TV’s Most Notoriously Short-Lived Shows

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While perusing today’s new DVD releases, your film editor was nearly prompted to a coffee spit take by one particular title: Warner Archive’s release of, and I quote, “ Emily’s Reasons Why Not : The Complete Series.” You see, I remember Emily’s, ABC’s well-publicized 2006 Heather Graham sitcom that aired exactly one time before being unceremoniously yanked from the air. “Ha ha,” I thought to myself. “31 bucks is a lot of money to ask for a thirty-minute disc,” and I laughed and laughed. That’s not the whole story, of course; there are actually seven episodes of “the complete series” (though that’s still a pretty hefty price tag); six more where already in the bank when ABC pulled the show due to poor reviews and low ratings. (Funny thing: its 6.2 million viewers would be a pretty comfortable debut in today’s slipping TV environment.) But it was far from the first show to get tossed in the dumpster before it could find an audience. After the jump, we’ve compiled just a few TV series that were put out to pasture notoriously early in their runs.

You’re in the Picture (1961) TOTAL AIRINGS: 1

In the early years of television, networks were less likely to pull the plug on a show early on; ratings were rudimentary, and took some time to turn around, and the investment in a new series was substantial enough to give it time to sink or swim. But a notable exception to this rule was You’re in the Picture, in which one of the young medium’s biggest stars, the great Jackie Gleason, attempted to follow his success in variety and sitcom formats by trying his hand at a comedy game show. Gleason was the host; in each round, his four-person celebrity panel would stick their heads into a large tableaux illustration that they could not see, and would have to ask Gleason questions to figure out what they were enacting. If it sounds less than thrilling, don’t worry: it was worse. Remarkably, Gleason realized it — indeed, you can see him realizing it as the show sputters and fumbles through its only episode. A second show was shot, but it didn’t air. Instead, the following week at the same time, viewers tuned in to discover Gleason seated in a large chair on an otherwise bare stage, a cigarette in one hand, a drink in another, and they witnessed something extraordinary: a thirty-minute mea culpa for the previous week’s disaster. “Last week,” he told the audience, “we did a show that laid, without a doubt, the biggest bomb… this would make the H-bomb look like a two-inch salute.” Gleason proceeded to do a show-length monologue, explaining how the program came to be, and how he’d dealt with other failures in his career. The follow-up program was everything the first wasn’t: it was funny, it was off-the-cuff, and it was entertaining. CBS renamed the slot The Jackie Gleason Show, and he finished out his spring series commitment by turning it into a talk/interview program.

Turn On (1969) TOTAL AIRINGS: 1

Few shows on TV were hotter in 1969 than Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, so when that show’s producers pitched a similarly fast-paced, far-out, youth-oriented comedy show to ABC, the network jumped at it. The result was Turn On, which aired exactly one time, on February 5, 1969. The style was more experimental than Laugh-In’s; it was shot on film, with no laugh track, and included animation, stop motion, computer graphics, even electronic distortion (the show’s premise held that it was being generated by a computer). What got the show in trouble was its nonstop barrage of risqué humor; there were countless references to promiscuous sex, birth control, drag, and homosexuality. Guest host Tim Conway later joked that the show was cancelled midway through its only episode, and in one market, that was true: WEWS in Cleveland stopped the episode before it finished, and famously sent ABC an angry telegram: “If your naughty little boys have to write dirty words on the walls, please don’t use our walls.” Other stations chose not to air the episode, while several who did found their phone lines jammed with complaint calls. So were the network switchboards, so ABC pulled the later West Coast feed, and cancelled the show before its already-shot second episode could air. The deafeningly poor reception to Turn On was reportedly a factor in a gun-shy ABC’s decision shortly thereafter to pass on a potentially controversial comedy from Norman Lear called All in the Family.

Adams of Eagle Lake (1975) TOTAL AIRINGS: 2

Let us stop to consider one of television’s most notorious flops, the famed failure in which Andy Griffith played a small-town sheriff. Wait, what? No, not The Andy Griffith Show — the other series in which Andy Griffith played a small-town sheriff. The former Andy Taylor left his eponymous series in 1968 (it was renamed Mayberry RFD and ran for three more seasons), but his film roles and subsequent series went nowhere, so in 1974, he did a TV movie called Winter Kill (above) in which he played Sam McNeill, sheriff of a small resort town. That movie was meant as the pilot for a serious mystery series, but when it wasn’t picked up, the show was reworked, the character was renamed Sam Adams, and Adams of Eagle Lake went on the air in January 1975. Despite a solid supporting cast (including a young Nick Nolte as one of Griffith’s officers), only two episodes made it to air. Griffith, undeterred, tried again, playing another small town sheriff (renamed for the third time, now Sheriff Abel Marsh) in two 1977 TV movies called The Girl in the Empty Grave and Deadly Game. It wasn’t meant to be, though certainly not for lack of trying. Griffith finally had another TV hit a decade later, with the Abe Simpson-beloved Matlock.

