Wednesday, January 4, 2012

TV Shows That Didn't Change the World

      There is a lot of pretension that comes when people evaluate the TV shows and movies they like.  Many insist that their favorite shows somehow changed the world. Some people have (quite incredibly) made that claim about Firefly (2002), a show that was entertaining but flawed enough that FOX couldn't attract any viewers even with constant promotion (fans who discovered the show on DVD make the claim that FOX killed the show by airing episodes out of order or insisting on a pilot episode that would entice people to want to see more of the show, but as they didn't watch it when it was on I ignore their ill-informed repetitions of other people's opinions).  Likewise, people have made the claim about The Cosby Show (1984-1992) – a show that may have changed Middle America's attitude about black families – but seeing as how I watched about 80% of the first four seasons and all I can remember is that Theo tried listening to MacBeth on a record and Ridy had a friend named Bud, I am not going to treat it as a game changer.
      I would dare say that most of the shows that I spent my time watching were so much fluff that I couldn't ask anyone to believe that they have had any kind of lasting impact or deeper meaning.  Such is the fate of anyone who has dedicated entirely too much time plopped in front of the tube, effectively doing nothing.  But there are some shows of which I am quite fond that never really seemed to get their due.  None of them were high art, ratings darlings, or critically acclaimed.  Still, these shows – all of which aired at some point in the 1990s – that didn't change the world deserve a few words. 

5) Tour of Duty (1987-1990)
     No doubt put on television in an attempt to cash in on the success of Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986), Tour of Duty (1987-1990) started off as a promising in the bush combat show, one that would allow for something beyond the allegory Stone employed.  Unfortunately, cast changes – some due to character death – and altering the tone to allow for soapy romantic interplays (not really necessary in a TV show about how the men of Bravo Company endure the war) robbed the show of its distinctive feel.  Moving the filming location from Hawaii to a Hollywood backlot also made it feel less authentic.
     Still, there is something raw (for the era) about Tour of Duty.  It addresses racial inequity and tension, and not in some kind of enlightened way.  Lt. Goldman (Stephen Caffrey) and SSgt. Anderson (Terrence Knox) may have great affection for their black soldiers, but they take almost no action to limit the racism of the white soldiers; it is the late 1960s and they don't have the answers.  This is a show that aired before "nigger" became the n-word, as is evidenced by it being used on multiple occasions (including in the pilot).
     Sadly, for all the good of Tour of Duty – it has good production values for its era, the action (especially in the first season) is compelling, the characters feel real – it simply feels lifeless once the period appropriate music is removed from it.  So much of the mood is killed that it makes the show seem second rate.  That, and the knowledge that the producers felt a need to compete with ABC's China Beach (1988-1991) for female viewers (not a battle they were going to win) by making it less of a combat-focused show keep it from being an all-time favorite.  But there are more than enough great episodes (mostly from Season One) to keep this show in mind when it comes to thinking about a time when the networks didn't have cable competition and were still willing to take chances.
     I have actually met and had brief conversations with series regular Miguel A. Nuñez, Jr. and guest star Tim Thomerson ("They Good, the Bad, and the Dead", 1987). Both felt that Tour of Duty never got its proper due from critics but that fans – especially those who have served in the military – have continued to be enthusiastic about it even 20 years after its cancellation.  I cannot speak for the critics of the era, but I do know that Tour of Duty started off as a show that was willing to let the soldiers be afraid of the threat of combat and desiring little more than making it through the day in one piece.  It wasn't the rah-rah piece that Combat (1962-67) or Baa Baa Black Sheep (1976-78) were, but it fell short of giving the audience a real feel of the dangers of war (I blame the era) while striving to be more realistic.
     I say give Season One a chance.  Forget that it doesn't have the period music and concentrate on the relationships between the characters or how nothing is ever as simple as a TV show of the time should have had it.

