cloth proselytizing to a run-down neighborhood on the east side of Los Angeles, Hell Town was already a hard sell to people who were trying to relax at the end of a long day, not watch misery incarnate being portrayed on primetime–and certainly not for an hour on Wednesday nights. Condemned by critics for being too profane and violent for TV and receiving all-around negative reviews, Hell Town lasted 13 episodes, or half a season, before being sent to purgatory to think on its sins.
Misfits of Science (1985-6, 15 episodes; 1 unaired)
So here’s a premise that may have been a little ahead of its time: the Humanidyne Institute, which specializes in superpowered humans, recruits a team of ordinary people who display extraordinary powers to, I don’t know, make a super team? If it sounds a little like some shows that have come on the air in recent years, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of the producers of the TV show Heroes wrote one of the episodes as his first gig in Hollywood. It was also created by NBC head Brandon Tartikoff, who would go on to create the cheezy masterpiece Saved by the Bell.
So why is it garbage? Mostly because it’s an incredibly goofy show about meta humans with terrible special effects that really leaned into the silliness of the premise–which would be great if only it didn’t look so darn cheap. Its opening theme plays like something from Too Many Cooks, and its first episode–which pre-empted Knight Rider that night to hopefully sucker in some of its viewers into watching this somewhat insane (and Totally 80’s) TV show–is both painfully slow-moving and the kind of cheesy that’s more cringy than enjoyable. Episodes of the show include the “Misfits of Science” making contact with Martians, finding a caveman washed up on the beach, irradiated hamburgers, and dolphins that get mixed up in cocaine smuggling(!). It was also one of Courtney Cox’s first gigs on TV and had the dad from A.L.F. as the stern head of Humanidyne Institute. It’s completely bonkers and obviously terrible, but if you enjoy outstanding garbage, most of the series can be found on YouTube.
Blacke’s Magic (1986, 13 episodes)
Procedurals are some of the oldest types of shows on television: a crime occurs or a mystery needs to be solved, and over the course of the episode the protagonists solve it in their own inimitable way. It takes a lot to make this old saw sing a new tune, but the 1986 mid-season replacement Blacke’s Magic gave it the old college try.
How? By matching up magician Alexander Blacke (Hal Linden) with his con man father (Harry Morgan) as they solve mysteries that seem to always get in the way of Alex’s performances. The same person behind Murder, She Wrote, in which a mystery writer always just happened to be present when a murder occurs, created this show and it shows. This tepid cup of Who Cares tea lasted 13 episodes, just long enough to trick the programming slot it filled through the Spring season before magically vanishing, never to see a VHS or DVD release, lost to the sands of mediocre time.
Life With Lucy (1986, 13 episodes, 8 aired)
I Love Lucy was a seminal television show: starring a female protagonist (Lucille Ball) who was adept at zany physical comedy and always scheming behind the back of her patient bandleader husband (Desi Arnez), this 1950s sitcom is an iconic television show that paved the way for female comedians on the small screen. Ball would go on to continuous success over the ensuing decades on television, starring in various vehicles for her talents.
So in 1986, when Ball was approached to star in a new TV show on NBC, she was given complete creative control and was going to star on this three-camera traditional sitcom. Ball played a widowed grandmother who inherited her husband’s half of a hardware store, of which she finds new interest in and decides she wants to help in running the store, much to her husband’s partner’s consternation. To complicate matters, the son of the partner is married to her daughter, making it a family business with in-laws–and they all live together!
OK, fair enough. Sounds a little lame, but this is Lucille Ball we’re talking about! She can make anything funny! Well, except for one problem: Ball was 75 years old when the show was produced and rather fragile, so her characteristic physical comedy came across as more concerning for viewers to witness than funny. Add to this rather bland writing and airing in a “death slot”–Saturday nights at 8 PM–and the show sunk like a stone. Put on the air without the pilot even being shown to executives, who had complete faith in Ball, Life With Lucy debuted in 23rd place on the Nielsen ratings until sinking to 73rd place (out of 79) by the end of its airing. Although 13 episodes were produced only 8 aired. It has never been syndicated or released on DVD and is still considered one of the worst TV shows ever made.
On a sadder note, the failure of the show devastated Ball, who thought she had one final success on her hands. Instead, she only made one more public appearance at the 1989 Academy Awards and passed away a month later.
The Last Precinct (1986, 8 episodes)
By the end of his life, Adam West was a national treasure, having successfully parlayed his own kooky image in performances that were heightened, absurd versions of himself, most notably as Mayor Adam West on Family Guy but also on the one-episode masterpiece Lookwell.
