Sex sells. That’s the theory hacky admen, tabloid reporters, and TV execs subscribe to, at least. But salacious subject matter isn’t always a recipe for success. Earlier this week, we learned that NBC’s once-buzzy drama series The Playboy Club has earned the distinction of becoming the first canceled show of the season. Although plenty of steamy shows are thriving — True Blood is certainly in no danger of cancellation — this is far from the first time TV networks have gambled on sex and lost. After the jump, we’ve rounded up ten series that prove T&A can’t save otherwise terrible programming.
The Playboy Club (NBC, 2011)
Riding a wave of Mad Men copycat shows — and facilitated by that show’s supersize hiatus — The Playboy Club never looked like it would be great. But, set at the first Playboy Club in mid-’60s Chicago, and produced in cooperation with Hugh Hefner, it at least promised to provide some stupid, sexy fun. In fact, the show’s plot was so ridiculous and its characters so one-dimensional from the get-go that we couldn’t justify continuing to watch it after the pilot. Others must have agreed because viewership numbers dropped from over five to under 3.5 million after only three episodes.
Skins (MTV, 2011)
After years of greedily devouring each new season of the British series Skins, a refreshingly raw teen drama about high schoolers who drink, do drugs, and have lots of sex, we were excited to see MTV’s version. And while we still don’t think it was so terrible, the American adaptation faced a lot of challenges its UK counterpart never had: the restrictions of primetime TV in the US (where bad language is bleeped), the difficulty of deciding how much to diverge from its predecessor, a noticeably weaker cast, and a huge drop in advertisers after the conservative Parents Television Council launched a campaign against it.
Co-Ed Fever (CBS, 1979)
One of many college comedies inspired by the success of National Lampoon’s Animal House, Co-Ed Fever had a provocative premise: A women’s college begins admitting men, and the ladies of the Brewster House dorm are joined by a trio of new male residents. Although the show may have sounded scandalous at the time, it apparently didn’t provide enough of a frisson to make it past the first episode — Co-Ed Fever was canceled soon after its pilot aired, and it’s remembered as one of the worst TV shows of all time.
Swingtown (CBS, 2008)
CBS’s Swingtown sure sounded exciting — who wouldn’t want to watch an hour-long drama that followed a family in the ’70s, as the sexual revolution came to the suburbs, and formerly vanilla couples started pursuing open relationships? In fact, we enjoyed the show and its fantastic lead, Molly Parker. But despite ample drama and great sets and costumes, the summer series (which, like Skins, drew the ire of many conservative groups) failed to find its audience. After an inauspicious move to Friday-night no man’s land, it was cancelled a few months after debut season’s finale.
Veronica’s Closet (NBC, 1997-2000)
Unlike the other shows on this list, which were canceled within their first season, Veronica’s Closet lasted for three years. A Kirstie Alley vehicle that cast its star as a romance expert and the owner of a lingerie company, the sitcom debuted to unbelievable numbers — 35 million people watched the series premiere, and it averaged over 24 million viewers in its first season. And that’s when TV fans started to realize that Veronica’s Closet just wasn’t that funny. Ratings plunged in the years that followed. By the time it was canceled, the show had dropped from #3 in the country to #86.
Tell Me You Love Me (HBO, 2007)
Frequently described as a grown-up version of MTV’s Undressed — and originally titled sexlife — the HBO drama Tell Me You Love Me followed three couples who are seeing the same therapist about their intimacy issues. Despite a sleek, verité style and a strong cast including Jane Alexander and Adam Scott, as well as explicit, well-publicized, premium cable-enabled sex scenes, HBO never managed to convince subscribers that listening to average people’s relationship troubles was worth their time. The drama never cracked the million-viewer mark. Although it was initially picked up for a second season, the network gave up when creator Cynthia Mort admitted she had no idea what to do with the show.
Stripperella (Spike, 2003-2004)
Pamela Anderson. Stan Lee. Strippers. Spike TV. It sounded like a match made in dudebro heaven. But whether it was because the cable channel had to blur out the nipples on Anderson’s exotic-dancing spy/superheroine or its inconsistency (the animation style and individual characters’ appearance were changed several episodes in) or the fact that the entire idea sounded more like a frat-house joke than the premise of a show anyone would actually want to invest time in, Stripperella only lasted a single season.
Paradise Hotel (Fox, 2003)
We never thought we’d have an excuse to mention our favorite guilty pleasure of 2003 twice in as many weeks, but it certainly deserves a place on this list. The reality series placed nine apparently heterosexual singles at a beautiful, remote resort, where they’d have to find an opposite-sex roommate to shack up with or face being eliminated. It was clear that what Fox wanted out of the contestants was tons of romantic intrigue — instead, they got a bunch of ruthless factions playing to win, with very little actual sex taking place. The result was fascinating to watch, if you’re into group psychology. Unfortunately, it seems like most people would have rather seen the hook-ups, because the show vanished after the first season. A revamped, and possibly even creepier, version of Paradise Hotel, called Forever Eden , emerged in 2004 but was canceled after only seven episodes. Fox tried again to revive the show on cable’s Fox Reality Network, but that too disappeared after only one season.
Sex, Love & Secrets (UPN, 2005)
Ratings were terrible from the beginning for this Denise Richards vehicle, in which the actress played an unscrupulous publicist with a lot of hip, witty pals. It didn’t help matters that critics hated the show, with Anita Gates of The New York Times describing it as a “vapid soap about vapid young single heterosexual friends living in the trendy Silver Lake section of Los Angeles.” UPN didn’t even finish making the first season, halting production after only two weeks on the air. So much for the old “put ‘sex’ in the title” trick.
Coupling (NBC, 2003)
Like Skins, the original Coupling was a hit on British TV. Written by the estimable Steven Moffat (who went on to pen beloved episodes of Doctor Who and Sherlock), the UK sitcom followed the romantic lives of six 30-something friends. It ran for four seasons and won Best TV Comedy at the 2003 British Comedy Awards. Sadly, the American remake never lived up to its predecessor, and critics and viewers immediately realized it was a poor substitute for the British version. Although Moffat was also behind NBC’s Coupling, he has said that interference from the network is what spoiled the show.