Listen: television is a cesspool. You know it, I know it, hell even TV knows it. Instead of the respect, promotion, and (especially) money that gets pumped into creating films, television has traditionally been the ghetto of visual entertainment. Even paintings – images that don’t even move, for cripes sake – get entire buildings in major cities dedicated to them, are studied by scholars and artists, and last for centuries in their influence and acclaim.
But television? That’s where people who want to find a career in Hollywood start, writing and directing and churning out entertainment paid for by the minute and scrounging for audience dollars; that live or die by the number of people who tune in every week to watch a hardboiled detective series, wacky sitcom, or gripping drama. Films have it easy by comparison: just fill 90+ minutes of screen time with some explosions, sex, laughs, or character development (hopefully all four) once and you’re good forever.
Sure, we live in a golden age of TV now, where the format is now regularly producing Great TV, but (mostly) up until the 1990s and beyond, television programming was broadcast free and something to keep the rubes entertained in between toothpaste commercials. And the past is a wonderful place to mine just how garbage the medium used to be.
For you see, up until television’s renaissance – thanks to cable television and the fact that it’s very difficult to actually acquire a clear signal for free these days – television was like the radio of visual entertainment: it was flying through the sky like the air hoping someone, somewhere, was tuning in at any given moment for whatever godforsaken reason.
So until the stakes were raised in the early 21st century, TV executives were more concerned with people tuning into whatever insanity they came up with just so the advertisers would continue giving them money for any given time slot. Plus I think drug use in the industry had a lot to do with the decision-making process in the past.
So, without further adieu, here are 20 garbage TV shows that were thrown on the air in the 1980s on national broadcast networks in the US which network executives, drunk on power and probably high on a number of other substances, thought they could sell toothpaste ads during. They were wrong, of course, but after that much blow who’s making good decisions? This is Part I of a two-part article series on garbage TV shows that aired in the 1980s on American television.
B.A.D. Cats (1980, 10 episodes, 6 aired)
Two former race car drivers join the Los Angeles Police Department as part of the B.A.D. C.A.T. (Burglary Auto Detail Commercial Auto Thefts) squad as if something like that exists. These two drivers are real loose cannons whose methods get results, dammit! And there’s also a lady police officer, Samantha Jensen (played by…wait, this can’t be right…Michelle Pfeiffer?!?!?!), who helps these two ne’er-do-wells dish out justice on the streets.
It sounds like a parody of an 80’s police show but this thing actually aired for 6 episodes on TV between January and February 1980. That is, until someone at the network realized this was a stupid idea for a TV show and then cancelled it, choosing not to throw more good money after bad down at the racetrack.
Breaking Away (1980, 8 episodes, 7 aired)
Breaking Away is a great coming-of-age comedy/drama that was released in 1979. In just 100 minutes, the story was told of a group of working class friends trying to figure out what to do after graduation and frequently tangling with local college boys in their university town who look down on them. In particular, Dave is obsessed with cycling and Italian culture and starts to speak in an Italian accent to woo a college girl he falls for. Entering a cycling competition, Dave–with the help of his friends–competes in a cycling race, winning the day for his working-class cohorts and earning his father’s understanding.
And after that? Well, who cares? The movie did a great job telling the story and had a great ending. Well, ABC needed a new show and Shaun Cassidy needed a job so they adapted this self-contained movie into a TV show. But they had a twist! It was set a whole year before the events of the film, so they could have potentially squeezed out a season’s worth of story from this before lapping the movie. Instead, it was cancelled after just 7 episodes aired. Heck, it would have been more economical to just air Breaking Away The Movie 7 times–at least audiences would have enjoyed it.
Beyond Westworld (1980, 5 episodes, 3 aired)
We all know that what happens in Westworld, the 1973 sci-fi movie. And we even know what happens in Futureworld, its 1976 sequel. But suppose there was something…Beyond Westworld? So anyway, Security Chief John Moore of the Delos Corporation is trying to stop an evil scientist from using the robots of Delos to take over the world. Great. So, Futureworld? It’s just Futureworld in a series format.
Apparently it’s somewhat of a cult show at this point, even though only five episodes were produced and only three aired. But who needs it at this point? There was already a (mostly) good show adapted from Westworld on TV called Westworld. And it was made in the actual future. But this is stupid garbage, so there are no violent delights with violent ends here.
The Phoenix (1982, 5 episodes)
Speaking of stupid garbage, here’s some more: The Phoenix was about an ancient extraterrestrial named Bennu, who came to Earth long ago to help mankind out, which was nice of him. But then he laid dormant for a thousand years until it could be 1982 (the most Atari of years) suspended in time. Now looking for his partner, who split some time ago, he uses the sun as a power source *cough* Superman *cough* and has “super intelligence,” which doesn’t make sense, and a bunch of other barely explained powers.
Anyway, he’s discovered in a sarcophagus and awakened and now does a bunch of hero-like stuff in the modern age. His powers include telepathy, precognition, levitation, astral projection, and telekinesis which, did he have these powers before he came to Earth? Does everyone on his planet have these powers?
Whatever. He has an enemy in another extraterrestrial called Yago, he’s searching for his partner, Mira, which was sent here 40,000 years ahead of his arrival to be his companion and is now…somewhere. Who could care about this? The answer: nobody. It was cancelled after 5 episodes and I suppose Bennu went back into another 1000-year coma.
Q.E.D. (1982, 6 episodes)
America has a funny relationship with UK culture: while we enjoy their TV shows and movies, we’re not the biggest fan of direct adaptations of their shows, instead preferring to Americanize them. Likewise, although we can enjoy shows and movies made and set in Merry Old Londontown, shows made in the US set in England aren’t very well-received.
