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The 10 Least Surprising Pop Culture Flops

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As you may have heard (over and over again), Charlie Sheen’s Saturday night kick-off to his “Violent Torpedo of Truth” tour didn’t go so well. Sheen apparently rambled, showed amateur vides, joked about crack, and prompted the audience of 4700 to walk out in droves, booing and demanding refunds. Huh. Who’da thunk it? Who’d have imagined that a mentally unstable drug addict with no live performance skills would put on a bad show? We’re with those angry fans — refund! They didn’t go to that show expecting to see some kind of train wreck.

Since the Sheen stage show was never anything but a terrible nightmare of an idea, its failure is far from surprising. After the jump, we’ll take a look at ten more pop culture items — books, films, TV shows, music — that shocked absolutely no one by flopping. (We left off the Spider-Man musical, because we simply can’t bring ourselves to talk about both that and Sheen, again, in the same post.) Check out our list, and add your own flops in the comments.

The Jersey Shore books

THE PITCH: Clearly the audiences that have made Jersey Shore MTV’s biggest hit are big-time book readers, right? And the show’s Dickensian narratives and proto-Franzen mediations on class and consumption are just crying out for further literary interpretation, no? That’s what the collected geniuses of the publishing industry hoped when they signed Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, and Jenni “JWoww” Farley to lucrative book deals. Sorrentino’s Here’s the Situation: A Guide to Creeping on Chicks, Avoiding Grenades, and Getting in Your GTL in the Jersey Shore (if typing that title doesn’t convince you that culture is ending, nothing will) was released in November 2010; Polizzi’s A Shore Thing and Farley’s The Rules According to JWOWW: Shore-Tested Secrets on Landing a Mint Guy, Staying Fresh to Death, and Kicking the Competition to the Curb followed suit in January and February 2011, respectively.

THE CRITICS RAVE: “With only 133 pages to its name, one would assume that this would be a simple book to just walk right through. That assumption couldn’t be further from the truth, as it is the most painful 133 pages I’ve ever had to read. Catch phrases, shitty drawings, fake ‘ab facts,’ and of course, ‘Real Life Situations,’ all are yours for the perusing in this handy volume made for you to ‘crush.’ By the end of this book, the only thing that was crushed was my soul, and that was because of the fact that somewhere, out in the major population sprawl of America, someone thought this was a good idea.” –Pajiba, on Here’s the Situation

THE PUBLIC SPEAKS: Here’s The Situation has sold about 12,000 copies; A Shore Thing, around 9,000. Figures aren’t out yet for The Rules, but it’s trending in the same direction.

Paris Hilton’s debut album, Paris

THE PITCH: America’s most loved/hated heiress, while not apparently, by definition, “talented” in any arena, did have some skills: going to nightclubs, starring in reality TV shows, appearing in sex tapes. So the next logical step, of course, would be to have her record an album. “I know music,” she insisted. “I hear it every single day.” That persuasive credibility aside, perhaps Warner Bros. Records overestimated the American music-buying public’s interest in contributing to Hilton’s fortune.

THE CRITICS RAVE: “In a celebrity culture where shamelessness is a greater asset than talent, this CD was inevitable… Hilton’s colorless, wafer-thin singing reminds us there are still limits to what technology can do for the human voice.” – USA Today

THE PUBLIC SPEAKS: 197,000 copies sold. Which is still about 197,000 too many.

Cop Rock

THE PITCH: Few TV types were hotter in 1990 than Steven Bochco, whose Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and Doogie Howser M.D. were among the biggest critical and commercial successes of the previous decade. As part of his lucrative ten-series deal with ABC, Bochco pitched another hour-long police show, albeit not quite in the same tonal universe as Hill Street: Cop Rock, which would meld hard-boiled police drama with… musical theatre. No, seriously. Cops, lawyers, and crooks would spontaneously burst into song and dance numbers. This was a real thing. It was on TV.

