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THE TELEPHEMERA YEARS: 1999, part 1

Written By:

Alan Boon
Battle Dome, 1999-2000

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!

1999-2000

As US TV moved into the twenty-first century, the schedule was full of comings and goings. Sure, old reliables like ER, Friends, Frasier, and Touched by an Angel could be relied upon to bring in millions of viewers for NBC and CBS, but everyone was talking about the new kids on the block. ABC took the top three slots in the ratings with the thrice-weekly Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, while CBS jumped into the reality market with two feet, debuting both Big Brother and Survivor to an America hungry for average Joes. Also arriving on the network schedules was Judging Amy, Malcolm in the Middle, Law & Order: SVU, and The West Wing, while HBO debuted The Sopranos.

For genre fans, Buffy spin-off Angel premiered on The WB, as did UFO drama Roswell, and Relic Hunter, The Lost World, and Beastmaster are began syndicated runs. This made up for the loss of Sliders and Poltergeist: The Legacy, both of which were entering their final seasons, along with Boy Meets World, Chicago Hope, Beverly Hills 90210, Party of Five, and Veronica’s Closet. Many of these new shows became institutions in their own rights, but what about the 1999 debuts that failed to stick their landing? This is the story of five flops…

Battle Dome (syndication): If you took American Gladiators – already a colourful spectacle with elements of pro-wrestling thrown in – and turned the dial up to eleven, you’d end up with Battle Dome, where contestants not only had to battle the resident “Warriors” but also deal with some serious soap opera hamminess along the way.

Paired in most syndicated markets with the WWF’s Smackdown on Thursday nights, Battle Dome continued in the same vein, making larger-than-life stars of its characters, if not its contestants. Leading the way was Michael O’Dell, the pin-up boy of the Warriors played by former Gladiator Mike O’Hearn and accompanied by the Erica, Jaclyn, and Nicole Dahm, identical triplets who had previously occupied the Playboy centrefold.

 

Battle Dome, 1999-2000

Joining O’Dell were Jake Fury (veteran stuntman Gary Kasper, who memorably dislocated his ankle at the end of series one), bodybuilder Chris Boeving as The Commander, DOA (future House of a 1000 Corpses star Chad Bannon), and former NFL player Terry Crews, recast as T-Money, an arrogant hip hop-styled mogul in the shape of Suge Knight and a terrible loser. They faced their willing victims in a series of often-dangerous events such as the Rollercage of Fire, Aerial Kickboxing, and G-Force, and sometimes each other in order to find the holder of the Battledome Belt.

Coming back for second season in Fall 2000, Battle Dome crossed over with the WWF’s rival, World Championship Wrestling, with WCW wrestlers invading the Battle Dome set, leading to a retaliatory strike on a November 2000 episode of WCW Monday Nitro, but the feud fizzled out when Battle Dome was cancelled at the end of its second season and WCW went out of business soon after. Mike O’Hearn eventually reprised his role as Titan when American Gladiators returned in 2008 (the only Gladiator to be in both incarnations of the show) and Terry Crews later found fame as a sitcom actor, first on Everybody Hates Chris and then as Sergeant Terry Jeffords on Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Now and Again (CBS): Created by Moonlighting creator Glenn Gordon Caron, who was famously fired from his own show when Cybill Shepherd rebelled against his demanding working practices, Now and Again starred both John Goodman and Eric Close as Michael Wiseman, a family man killed in a train accident but given a new chance at life in a new, specially developed body with extraordinary abilities.

Goodman played Wiseman in the pilot and in flashbacks throughout, with Close as the “new” Michael, told he can never contact his family lest they be put in extreme danger. Under the control and the microscope of Dr Theodore Morris (Major League’s Dennis Haybert), Michael must do the government’s bidding, all the time trying to find a way out of his predicament and find his way back to his family.

Now and Again, 1999-2000

Just a Moonlighting was a romantic comedy pretending to be a detective show, central to Now and Again is the bond between Michael and his family, with wife Lisa (Margaret Colin) and teenage daughter Heather (Heather Matarazzo from hit 1995 indie movie Welcome to the Dollhouse) never far from his thoughts or from the ongoing storyline. This caused a cognitive dissonance in the minds of its audience – a sci-fi show with too much family drama, a family drama with too much sci-fi.

Low ratings and a relatively expensive budget put paid to a second season of the show but not in time to wrap things up. Thus, the first season ended on a cliffhanger, with Lisa discovering her husband is alive, the family on the run from Dr Morris, and Michael’s archenemy The Eggman escaping from prison. Caron would return five years later with Medium, this time mixing family drama with the supernatural; cheaper to produce, and with the charismatic Patricia Arquette as its star, that show lasted for seven seasons.

Action (Fox): A dark comedy set in the world of movie producing, Action was one of those shows that veered dangerously towards being “too inside” for a mainstream audience, which may have led to its cancellation after just thirteen episodes. It was the brainchild of Chris Thompson, who got his start as a sitcom writer on Laverne & Shirley before creating early Tom Hanks credit Bosom Buddies and scripting Jumpin’ Jack Flash for Whoopie Goldberg.

Thompson used his own experiences in TV and movies to create the character of Peter Dragon, a former pornography producer gone legit, albeit one with a reputation for tacky action flicks. His last film – Slow Torture – was an expensive failure and now the future of Dragonfire Films is resting on Beverley Hills Gun Club, a script bought by mistake because the writer was mistaken for Adam Rifkin.

