We live in an entertainment age where CGI is everywhere. Where practical effects are practically nonexistent. So much so that whenever an effect looks like it’s actually performed by humans or something in the natural world on screen, we take notice. It wasn’t always this way. Before the Avengers were assembled by dragging and dropping shit on a computer screen, they had to be physically assembled before a camera. Then, a bunch of real-life shit would be thrown onto them to make them “super.” Someone would spray paint a pizza stone red and give it to a hungover Captain America. The Hulk would have heads of broccoli glued to his skin and someone would just light a man’s head on fire to get the Ghost Rider thing down.
The live-action shows of yesterday pushed these technical and narrative limitations to the absolute furthest reaches, and some shows went even further. Live-action Saturday morning television from back in the day was the Wild West of televised entertainment, and these are some of the most out-there shows it produced ...
The mid-'70s were a time when the more batshit a live-action Saturday morning show was, the more likely you were to find it on your screen. No show better kicks off what this genre is all about than Ark II, the tale of a crew of hippies and a monkey science officer who cruised around our upcoming apocalyptic hellscape in a science RV to make the world a better place.
It’s a pretty good concept, even though if we’ve now come to learn that when this future is eventually brought on by famine and pollution and war, it will just be our robot overlords riding around in a retro Winnebago taking tourist stops at roadside Cracker Barrells trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with us weirdos. Many of these live-action shows were all about preaching a moral lesson using whatever shit they could find in the prop house at the time. Someone would hand you a script about the dangers of sending trash into space, and you’d have to find a way to turn a toilet brush and six cranberries into a space shuttle for the opening shot.
For Ark II, that toilet brush was the RV that was the centerpiece of the show. It’s hard not to miss the ingenuity that was born out of necessity for these shows. People were out there creating legitimate works of art with what they were given, and the audience was pretty well-conditioned to suspend their disbelief to the highest degree when watching these shows. So what if their futuristic space truck hit a pothole and ten extras who had been spraypainted silver fell off of the hood and under the wheels and died a horrific death, they were keeping the shot and you were completely ignoring that it ever happened because that was one badass science car cruising down the road.
Another common find in these kinds of nonsense live-action shows was the use of real animals. In Ark II, they went to the Holy Grail of the genre and threw a damn monkey on screen. They put clothes on a chimp, named him Adam, and just started rolling, hoping he’d do something cool and scientific and not something uncool and horrific like rip a costar’s face off and shit all over the science bus.
It had to be exhilarating to produce and act in these shows at the time. You’d wander onto a set that’s falling down all around you, wobbling because the paint inside the football helmet the crew just put together is still fresh, and a live tiger with a cardboard jetpack would jump out of a cage, and you’d just have to find a way to connect this to the narrative of the script. Today, some star is putting down their phone for five seconds to wander in front of a green screen and say a sarcastic joke in a bodysuit before heading back to their trailer. Entertainment desperately needs a shot in the arm, and Ark III, staring an out-of-water dolphin given those blade legs and piloting the monster truck Grave Digger on a science quest across the country to destroy Amazon warehouses for the greater good, is exactly what the doctor ordered.
The earlier days of television had to be a blast to write for. You would only need the loosest concept and access to a prop house to get something on the air. Monster Squad (not related in any way to the cult-classic film) is proof positive of exactly how little it would take. Here’s the premise: a weirdo student works a night shift at a wax museum as a guard, builds a “Crime Computer” in a sarcophagus, and it goes buck wild and brings the statues of Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein to life, where they are now free to go and become the crime fighters our world has always needed. If you read that quick synopsis and thought, “that can’t be true, someone just dropped six gerbils onto a keyboard and that came out,” you’d be right and wrong at the same time. Not only is this true and the plot for Monster Squad, but the gerbil drop technique has to be the way these concepts were made back in the day, and I simply cannot be convinced otherwise.
Even shows not in the Saturday morning block had that feel to them, so it only makes sense that the ones that were put on at a slot that’s television equivalent to what happens when the parents’ house when they leave their partying teenager home alone for the weekend were completely bananas.
Monster Squad was camp on steroids. Much like the Batman TV show, everything in this show was like someone told beginner drama kids that they actually should act “even harder.” Dracula, Wolf Man, and Frank N. Stein would drive around in their Monster Van until they encountered rejected Scooby-Doo villains, while Walt would stay back on his Crime Computer and monitor the scene from the wax museum.
The best part about it is that there is no reason why these legendary monsters are fit for crime-fighting in any way. For the most part, they just kind of moved around like regular dudes with pretty regular powers but just have the added details of being really pale, really hairy, or really tall. It’s a shame that this show barely lasted a year because I could see later seasons featuring the museum’s Cthulhu coming to life. Becoming the ultimate crime-fighter as a worthless out-of-water super squid, just kind of squirming around on the street trying to lazily throw a tentacle out to trip up a running shoplifter as it gasps for air.
Saturday morning live-action shows of yesteryear were the perfect space for superheroes that nobody really gave a shit about. That’s why there was no better fit than Shazam! and Captain Marvel for the morning block, when you are still powering down your morning cereal in a bleary haze, and can easily overlook how the show you’re watching actually makes zero sense. In this version of Shazam!, it’s that familiar Captain Marvel plot of having a kid say a bullshit word and immediately turning into a bullshit superhero right after. Only, in this show, probably because of the budget and technical limitations of the time, he was quite commonly uttering that magic phrase only to go and do some pretty menial shit.