THE CRITICS RAVE: “When Bochco stops the action to have his actors burst into song, however, Cop Rock stops dead. In good musicals, the songs further the plot — they advance the action through the lyrics and the tone of the melody. In this show, the songs do the opposite.”- Entertainment Weekly

THE PUBLIC SPEAKS: Ranking 80th among the season’s 101 shows, Cop Rock was cancelled after 11 episodes. Bochco’s next cop show, NYPD Blue, met with far greater success. Musical TV dramas still haven’t quite caught on (how ya doin, Viva Laughlin).

The Postman

THE PITCH: Kevin Costner won the Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture in 1990 for Dances with Wolves and then spent the following seven years torpedoing his bankability with a series of ill-advised and unsuccessful vehicles like Wyatt Earp and The War. But the most high-profile blunder of his post-Dances era was Waterworld, the mind-bogglingly expensive post-apocalyptic tale of a wandering drifter in a world gone to hell. That film’s $175 million budget and massive production overages generated more ink than the film itself, which received middling reviews and box office (though its robust international business pushed the picture into the black). So, for his return to the director’s chair, Costner naturally chose… a post-apocalyptic tale of a wandering drifter in a world gone to hell. The Postman was basically Waterwold on dry land, a three-hour slog with such memorable scenes as Costner reciting Shakespeare to his mule.

THE CRITICS RAVE: “Every truly awful movie epic has a point of no return, a moment when the accumulated bad lines and bogus sentimentality become so cloying that the best defense against a mounting queasiness is an awed amusement. If you have a low tolerance for mawkish jingoism, Kevin Costner’s post-apocalyptic Western, The Postman, offers a new opportunity for levity every few minutes after its first hour.”- The New York Times

THE PUBLIC SPEAKS: Given a high-profile release on Christmas Day 1997, The Postman opened in ninth place, taking in about 1/7 the gross of that week’s number one movie, Titanic. The $80 million production’s domestic gross fell just shy of $18 million.

Battlefield Earth

THE PITCH: Hey America, you know that unnerving Scientology thing that your favorite celebrities are into? Well, the guy who cooked it up, L. Ron Hubbard, was a science fiction novelist. Wouldn’t you like to see a film adaptation of one of his books? How’s that? You wouldn’t? But it stars John Travolta, all unwashed and wearing dreadlocks! And Forest Whitaker and that one guy from Saving Private Ryan! You want to see it now, right? Hey, where did you go?

THE CRITICS RAVE: “Some movies run off the rails. This one is like the train crash in The Fugitive.” – Roger Ebert

THE PUBLIC SPEAKS: The film’s total domestic gross was barely one-third of its $73 million production budget; it quickly became the go-to reference for box-office bombs.

Kevin Federline’s Playing with Fire

THE PITCH: Once, there was a girl named Britney, who became a worldwide sensation thanks (partially) to her catchy music and (mostly) her provocative, Lolita-inspired persona. Then, in 2004, she fell in love with Kevin Federline, one of her back-up dancers, even though he was dating an actress and had impregnated her a couple of times. But he married Britney anyway, and impregnated her a couple of times, too. Anyway, come to find out, he was a rapper. Who wouldn’t want to hear his album?

THE CRITICS RAVE: “An oh-so-tiny sliver of myself kind of wanted Playing with Fire to be less aggressively shitty than it is, if only so the restless, rapacious media would ease off this tattered target of its ire — unfortunately, this disc is just as disposable and dumb as you’d expect.”- Slant Magazine

THE PUBLIC SPEAKS: Playing with Fire debuted at #151 on the Billboard top 200, with first-week sales of 6,500 units (ouch). In week two, he moved 1,500 copies.

Heil Honey I’m Home!

THE PITCH: This 1990 British production purported to be a “lost” sitcom recently “discovered in a Burbank backlot.” The premise: Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun are your basic TV sitcom couple, trying to get along with their neighbors — the Goldsteins! Hilarity ensues! (For the record, when we first read about this show, we presumed it was an Internet hoax. No such luck.)