4) The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (1993-94)
     Back before Bruce Campbell got fat or producer Carlton Cuse found success with Nash Bridges (1996-2001) and Lost (2004-10), there was a show on FOX with cowboys, rockets, and prostitutes.  And it wasn't Firefly.  Sure, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (1993-94) had some issues balancing the campy humor with western action, but Campbell was perfect as the Harvard educated lawyer who turned bounty hunter to avenge his murdered father.  There were elements of the supernatural and science fiction, but the show mostly existed to give a humorous take on the dime novel stories of cowboys and villains.
     The cast – limited as it was – could not have been better.  Campbell knows how to play charming, bordering on (but stopping short of becoming) smarmy.  Fit and young, he plays the role like a Han Solo in the fading days of the Wild West who is unburdened by a Luke Skywalker.  Filling in the Chewbacca role was Julius Carry's Lord Bowler, though Bowler begins the series as a friendly adversary of Brisco.  Christian Clemenson rounded out the regulars as the uptight lawyer for the Westerfield Club, Socrates Poole.  All seemed to luxuriate in their roles without crossing the line into self-involvement.  Recurring characters like Dixie Cousins (Kelly Rutherford), Professor Wiskwire (John Astin), Whip Morgan (Jeff Philips), Pete Hutter (John Pyper-Ferguson, perhaps the ultimate TV guest star of the 1990s-present), and John Bly (Billy Drago) provided a sense of continuity and always matched the main cast in terms of tenor and tone.
     Brisco County was like the Deadlands RPG without the need for giant monsters or a Southerner's fantasy about the CSA enduring. It debuted in the same season as The X-Files (1993-2002) – and served as the latter's lead-in – and was actually the more enjoyable show of the two.  What The X-Files had was a monster-of-the-week formula it could through in to break up the alien mythology episodes, and that was wholly lacking on television at the time.  Brisco County had the additional burden of people thinking that it was a Western – a genre that draws less interest on television than mild sci-fi – and that kept some people at bay.  I would assume that anyone looking for a traditional Western would have been downright angry at the mix that Brisco County offered.
     I think there are only three or four dud episodes in the single season of Brisco County.  It was on its way to building a much more accessible and compelling mythology than The X-Files or Lost (2004-2010) with the "device" that set most of the events in motion, but Cuse has made public comments about how he imagined a second season of Brisco County would have moved in a different direction, so maybe it is for the best that it is all contained in the 27 episodes.  I only wish that TNT had produced a TV movie for the last adventure of Brisco and Bowler.

3) Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-99)
     I remember when I was watching the first run of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-99) that it was rather silly stuff.  And it still is.  But Hercules is much more fun and consistent than its spawn, Xena: Warrior Princess (1996-2000).  Kevin Sorbo was a more likeable lead than Lucy Lawless (at least at that point in her career) and his Hercules didn't need to spend endless episodes making up for his past misdeeds. One can argue that the Action Pack telefilms and Season One offer little reason to invest in Hercules.  Maybe.  But the show does go on to get better.
     It is never high art.  I don't think anyone ever had any illusions that it was supposed to be.  Sorbo and semi-regular Michael Hurst (as Iolaus) do their best to not let the humor undercut the dramatic tension.  Both managed to make the choreographed combats look interesting (if not realistic in any way).  Recurring guests Robert Trebor (as Salmoneus), Bruce Campbell (as Autolycus, King of Thieves), Alexandra Tydings (as Aphrodite), and the late Kevin Smith (as Ares) managed to match the energy and tone of the regulars in such a way that it was surprising to think that they were not always present.
     Given the limited production budget – somewhat maximized from shooting in New Zealand – it is amazing how good most of the episodes look.  Okay, maybe not some of the costuming, and definitely not the wigs and beards that look like they came out of a high school drama department's stash, but the overall photography and set design are well above average.
     Sorbo went on the make the vastly inferior Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda (2000-2005) and is apparently in the process of making a television show that seems eerily similar to My Name is Bruce (2007).  However, he will likely forever be thought of as Hercules.  And with good reason.  It was a fun show that relied almost entirely on the charisma of its star, and to good effect. 

