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1983: Television’s all-time low? [video]

People love to complain about how bad TV is. But you have no idea how truly awful television could be if you weren’t watching network television 30 years ago. Just to show you how low the boob tube has sunk in its checkered history, I thought I’d reintroduce you to these absolutely painful series, all of which debuted on network TV in 1983, and which quickly sank into a well-deserved oblivion.

Anyone remember these?

Mr. Smith (sitcom / “comedy”)

Mr. Smith was an ABC show about a talking orangutan. Somehow the ape, originally part of a circus troupe, drinks an intelligence potion and gains an IQ of 256, whereupon he’s appointed as a political adviser. So the “gag” of the show is that the orangutan walks around wearing three piece suits, talking, and making political satire.

Does that sound completely asinine, painful and totally non-funny? You have no idea what the experience of watching this show was like. I couldn’t find any clips on YouTube–it’s so bad that nobody wants to junk up their channel with it. But I did find this bizarre promo for the series, where the network evidently thought people would pay 50 cents per call to ring a number and hear a recording advertising the Mr. Smith show.

This dreadful show, which debuted September 23, 1983, was canceled in mid-December after 13 excruciating episodes. Hard to believe it lasted that long. Incidentally the orangutan was the same one featured in those terrible Clint Eastwood bare-knuckle-boxing movies from the late 70s.

AfterMASH (“comedy”, spinoff)

One good thing that happened on TV in 1983 was the final episode of the long-running show M*A*S*H. In February of that year, the 2-hour finale aired, and, excluding a few Superbowls here and there, it remains after 30 years the most-watched TV broadcast in history. The cast of M*A*S*H had overwhelmingly voted to end the show, having been at it 11 years. Three cast members–the actors who played Col. Potter, the cross-dressing Klinger, and chaplain Father Mulcahey–voted to continue. Perhaps as a sop to them, or more likely an attempt to squeeze every last drop of blood from the stone that was the M*A*S*H franchise, the network gave these cast members their own show, called AfterMASH.

AfterMASH took place in the early 50s, after the Korean War was over and the denizens of the wild and wacky 4077th decamped home. There were some attempts at comic “adventures,” but nothing ever really happened on the show, and it was basically just the actors floundering around trying desperately to keep the franchise alive.

I did find a clip of one AfterMASH episode. Warning: it’s terrible. Really, really terrible. But if you’re a glutton for punishment, here it is.

Shockingly, this show managed to last two seasons, finally being canceled in 1984. It was recently ranked no. 7 on the worst shows in TV history.

Manimal (science fiction/adventure)

Who can forget Manimal? Yes, this infamously ridiculous show premiered–and ended–in 1983, and it’s easy to see why. The concept was screwed up from the word go. A doctor discovers a Tibetan secret and becomes a shape-shifter. He transforms himself into animals to help fight criminals. Because, you know, what you really need to tame the crime-ridden streets of Detroit or Newark is more cheetahs and panthers.

This show was brought to us by Glen A. Larson, the genius who gave us Battlestar Galactica. I’m not talking about the cool BG from the 2000s with Edward James Olmos, but the crappy, campy, corny Star Wars ripoff from 1978 which nearly bankrupted an entire TV network. Larson wasn’t on his A game when he dreamed up Manimal, and the series was shoddy from the start. Despite being able to transform into any animal, Manimal always seemed to transform himself into a panther–because that was the sequence they’d already filmed, and it was cheaper to re-use the footage than shoot something new!

In addition to its laughable premise, Manimal is infamous for its ultra-cheesy opening. The magic of YouTube has preserved it. Here it is in all its campy glory:

And this was the state of network television in the early 80s.

Thankfully these shows are distant memories and can’t hurt anyone any longer. But the scary thing is this: TV transmissions from Earth are routinely beamed into space, and right now alien civilizations 30 light-years from Earth may well be suffering through these shows and wondering how humankind went so terribly wrong. If we’re unlucky enough to have our first ambassador to an alien civilization be a talking orangutan in a three-piece polyester suit, we should start preparing for an alien invasion.

4 Comments

  1. docvisalia

    Dad’s death scene in Manimal…must have won an emmy.

  2. Paul Wall

    Have you ever heard of “Heil, Honey, I’m Home?” Hitler as the wacky next door neighbor. I thought this was a joke or urban legend but no, it’s real. Can’t find an actual clip but there’s this;
    http://blog.wfmu.org/freeform/2013/05/heil-honey-im-home-the-worst-tv-show-of-all-time.html

    • Hahaha, yes I have heard of that show. I can’t believe someone actually thought that was a good idea for a television series. What were they smoking?

