Not every TV show gets to be E.R. Most don't even get to be Homeboys in Outer Space, a program that failed quickly despite having a clever title that explained who it was about and where they were. Dozens of pilot episodes get produced each year, and only a tiny handful are ever broadcast. Sometimes it's because network executives are talentless morons, and sometimes it's because the shows are impossibly and hilariously shitty.
Here's a few from that second group.
#5. The Orson Welles Show (1978)
Orson Welles is best known for Citizen Kane and the notorious War of the Worlds radio adaptation, but this show comes from a time in his career when he was more likely to be drunkenly flubbing his way through a commercial for Paul Masson champagne than crafting a legendary piece of entertainment. A frequent guest of Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett and others, Orson decided to take a shot at the format himself. The results are mesmerizing.
When the lumbering freak-show giant turns to the camera and croaks, "Welcome to the launching party," you can't help but feel like a deranged carny has just pulled the lever on a ride that will be your last. And the guest list takes the late-70s strangeness even further. First up, none other than Burt Reynolds, oozer of visible slime. Somehow, the two men failed to not wear the exact same clothes.
To be fair, the 70s gave two choices for fashion: flared jeans or the softcore porn look.
Mr. Welles abandoned the standard "softball questions and anecdotes" format for an audience Q&A. This allowed for the kind of uncomfortable moments you don't often get on network television. Most notably, an African-American man asks Burt whether he considers himself a star or a superstar, and gets the response, "Only a black man would ask that question." An inexplicably racist(?) non-sequitur which is met with guffaws from our madman of a host.
"I'd better laugh too, otherwise it'll look like black people have no sense of humor!"
The weirdness keeps on coming with his next guests: Jim Henson and Frank Oz, accompanied by Kermit, Fozzie and Sam the Eagle. Instead of doing fun, harmless, Muppet-related interview questions, Welles turns a conversation with a frog puppet into a desperate defense of why he's now doing television, "the one theater [he's] never really worked in." He's Orson Welles, and he invited Jim Henson onto his show so he could defend himself to a puppet. Is that clear to everyone? That's a thing that happened. The 70s were weird.
He used to be a legitimate actor. Kermit we mean, not Orson Welles.
The final guest is Angie Dickinson, star of hit series Police Woman and a minor sex symbol of the time. You can imagine the show's producer planning the segment. "OK, so we'll trot Angie out for some questions about the show, throw in some mild flirtatious innuendo and call it a day? No, Orson? You'd rather have her do some magic? Well she's not known for that, but ... OK, that could be fun and sexy too, maybe she wears a sparkly little dress and you cut her in half- what's that? Strap yourself into a throne with a blindfold? So you can narrate an ominous game of Russian Roulette that will haunt the kids who tuned in to see Kermit for the remainder of their natural lives? Well, you're the genius!"
His dates typically ended this way, too.
#4. The Adventures of Superpup (1958)
"Look, up in the air! It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's ... um ... it appears to be a small man with a giant, unblinking dog head and a Superman costume. Get the kids inside, dear, and bring me my rifle."
This ain't no Krypto the Superdog.
By 1958, the successful Adventures of Superman series was nearing the end of its run. Producer Whitney Ellsworth, who seems to have borrowed his name from an old-timey gold prospector, realized there might still be some stories and/or money left in them thar hills. Somehow, that realization led to this.
This scene alone set dog actors back 50 years.
The creators spared every expense, starting with the sets, which were the exact same sets used for the Superman show. Next, they hired a cast made up almost entirely of little people, and gave them oversized dog-face helmets to wear. Now, sure, we expect the special effects of the past to look silly by today's standards. But it's hard to imagine a time anywhere in history when children would not have been horrified by these motionless, dead-eyed monstrosities. Well, "motionless" is a bit of an exaggeration:The mouth flaps do stutter open and close randomly when characters speak. However, do not make the assumption that the performers inside got the privilege of speaking their own dialogue. That task fell to other actors on set, who recorded their speech off-stage in real time while cameras recorded the so-called action. This technique gives the show an even more stilted, disconnected-from-reality feel.
Of course, real dogs drive automatics.
The characters of Superman's world were assigned new dog-appropriate names. Clark Kent became "Bark Bent," tough-as-nails newspaper editor Perry White was now "Terry Bite" and the iconic Lois Lane was naturally re-dubbed ... "Pamela Poodle." Because finding a name that resembled hers at all (like, say, Doris Dane) was less important than reminding everyone that poodles are the girl dogs. Jimmy Olsen's role was filled by a nameless, cheeky mouse living in Bark Bent's desk, obviously.
A piece of advice that the show's creators should have taken to heart.
The episode's story centers on the escape of Professor Sheepdip and his plan to destroy the Daily Bugle building with the help of his idiot henchman, Wolfingham. If you're wondering whether the name "Professor Sheepdip" is a play on the moniker of any famous Superman villain, then you haven't been paying enough attention. That question becomes less important when you see Professor Sheepdip test his new invention: a liquid that explodes with the force of a nuclear bomb.
You're never going to grow up, kids!
Yes, a mere 13 years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the creative team behind The Adventures of Superpup felt it appropriate to show their whimsical villain setting off a mushroom-cloud explosion. And where is our hero in all of this? Alarmingly absent for the most part. Superpup doesn't even appear until more than halfway into the episode; prior to that we just get Bark Bent whining to his desk-mouse about how he doesn't know what to do. Which is odd, because he is well aware of the villains' last known location, and could totally fly there and get them. After all, the opening sequence informs us that he's "able to fly around the world faster than you can say Superpup!" Of course, it's hard to imagine why anyone would say, "Superpup," except perhaps in the sentence, "What is this awful Superpup pilot you've produced -- no of course we can't show it on television."
#3. Archie (1964)
By 1964, the comic book world of Riverdale high-schoolers Archie, Jughead, Betty had been around for over 20 years, and was well-established in the popular consciousness. So, obviously, the time was right for television to get all of it completely wrong with a creepy, half-baked sitcom!
"... and the rights to this show are SOLD to the scary man-child in the front row!"
Remember how in the comics Archie would ignore Betty and Veronica so he could come on to the school secretary in a really slimy fashion? No? You don't? Well, to hell with your stupid treasured childhood memories! Television's take on Archie was that of a scheming, slick fellow with palpable levels of smarm, like Eddie Haskell, except ... no. The sexual tension is a little too real and aggressive for the wholesome 1960s teen sitcom backdrop -- it gives the show an unsettling, date-rapey feel. If this Archie were operating in today's world, he'd make a coke-fueled sex tape with Betty, Veronica and Moose, then sell it to Vivid for a tidy profit.
"Of course you'll get 20 percent if you get Jughead involved."
The strangest piece of this sweaty pie is the characterization of Principal Weatherbee. A full four minutes of the pilot episode is devoted to him, sitting alone in his office, having an argument with his own disembodied voice. Yes, the well-meaning Weatherbee of the comics is reborn as a depressed schizophrenic! He opens the show alternating between questioning his own life's worth and openly acknowledging his disturbing obsession with Archie. Despite all this, his internal monologue reassures him, "Here you are, a successful, important man. A high school principal with 800 young minds to mold." Weatherbee's response? A defeated "... Yeah." But it must be funny, because the laugh-track eats it up! As the episode unfolds we learn that Weatherbee is involved in his own love triangle, featuring aging-and-desperate teacher Miss Grundy and his own secretary. Yes, the same secretary that Archie wants to bang. These are the depraved, twisted scenarios that erotic fan fiction are made of. So, in that sense at least, Archie was well ahead of its time!
Principal Weatherbee prays for just one day that he doesn't feel like pulling the trigger.