Sunday, August 11, 2013

Five Television Moments That Should Have Been Better

The fall TV season is fast approaching, and there are moments many of us are already looking forward to experiencing. Some will surpass expectations but most will fall short, which has always been the way with television. Here are five moments from the Comfort TV era that promised much but stumbled on delivery.

Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett Team-ups
If there were a Mount Rushmore for television comediennes, Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett would be among those immortalized. But when Carol and Lucy joined forces, the magic wasn't there. 

They had plenty of chances – Burnett guest-starred more than once on both The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy, and Ball returned the favor with several appearances on Carol’s brilliant variety series. But none of their collaborations merit inclusion in a retrospective on either of their remarkable careers.

Their first team-up, in the 1966 Lucy Show episode “Lucy Gets a Roommate,” is probably the best. Carol plays a meek librarian who Lucy tries to coax out of her shell (with predictable but occasionally amusing results). I can recall only one memorable Carol Burnett Show sketch with Lucy, who clearly missed the rehearsal time she needed to perfect the comedy moments that became legendary on her own shows. In one 1969 appearance she and Carol played stewardesses on a Miami-bound plane. "Is that a Cuban accent?" Lucy asks passenger Harvey Korman. "What makes you say that?" he asks. Replies Lucy, "If there's one thing I know, sir, it's a Cuban accent!" That line earned the biggest laugh of the episode.  

Rescue from Gilligan’s Island
This one should have been a no-brainer. Gilligan’s Island was a syndication staple after its three year run ended in 1967, and there was obvious unfinished business with the castaways still stuck in their bamboo paradise in the final episode.

Closure was finally achieved in the 1978 TV movie Rescue from Gilligan’s Island, which reunited the original cast except for Tina Louise. The timing was perfect; ten years of build-up was just right, and the cast still looked enough like their characters so their reunion would be nostalgic and uplifting, rather than desperate and sad.

The movie earned an amazing 52 share of the audience, so it was undoubtedly a success in every way except creatively. If anything, Rescue was even dumber and more juvenile than an average episode of the series. One sequence with Gilligan paddling around in the water with a shark seems to go on for hours. Worse, its popularity paved the way for The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island, an even greater atrocity that featured the unforgettable image of Lovie Howell face-guarding Sweet Lou Dunbar. 

Diana Rigg in a Sitcom
I love Diana Rigg. She is in that very, very rare class of performers who can take an ordinary line of dialogue and make it compelling by sheer force of personal magnetism. Kate Jackson has it, as does Michael J. Fox and a select few others – maybe that will be a future blog topic.

Following her transcendent work in The Avengers (look it up, kids – this is the one without Iron Man) Rigg signed up to star in an American sitcom (for the paycheck, she later admitted), as a British divorcee who moves to New York to start a new life and a new career as a fashion coordinator at Butley’s Department Store.

Diana (1973) was not a terrible sitcom, but it was terribly conventional and, well, boring. Which is even more unexpected for a show with such a vivacious leading lady. It was canceled before the end of its first season.  

Police Squad!
The success of the Airplane! films established the joke-a-minute formula of writer/directors David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, and the deadpan brilliance of actor Leslie Nielsen. But it was an approach that didn’t translate to television. Police Squad! debuted on ABC in 1982, and was canceled after just four of its six episodes aired.

Fans still remember this as a great miscarriage of justice (TV Guide ranked it #7 on their 2013 list of TV shows that were canceled too soon). But I kinda get why it didn’t work. The scattershot approach that made the films so unique became formulaic on the series – several jokes were repeated in every episode, such as the episode title on screen being different than what the announcer read, the faux ‘freeze frame’ behind the closing credits, and the murder of a “special guest star” at the beginning of each show.

Also, TV standards and practices being what they were in the 1980s, the show did not have the same leeway with the subtly risqué content that contributed to the best moments in the Naked Gun movies, which were inspired by the series.  

Barbara Eden on Dallas
While the timing was right for Rescue From Gilligan’s Island, it was not so fortuitous for another classic TV couple.

By the time Jeannie blinked her way into Ewing Oil, Dallas was limping through its 14th and final season. Viewers had already endured Bobby’s shower resurrection, a trip to Russia for no apparent reason, and the escalating embarrassment of Sasha Mitchell’s attempts to act. No one cared anymore and that apparently included the writers, who introduced Eden as corporate raider LeeAnn De La Vega. She went after J.R.’s company because – wait for it – he had jilted her in college. Really? Two TV icons and that’s the best they could do? 


  1. Speaking of "Dallas," a new video has essentially blasted the 2012-14 reboot. Check out the following link:

  2. A late post, but what's five years to classic television enthusiasts? POLICE SQUAD was disappointing even at the time. The Quinn Martin satire worked well the first time, but it grew tiresome fast. SLEDGE HAMMER came along a few years later and became the definitive police show satire and fulfilled the promise of POLICE SQUAD.

    I never saw DIANA nor the RESCUE FROM GILLIGAN'S ISLAND movie, even though I love the original series. In my mind, they're still out there on that island, held at gunpoint by Larry Storch or performing a musical version of Hamlet for Phil Silvers.

    Reunion movies that attempt to pick up the story years later are almost always disappointing and I can't think of any I consider "canonical." And some are just heretical, like MARY AND RHODA from 2000 (I never saw it, but read enough to know it would put a depressing cloud over the original series).