The Sanford Arms (1977) TOTAL AIRINGS: 4

Sanford and Son was one of NBC’s most successful sitcoms, running six seasons on the network, but it was also a turbulent show; star Redd Foxx left for several episodes in the third season due to a salary dispute, and quit the show while it was still in the top 30 for a higher-paying variety show on ABC. The show’s producers wanted Demond Wilson (who played Foxx’s son Lamont) to stick around, but he wanted more money than they were willing to pony up, so the network was left to figure out a way to continue Sanford and Son with neither Sanford nor Son. Their ingenious solution: make it about the house! The premise of The Sanford Arms was that Fred and Lamont, having moved to Arizona, sold their property to Fred’s old Army buddy Phil (a new character, played by Theodore Wilson), who took over the rooming house next door and tried to turn it into a hotel. Though several supporting characters — including Grady, Bubba, and Aunt Esther — stuck around, audiences didn’t; the dismal ratings and poor reviews led NBC to cancel the show after only half of its eight episodes had aired. The Redd Foxx Comedy Hour didn’t do much better (it was axed after half a season), nor did his subsequent attempt to return to the character with the 1980 series Sanford, which did two half-seasons in 1980 and 1981.

What’s Alan Watching? (1989) TOTAL AIRINGS: 1

In the 1980s, TV networks stumbled on a new way to get more bang for their buck by airing unused TV pilots in spring and summer months to fill prime-time air time. Sometimes they would package them under generic titles like CBS Summer Playhouse, which is where, for example, the 1989 pilot for a series version of Eddie Murphy’s movie Coming to America (starring In Living Color’s Tommy Davidson) was seen. But earlier that year, the network aired a would-be series with a more direct link to Mr. Murphy: What’s Alan Watching, a fascinating and frequently funny hour-long hybrid of family sitcom and sketch comedy series. A pre-Parker Lewis Corin Nemic played the title character, a TV-obsessed teen whose family life (which included a young Fran Drescher as his obnoxious sister) alternated with the wacky stuff on his TV. The single episode was directed by Thomas Schlamme, who would later become one of the most sought-after directors in the medium (his credits include The West Wing, Parenthood, Studio 60, Ally McBeal, and Sports Night), and its writing staff included Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield, who had made their name as Eddie Murphy’s go-to writers when they were all on Saturday Night Live. Murphy’s appearances on Alan (most memorably as both a protestor marching for the release of a then-imprisoned James Brown, and the Godfather of Soul himself) were his first sketch work since leaving that show, but the promise of his occasional participation wasn’t enough for CBS, who didn’t pick it up for series. However, the one airing received rave reviews, and the show won that year’s Television Critics Association award for Outstanding Achievement in Movies, Miniseries, and Specials.

Dudley (1993) TOTAL AIRINGS: 5 Daddy’s Girls (1994) TOTAL AIRINGS: 3

Few things get TV execs more excited than landing a big (or recently big) movie star for a sitcom, even though the hit-and-miss ratio on those star vehicles leans far more often towards cancellation. Bette Midler had Bette, Whoopi Goldberg had Whoopi, Pauly Shore had Pauly (seeing a pattern?), and in 1994, Dudley Moore had Dudley. This 1993 midseason replacement for CBS found the film star — who had fallen from the heights of 10, Arthur, and Micki & Maude to the lows of Like Father Like Son and Blame it on the Bellboy — playing a cabaret pianist struggling to get along with his teenage son. Six episodes were produced, but only five aired. A year later, Moore tried again, this time for CBS; he played a divorced father of three daughters in Daddy’s Girls. Though it was the first show to have an openly gay actor (Harvey Fierstein) playing a recurring gay character, and though an adorable young pre-Felicity Keri Russell appeared as one of the titular girls, reviews were scathing, and CBS pulled the show after only three episodes.

Party Girl (1996) TOTAL AIRINGS: 4

Countless TV shows have been adapted from smash movies — most of them unsuccessfully. So Fox had an interesting idea in 1996: why not make a sitcom out of an indie movie that most of their audience probably hadn’t seen? Thus, the 1995 Parker Posey comedy Party Girl became one of their hoped-for fall hits, with future Mrs. Ben Stiller Christine Taylor (then best known for her spot-on portrayal of Marcia, Marcia, Marcia Brady in The Brady Bunch Movie) in the role of the party girl who just wants to be a librarian. A pre-Hedwig John Cameron Mitchell played her best party buddy, and TV stalwart Swoosie Kurtz stepped into the role of her socialite mother, but the brand recognition for the show was low (imagine that) and reviews were middling, so it disappeared from the Fox schedule after only four of its six produced episodes had aired.

