We’re entering another TV season, which means dozens of optimistic new shows are lined up to make their premieres — and unfortunately, it also means that most of those fresh additions will be gone by summer. To celebrate their stars’ and creators’ bravery in the face of all-but-insurmountable odds, we decided to dedicate this week’s feature to a selection of programs who were sacrificed to the television gods after only a single airing, and came up with an eclectic list of overnight sensations culled from across several decades of abrupt failure. Don’t change that dial — it’s time for Total Recall!
The first few months of 1979 saw a trio of hastily assembled, Animal House-inspired sitcoms hit the airwaves. By the summer, they’d all been cancelled, but only one of them suffered the ignominy of being yanked after a single airing: Co-Ed Fever, starring future character actor titan David Keith and future Fall Guy ingenue Heather Thomas in an alleged laffer about the hormone-addled ribaldry that erupts after an all-girls’ college starts admitting men. Although the show’s set survived as the first-year dorm for The Facts of Life, most of Co-Ed Fever‘s six-episode stockpile was never seen by American viewers, airing only on the Canadian dial.
Getting Melba Moore in front of the cameras was something of a coup for CBS in 1986: a successful recording artist since the mid-’70s, she was on a hot streak a decade later, scoring a string of R&B hits that culminated with two Number One smashes that year, “A Little Bit More” and “Falling.” Unfortunately, Moore’s sitcom (helpfully titled Melba) had the misfortune of airing its debut episode the night of the Challenger space shuttle disaster on January 28, and its ratings were subsequently so low that the network immediately pulled the show from the lineup and dumped the balance of its six-episode run off during the summer (which, during those days, was generally the rough equivalent of throwing the tape in a dumpster).
Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but his platinum credentials in the music arena haven’t exactly spilled over into his acting career; the highlights of Frey’s filmography include a much-ballyhooed guest-starring appearance on Miami Vice and a role in Wiseguy, while the lowlights include the 1986 Alan Smithee film Let’s Get Harry and his short-lived CBS series South of Sunset, which managed to sully the network’s schedule for one night only on October 27, 1993. Sunset‘s immediate cancellation had to be embarrassing for Frey, but he didn’t have long to sulk — the Eagles were back together the following year, on the road for one of the most successful tours of all time. To celebrate, VH1 even aired five of the show’s seven filmed episodes.
Long before he scored a gig on The Sopranos as Jackie Aprile, Sr., Michael Rispoli was the star of the 1995 freshman hopeful The Great Defender, about a Boston lawyer who works out of his apartment alongside his mother/receptionist (Who’s the Boss alum Rhoda Gemignani). The supporting cast included the Emmy-winning Richard Kiley, but none of it was enough to stem the ratings bloodshed when Defender premiered against perennial Sunday night juggernaut 60 Minutes, and after they crunched the numbers (it pulled in a dismal 6 percent of the viewing audience), Fox took it off the schedule. The network dithered over whether or where to give it a new timeslot, eventually letting the actors’ contracts expire — which worked out pretty well for Rispoli, who’d booked a handful of roles in high-profile movies (including While You Were Sleeping and The Juror).
The long-running ABC drama NYPD Blue was a Top 10 hit in 1996, so it’s understandable that creator Steven Bochco might contemplate a spinoff. Less understandable: Said spinoff turned out to be Public Morals, a CBS sitcom starring NYPD cast member Bill Brochtrup playing his character, administrative aide John Irvin, in the midst of a group of vice squad officers played by an ensemble cast that included Donal Logue. Optimistic CBS execs commissioned 13 episodes, but after a single airing of the new series was greeted with abysmal ratings and rotten reviews, Public Morals was no more. Fortunately for Brochtrup, his old job was still waiting for him back at NYPD Blue.
Nearly a decade after his short-but-flamboyant NFL career ended, ex-linebacker Brian Bosworth brought his thespian muscle to bear on network TV as the star of Fox’s Lawless, a detective drama built around the Miami-set exploits of special ops vet-turned-motorbikin’ private dick John Lawless and his Jamaican helicopter pilot pal Reggie (Glenn Plummer). Immediately dismissed by critics as a crass Miami Vice clone, Lawless tumbled off the schedule after its premiere, freeing up Bosworth to continue adding to the film career he’d begun with 1991’s Stone Cold. (Recent roles include “The Friendly Pirate” in Patrick Warburton’s Rock Slyde.)
In need of a quick addition to the lineup after cancelling The Trouble with Normal just five episodes into its run, ABC trotted out Dot Comedy, a clip show (hosted by Annabelle Gurwitch and the Sklar Brothers) cobbled together from funny stuff the staff dug up on the internet. Not the worst premise in the world (just ask Daniel Tosh), but viewers simply weren’t interested — and after looking over the debut episode’s ratings, neither were network executives. The irony here? After all that work collecting laughs, the funniest thing about Dot Comedy is that plenty of shows would dearly love to pull in the 4.1 million viewers that got it cancelled.
Plenty of reality shows have tried to use a shockingly tasteless premise to drum up ratings, and more often than not, those efforts fail — but they’ve never failed quite as spectacularly as they did with CBS’s The Will, a would-be contest in which the relatives of a multimillionaire vied for inheritance of his vast Kansas ranch. Although the balance of the show’s six episodes were eventually aired on the Fox Reality Channel (R.I.P.) and in New Zealand (we’re still waiting for a declaration of war), the CBS schedule had a Will-shaped hole after poor ratings prompted a quick plug-pulling following the first installment on January 8, 2005. (FYI: the rich guy’s wife ended up “winning” the contest.)
It happens a lot more often than it used to, but anytime a movie star decides to take a series gig on television, it turns into a big story — and that’s exactly what happened with the heavily hyped Emily’s Reasons Why Not, which brought Heather Graham to the ABC lineup as the center of a sitcom about a self-help author who — quelle surprise! — is cursed with a comically inept approach to her own love life. If that premise sounds tired, well, the execution wasn’t much to write home about either; the series was roundly panned by critics and ignored by viewers, and after a single airing, the network had all the reasons why not it could have asked for. Five of the six episodes that were filmed only aired far, far away from American viewers (example: Slovenia).
A would-be thirtysomething for 21st-century twentysomethings, Quarterlife started out as an online-only series that posted in brief increments on MySpace, YouTube, and its official site, which doubled as a social network — and it was a raging success, racking up such gaudy traffic stats that NBC execs became convinced it might serve as a sort of dramatic bellwether for a paradigm shift for TV in the internet era. Retrofitted into six hourlong episodes, the show made its debut January 31, 2008… and was cancelled almost immediately thereafter, joining the list of creative ventures whose alliance with technology before its time helped doom them to the scrapheap.
Our widespread belief that celebrities can only be good at one thing can be almost childlike in its insistence, and downright hurtful for people whose talents really do spill over into a variety of seemingly separate disciplines. Of course, for every EGOT winner, there are probably a couple dozen people who probably shouldn’t pursue their private dreams in public — and that’s the gist of Secret Talents of the Stars, a 2008 competition series, hosted by the professionally unctuous John O’Hurley, in which famous people (like, say, Partridge Family alum Danny Bonaduce) subjected themselves to being judged on television for skills you didn’t know they had (like, say, riding a unicycle). Alas, not even the sight of George Takei singing a country song was enough to lure viewers, and after its April 8, 2008 debut, Secret Talents of the Stars was no more.
Written by Jeff Giles