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THE TELEPHEMERA YEARS: 1998 – PART 1

Written By:

Alan Boon
Mercy Point, 1998

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!

1998-99

Back in the last millennium, there was this thing called Must See TV, where NBC put ALL the best shows in one three-hour block and dominated the lives of everyone with a television. Friends, new Christina Applegate vehicle Jesse, Frasier, Veronica’s Closet, and ER were all the TV you needed, although the usual news and football was also on offer for anyone not tickled by NBC’s powerhouse line-up. Jesse wasn’t the only new show that NBC threw at viewers; they also had Will & Grace tucked in their back pocket. The other big new arrivals were over on HBO and Fox, where Sex and the City, Family Guy, and Futurama all hit the screens for the first time.

There were plenty of shows going the other way, with Home Improvement, Due South, Homicide: Life on the Street, Mad About You, and Baywatch entering their final runs, and genre fans had particular cause to feel aggrieved as the axe was about to fall on Millennium, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, with only Third Wave and Farscape on the docket to replace them. Well, there were others, of course, but they were part of that group of shows no-one much remembers…

Strange World (ABC): With a few notable exceptions, most of the shows written about here at least make it to half a dozen episodes, if not a half-season of thirteen, before the axe falls on their screen futures. However, once in a while, a show gets such short shrift from a network that it not only disappears before it reaches two hours of total screen time, but that its producers are able to craft an ending for the show before it even begins to air.

That’s the story of Strange World, a mid-season replacement on Tuesdays on ABC while NYPD Blue took a break, from the fertile imaginations of Howard Gordon and Tim Kring. The show is set among the machinations of the real-life US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, set up in 1970 to deal with the ramifications of biological and chemical warfare on its soldiers. In his first lead role, Tim Guinee plays Captain Paul Turner, a USAMRIID doctor suffering from a disease brought on by exposure to chemicals in the Gulf War, brought out of retirement to seek justice for those similarly affected.

Strange World, 1999

So far, so trad right, but Strange World’s tangent was that Turner had already been cured of his illness by a shadowy agency working against the USAMRIID. Turner has to walk a line between doing his job and pleasing his secret paymasters, uncovering all manner of medical and scientific abuses as he goes, or at least he did in the three episodes that aired before ABC pulled the plug, a 1990s version of Doomwatch seemingly not what they were after.

By that point, production had reached its thirteenth episode, the last of its early order from the network, and it was already clear that the show had no chance of being renewed. Gordon and Kring were able to alter scripts for the last few episodes as they went, manging to wrap things up for Turner, USAMRIID, and their antagonists. When the full run aired on the Sci-Fi Channel in 2002, viewers were able to find some closure, at least. Gordon went on to showrun 24 and co-create Homeland, while Kring was responsible – your mileage may vary on whether to congratulate or blame him – for Heroes.

Mercy Point (UPN): With ER top of the ratings, it’s no surprise that medical shows with a twist were high on the want list for networks in 1998 and setting your hospital show two-hundred-and-fifty-years in the future- and in space – is one hell of a twist. Mercy Point was created – as Nightingale One – by Trey Callaway with a feature film in mind, but studios were wary of sci-fi films after the relative failure of Starship Troopers.

Mandalay Television were interested, however, and engaged Adventures in Babysitting writer David Simkins and Milo Frank to help Callaway retool the concept for television, casting Joe “Brother from Another Planet” Morton as alien physiologist Dr Grote Maxwell and Street Legal’s Maria del Mar as his boss, surgeon Haylen Breslauer. The show was filmed in Vancouver and a full set was built, allowing director Joe Napolitano to flesh out the world of the eponymous medical space station.

 

Mercy Point, 1998

As the show begins, Breslauer’s younger sister Dru arrives to start work as a resident, creating tensions with her sister and a libidinous ex, Dr Jurado (Brian McNamara). As with more terrestrial medical procedure shows, an emergency of the week propels the subplots forwards and the team have to deal with a computer virus that has jumped to humans, a shuttle accident, and premature ageing among other, more trivial concerns.

