Bad TV: The Jeffersons

When I was a kid, I really liked All in the Family. It was a very popular show, of course, but also was legitimately funny and edgy. I was kind of amazed it was on TV. So, I was kind of conditioned in advance to like the All in the Family spinoffs. Maude was a dull show, but I can’t call it bad TV. The Jeffersons, on the other hand, was awful. George Jefferson was a totally unlikeable jerk, and the scenes in which he witlessly traded insults with the insubordinate housekeeper, or the interracial couple next door, were just painful to watch. No doubt the show suffered by comparison to All in the Family, which was better written, better acted, and — at least in the early seasons — much more interesting to watch. Give me Archie and Edith over George and “Weezy” any day.

When I got the above screen shot of the show from Wikipedia I was amazed to learn that The Jeffersons aired for 11 seasons. 11 seasons! Who was watching this show during all those years? I gave up on it after only a few episodes.

Bad TV: Gilligan’s Island

I know this show is popular with a lot of people — I just can’t understand why. Leave aside the premise that a boat the size of the Minnow could survive a tropical storm and be swept to some faraway South Sea island, Leave aside the improbable combination of cast and crew members (why would the Howells ever be on a “three-hour tour” on such a crappy boat?), or the Professor’s ability to recreate all kinds of devices out of available materials — everything but a boat to get the castaways off the island, or the mind-deadening sameness of the “plots.” What really sucked about Gilligan’s Island was Gilligan himself. I think his incredible stupidity, clumsiness, blundering, and constant pratfalls make Gilligan the single most annoying character in TV history.

Bad TV: Family Affair

My sisters loved this show — I’m not exactly sure why. All I know it is that when they had control of the TV and our family had to watch the show, I could never figure out what kind of show it was supposed to be. Was it a comedy? If so, why was it so completely unfunny? Was it supposed to teach kids some kind of deep lessons about real life? If so, then why were the kids living with their weird uncle in a New York City fantasy world, being attended by a British butler? There were many other unbelievable aspects to this show, too. For example, who could believe that mumbling “Uncle Bill” could be a ladies’ man with a different woman in his life every week? And “Cissy” was the most unteenager-like teenager imaginable. She was boring and responsible and had some bouncy hairstyle, and dressed and acted like someone who was 50 years old.

In a typical episode, Uncle Bill would leave, and Mr. French would have to take care of Buffy and Jody. Cissy typically would deal with some issue that would cause her to furrow her brow, Buffy would talk to her doll, Jody would say something consciously designed to make older women say, “Awww!,” and at the end of the show Uncle Bill would return to mumble some kind of lesson to be learned from the day’s events.

The above clip from the show pretty accurately captures the wretched quality of the show. The only thing that is lacking is the weird, kaleidoscopic opening credits and schmaltzy, roller rink-type theme music. I defy anyone to watch this clip and even crack a smile.

Bad TV: F Troop

ORourke, Agarn, Captain Parmenter, and his girlfriend

O'Rourke, Agarn, Captain Parmenter, and his girlfriend

F Troop is one of those shows that was made during the 1960s and somehow stayed on the air for several seasons, despite being remarkably and consistently unfunny. The show revolved around the “antics” of the troop of soldiers at Fort Courage and a nearby Indian tribe. Sergeant O’Rourke ran an illicit moonshine operation with the Indians, and his constantly mugging sidekick Corporal Agarn was in a neck and neck race with Gilligan for the dubious distinction of being the single dumbest character ever shown on TV. In every episode their witless Captain would come close to figuring out O’Rourke’s schemes — usually because Agarn had said or done something idiotic — but O’Rourke would come up with some far-fetched explanation, usually with the help of the Indians, that would save the day. No character could top Agarn for sheer irksomeness, but the bugler who couldn’t bugle and the blind lookout came close.

F Troop is a good example of how bad TV probably reached its pinnacle in the ’60s and early ’70s, when there were only three networks and in most markets there were those three channels and a single UHF station with a weak signal that seemed to broadcast only I Love Lucy and religious programming. There is no way that such a foul show could have even made it to the airwaves, much less stayed on the air, if there had been decent competition from cable TV as there is now. In the meantime, F Troop no doubt caused a generation of Americans to form odd preconceptions about the American West and the customs, language, and culture of native Americans. It was insulting enough for the Indians to be out of shape and engaged in a criminal enterprise, but did they have to be totally unfunny as well?

