Ah, telephemera… those shows whose stay with us was tantalisingly brief, snatched away before their time, and sometimes with good cause. They hit the schedules alongside established shows, hoping for a long run, but it’s not always to be, and for every Street Hawk there’s two Manimals. But here at STARBURST we celebrate their existence and mourn their departure, drilling down into the new season’s entertainment with equal opportunities square eyes… these are The Telephemera Years!
The TV junkies must have been absolutely salivating at the new Fall season line-up in 1981, including as it did such treasures as The Fall Guy, TJ Hooker, Cagney & Lacey, Falcon Crest, and Fame! They joined a schedule already dominated by Dallas, The Dukes of Hazzard, and M*A*S*H as American TV continued through one of its truly golden eras. There were goodbyes to be said to Mork & Mindy, The Incredible Hulk, and Lou Grant, but network TV was in a very good place with the top nineteen shows all averaging over twenty million viewers per episode.
The only one struggling was NBC, continuing a ratings slump that had begun in six years before and would continue until Bill Cosby, Michael J Fox, and Mr T dragged it out of the mire a few years later, although Late Night with David Letterman did make its debut in February 1982. For genre fans, the final seasons of The Incredible Hulk and Mork & Mindy were joined by a new arrival called The Greatest American Hero on ABC, as well as single-season classic Police Squad!, but those are the shows that most people remember – what about those they don’t? This is the story of four more forgotten “classics”…Hero
Herbie the Love Bug (CBS): In 1961, Gordon Buford wrote a short story called Car, Boy, Girl which was bought by Disney before it could be published. Seven years later, Buford’s story was turned into The Love Bug, Disney’s first adventure starring that loveable sentient Volkwagen Beetle, Herbie. In Buford’s story the car doesn’t have a name, but it is a Beetle, albeit a maroon one. Where the original story was more a satire on America’s love affair with technology, the resultant movie was warm, cuddly, and lots of fun.
Herbie got the sequel treatment six years later with Herbie Rides Again, and a third outing in 1977 – Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo. In 1980, Disney brought the bug back for his fourth adventure, Herbie Goes Bananas, which was panned by critics and took just $18 million at the box office. Two years later, as a spring replacement in a slot vacated by WKRP in Cincinnati’s move to a later time, Herbie the Love Bug premiered on CBS.
If the total running time was less than six hours, the five-episode “mini-series” would all the hallmarks of a fifth film sold to TV rather than fail in theatres, but regardless of its origins, Herbie the Love Bug brought Dean Jones (from the original film and its Monte Carlo sequel) back for another turn with number fifty-three as mechanic Jim Douglas, now working as a driving instructor. Jim and Herbie thwart a bank robbery and meet a young divorcée (Patricia Harty), with Herbie working his magic to bring the two together.
Although the show was well-received at the time, it already seemed very dated by 1982, even if its storyline of a divorcée finding happiness with another man could be considered racy for Disney. This might explain why Herbie virtually disappeared afterwards, not returning to screens until the 1997 remake/sequel, The Love Bug, a TV movie starring Bruce Campbell that Disney might have hoped would reboot the franchise. That didn’t happen and Herbie lights were dimmed until 2005’s Herbie: Fully Loaded, which brings the car into the twenty-first century while acknowledging his past. Lindsay Lohan was in the driving seat two years before her very public drink and drug issues. Thankfully, Herbie: Fully Loaded did not feature a roadside sobriety test…
No Soap, Radio (ABC): A curious mix of sitcom and sketch show, No Soap, Radio took its title from a 1950s prank aimed at getting people to laugh at a joke despite its nonsensical punchline, a less disgusting version of “The Aristocrats” for those who know their joke history. The TV show was developed by producer Merrill Grant, who brought together a team of young writers that included future My Two Dads, Dinosaurs, and Boys Meets World creator Michael Jacobs and The David Letterman Show’s Ron Richards.
Set in the Pelican Hotel, where manager Roger (a young Steve Guttenberg) tried to corral a staff that included Hilary B Smith’s Karen and Stuart Pankin’s Tuttle. The meat of the show, though, was a mix of sight gags and non-sequiturs in loosely constructed sketches, often taking place in different “themed” rooms of the hotel to allow for a range of settings, and the show would abruptly cut away from the story for “Special Reports” in the middle of a scene, wherein a news anchor would recount increasingly improbably stories.