Take, for example, the very first episode, where young Billy turns into an adult superhero with serious powers to go and combat one of the world’s biggest unifying problems: joyriding. That’s right, in the first episode of the series, they wanted to make an impression by having their superhero fly around and see if he can stop some kids from taking other people’s cars out for a spin. In writing this, and seeing just how stupid this is, it also kind of makes me want shows to do this more. We’ve seen our superheroes fight and prevent the biggest threats to humanity imaginable, so maybe it’s time we got a bit more micro with it. I’d probably get more enjoyment watching Batman beat the hell out of everyone in Gotham who doesn’t say “thank you” when you hold a door open for them, or maybe we can put Superman to use, unleashing his eyeball lasers to melt everyone who is still out there telling people that they really need to see The Wire. You know, the kind of vital problem-solving our superheroes really should be doing.
Of course, because Shazam! was a Saturday morning live-action show from this era, that meant there was over a 50% chance it featured an RV the characters would travel the country in. And dammit, it sure delivered on that. Different from Ark II’s cool science RV, the one in Shazam! was just a straight-up, classic, Midwestern tourist’s whip that a strange old man would ride around in with an alien god kid until they saw a minor problem that needed helping. If you took out the part where Billy can turn into a superhero, the show mostly looked like a PSA warning you about what happens if you get into an RV with a slightly pervy old dude. It just so happens that this PSA probably had unintended effects, because when this guy rolled up to the neighborhood offering candy, you hopped into his van and got super speed and strength and went around the country helping bring down wayward hot air balloons and would then go on to trust every shady stranger for the rest of your life.
How do you turn the plot of The Fugitive into something suitable for the younger Saturday morning audience? You turn the accused killer on the run into a dog, obviously. That’s the plot behind Run, Joe, Run, an absolutely bonkers live-action show from the 70s. In Run, Joe, Run, Joe is a German Shepherd on the run because he was falsely accused of attacking his handler and a bounty has been placed on his head.
In his journey across the country, running from bounty hunters that are going through hell to kill a dog for $200 cash, Joe encounters strangers in need and gives them a hand. Much like the use of a monkey on Ark II, shows back in the day were all about throwing a real animal out there on camera and seeing what happened. Where now, you can bring to life any creature through CGI and have a team of ten animators with the sole job of doing the detailing on the dog’s nutsack for two years in post-production, live-action shows used to rely on the real thing.
I’m sure there were plenty of rewrites to the scripts depending on Joe’s mood for the day. Sure, the script called for a big set piece where he drags a drowning swimmer to shore and saves the day, but ol’ Joe was kind of just feeling like a solid 12 hours of licking his asshole and throwing in a few air humps on a mailbox for his day, so you’re going to have to get the writers back in the room to work around this diva behavior. Of all these shows, though, this one has the most coherent plot by a mile.
Not to mention, it looks a hell of a lot better when you’ve got an actual dog on camera and aren’t working with the costume and prop limitations that the human actors from this genre usually had going on. A German Shepherd will always look like a dog. That’s a dog ass dog. Your “superhero” that’s just an oddly slightly overweight man who’s almost handsome but doesn’t quite get there, with two pizza cutters taped to his wrists and orange house paint on his face just fails to have the same effect. This whole concept also speaks to how overboard this genre truly went, when a fugitive German Shepherd helping people with their everyday problems and narrowly dodging a crew of bounty hunters on his trail is about to most conservative plot in the entire scene.
Bigfoot is the Holy Grail of practical effects. I can’t think of a single costume I’ve seen more than the iconic furry suit of a bigfoot. If you design these things for a living, I’d imagine that you have sketched up a sasquatch costume that would blow the world away. The problem is, they all end up looking the same. And that’s to say, not very good. Generally, any live-action bigfoot looks like someone just scooped up all of the fur from the floor of a local kennel and glued it onto the first tall, confused man they could find. That’s no different in the mental '70s live-action Saturday morning show Bigfoot and Wildboy. The premise? That’s simple. Bigfoot finds and raises a feral boy in the wilderness and, once he’s grown up, they fight crime and battle aliens in the woods.
If there’s one extremely common theme in all of these shows, it’s the idea of pretty vague “crime-fighting.” (A term that’s used about as loosely as possible here.) The crimes can vary so wildly in severity, that on one episode, you might find Bigfoot stopping a bunch of poachers, truly good crime-fighting. While on the next, he’d be ripping the arms off of a hiker who accidentally left a wrapper for their granola bar back at the site.
On Bigfoot and Wildboy, every episode was basically just one dude trying everything he could to keep his costume from falling apart, while the other jumped around in a loincloth wondering if it gets any more redundant than basically just being a bigfoot without any of the cool powers or sweet hair. The biggest restriction this show had going for it was the need to work pretty exclusively to the confines of the forest the characters called home. They couldn’t really justify having Bigfoot solving cool city crimes in a sweet human costume, rocking an oversized coat and glasses so that he could get in there and work on interesting crimes. So they had to come up with storylines that befit the setting that looked more like some Hollywood producer’s small backyard in the Hills than a sweeping forest full of danger and aliens.
After Bigfoot and Wildboy had already dispatched of mountain lions and the few dangers that do exist in that setting, the show was no doubt scrambling come the next season. It’s just not the same watching Bigfoot kick squirrels to the moon just because he is getting kind of annoyed with their presence, or seeing Wildboy send his furry friend out to do some serious deforestation because he was hoping to get a better view of the Hollywood sign from their treehouse.
Top image: ABC