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!
Although it had failed to find an adequate replacement for Seinfeld since that show was laid to rest in 1998, NBC’s Must-See Thursdays still dominated the non-factual portion of US TV audiences in the 2000-01 season, as both ER and Friends entered their seventh seasons with nice Dr Greene being diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Monica and Chandler getting married. Everybody still loved Raymond over on CBS, which otherwise had to rely on the power of Survivor to gain a decent ratings share.
The world prepared to say goodbye to Walker, Texas Ranger, Diagnosis: Murder, Xena: Warrior Princess, and Star Trek: Voyager, but genre fans could still comfort themselves with weekly doses of Buffy, Angel, Touched by an Angel, Futurama, The X-Files, and Roswell, and there was the promise of Dark Angel, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Andromeda, and Sheena all making their debuts. Now those shows made an impact but what about those that didn’t? This is the story of four more of 2000’s forgotten shows…
Special Unit 2 (UPN): Created by Evan Katz, Special Unit 2 told the story of a top-secret Chicago police squad tasked with dealing with what most people regarded as mythical creatures but which they called “links,” as in “missing link”. Millions of years ago, you see, humanity diverged in many different ways, most of which died out but of whom remnant populations still hide amongst the general public.
Our guides to the work of Special Unit 2 are Detectives Nick O’Malley and Kate Benson. O’Malley, played by Michael Landes (Jimmy Olsen in season one of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), is a maverick, even by the standards of an unorthodox division, angst-ridden by the death of his former partner and lover, who were cut into six-hundred cubes of flesh by a criminal called The Chameleon. Benson (Party of Five’s Alexondra Lee) is recruited as the series starts, one of the only regular police who doesn’t dismiss the existence of links as fairytales.
O’Malley and Benson are joined by the unit’s captain, whose metal hand is the subject of many jokes, and their link liaison Carl, a kleptomaniac gnome. A six-episode first season was aired as a mid-season replacement for the cancelled Seven Days in April 2001 and did well enough that a second season of thirteen episodes was ordered, arriving for the Fall 2001 TV season and given Star Trek show Enterprise as a lead-in.
Gorgons, djinns, Japanese mummies, and a dragon are among the wide variety of links created by special effects master Patrick Tatopoulos and investigated by the team, and it was a brave critic who dared accuse the show of being repetitive. Despite all this, UPN pulled the plug and replaced it with CBS reject Wolf Lake, which lasted just four episodes before it, too, was cancelled. The complete series was released on DVD in 2017 and remains a delight, a missing link in the history of genre police procedurals.
That’s My Bush! (Comedy Central): Three and a half years after striking gold with South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone brought another show to Comedy Central, this time with a seemingly straight-up political satire theme rather than their firstborn’s wider-ranging target scope. The central characters of That’s My Bush! are President George W Bush and First Lady Laura but that wasn’t how it was planned…
Like many ahead of the contentious election, Parker and Stone assumed Al Gore would win easily and, although they claimed they would create a sitcom about the fictional social life of whoever won, did a great deal of work on Everybody Loves Al. The uncertain nature of the result of the election, and the prospect that Bush might win, pushed the show back from its January 2001 launch to April, with much of the work done on ..Al retooled for That’s My Bush!
Rather than the expected lampooning of Bush and his wife, the show instead took a swipe at sitcom tropes of the 1970s and 1980s, injecting some hot button topics such as abortion and gun control, and always ending with the line, “One of these days, Laura, I’m gonna punch you in the face!” as a modern riposte to The Honeymooners’ “One of these days, POW!!! Right in the kisser!” catchphrase.
Eight episodes were made, airing on Wednesday nights in the Spring of 2001, before Comedy Central decided to cancel the show as part of a cost-cutting drive. Parker and Stone were ambivalent, admitting the show was expensive to make and that it probably wouldn’t have continued after 9/11 anyway, with the mood of the country changing so hard. Actor Timothy Bottoms, who played Bush in the sitcom, went on to play him in a serious piece about 9/11, as well as the Crocodile Hunter movie.
Night Visions (Fox): Presented by writer and punk rocker Henry Rollins, Night Visions was an attempt by Fox to do their own version of The Twilight Zone with Rollins its Rod Serling. Creators Dan Angel and Billy Brown had a decent résumé, having worked on John Carpenter Presents: Body Bags and Goosebumps before writing for season five of The X-Files, and it was that latter show that was instrumental in Rollins’s involvement in Night Visions, having first been considered for a recurring role there.
Rollins acted as a guide through twisted tales that found a medical student tormented by voodoo, a man experiencing flashbacks to his new home’s past dwellers, and three students who can escape their apparent death in a fiery car crash only if they manage to stop anyone finding out about it. With a cast of familiar faces including Cary Elwes, Luke Perry, Bridget Fonda, Lou Diamond Phillips, Randy Quaid, Jack Palance, and a whole load more, and episodes directed by Joe Dante, Tobe Hooper, Bryan Spicer, and Bill Pullman, among others, the stories hosted by Rollins could hardly be considered thin gruel.
Angel and Brown, though, did not want a regular host for the series and also butted up against the network on the tone of the show, finding themselves at times both too scary and not scary enough for their Fox bosses. Angel and Brown felt that the inclusion of Rollins was an attempt to make the show “hip” but found that the show probably wasn’t hip enough after a change of guard at the top at the network meant it was removed from its proposed October 2000 premiere.
Instead, Night Visions aired as a Summer replacement in July 2001, a time when no-one is watching much television, and so there were few takers for the end product, a creepy and quirky series of stories that took one step sideways from reality. Ten episodes, each with two stories, aired between July and September 2001 before the show was taken off air to make room for the new 2001-02 Fall shows, but The Sci-Fi Channel acquired the rights and showed all thirteen finished episodes over the Summer of 2002. It’s never been released on DVD but you can find all thirteen episodes in the usual places and it’s well worth your time spending an evening with Mr Rollins…
Queen of Swords (syndication): A co-production between British, Canadian, and Spanish companies, Queen of Swords is a female Zorro. That may sound dismissive but that’s exactly what it sets out to be and what it achieves, and to pretend any different would be doing all involved a disservice. The one key difference between Johnston McCulley’s pulp hero and Tessie Santiago’s female equivalent is cleavage but otherwise her masked revenger, standing up for the ordinary people of Spanish California in the early nineteenth century may as well carve a Z into her victims.
Santiago plays Tessa Alvarado, a young Spanish aristocrat who returns to California after the death of her father, only to find the local populace – and her father’s possessions – under the thrall of corrupt local governor Colonel Montoya. Visited by the spirit of her father in a dream, Tessa dons a mask and uses her considerable fencing skills to bring some justice to Santa Helena, all with the aid of Marta, a gypsy wise woman who names her the Queen of Swords.
Created by David Abramovitz (who’d previously worked on V and the Highlander TV series) and Linda Lukens (who had to go to court to get a credit), the show debuted in syndication in the US on October 2nd 2000, and in Spain and Canada five days later. Sony, who held the rights to the Zorro franchise, attempted to sue over the series in 2001, alleging similarities between the show and their property but the judge ruled that the copyright on the character and his initial written appearances had elapsed and that there were not enough similarities between the show and Sony’s latest film to warrant legal action.
Perhaps because of all the legal issues, there was no second season of Queen of Swords, the twenty-two-episode first season having ended on a cliffhanger. Queen of Swords was Santiago’s first role and one that earned her a sizeable cult following and an ALMA nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Syndicated Drama Series. Since finishing up as Ms Alvarado, she’s appeared in Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, and as Vice-President Vargas in the political thriller Scandal, none of which involved wearing a lacy mask.
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