No Soap, Radio was a mid-season replacement for Police Squad!, the Leslie Nielsen-starring Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker production that was cancelled after just four of its six completed episodes had aired, despite going on to become a beloved cult classic. Viewer eaction was mixed; to some it was the first real attempt at doing a Monty Python style show on US TV, but to others it was bizarre nonsense.
A run of thirteen episodes was ordered but ABC pulled the plug after just five had been filmed, all of which were later shown on the BBC in the UK. Guttenberg shot to fame with the release of Diner the same year, and would soon become irrevocably attached to the Police Academy series, while Hilary Smith became a soap opera queen thanks to lengthy spells on As the World Turns and One Life to Live. No Soap, Radio is probably nothing more than a footnote on their résumés but the surviving evidence – the pilot is on YouTube, along with some other sketches – suggests it was just ahead of its time.
Bret Maverick (NBC): Two decades after the end of the original Maverick series, James Garner returned for a second turn as professional poker Bret Maverick, now putting down roots as the co-owner of the Red Ox saloon in Sweetwater, Arizona, after winning it in a card game. It was the third time Garner stepped into Maverick’s shoes, having reprised the role four years before in the TV movie The New Maverick, a pilot for the short-lived 1979 show Young Maverick that featured Charles Frank as Bret’s first cousin, once removed.
The biggest change between the original show and its 1982 sequel was that Bret was now tied to one location, rather than travel between marks, something which Maverick creator Roy Huggins felt sapped some of the magic from his creation. Bret’s partner in the Red Ox is Tom Guthrie, a former sheriff of Sweetwater played by country singer Ed Bruce (who also performed the show’s theme song), and much is made of their ideological clashes, especially over Maverick’s penchant for a scam, although they always make up by the end of the show.
Bret Maverick premiered on December 1st 1981, as part of a new-look Tuesday night line-up that also included Father Murphy – a western series created by Michael Landon for his Little House on the Prairie co-star Merlin Olsen – and soap opera Flamingo Road. Despite switching between the 7 and 8pm timeslots, the show always had tough competition, either from Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, or from Three’s Company and Too Close to Comfort which followed, but garnered (heh) respectable ratings.
It was with some surprise, then, that NBC cancelled the show after just one season of eighteen episodes, especially as several scripts had already commissioned for a second season, one which would have seen Maverick return to his itinerant ways while Guthrie ran the Red Ox, thus bringing things nearer to the original show’s concept. The feature-length pilot and the two-part “Faith, Hope and Clarity” story were later repackaged as TV movies, dusted off when NBC needed a schedule-filler, and Garner eventually returned to Maverick a final time in the 1994 Mel Gibson movie remake.
The Phoenix (ABC): Created by the husband-and-wife team of Anthony and Nancy Lawrence, The Phoenix starred newcomer Judson Scott as Bennu of the Golden Light, an ancient extra-terrestrial discovered in an Incan temple in Peru and awakened in the twentieth century. While this was his first co-creation with his wife, Anthony Lawrence had a pedigree stretching back to the late 1950s which included scripts for Bonanza, Hawaii Five-O, and Ironside.
Although he’d dipped his toes into fantastical waters with work on The Planet of the Apes and his own creation, The Sixth Sense, much of Lawrence’s work was more earthbound and that’s what makes The Phoenix, with its genesis rooted in the books of Erich von Daniken, all the more surprising. Bennu awakes with information on the location of his fellow aliens missing and the show centres around his search for them, especially his life-partner Mira (Sheila Frazier), all the while trying to escape the attentions of evil rival Yago and US government agents led by Richard Lynch.
With an aesthetic firmly rooted in the age of Aquarius, The Phoenix seems too gentle for a 1980s that would soon embrace The A-Team and Knight Rider, but Bennu is a good sort, bringing peace and love but not afraid to use his Phoenix Amulet-granted powers to aid him in his quest and help out those in trouble he encounters along the way. Yago, on the other hand, is pure evil, and it is hinted that he was the inspiration for Lucifer, Dracula, and any number of other historical monsters.
Despite its intriguing concept, and a set-up not a million miles away from The Incredible Hulk, poor ratings ensured that just five episodes of The Phoenix were aired – in opposition to Dallas on CBS – before it was replaced in the schedules by The ABC Friday Night Movie. It has never been made available on DVD but the full series is on YouTube if you fancy seeing what Scott was up to before he turned three brief roles in the Star Trek franchise into a career on the convention circuit.
Next on The Telephemera Years: The shows that didn’t make it to air in 1981, with more murder than you can shake a stick at!
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