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THE TELEPHEMERA YEARS: 1983, part 2

Written By:

Alan Boon
Mr Smith, 1983

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!

1983-84

Glamour, adventure, and glamorous adventure were the order of the day in 1983 as the US settled into years of Reaganomics, with the big money, big hair, and even bigger shoulder pads of Dallas, Dynasty, and Falcon Crest dominating the TV ratings, making the likes of The A-Team, The Fall Guy, and Magnum, PI look positively gritty and real in comparison. The big new hits were single-moms sitcom Kate & Allie and Hotel, based on an Arthur Hailey novel that would soon become a permanent fixture of charity shop paperback spinners, and there were farewells to Happy Days, Fantasy Island, Hart to Hart, and Three’s Company (which had somehow lasted for eight seasons).

For genre fans, Airwolf and Knight Rider arrived to provide vehicular action and V: The Final Battle was creating the kind of buzz that would have set the internet alight if the internet was something that hadn’t only been invented in January 1983. Glen A Larson fans were well-served not only by the debuting Knight Rider but also the less-successful Manimal, Automan, and Masquerade, shows which did not outstay their already limited welcome. Of course, those three shows were not the only ones that failed to attract an audience; this is the story of four more shows from the 1983 season that fizzled rather than sizzled…

Jennifer Slept Here (NBC): On the surface, the premise of Jennifer Slept Here is actually pretty simple. It’s a laugh-tracked sitcom that tells the story of a teenage boy, moved across the country from New York to California by his lawyer dad when said lawyer dad is charged with sorting out the affairs of a dead movie star, the ghost of whom appears to Joey as his confidante. But if you dig even a tiny bit deeper, it uncovers levels… creepy levels.

Jennifer Farrell (Ann Jillian) was at the height of her fame when she was killed by a reversing ice cream truck in 1978 and, six years later, George Elliot moves his family into her old house while he finalises her estate. Thirteen-year-old Joey (John P Navin Jr) takes Jennifer’s old room and, fortunately before he can do teenage boy things in her old bed, Jennifer’s ghost makes its presence known to him. In the pilot Jennifer talks Joey out of running away from home, back to New York to visit a girl he likes, and becomes his guide as the series progresses.

Jennifer Slept Here, 1983

Their relationship goes both ways, with Joey trying to stop his dad auctioning a nude photo of Jennifer from early in her career that she regrets and Jennifer helping Joey impress twins at a séance or dealing with his bullies. It also takes some liberties when Jennifer inhabits the body of Joey’s mother to rekindle an old flame, or when she chases off a living woman out of jealousy that she might be getting to close to her teenage pal.

Thirteen, of course, is the cusp of childhood and adolescence and it would have been interesting, in a purely prurient way, to see how Joey grew and how his relationship with the former starlet developed. Viewers, however, had other ideas, ignoring the show in favour of Webster and The Dukes of Hazzard to the extent that it was cancelled after just eight episodes had aired. The other five completed episodes were aired in the Spring of 1984, and everyone moved onto something else. Creators Larry Rosen and Larry Tucker next helmed the unsuccessful TV transfer of Stir Crazy, Ann Jillian returned to It’s a Living and then played herself in a TV biopic of her life, and John P Navin Jr did four more acting jobs and then disappeared, becoming a virtual ghost to match the real one he had an unconventional relationship with.

Just Our Luck (ABC): Lawrence Gordon cut his teeth as a screenwriter for Aaron Spelling in the 1960s, easing himself into a production position at AIP, where he produced movies such as Foxy Brown and Ralph Bakshi’s trippy Heavy Traffic. Striking out on his own, he formed a partnership with Walter Hill and was responsible for The Warriors, 48hrs, and Brewster’s Millions. After staring as a talent agent, his brother Charles came on board as a co-producer and the two delivered their first TV show as a mid-season replacement in March 1983, the short-lived The Renegades.

Despite that show failing to find its audience, and having a pilot named Lone Star turned down for series, the brothers were back in September 1983 with Just Our Luck, an urban twist on I Dream of Jeannie. Gordon and Hill had just broken Eddie Murphy into movies as Nick Nolte’s odd couple partner in 48hrs and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Gordons were looking to repeat the trick when they cast TK Carter (who’d worked with Hill on Southern Comfort) as a wisecracking, streetwise genie out to make life difficult for his new master, straightlaced weatherman Keith Burrows, played by Airplane II’s Richard Gilland.

Just Our Luck, 1983

ABC had high hopes for the new show and trailed it extensively as the Fall season arrived, with Carter’s Shamu even appearing in spots with other ABC sitcom characters, including The Fonz and Benson. The first episode debuted on September 20th 1983 as a lead-in to Happy Days, which was struggling in the ratings opposite The A-Team on Tuesday nights. Although the premiere drew almost fifteen million viewers, the critics gave almost universal thumbs down, and the NAACP were so offended by a show depicting a black man as a white man’s servant that they called for a boycott of the whole network until Just Our Luck was cancelled.