Bad TV: Three’s Company

Screen shot from opening credits

Screen shot from opening credits

This show was breathtakingly bad from its inception. Designed purely to appeal to the prurient interests of teenagers, it featured a putrid combination of leaden double entrendres, absurd slapstick, and stereotyped characters that made it unwatchable for any even marginally intelligent human. The plot was that a heterosexual male named Jack Tripper moved in with two heterosexual females, but in order pass muster under the conservative social mores of the day, Jack had to be portrayed as gay. Every episode seemed to revolve around the possibility that Jack’s real sexual orientation would be discovered by the neighbors. The show also featured the worst in ’70s clothing and hairstyles, usually displayed by Jack’s leather-jacketed sidekick, Larry.

Although the three lead characters were themselves extremely annoying, my vote for the single most irritating character was the ugly, love-starved next door neighbor who was “hip” to the true story of Jack and the girls and consistently frustrated in her efforts to get some action from her clueless and uninterested husband. Given her appearance — and her complexion looked she had been the victim of an industrial accident in a chemical factory — her whiny voice, and her odd muu-muu clothing, who could blame him?

Bad TV: Lost in Space

The cast of Lost in Space

The cast of Lost in Space

Lost in Space may have been the worst TV show I’ve ever seen. It was on when I was a kid, and even as kids Jim, Cath and I thought it was ridiculous. It featured one of the most annoying characters in TV history — Dr. Smith, the mincing, cowardly, screeching stowaway. The other elements of a bad TV shows also were present in abundance. The show’s unbelievable concept was that one family, plus a guy who had the hots for the oldest daughter of the family, would go out to search for habitable planets. Earth must have been in pretty bad shape if it could only send out one family (plus Major Don West) to scout for a new world!

Every episode had the same basic plot. The spacecraft would land on a new planet, the Dad would order everyone to stay inside the ship while he and Major Don went out to explore, Dr. Smith and Will Robinson would ignore the orders and venture out onto the strange planet, the robot would go with them to protect Will Robinson, they would be captured or otherwise get into trouble, they would be rescued or escape, the ship would have engine problems, and at the last minute the ship would take off as bad guys or planet disasters were hot on their heels.

The only good thing about the show was the robot, its arm-waving signal, and its cry of “Danger, Will Robinson!” But the robot (which clearly was not well-designed for exploring a new planet, since it moved using treads and was completely top-heavy ) could not save the show from being terrible beyond all imagining. The worst episode I can remember was one where they landed on a planet of mobile vegetables, and Dr. Smith became one of the vegetable creatures, complete with green make-up and a kind of broccoli headdress. I have to believe that Lost in Space killed his career. If it didn’t, it should have.

Bad TV

Yesterday I noted that Kish and I have been enjoying The Wire, which we think is one of the best TV shows we have ever seen. For every great show, however, there are dozens — maybe hundreds — of horrible shows. Usually you don’t notice them, and they vanish from the airwaves before anyone pays much attention to how awful they are. Sometimes, however, they last for a while for reasons that are a mystery. Maybe the producer had enough clout with the network to keep the show around longer than it merited, or maybe it appealed to some miniscule portion of the population (like, say, adolescents) but was unwatchable for any other population demographic.

What makes for a truly bad TV show? First, it has to be broadcast long enough to really demonstrate a consistently appalling quality. Second, it has to have at least one character that is immediately, and completely, annoying. Third, it has to involve a stupid concept and mindlessly repetitive plots. Any other irritating aspects — such as cheesy special effects, bad scripts, an ear-splitting laugh track, or grating and utterly failed efforts to create a catchphrase that will sweep the nation — are just a rancid cherry on top of an otherwise foul concoction.

We all have our candidates for the dubious designation of bad TV shows. I’ll be writing about mine over the next few weeks, and I welcome anyone else to offer their views.