Action, 1999-2000

There’s a lot going on in Action, from the studio president who married Peter’s ex-wife to hide his homosexuality to Peter’s vice-president, a former child star turned high-class call girl, with all manner of “friends” and acquaintances eager for Peter to fail. The cast is excellent, with Jay Mohr imbuing Peter Dragon with an unscrupulous charm, Illeana Douglas seemingly having the time of her life as his assistant, and Buddy Hackett in his element as Peter’s uncle (and head of security), Lonnie.

Fox outbid HBO for the rights to the series and it was probably a better fit for the latter network, especially given Fox cancelled Action after just eight episodes, burning off the remaining five on their FX cable network. Thompson had slightly better luck with Ladies Man, starring Alfred Molina and Betty White, which debuted at the same time on CBS and lasted for two seasons, but the long illness which eventually claimed his life in 2015 restricted his later work to a handful of shows; Shake It Up, his final project, launched the careers of both Bella Thorne and Zendaya.

God, The Devil and Bob (NBC): There aren’t many shows that can claim to have been taken off the air by the unique combination of low ratings and pressure from the religious right, but God, The Devil and Bob can firmly nail its colours to that mast. Starring James Garner as God, the animated sitcom debuted on NBC in March 2000 in 3rd Rock from the Sun’s usual slot, with that show moved forward half an hour to act as a lead-in.

Garner was joined in the cast by Alan Cumming as The Devil, who makes a bet with his opposite number that if a man of his choosing can’t prove humanity is decent, he will destroy the world and start again. The Devil chooses Bob, a borderline alcoholic and porn addict from Detroit played by 3rd Rock’s French Stewart, and somehow Bob comes through, becoming God’s latest Prophet as a result.

God, The Devil and Bob, 1999-2000

Created by Matthew Carlson, who got his start on The Wonder Years before working on Camp Wilder and Malcolm in the Middle, which premiered two months before God, The Devil and Bob. Past its initial conceit, Bob becomes drinking buddies with God and the Devil, and God uses Bob to try out new ideas for humanity while Lucifer does his best to scupper things.

Thirteen episodes were produced but only four aired before NBC pulled it from the schedules, citing low ratings as the main reason for its early cancellation. However, the American Family Association had been working against the show from the off, convincing nine local NBC affiliates in the South to boycott the show before its debut, joined by another eight once it had begun airing. Ratings did fall from fourteen million for its premiere to six and a half for the follow-up, which went up against Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? on Tuesday nights. The show eventually got a full run on Cartoon Network’s late-night Adult Swim block in 2011 and Carlson’s success on Malcolm in the Middle meant that it quickly became forgotten as “that show where God got a girlfriend…”

Harsh Realm (Fox): Intended to be a “high-tech version” of his favourite films (Path of Glory, Platoon, and Blade Runner), Harsh Realm was X-Files creator Chris Carter’s follow-up to the cancelled Millennium, again nominally unconnected but sharing many of the same themes as his hit show. Carter took “inspiration” from a 1994 comic book of the same name, written by James D Hudnall and drawn by Andrew Paquette, in which people are able to enter virtual reality worlds, one of which – the Harsh Realm – is an anything goes, unsupervised environment which has real-life consequences for your virtual adventures.

The name of the comic book was taken from an infamous hoax perpetuated by Sub Pop Records employee Megan Jasper, where she gave The New York Times a list of “grunge” slang words that she’d made up on the spot; a “harsh realm” was a “bummer.” Carter’s pilot borrowed the VR idea and the comic’s name, turning the Harsh Realm into a nightmare VR scenario set in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, used as a training tool by the US military, where Lieutenant Tom Hobbes (Party of Five’s Scott Bairstow) finds himself days before he is due to leave the army.

Harsh Realm, 1999-2000

Hobbes is given a final mission, to kill General Omar Santiago, a former US Army Sergeant who has gone rogue in the Harsh Realm, and he encounters both familiar and strange faces as he works towards his target, enlisting the aid of DB Sweeney’s Mike Pinocchio (a soldier who lost his legs and an eye in Desert Storm but has no such disabilities in the Harsh Realm) and an NPC called Florence. Terry O’Quinn as Santiago is at his unhinged best, dedicated to destroying the real world to ensure the Harsh Realm becomes the prime reality.

Carter was initially given a “created by” credit, switched to “developed by” after Hudnall and Paquette took legal action to have their names added to their credits, and the first episode attracted seven and a half million viewers on Fox, around what The X-Files was averaging. Viewers quickly became confused, however, and critics wondered how many would stick with the show until it made sense. The answer was roughly half that number, and it was pulled from the schedule after just three episodes had aired. The remaining nine completed episodes were shown on the FX Network and Carter went back to The X-Files, preparing an explicit spin-off in the shape of The Lone Gunmen.

Next time on The Telephemera Years: More of the 1999-2000’s season’s one-season wonders, including Cleopatra, clerks, freaks, and geeks!

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: 1970 (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: 1974 (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

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: 1981 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

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

The Telephemera Years: 1983 (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: 1998 (part 1, 2, 3, 4)

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

The Telephemera Years: 2002 (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)

The Telephemera Years: O Canada! (part 1, 2, 3, 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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