In the face of such opposition – and settling in at under thirteen million viewers, half of what The A-Team was pulling – Just Our Luck never had a chance and ABC pulled it after twelve episodes, the thirteenth going unaired other than in some foreign markets. Needless to say, TK Carter did not become the next Eddie Murphy, though he did land a role on Punky Brewster, appear in pre-Saved By the Bell show Good Morning Miss Bliss, and still gets the odd role from directors with long memories, last turning up in an episode of the much-missed Stumptown in 2020.

AfterMASH (CBS): The world ground to a halt on February 28th 1983 when the series finale of M*A*S*H aired on CBS. The two-hour-plus episode attracted almost two-thirds of those watching TV on that Monday night and was even broadcast live to US personal serving in Korea, despite the fourteen-hour time difference. When it was all over, viewers had laughed and cried along with Hawkeye, Hot Lips, Radar and the rest for the best part of eleven years, seven years longer than the Korean War itself.

How do you follow that? Wise heads would counsel that you don’t even try but CBS needed something to fill M*A*S*H’s gap in the schedules and looked very close to home for the solution. Original series developer Larry Gelbart formed a four-man team to create the new show, which would focus on a trio of characters moving into civilian life after the war had ended. Alan Alda, Larry Linville, and Loretta Swit were presumably too busy to sign on for the new show and so the story was tooled around the unlikely trio of cross-dressing Corporal Klinger, Lieutenant Colonel Potter, and military chaplain Father Mulcahy.

AfterMASH, 1983

The premise saw Potter unhappily retired and urged by his suffering wife to get a job at the local hospital, where he is soon joined by Klinger and Mulcahy. Now married to a Korean woman, Klinger is running from trouble with the law, while Mulcahy – whose hearing was damaged in the M*A*S*H finale, had become a heavy drinker. Under the watchful eye of their former Colonel, both men turn their lives around, although there’s still plenty of trouble for Klinger to get himself – and the others – into.

The old show’s Radar made a guest appearance and AfterMASH did well enough in the ratings to earn a second season, although critics generally hated the show. For its sophomore outing, CBS moved the show to Tuesday, hoping to combat The A-Team, only realising too late that nothing combats The A-Team. Just eight episodes into its second season, AfterMASH was cancelled, a ninth episode going unaired. Although M*A*S*H is still fondly remembered, forty years after its finale, almost no-one recalls the spin-off, and in 2002 TV Guide voted it the seventh worst TV show of all time. A little harsh, perhaps, but how different could it have been if Hot Lips was available?

Mr Smith (NBC): Who was the star of Every Which Way but Loose and Any Which Way You Can? If “Clint Eastwood” was your answer then you have a very human-centric view of the world, because the real stars of those movies were Simian-American actors Manis and Buddha, without whom they would have been very dull indeed. After growing too big to play Clyde in the second film, Manis landed a part in The Cannonball Run II and was then cast in his own show, where his thespian skills could truly be showcased.

In Mr Smith, Manis played Cha Cha, an escapee from a circus who finds himself in a government research lab. Escaping once more, Cha Cha noses around the facility, stumbling on a formula designed to increase intelligence and drinking it down. Finding he can talk, and being judged to have an IQ of 256, Cha Cha is renamed Mr Smith and – obviously – becomes a political advisor.

Mr Smith, 1983

Mr Smith was co-created by Stan Daniels and Ed Weinberger, who had previously created Taxi together. Weinberger also provided the voice for Mr Smith as he attempts to solve various political problems, all the while looking for his brother, Bobo, and trying to keep his real identity – that of an ape – a secret from the American public. Paired with Jennifer Slept Here, Mr Smith crawled to its thirteenth episode and was then humanely destroyed, ranking ninety-fifth of one-hundred shows in the year’s ratings list.

Manis returned to his handlers and later appeared in an episode of Cheers, presumably going on to live a happy life in retirement, which is more than poor Buddha got. Brought in to replace Manis as the loveable Clyde, Buddha was badly treated by his humans, eventually beaten to death with an axe handle for the crime of stealing doughnuts from the craft services table, at least according to a book by Dale Peterson and Jane Goodall. That the claims are not more widely reported smacks of a political cover-up… now I wonder who could be responsible for that?

Next on The Telephemera Years: Ninjas and cocaine are the themes of some of 1983’s unsold pilots!

Check out our other Telephemera articles:

The Telephemera Years: pre-1965 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1966 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1967 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1968 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1969 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1971 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1973 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1975 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1977 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1978 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1980 (part 12, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1982 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1983 (part 1)

The Telephemera Years: 1984 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1986 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1987 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1989 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1990 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1992 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1995 (part 12, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1997 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 1998 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2000 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2003 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2005 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2006 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

The Telephemera Years: 2008 (part 1, 23, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: Irwin Allen

Titans of Telephemera: Stephen J Cannell (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: DIC (part 1, 2)

Titans of Telephemera: Hanna-Barbera (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Titans of Telephemera: Kenneth Johnson

Titans of Telephemera: Sid & Marty Krofft

Titans of Telephemera: Glen A Larson (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

Titans of Telephemera: Quinn Martin (part 1, 2)

Titans of Telephemera: Ruby-Spears

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