The Last Precinct, a goofy cop comedy starring West in 1986, was a kind of “close but no cigar” attempt to spin West as a comedic persona. Not that our favorite Batman wasn’t funny enough for the show–the show just wasn’t funny enough for him. A sort of crasser version of Police Squad only without the laughs, The Last Precinct featured a precinct filled with odd duck cops, ranging from a tough-as-nails female officer to a transgendered cop (referred to as a transsexual because 1980s), and an Elvis impersonator, all led by Captain Rick Wright (West). The premise? They’re all transferred to the seediest, most dilapidated, and underserved precinct in Los Angeles as a last-ditch attempt to prove they’re worth wearing the shield. Besides West, Ernie “The Black Guy From Ghostbusters” Hudson was part of the ensemble cast.
Unfortunately, for a comedy it’s just not funny. With lead pacing, “wacky” characters that are irritating rather than amusing, and an overall shoddy production, The Last Precinct feels like an incredible waste of time while you’re watching it, like you’re watching a low-budget B-comedy except for some reason it never ends. Of course Adam West was wasted on the show, but then again it seems like everyone involved was, as well. It only lasted 8 episodes before being sentenced to obscurity for life. Here’s the hour-long pilot in full on YouTube, if you so dare.
Fathers and Sons (1986, 4 episodes)
No, not the Turgenev play. Or the Hemingway short story. Or the Cat Stevens song. No, here we refer to the 1986 sitcom Fathers and Sons. Starring Ron Burgundy’s friend Merlin Olsen as a father who’s also a baseball coach for his sons, there is almost no information about this show available online and outside of the (unbelievably irritating) theme song on YouTube, that’s pretty much it. It aired for 4 episodes, from April to May 1986, and then went away forever. It must have been abysmal to have gotten cancelled that quickly, but unfortunately we may never know just how abysmal.
Gung Ho (1986-7, 9 episodes)
You know what movie was a lot of fun? 1986’s Gung Ho starring Michael Keaton. The plot, about a failing American car company that’s taken over by a Japanese concern and the work and culture clashes that happen between them, was funny (if not somewhat offensive in retrospect) and Michael Keaton was in his early comedic mode. So heck, why not make the movie into a TV show? It’s certainly easier than coming up with an original idea, after all.
It must have been some quick work to get this to air, too: the movie was released in March 1986 and the first episode of the series premiered in December of the same year. Playing Keaton’s part here was Scott Bakula in his first TV series, who is good but he’s not exactly, you know, funny. The new Japanese plant manager was played by Gedde Watanabe, who reprised his role from the film.
To be fair, the show isn’t terrible. It’s not great, either–it’s just OK but also somewhat pointless. How much more tread was on this concept? What was left to explore after the original feature-length film? Obviously not much: it was cancelled after just 9 episodes. Sayōnara, Gung Ho.
The Highwayman (1987-88, 10 episodes)
To quote directly from The Highwayman’s opening narration:
“There is a world, just beyond now, where reality runs a razor thin seam between fact and possibility; where the laws of the present collide with the crimes of tomorrow. Patrolling these vast outlands is a new breed of lawman, guarding the fringes of society’s frontiers, they are known simply as ‘Highwaymen’… and this is their story…”
A mixture of Mad Max and Knight Rider, the series followed a group called “The Highwaymen,” exojudicial law enforcement figures who solve mysteries using a computerized truck which, what? Expect leather jackets, lots of 80s spiky hairdos, and in general what set designers thought The Future would look like circa 1987.
It’s actually a rather amusing show in the “so bad it’s good” kind of way, with a vaguely post-apocalyptic tone and filled with plenty of dangling logic threads that will delight the analytically minded to try and figure out. A product of writers and producers overcooking a concept and then desperately reshuffling characters and situations to make the show work. It even switched production companies at one point, a highly unusual move for any TV series. It ran for 10 episodes before the network realized they could just throw money directly into the garbage at a more efficient rate. If you’re looking for some goofy retro fun and have the right sensibility for this kind of awfulness, check out The Highwayman on YouTube–the whole series is available there.
She’s the Sheriff (1987-89, 44 episodes)
Hey, Suzanne Somers has had a pretty good career. She was great on Three’s Company, after all. And then….Step By Step? The Thighmaster infomercial? That Lifetime made-for-TV movie where she played an obnoxious drunk mom? OK, maybe she hasn’t had a great TV career. But she probably has made enough money that these subpar projects don’t bother her much.
Speaking of subpar projects, there’s She’s the Sheriff. Starring Somers as Hildy Granger, a widow with two children, is suddenly appointed sheriff of Lakes County, Nevada, the job her late husband had held. But she doesn’t know anything about being a sheriff!!
Well, you’d think that would be where the show’s humor line starts. Instead, it piles on the idea that Granger is incompetent because, after all, how could a woman be a sheriff? Oh, and she’s also kind of dumb because broads, amirite? Besides being sexist, She’s The Sheriff also took the opportunity to feature Somers in a tight-fitting uniform because the network was paying good money, after all. Incredibly, this show ran for two seasons and 44 episodes. In a world where Firefly ran for 14 episodes, this may be the biggest indignity of them all.