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.