Viva Laughlin (2007) TOTAL AIRINGS: 2

The idea of merging TV drama with the musical theatre has been pretty tough for any show that wasn’t called Glee or Fame (remember Cop Rock?), but CBS had one reason to believe that Viva Laughlin would prove an exception to the rule: Hugh Jackman. One of the world’s biggest movie stars, renowned not only for his action work but for his stage singing and dancing, Jackman was both executive producer and supporting cast member for this adaptation of the BBC series Blackpool, which incorporated song-and-dance numbers into its story of the goings-on at a Nevada casino. In its inaugural airing, the show lost nearly two-thirds of the audience for its lead-in, CSI; CBS only aired the show one more time before giving it the boot.

Osbournes Reloaded (2009) TOTAL AIRINGS: 1

The Osbournes, which aired from 2002 to 2005, was an unexpected smash for MTV, and provided a surprise jump-start for the career of Ozzy Osbourne, while making reality TV stars of his wife Sharon and kids Jack and Kelly. But their popularity was waning even before that run ended, so they were ready for another shot at a wide audience when Fox came knocking in 2008. The idea was to create a variety show for the clan (shades of The Brady Bunch Hour?), which would mix sketches, musical performances, taped stunts, audience bits and more. Tapings started in December and the show was slated to air early the next year, but Fox ran into trouble with their affiliates, who were concerned about the show’s subject matter; a total of 26 stations chose to preempt the program from its post-American Idol time slot, with ten delaying it to late night and 16 refusing to air it at all. Meanwhile, the hour-long pilot was chopped nearly in half, to only 35 minutes (Idol was extended an additional 25 minutes that evening), and critics ate it for lunch. That first, abbreviated episode was the only one of the six produced that ever made it to air.

The Paul Reiser Show (2011) TOTAL AIRINGS: 2

Paul Reiser had found considerable success on — and had made a tidy profit for — the Peacock network with his long-running sitcom Mad About You. So when he pitched NBC a weak rip-off of Curb Your Enthusiasm (after HBO passed on it), they were probably inclined to take a shot at the show for old times’ sake, slating The Paul Reiser Show as a mid-season replacement in 2010. When the first episode aired in April of 2011, as part of the network’s Thursday night comedy line-up, it tanked badly — its 1.1 rating made it NBC’s lowest-ever rating for an in-season comedy premiere. In week two, it fared even worse (dropping to a 0.9), and with that, Reiser’s return to TV was over.

Snip (1976) Rewind (1997) Manchester Prep (1999) The Grubbs (2002) TOTAL AIRINGS: 0

Quick, what’s worse than having your TV show embarrassingly cancelled after one, two, three airings? Easy: having it cancelled before it even makes it to the air. We’re not talking about pilots that aren’t picked up; we’re talking about shows that are announced, produced, promoted, and launched, only to disappear from the schedule at the eleventh hour. It happens more often than you might think, and these are just a few examples. NBC’s Snip was from James Komack, who had created the hits Chico and the Man and Welcome Back Kotter, and like those shows, Snip was a vehicle for a popular stand-up comic: David Brenner, who was to play a hairdresser in this Shampoo-esque comedy. An official reason was never given for its cancellation — which was so abrupt that the September 30th airing was still in that week’s TV Guide — though one can’t help but wonder if the character of Brenner’s openly gay boss may have been a contributing factor (this was a year before Soap). In 1997, Fox planned to bring Happy Days and Charles in Charge star Scott Baio back to sitcoms with Rewind, which was slated to go up against Friends as part of an all-comedy Thursday night line-up. Three weeks before air, the network pulled the show from its lineup, with Fox Entertainment Group president Peter Roth issuing a statement that “Rewind is a series that’s still evolving.” It never evolved its way onto TV. Fox developed something of a habit of developing and then scrapping new series; one of the strangest was Manchester Prep, a series adaptation of the movie Cruel Intentions that was pulled due both to protests over its sexy content and the overall poor quality of the enterprise. The three produced episodes — which featured Amy Adams in the Sarah Michelle Gellar role — were repurposed with new, explicit footage to create a straight-to-video prequel, Cruel Intentions 2 (above). In 2002, the network pulled the Randy Quaid sitcom The Grubbs days before its scheduled premiere due to scathing reviews (David Bianculli called it “horrendous” and dubbed it the “worst new show of the broadcast TV season”). There was a silver lining on that one, though: the son on The Grubbs was played by a young actor named Michael Cera, whose work on the show impressed Fox execs enough that he was recommended for their most promising pilot of the following season, Arrested Development.