2) Farscape (1999-2003)
     Nobody makes a soft Southern accent in space sexier than Ben Browder, and not in any intentional way.  Browder's John Crichton character is an RPG player's wet dream – the guy who gets to live the adventure and make constant pop-culture references and in-jokes during the action without breaking the mood.  He is the All-American hero, a Ph.D. and Astronaut who is good looking and (on Earth, at least) suave.
     Sure, Farscape (1999-2003) could have used a much larger production budget and less puppetry, but it endures as a quality show nonetheless. Creator Rockne S. O'Bannon and producers Richard Manning, David Kemper, and Robert Halmi, Jr. were never afraid to throw some darkness into the adventures of the earthling cast out amongst an alien universe.  At the same time, there was always a fair amount of humor to be found.
     The only bad things I have to say about Farscape are that there are four or five episodes that do nothing to drive the story forward or develop the characters and that the wrap-up film, Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars (2004) is too compressed to allow for the character interplay that made the show one of the best programs on during its run.  Browder, Claudia Black, Anthony Simcoe, Gigi Edgely, Virginia Hey, Lani John Tupu, Tammy McIntosh, Raelee Hill, Jonathan Hardy (voice), and Wayne Pygram all seem to find something deeper in the characters than what is on the page. 
     I have never been happier to own a series on DVD than I am with Farscape.  I cannot figure out how it was not picked up for a fifth season (the show's producers and the Sci-Fi Channel – now SyFy – could not come to terms on the production costs), yet Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007) ran for ten seasons.  Maybe having a movie tie-in and an established TV star like Richard Dean Anderson makes all the difference in the world.  But Farscape remains one of the better shows that cable television had to offer at the time, and it didn't need to use frequent swearing or gratuitous nudity and sex scenes to impress critics.
1) Friday the 13th: The Series (1987-1990)
     Sure, there is a pale imitation of Friday the 13th: The Series (1987-1990) on the SyFy channel called Warehouse 13 (2009-present), but the latter has a much lighter, comedic tone.  This is not to say that there wasn't humor in the old Friday the 13th: The Series, but not all of it was intentional.  No, Friday the 13th: The Series was about as close to a horror film as one could sell on American television in the late 1980s.
     The set-up is wholly implausible in every regard.  Antique shop owner Louis Vendredi (R.G. Armstrong) makes a deal with the Devil to sell cursed objects that both wreak havoc in the world and deliver the souls of those who use them to, you guessed it, the Devil.  For some reason, Louis decides he doesn't want to do this anymore and that doesn't want sit well wit Satan.  That sets it up for his distant relatives – this is never clearly established and how they are related changes over the course of the series – Micki (Louise Robey) and Ryan (John D. LeMay) to inherit his shop.  They meet former magician/item procurer/WWII hero Jack Marshak (Chris Wiggins) and find out that they have just unleashed a flood of cursed items into the market.
     The rest of the series is supposed to be an effort to limit the damage these relics can cause, recover them and lock them away.  Louis reappears from beyond the grave a few times to menace the trio, but the show focuses much more frequently on the discovery of one of the items sold well before Micki and Ryan took over the shop.  Ryan exits after a two-part episode that is much more evocative of The Omen (1976) than slasher horror, making room for Johnny Ventura (Steven Monarque).
     While Ryan was really the heart of the series, Season Three has some of the best written episodes and the Johnny character may have developed into a compelling one given more time.  Instead, Paramount shut down production when they had enough material to sell the show in half hour installments overseas (under the name "Friday's Curse").  It would have been nice for Friday the 13th: The Series to have come to a proper conclusion, but that wouldn't be fitting for the horror genre.
     The effects may be cheesy.  The stories may use too many shortcuts that seemed obvious even in the era.  But there is something compelling and fun in the show.  It is one that could use a revisit, provided the right casting and respect of the characters as originally written.  Until then, we are left with the homage on SyFy.


  1. I never saw any of these. Is that bad?

  2. Depends on location (Farscape was produced in Australia, but primarily aired in North America) and age. Only Hercules: The Legendary Journeys had any kind of impact, and it wasn't very enduring.