I didn’t expect that a month devoted to failed sitcom pilots would end up being such an endurance test. I expected some dull but inoffensive comedy that I would forget about as soon as it was over, which would explain why they didn’t get picked up. Instead, each show was an increasingly unbearable slog, a shameful waste of time and money that shouldn’t have gotten past the script treatment process, let alone committed to television.
The final entry in the theme, 1990’s Where’s Rodney?, is a breath of fresh air, without actually being any good.
Where’s Rodney? has at least one thing over each of its predecessors. Unlike Coneheads, it has a clear target demographic. Unlike The Nerd, it’s not populated entirely with insufferable characters. Unlike Starstruck, it has a coherent plot. If anything, it plays it a little too safe. While Starstruck took a simple premise and turned it into a “no soap, radio” Dada experiment, Where’s Rodney takes a weird premise and turns it into bland, safe family comedy.
If you’re reading this right now, there’s a better than 65% chance you’ve seen Rogue One, a “midquel” of sorts that takes place shortly before the events of episode 4 of Star Wars. We’ve barely just begun a revival of the series, with at least two more movies continuing the plot of the original, plus a standalone Han Solo film, plus undoubtedly many more sequels, spinoffs, and tie-ins to come. There’s some grumbling already about oversaturation, but think of it this way: we know the series reached its lowest point a long time ago, early in the game, with the legendary Star Wars Holiday Special. And now, we know that even the rip-offs and “homages” already hit rock bottom, with the 1979 CBS pilot Starstruck.
Starstruck starts with a simple premise–a sitcom set in an environment similar to the Mos Eisley Cantina–and almost immediately becomes something so incomprehensible that it feels like English badly dubbed into Swedish, and then badly dubbed again back into English. It would be charitable to guess that it was a series of sample clips cobbled together and accidentally aired as a single cohesive episode, but considering it was written by playwright Arthur Kopit, whose specialty is weird for the sake of being weird (I direct you to read the baffling Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad), it’s possible that its off-putting incoherence was intentional.
Sometimes you watch a failed TV pilot and think “What a shame this treasure was never discovered.” You lament the lost potential, the notion of what could have been, if only someone had given it a chance.
I’m lying, of course, nobody does that. Failed pilots fail for a reason, because they stink on ice. They flop to such a spectacular degree that everyone involved, right down to the gaffer, has trouble finding work again for a little while. If you think anything while watching them, other than “Why am I watching this?” it’s “Who thought this was a good idea?”
I had no idea that there was once a pilot of a cartoon based on the Coneheads until last year, when a friend brought it to my attention. Yet, there was, airing in prime time in 1983, and even by mid-80s standards, when “mediocre” was considered a noble goal for most TV cartoons, this is an unpleasant viewing experience. It’s particularly startling when you take into consideration that it was done not only with the full participation of the actors and writers who originated it on Saturday Night Live, but produced by Rankin & Bass, who were responsible for some of the most memorable animated features of the 60s through the 80s, including Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Year Without a Santa Claus, and The Last Unicorn. How all those hands involved resulted in such a lumpen turd is inexplicable, unless, of course, too many hands was the problem.
When watching shows for this blog, I try to abide by the five W’s of journalism, specifically “Who is responsible for this?”, “What were they thinking?”, “Where did this come from?”, “When is this over?”, and “Why did this happen?” To be fair, some of those are variations on the same question, but it’s really the most important one anyway. Television shows in particular don’t exist in a vacuum, and even just to get a pilot on the air requires a complete script, actors, crew, a shooting budget, and a network willing to give it a chance. Multiple eyes and hands fall upon something that is clearly a disaster from the get-go, and deem it worthy of considerable money and time. The process is fascinating, baffling, and horrifying all at once.
The Nerd, filmed in 1989 but not aired until nearly seven years later, is particularly puzzling, because it was the rare TV show based on a play. I’ve mentioned before that TV shows based on movies often fail because either they needlessly hit the reset button on the plot, or make so many changes that they no longer resemble the source material. The pilot for The Nerd somehow manages to do both, with the extra added complication of plays rarely having ambiguous endings. A modestly successful farce with a year long run on Broadway, The Nerd is about a man who believes that a stranger who shows up at his house one day (the titular nerd) is the same person who saved his life in Vietnam years earlier, and, driven by both gratitude and guilt, allows him to run roughshod over his life. As it turns out, the Nerd is an actor hired by the man’s best friend to compel him to stand up for himself and take chances. The plan is eventually a success, the ruse is revealed, all is forgiven, and everyone is happy at the end. There is absolutely nothing about the plot, or the characters, that lends itself to being stretched out for a punishing 20 episodes or more of network television.