Wednesday, January 31, 2018

When Bad Episodes Happen to Good TV Shows

I read online that the final season of Game of Thrones will not air until 2019. I don’t watch the show so I’ll not lose sleep over its delay.

But it did make me think of those who find today’s television, particularly the more adult-oriented fare on providers like HBO and Netflix, far superior to the formulaic shows of the past.

I may not share their enthusiasm, but when they tell me these shows are wonderful, I respond that they certainly ought to be, considering it takes them a year or two to come up with 6 or 8 episodes.

This is also why I’ve always thought it was unfair to disparage bad shows from Comfort TV series, when single seasons required as many as 36 original scripts to put into production.

Do bad episodes exist? You already know the answer. From “Lucy and the Monsters” (The Lucy Show) to “The Bewitchin’ Pool” (The Twilight Zone) to “Captain Sligo” (Gunsmoke), almost every television classic occasionally missed the mark, and like most people I skip those episodes when I pull out the DVDs. 

But I have no cause to complain about one or two clunkers. On the contrary, I’m amazed by the remarkable consistency in quality that these series maintained not just over one 24 or 36-episode season, but several.

Was the last season of Bewitched pretty lame and filled with retread stories? Sure, But prior to that the series delivered 228 mostly delightful episodes over seven years.

Did Family Affair misstep by adding the usually welcome Nancy Walker to the Davis household? I’m afraid so. But that final season also delivered gems like “Feat of Clay” and “The Unsinkable Mr. French.” 

And “Homicide and Old Lace” (The Avengers) somehow managed to make John Steed look both dull and silly. But it’s still fun to see Tara King as a blonde.

I remain in awe of what television writers accomplished in this era, on a schedule that seems miraculous today. You look at the “Written by” credit on every episode of I Love Lucy and see the same 4-5 names, over and over, show after show, for 180+ episodes. Try counting up all of the brilliant comedy moments they gave the show’s quartet of stars to play. 

How did Stirling Silliphant write 32 of the 39 (excellent) first-season Naked City episodes? How could Roswell Rogers write more than 100 Father Knows Best shows, all of which are as good or better than those submitted by anyone else? I’ve been a writer for 30 years; I know how challenging it can be to create any type of eloquent and effective prose, even something as simple as this blog. The imagination, inspiration and work ethic exhibited by these writers, directors and actors cannot be understated. 

But that still leaves us with the question of what to do with substandard moments of great shows.

First, let’s distinguish between episodes that just fall short, and those that fail in spectacular ways, since these can be enjoyed on their own terms. A Wonder Woman episode like “Screaming Javelins” is so wondrously bad that I’ve probably watched it more than some of the series’ best shows. 

As for the rest, skipping them is the easy solution. But every so often I challenge myself to find a way to make the viewing experience entertaining. One of my previous blogs explored this very challenge, when I offered five reasons to watch the infamous Star Trek episode “Spock’s Brain.”

Usually I succeed. But sometimes it cannot be done. Try as I might, through at least a half-dozen viewings, I find nothing to celebrate in “The Bad Old Days” from season one of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Its cruelty and atypical misogyny would be out of place in any Comfort TV show, but is particularly grating in a series that featured a woman in the workplace at a time when that was a rarity. “I don’t know what the hell we were doing,” Van Dyke told Vince Waldron in The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book. “It didn’t work, and we all knew it.” 

But put that into perspective: “The Bad Old Days” was the 28th show in a 30-show debut season. By then, the series had already aired such now-classic episodes as “My Blonde-Haired Brunette,” “Where Did I Come From?,” “The Curious Thing About Women” and the two-part introduction of Rob’s sleepwalking brother Stacy (Godspeed Jerry Van Dyke). The next four seasons brought us more than 125 more shows that are as fresh and funny today as they were 50 years ago.

So in a popular culture that couldn’t deliver three quality Superman films despite the perfect casting of Christopher Reeve, and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on hit-and-miss Star Wars prequels and sequels, I’ll continue to venerate a television medium that, from the 1950s through the 1980s, went about its business regardless of tight script deadlines and limited budgets, and turned out more quality product than other media achieved with more time and more money. 


  1. Mr. Hofstede, what did you think of Christopher Reeve's FIRST "Superman"? There should be a RiffTrax commentary for "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace."

    1. Still one of the 5 best superhero films ever made - and the first to really get it right.

  2. Bad episode of a great series?

    Try "The Case Of The Final Fade-out", the Grand Finale of Perry Mason.

    The inside jokes and all are fun to watch, but the "mystery" here is really obvious; anyone who doesn't spot the killer at his first appearance isn't trying.

    But the worst part (for me, anyway) was this:
    After spending much of the latter part of the run evolving the character of Hamilton Burger into a somewhat rounded adversary for Mason, "Final Fade-Out" turns him into a sputtering lunatic - DA Gale Gordon, almost. A real disservice to Bill Talman, and a waste.

    A real pity, because many of those Season 9 shows were above-average mysteries. It was a good chance to go out on a high note - lost with that pop foul of a finale. Ah well/oh hell ...

    1. It's interesting how many final episodes of great shows are considered terrible - Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Twilight Zone, and Seinfeld to use a more recent example.

  3. I agree with your conclusion that past shows inevitably produced too many shows to make all of them great. I don't care for most of the cable shows. I don't subscribe to HBO, so I've never cared about THE SOPRANOS, SIX FEET UNDER, or any of those other shows on cable. I have seen most of CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM because a friend had the show on DVD. That show makes your point though, that CURB could be a better show because Larry David is rich enough now where he can produce a "season" of 10 episodes just when he feels like doing it.

    I have to admit that I've enjoyed parts of some of your named clunkers like "The Bewitchin' Pool" and "The Bad Old Days". What I enjoyed about that DVD Show episode was the music from the dream sequence. (Probably) Earle Hagen did a great arrangement of the 1900 song "Bird in a Gilded Cage" to introduce the segment, so I went with the silliness of it all.

    1. To follow up on another comment that you made above, I wasn't bothered by Nancy Walker's joining FAMILY AFFAIR in its last season. It made a lot of sense to me for Bill to hire a maid, as it was a bit much to expect Mr. French to do the cooking, cleaning, and nannying all himself. It also gave Nancy Walker good experience when she later became maid for MACMILLAN & WIFE. ;)

    2. I know some other people who also thought Emily was a good addition to that series - I just think they were trying too hard to find a comic foil to Mr. French and puncture his formality and sophistication, when those were actually among the character's most appealing qualities.
      But next time I watch "The Bad Old Days" I'll try to focus on the music and see if it helps. :)

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