Back to Articles

10 flop, freaky and forgotten TV shows from 1979

Image: The Everett Collection

Some critics and aficionados have called the 1977-78 season the worst in television history. Actually, we contributed to the argument ourselves. By May 15, 1978, the big three networks had canceled a staggering 45 of 96 shows. Not a great success rate.

A year later, things had certainly picked up. Television looked to film for inspiration. Three major Hollywood successes influenced much of the 1979 broadcast slate. Star Wars led an armada of science-fiction adventures, inspiring big-budget series such as Buck Rogers and, er, Supertrain. The cutting-edge laughs coming from National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live started a new wave of comedy. Numerous clones of the blockbuster Animal House could be found across the dial (Delta House, The Last Resort). Finally, Halloween and Stephen King proved that horror was big business and here to stay.

You can find traces of all of these influences in the quirky shows that debuted in 1979. Some were ahead of their time. Others were noble failures. A few were just weird. Here are ten that we found rather fascinating for various reasons.

1

Struck By Lightning

Western fans are likely familiar with the unforgettable face of Jack Elam. With his askew eyes and towering figure, the character actor made for a great bad guy on series like Gunsmoke and The Rifleman. In Lightning, he had a chance to show his comedic chops, playing "Frank," a descendant of Frankenstein's monster. Even the theme song was a goof, as Joe Cocker crooned "You Are So Beautiful." Elam took the role in part because there was no need for makeup. Producers told him his gnarled face was perfect as it is. Um, thanks?

Image: The Everett Collection

2

Cliffhangers!

You can't have Frankenstein without a little Dracula, right? The Curse of Dracula was one of three titles that aired as part of Cliffhangers! The NBC experiment aimed to bring back the two-reel series of old-time cinema. Stop Susan Williams, a journalist-uncovers-conspiracy tale, joined The Secret Empire, a sci-fi Western, and Dracula each week. Each segment ran for 20 minutes of the hour — ending on a cliffhanger, naturally. Only Dracula reached its conclusion before this ambitious idea got the ax.

Image: The Everett Collection

3

Tenspeed and Brown Shoe

Jeff Goldblum playing an accountant with an obsession for classic film noir? Ben Vereen as a hustling, ex-con P.I.? This odd-couple concept sounds like a blast on paper. It came from the mind of action king Stephen J. Cannell, the man's man who gave us The Rockford Files and The A-Team. Though it flopped, Tenspeed set the mold for buddy-cop action comedies in the '80s like 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon. And, really, you can't go wrong with Goldblum.

Image: The Everett Collection

4

Eischied

Texan tough-guy Joe Don Baker made his name swinging a hunk of wood in Walking Tall. As Eischied, he played another Southern cop, albeit a fish-out-of-water in New York City. Toting a Smith & Wesson Model 10 .38 Special and talking to his cat "PC" (Police Commissioner), Eischied tracked down arsonists, murderers and smugglers in the Big Apple. Solid stuff with two key problems — Eischied hardly rolls off the tongue and NBC dumped the series opposite Dallas on Friday nights.

Image: The Everett Collection

5

Mrs. Columbo

One of the running jokes on Columbo was that the audience never saw Mrs. Columbo. "You know, my wife says…," the detective repeatedly mumbled while rummaging through his wrinkled raincoat. Mrs. Columbo was brought to life only through Peter Falk's descriptions. That's the brilliance — we are left to imagine her. We never even hear her first name. What did she look like? What was her voice like? And what was her name? I guess we'll never… Just kidding! In 1979, one year after Columbo had wrapped its intial seven-season run, NBC launched a spin-off titled Mrs. Columbo. We learned her name was Kate — and that she was somehow 24 years old. Wait, what? So she was 14 when they got married?

Image: The Everett Collection

6

The Mary Tyler Moore Hour

In the short gap between her brilliant, pioneering role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and her Oscar-nominated role in Ordinary People, Mary Tyler Moore oddly struggled to find success on television. Her variety series Mary tanked after a mere three episodes in 1978. The following year, she returned with the high-concept Hour, about show-within-a-show "sit-var" that fused variety and scripted sitcom. The one at least made it 11 episodes. The most notable thing about her failures was the casting. Both Michael Keaton and David Letterman honed their skills as part of MTM's ensembles.

Image: The Everett Collection

7

The Associates

Speaking of budding young comic actors, Martin Short found his first big break outside of Canada on this Wall Street sitcom. The pedigree was there. James L. Brooks produced. B.B. King sang the theme. No wonder the show garnered both Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. What were those worth? Little. ABC made a mere 13 episodes — and only aired nine of them.

Image: The Everett Collection

8

Paris

By 1979, James Earl Jones was already well on his way to his current status among the EGOT elite. He'd been nominated for an Emmy in 1964 for his appearance in the TV series East Side/West Side. After that, his first starring role on the big screen got him an Oscar nomination. In 1977, he won his first Tony, the same year he was cast in his most iconic voice acting role as Star Wars villain Darth Vader, so while it would take until 1991 to get his Grammy, he was already establishing himself as the most recognizable voice in the world. At that point in his career, Jones could've done anything with his career. So it's with a head-scratch that we note he chose to star in a short-lived crime drama called Paris, produced by none other than legendary series creator Steven Bochco. Though it didn't last long, did its part to launch new talents, including some of the first TV appearances for talents like Danny Glover and Ed Harris, plus guest stars like Robert Englund (pre-Freddie Krueger) and Jonathan Frakes (pre-Riker).

Image: The Everett Collection

9

California Fever

Oh, one trend we overlooked — disco and Saturday Night Fever. The boogie inevitably trickled down to the boob tube. California Fever star Jimmy McNichol was a teen idol living in the shadow of his little sister, Kristy. Any California-set show worth its salt water back then featured awesome cars. California Fever was no exception, as Vince Butler (McNichol) cruised around in a cool Trans Am. Meanwhile, his buddy Ross (Marc McClure, a.k.a. Jimmy Olsen to Christopher Reeve's Superman) puttered around in a topless green-and-yellow truck dubbed "The Grossmobile."

Image: The Everett Collection

10

SEE MORE: 15 forgotten sci-fi and fantasy series of the 1970s

Time-traveling trains and robot cops! READ MORE

Contact | About | Privacy Policy | Terms of Use | Advertise | Distribution