  3. Jeff Bloomfield

    There are plenty of dreadful television shows from the past. In fact, some make “AfterMash” seem like something by Shakespeare:

    1) “Mona McClusky” – in the early 1960s there was a very attractive dancer who was Frank Sinatra’s girlfriend for awhile named Juliet Prowse. Ms Prowse’s highpoint in acting was really a dancer/passive reactor part in the movie “Can-Can” that Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, Maurice Chevalier, and Louis Jourdan made in 1960, which had a Cole Porter Score. In it she shares dancing honors with MacLaine, doing the climactic can-can number of the film. She also is sung to (not sings with) by Sinatra when he is singing a moving “It’s the Wrong Time” to her. In 1963 (a poor year for television comedy shows) Prowse starred in “Mona McClusky”. She was cast as the biggest star in Hollywood, who happens to be married (for love of course) to an officer who insists they live on his income on an army base. Supposedly, because she is sweet-natured, and an “artiste” everyone talks to her like she is made of glass – they won’t tell her that her various schemes to improve her husband’s living standards, or to advance his career, are crap. It was a one note joke that lasted about one season. Afterwards, Prowse never had another opportunity to headline another television show. One can understand why.

    2) “Me and the Chimp” – this can be referred to as “After “That Girl””. While Marlo Thomas did have a substantial career after her 1960s show ended, including roles on “Friends” as Rachel’s mother, and some Broadway appearances, Ted Bessell ended up as a director of television. Fortunately for Ted he was a good director. But the man who was “Donald Hollinger”, the long suffering boyfriend of “Anne-Marie”, flubbed his attempt to continue his acting career – he did this comedy series about an actor who lives with a chimpanzee. It lasted about a season.

    3) “It’s About Time” – again from the 1960s, though closer to 1965. Frank Aletter and Greg Mullaney were two astronauts whose space ship breaks through the “Time Barrier”, a situation that was better handled earlier in some “Twilight Zone” episodes. They land back on Earth in the age of the cavemen. Of course, in a series like this don’t expect anything resembling scientific thoughtfulness (is time travel theoretically possible) nore historic accuracy. The dinosaurs died out about 250 million years ago, possibly due to a huge asteroid hitting earth in the Yucatan area and causing worldwide climate disasters. Man, as cavemen, did not appear until about 15,000 years ago or so. Yet the cavemen on this show (Joe E. Ross, Imogene Coca, Mike Mazurki) live next to the dinosaurs, and one of Coca’s best food preparations is ‘cream of dinosaur tooth soup”! After four months of “adventures’ in which our two astronauts try to repair their spacecraft, but are prevented by the caveman ruler from getting parts he’s appropriated, Lewis, Coca, and their children manage to get the equipment to the astonauts, but the latter are forced to stuff their space ship with the four cave people who will be killed for what they did. They end up in New York City in 1965! So now how do cave people manage to live in modern day America. The series was cancelled after the end of the season.

    4) “Grant’s Tomb” – With a title like that it was expected to bring in big yucks from the audience. It didn’t. When people think of the “Tonight Show” of the late 1950s, before the advent of Jack Paar, and then Johnny Carson (and later Jay Leno) they think of the brilliant Steve Allen. Together with his wife Jayne Meadows (who recently died), Allan made the “Tonight Show” a funny program with a game supporting group of players ( Don Knotts, Tom Poston, Louis Nye, Bill Dana, and Dayton Allen (“WHY NOT!!”)). If you are good you may remember Gabriel Dell was another regular on the show. Most people recall Gabe Dell as one of the Bowery Boys (frequently the one who is most likely to be working for some criminal gang), but Dell was able to spread his comic abilities with Allan’s crew too – his man in the street alongside say Nye’s “Gordon Hathaway” was basically Count Dracula! In the late 1970s he got a chance for starring in his own television comedy show: “Grant’s Tomb”. Playing Harry Grant, who is the owner and chief bartender of a watering hole in Manhattan, the show was supposed to be about his problems with his usual set of customers. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Sounds a bit like the concurrent, “Archie Bunker’s Place”, the successor show to “All in the Family”, where the action involved Archie’s buying a partnership in Kelsey’s Bar, his partner being Martin Balsam. But for all of the defects of “Archie Bunker’s Place”, Norman Lear was in charge and that series lasted four or five more years. That was not the case with “Grant’s Tomb”, Ironically the producer/creator of “Grant’s Tomb” was Alan King, but his ability to find humor in everyday annoyances failed in this series. King appeared in one episode as the local Mafia don. It was not very memorable. Nor was a one time episode appearance of Gabe’s old “Bowery Boy” co-star Huntz Hall. The show died, again, after one season. About four years later, just as Lear ended “Archie Bunker’s Place”, “Cheers!” popped up on television, and did so well with it’s crafted episodes and interesting regulars that it spawned another successful series: “Frazier”. So the idea of the setting was good – it was the presentation that was awful. One should be fair though: “Cheers” also spawned a show about Carla’s husband Nick Tortelli that was quite poor. Sometimes sequels and spin-offs work. Sometimes they don’t. Think “Phyllis” from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or that show based on “The Golden Girls” about the hotel run by three of the elderly golden girls.

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