Hopes were high for the show, and UPN were confident of a hit, but the pilot aired against the World Series and ratings never recovered. With each episode costing as much as two or three episodes of cheaper shows aimed at UPN’s prime teen demographic, the decision was made to put the show on hiatus after just three episodes had aired. That hiatus was made permanent before the final four completed episodes were shown in the Summer of 1999, and the seven-episode series has never been released on DVD.

Total Recall 2070 (Showtime): You could say that Total Recall 2070 is loosely inspired by the 1990 film from which it takes its name (and therefore from Philip K Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale), but really the only common thread is the concept of virtual vacations provided by the Rekall corporation.

Rather than the technicolour world of the Arnold Schwarzenegger, showrunner Art Monterastelli – with previous credits including Seaquest DSV, Nowhere Man, and Timecop – went for a grimy, cyberpunk vibe as he told the story of David Hume (VR.5‘s Michael Easton), a Citizens Protection Bureau detective whose partner is killed by a rogue android. With new android partner Ian, Hume tackles exactly the sort of crimes you’d expect would plague the world of 2070, such as (more) rogue androids), biohazards, genetics, and computer dating.

Total Recall 2070, 1998

One particular crime is rampant, that of black-market memory implants, and Hume’s wife discovers that her memories prior to meeting him have been altered, leading to their marriage breaking up. Behind it all is the sinister “Consortium” – can Hume manage to bring them down, despite their powerful interests? The show was filmed on a disused airbase in Toronto, with futuristic cityscapes added digitally by John Gajdecki’s studio, and received its first airing on the Canadian channel OnTV in January 1999.

Two months later, pay channel Showtime began airing Total Recall 2070 in the US, committing to the full twenty-two-episode first season run, albeit with some edits made to remove nudity and cursing. Reviewers felt the show resembled Blade Runner more than Total Recall, and that’s probably responsible for it failing to find its audience either in Canada or the US. While a hardy band of followers eagerly awaited new episodes, no second season was ever forthcoming, and Monterastelli moved on to his next project, The Hunted, a feature film starring Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio del Toro.

Buddy Faro (CBS): A former police detective, Dennis Farina had played his fair share of cops and gumshoes down the years, from FBI agent Jack Crawford in Manhunter to Lt Mike Torello in forty-four episodes of Crime Story. Buddy Faro, though, had something none of them did: a backstory written by Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost.

Prior to his time in the Pacific Northwest with David Lynch, Frost had spent three years writing for Hill Street Blues and so was no stranger to police procedurals but the dark humour he brought to Buddy Faro was right out of the Lynch playbook, filling each hour-long episode with smart dialogue and quirky cases. From the off, there was something different about Buddy, a detective from the 1970s who disappeared after trying to solve the murder of a woman he fell in love with. Twenty years later, he is tracked down by Bob Jones, a young PI in over his head and convinced to return to Los Angeles and to his old job.

Buddy Faro, 1998

Frank Whaley should have been huge, but fans of his work can at least console themselves with a filmography of small but charismatic performances, and his Bob Jones is one to add to the list, perfectly accenting Farina as the proverbial odd couple. There’s also great back-up from Alison Smith and Charlie Robinson, and a writing staff that included Melrose Place’s Kimberly Costello and Frost’s brother, Scott, but somehow the parts never came together to form enough of a whole that CBS viewers made it a regular stop.

The network called a halt after just eight episodes had aired, with a further five produced but not shown. Frost’s clever mix of 1930s noir, 1970s chic, and 1990s realism may have been a step too far for ordinary viewers and Buddy Faro languishes in TV obscurity, exactly the kind of show this column aims to spark a remembrance of. Luckily, there are a few episodes to glory in on YouTube, should you be so disposed (and you really should).

Next time on The Telephemera Years: More of 1998’s failed experiments, including a devilish gem…

Check out our other Telephemera articles:

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: 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: 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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