THE CRITICS RAVE: “The entire enterprise generates a nauseating air of smugness — somewhat unsurprisingly, the show is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. It’s a one-joke idea that wouldn’t make for an entertaining sketch, let alone a television series — file under ‘how the hell did this get commissioned?’”- The British Sitcom Guide

THE PUBLIC SPEAKS: Though eight episodes were shot, only the first one made it to air before the series was unceremoniously pulled. Apparently (“Springtime for Hitler” aside), atrocities aren’t all that funny. Speaking of which…

The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer

THE PITCH: Yes, if there’s one thing there’s been a real shortage of, it’s sitcoms about slavery. The short-lived netlet UPN attempted to correct that in 1998 with this series, in which Chi McBride played the title character, an English nobleman sent via slave ship to America (laughing yet?), where he becomes valet to Abraham Lincoln. Of course, the show didn’t merely mine slavery for giggles — it also included jokes about Lincoln’s homosexual tendencies, U.S. Grant’s drinking, and the KKK. Ha ha… ha?

THE CRITICS RAVE: “It is rare that primetime audiences are treated with quite as much disdain as is apparent in this shamefully misguided UPN farce… What test audience assured UPN that it would be wise to bestow a series order onto this?”- Variety

THE PUBLIC SPEAKS: Civil rights groups protested the series loudly, prompting UPN to delay the premiere and change the order of the first two episodes. No matter; it came in 116th out of 125 shows in that week’s Nielsen ratings (lousy numbers for even UPN), and only three more of the show’s nine produced episodes aired before the network pulled the plug.

Garth Brooks in… The Life of Chris Gaines

THE PITCH: In 1999, Garth Brooks was the biggest country act in the country, enjoying robust record sales (during the previous decade, six of his albums sold between 10 million and 21 million copies each) and playing to sell-out crowds. So he did what any sensible artist would do: he created the alter ego of Chris Gaines, an Australian pop/rock artist with emo hair and a soul patch. Gaines was originally to be the fictional lead character in a Paramount feature film called The Lamb, but Brooks decided to record an album as Gaines and take on the persona for a VH1 Behind the Music special and a “musical guest” appearance on Saturday Night Live (on an episode in which he, as Brooks, was the guest host).

THE CRITICS RAVE:Chris Gaines prepares us for a truly alternative Brooks. Instead, the album is faded musical wallpaper: mewly, faux-Babyface-unplugged weepers and timid, rinky-dink attempts at blues rock… the gimmick feels as cowardly as it does brave, for it allows Brooks to attempt a pop crossover — it’s his Shania Twain move — without truly committing to it.” – Entertainment Weekly

THE PUBLIC SPEAKS: The record sold, as anything Brooks-related would at that point. But it topped out at two million units — positively anemic compared to the artist’s standard sales. The oddball Gaines experiment quickly became a pop-culture punch line, and The Lamb — the project that started it all — never came to be. His next album, Scarecrow, was a return to country, but it was his final studio release. Shortly after its debuted, he retired from performing, only recently returning for regular Las Vegas engagements.

Howard the Duck

THE PITCH: Not every comic book should be turned into a movie. It’s a lesson proved over and over again (witness Barb Wire, The Spirit, Judge Dredd, etc.) but never learned, and one of the most vivid examples was also one of the earliest. Back in 1986, George Lucas — who, lest you forget, we all still liked then — produced a film adaptation of the subversive, satirical Marvel character, who dated back to the mid-1970s. The film was a collaboration with husband-and-wife writing team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who had penned American Grafitti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for Lucas. The trouble was, the filmmakers were more interested in summer blockbuster special effects than the existentialist tone of the original books; the loud, ugly picture that resulted pleased absolutely no one.

THE CRITICS RAVE: “Steve Gerber’s sarcastic comic-book creation is (unwisely) turned into a live-action character for this hopeless mess of a movie… Gargantuan production produces gargantuan headache.” –Leonard Maltin

THE PUBLIC SPEAKS: If Lucas was hoping for Star Wars or Indiana Jones numbers, he was in for a disappointment: the film opened in third place and ultimately barely earned half of its (then-massive) $37 million production budget.