Q.E.D. was an adventure series set in Edwardian England. Starring Professor Quentin Everett Deverill (Sam Waterston, who’s American) as a sort-of Sherlock Holmes only with more of a scientific bent; the title of the show is the professor’s initials (and Q.E.D. is Latin for quod erat demonstrandum, “thus it has been demonstrated”).
This one-hour adventure-mystery was produced in America and ran on CBS in 1982 for 6 episodes before being cancelled. It also aired on ITV in the UK, but whether the reception was any warmer across the pond of a show set in England but produced in the United States than this country’s TV-viewing audience at the time has yet to be demonstrated.
The Devlin Connection (1982, 13 episodes)
Most of the shows on this list seem like they failed because of the high “who could care?” quotient involved in their setup. And The Devlin Connection has such a “who cares?” setup that you almost fall asleep just by reading it.
OK, so: Brian Devlin (Rock Hudson) is a former military intelligence officer and ex-owner of a detective agency and is now the director of the Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, which, what? So he meets Nick Corsello, a racquetball pro and private investigator (WHAT?), who is revealed to be Devlin’s son that he didn’t know about from an affair he had 28 years prior. So what does a racquetball pro and the director of the Performing Arts Center in LA who are long-lost father-and-son decide to do? Why, solve mysteries together!
The only mystery that needs to be solved really is how The Devlin Connection ever made it to air and lasted 13 episodes. That setup is so convoluted and strange and nonsensical. So Brian Devlin went from being a military intelligence officer (which is an impressive career) to being a private investigator (which, not so much) to being the director of the Performing Arts Center in LA, which is completely bazonkers.
Don’t worry: after 13 episodes it was cancelled. Maybe a duck that’s a former CIA agent and now runs a cement factory and three toddlers who are distant cousins to the duck can team up to solve the mystery of where this show went.
Wizards and Warriors (1983, 8 episodes)
Medieval fantasy shows didn’t really ever gain an audience, well, ever: outside of syndicated shows like Xena: Warrior Princess in the 1990s and a steady stream of B-movies that would end up being mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000. But hey, it’s the 80s! Surely a concept that has classically appealed only to fantasy fiction readers and Dungeons & Dragons roleplayers will find a widespread audience!
Of course not, because yikes. Anyway, you could imagine what this show was: two neighboring kingdoms get into a conflict, and one kingdom is good and the other is bad. Wizards, witches, and knights get into clashes with each other. And, you know, that’s it. It existed for 8 episodes before a wizard stole its production money and time slot.
Ace Crawford: Private Eye (1983, 5 episodes)
Hey! Tim Conway was a really funny guy! McHale’s Navy, The Carol Burnett Show, I mean, this dude had some comedic chops. So someone at CBS said to themselves, “Self, why not give that funny man his own dang show?” And they did: Ace Crawford: Private Eye.
Shot on film with a laugh track (ugh), Conway was the titular Ace Crawford, a private detective who, despite his bumbling idiocy, would solve the case every episode. Each episode was a new case and Conway used his trademark slapstick style to make this all seem funny. But it must not have been that funny since it only lasted 5 episodes.
And then Tim Conway spent the rest of his career, I don’t know, hawking The Best of Carol Burnett on infomercials, I guess.
Manimal (1983, 8 episodes)
There’s a show called Manimal that has been referenced so often in pop culture that I truly thought it was a good show that was unfairly cancelled. And now I know: it’s just a joke and the show is stupid. It was being referenced by people that have a lot of good taste – comedians, podcast hosts, etc. – because it’s a terrible show that doesn’t seem like it should have ever aired in the first place. I was a year old in 1983, so what do I know?
Anywhoo, this is this stupid show’s premise, as was recited in the opening narration every episode: “Dr Jonathan Chase… wealthy, young, handsome. A man with the brightest of futures. A man with the darkest of pasts. From Africa’s deepest recesses, to the rarefied peaks of Tibet, heir to his father’s legacy and the world’s darkest mysteries. Jonathan Chase, master of the secrets that divide man from animal, animal from man… Manimal!” Long story short: he can turn himself into any animal of his choosing and uses this ability to help the police solve crimes. Which is stupid.
So now I get it: it’s a joke when people reference Manimal. It lasted 8 episodes and is considered one of the worst sci-fi series of all time. Apparently this show really stuck in a lot of funny people’s craws: Adam McKay and Will Ferrell were apparently trying to adapt the show into a movie back in 2014, but once the backers realized they were serious must have immediately pulled out.
Automan (1983-4, 13 episodes, 1 aired)
Hey, remember Tron? The Disney movie about a dude getting sucked into an early 80’s computer and wasn’t a very big hit at the theater? ABC decided to just rip it off and take a lot of the stylistics from it, only it’s about a policeman who’s a computer whiz who makes a hologram man that can exist in the real world and then fights crime….for him?
Yes, Automan is about, uh, Automan: a hologram that is able to leave the computer at night and fight crime. But he also had an alter ego in the real world, for some reason, “Otto J. Mann,” a government agent. Whaaaa? Also, the guy that made him could sometimes merge with Automan….? Why not just cut out the middle man and give this guy a Freakazoid-like setup where the computer program makes him the superhero? This is needlessly complicated.
It also looks like it was real garbage, and audiences agreed: it lasted just 13 episodes, with one unaired. Just how much time and money did networks have to blow in 1983? Apparently enough for multiple episodes of all of these garbage shows on this list to be produced and aired.
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