It’s the most wonderful time of the year … for TV fans. The fall season is upon us, and dozens of new comedies, dramas, reality shows, reboots and re-imaginings will be premiering in the next few weeks for your viewing pleasure.
But as you watch the hype, as you read the quotes from every actor talking about their show like it’s the next “Mad Men,” consider this: Only the tiniest sampling of shows will live to see a 100th episode; conversely, it is estimated that about 70 percent of them will never see Season 2.
But when you wallow in the seas of such percentages, one must consider the rarest of TV artifacts: The one-episode wonder. It’s a show just good enough to make it past pilot season (which recently claimed “Coach,” for instance), but deemed dead on arrival by its network — the TV equivalent of spending the time, effort and money to plan an elaborate wedding, then skipping town just as your fiance arrives at the altar. These are the Halley’s Comet of TV shows, only being glimpsed once every few years — and as we wonder whether this season will bring us a new one-episode wonder, we look back on five rare gems and the stories behind their downfall.
‘Emily’s Reasons Why Not’
Back in 2006, “Sex and the City” was one of the hottest shows on television. Heather Graham, meanwhile, was a big Hollywood star coming off films like “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” and a recurring role on “Scrubs.” It made total sense to give the actress her first starring series as Emily Sanders, a successful book editor whose “Why Not” lists would dictate her various attempts at romance. Although history might assume that a one-episode wonder must be unwatchable, “Reasons” was far from that. If anything, the bland aesthetic of the show may have killed it so quickly, as it just seemed to have no real reason for existing; Graham was a fun, eager-to-please lead, but when the show was canceled after its sole airing, she ran back to movies and soon after made a little film called “The Hangover.”
‘Secret Talents of the Stars’
Can Cindy Margolis do magic? Can George Takei sing country music? If you’re already asking yourself “Who cares?”, well, so did the rest of the nation in 2008. Hosted by John O’Hurley, the show aimed to pair celebrities with experts who would teach them the talent they hoped to perfect. On live TV, judges Debbie Reynolds, Brian McKnight and producer Gavin Polone watched the trainwreck unfold, looking on as Olympic skater Sasha Cohen performed with a circus troupe and Clint Black attempted stand-up comedy. Watch the below clip and think back to the magical time of 2008, when “Dancing With the Stars” had made it seem like simply pointing a camera at D-list celebrities was a way to make ratings gold — and “Secret Talents of the Stars” disproved that notion in a single airing.
In the mid-2000’s, a lot was written about the promise of web series, and one early “hit” was produced by Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, the men behind “Thirtysomething” and “My So-Called Life.” It was called “Quarterlife” and followed a bunch of young characters coming to life in the new digital world. When NBC picked up the series to become a television show, a lot of people saw it as a sign that the Internet was becoming a minor league system for television networks; when the show premiered and got lower ratings than the Democratic presidential debate airing opposite it on MSNBC, analysts quickly changed their tune. The whiny twentysomethings of “Quarterlife” were immediately kicked off the network.
Like the other examples above, this ill-conceived sitcom was a knee-jerk attempt to capture a cultural trend. Back in 1979, in the wake of “National Lampoon’s Animal House” arriving in theaters as a huge surprise hit, no less than three shows hit the airwaves inspired by the adventures of Bluto and the Deltas. “Fever” starred David Keith (who modern audiences might know from “Reckless” or “Hawaii Five-O”) and Heather Thomas (who would later become a huge sex symbol with “The Fall Guy”) and attempted to tell the story of an all-girls dorm that begins admitting men. The show’s quick cancellation wasn’t a total loss, however — the set of “Co-Ed Fever” was recycled into the first-year dorm of the girls on “The Facts of Life.”
‘You’re in the Picture’
In 1961, there was no bigger star than Jackie Gleason. Coming off “The Honeymooners,” he was determined to prove his versatility by hosting a game show, which were also very hot at the time. So imagine the surprise of those who tuned in to see “You’re in the Picture,” a show that had celebrities poking their heads through paintings that they couldn’t see, then trying to guess their painting by asking yes or no questions of Gleason. Within minutes, the show’s ill-conceived gimmick wore thin, and Gleason was fully aware of the bad reviews.
One week later, the nation tuned in and found the “You’re in the Picture” studio being disassembled. Instead of a game show, they found a casual, smoking Gleason addressing the camera with his tail tucked between his legs. Saying that over 300 combined years of show business had gone into making “Picture,” he nevertheless admitted that the show had “laid, without a doubt, the biggest bomb in history” and that its failure “would make the H-bomb look like a two-inch salute.” For those wondering if “Picture” would ever air again, Gleason said: “You don’t have to be Alexander Graham Bell to pick up the phone and find out it’s dead.”
With all the excitement surrounding the fall 2015 debut series, it’s hard to imagine we’ll have another one-episode wonder on our hands. But ask yourself this: If their shows bombed as bad as the ones above, would Rob Lowe, John Stamos or The Muppets come on TV a week later and spend an hour on live TV apologizing?