Get the Lead Out — A History of Series Debuts After the Super Bowl

I still have pretty vivid memories of watching television on the evening of Super Bowl XXII. Not just because it was the day that the hated Denver Broncos got pummeled by the Redskins, but it was also the premiere of The Wonder Years on ABC. It instantly became one of my favorite shows, and I watched it faithfully for most if its entire run. As it turns out, The Wonder Years was also one of the more successful shows to launch right after the Super Bowl.

Let’s take a look at the history of TV series to debut after the big game and see how many we can remember.

1979: Brothers and Sisters (NBC), Super Bowl XIII

Brothers and Sisters (NBC) -- 1979It wasn’t until the thirteenth Super Bowl that a network struck on the idea of capitalizing on a huge built-in audience to roll out a new series. You can’t blame them if they had never done so again, because Brothers and Sisters was hardly a ratings bonanza.

Instead, it was a short-lived Animal House ripoff — one of three frat house comedies on network TV in 1979 — featuring three Crandall College frat brothers who liked to crack wise and chase sorority sisters. The show, co-starring screen legend Jack Lemmon’s son Chris, ran for 13 episodes and was off the air by April. ABC’s Delta House lasted only a few weeks longer.

1983: The A-Team (NBC), Super Bowl XVII

Not surprisingly, it was four years before a network dared air a new show after the Super Bowl again. This time, however, NBC hit it big with The A-Team. Although the two-part pilot had already aired before Super Bowl XVII, the series’ first regular episode (“Children of Jamestown”) aired after a thrilling Dolphins/Redskins championship game. The A-Team, which launched Mr. T’s career and was a Top 10 show for its first three seasons, was finally canceled in November 1986 and aired its last episode in March 1987.

1984: Airwolf (CBS), Super Bowl XVIII

It was CBS’s turn to debut a new series after the Super Bowl, and so Airwolf‘s two-hour pilot episode aired after Super Bowl XVIII (my beloved Raiders’ last title to date). The show starred Jan-Michael Vincent, Ernest Borgnine, Alex Cord, and a really bitchin’ helicopter. What else do you need, really?

But after just three seasons CBS grounded Airwolf. In 1987 the still-obscure USA Network bought the rights to the series and aired a fourth and final season with an entirely new cast.

1985: MacGruder and Loud (ABC), Super Bowl XIX

So much for the winning streak. While not a failure on the level of Brothers and Sisters, Aaron Spelling’s crime drama about married police officers quickly faltered after a strong post-Super Bowl debut. Spelling and ABC imagined the show as an answer to Cagney and Lacey but apparently the question really was, “What cop show is the total opposite of Cagney and Lacey in the ratings?”

ABC took MacGruder and Loud‘s badges after three months and twelve episodes.

1986: The Last Precinct (NBC), Super Bowl XX

The problem with airing a new comedy right after Super Bowl XX was that once you’ve seen William “The Refrigerator” Perry run for a touchdown against the hapless Patriots the laughter bar has already been set pretty high. And so it was that Stephen J. Cannell’s one and only foray into the world of sitcoms, The Last Precinct, was a brief one. The premise was that Adam West was Capt. Rick Wright, who ran a precinct of characters not funny enough to make it into the Police Academy movies. And they had Bobcat Goldthwait. That’s about all you need to know.

The Last Precinct closed its doors in May 1986, after just eight episodes.

1987: Hard Copy (CBS), Super Bowl XXI

No, it’s not that awful tabloid show from the ’90s, although I thought it was too. This Hard Copy is an awful and forgotten drama about a hard-boiled reporter who don’t brook no nonsense. At least that’s what I can gather from the scant resources about this show on the internet. What I do know was that Hard Copy became the third post-Super Bowl debut flop in a row and lasted less than a season.

1988: The Wonder Years (ABC), Super Bowl XXII

Like I said, The Wonder Years rocked. And I wasn’t the only one who thought so, as the show peaked at #9 during its third season and ran for a total of five. I’ll still never forgive Winnie Cooper for leading Kevin on all that time, as much of a whiny dork as he could be.

1990: Grand Slam (CBS), Super Bowl XXIV

Grand Slam (CBS, 1990) print advertisementI had never even heard of this one until I started putting this list together. It was apparently a comedy about a pair of bounty hunters based out of San Diego. One of them was played by Paul Rodriguez, the other by John Schneider of The Dukes of Hazzard and later Smallville.

The premise was that these two “bounty hunters” competed with each other to capture the same criminals, sometimes even screwing the other one over. Yuk yuk?

Nope, just yuck. Grand Slam debuted at #15 in the ratings, but sank to #68 the very next week and was off the schedule in a matter of weeks.

1991: Davis Rules (ABC), Super Bowl XXV

This one coulda been a contender I suppose. It starred Randy Quaid and Jonathan Winters, which was a good start. But as Casey-Werner sitcoms go it was no Roseanne or The Cosby Show. ABC canceled it after 13 episodes, but it briefly found new life on CBS — which added a fresh-faced Giovanni Ribisi to the cast.

1993: Homicide: Life on the Street (NBC), Super Bowl XXVII

This crime drama takes the prize in terms of longevity and critical acclaim, if not in actual ratings. Homicide: Life on the Street ran on NBC for seven seasons and 122 episodes, plus a TV movie. It won multiple awards and was the launching pad for Andre Braugher’s career.

1994: The Good Life (NBC), Super Bowl XXVIII

Right before breaking out with his own sitcom on ABC, Drew Carey co-starred with John Caponera in this short-lived NBC comedy. It was canned after thirteen episodes, and I can’t think of anything else interesting to say about this one.

1995: Extreme (ABC), Super Bowl XXIX

ABC banked on the star power of James Brolin in this action series about a Rocky Mountain rescue crew led by a guy named Reese Wheeler. They lost, and Extreme went on hiatus right after the debut. Before it left for good it did manage to air seven episodes. Bummer, dude.

1999: Family Guy (Fox), Super Bowl XXXIII

After Extreme fizzled, networks stuck to airing episodes of popular, established shows like Friends and The X-Files after the big game. But Fox took a gamble on a new animated series to air with perennial juggernaut The Simpsons. Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy debuted to an audience of 22 million, a pretty impressive number but the lowest since Extreme in ’95. Fox famously pulled the plug after three difficult seasons, only to bring Family Guy back in 2005. It’s been a fixture on the network’s Sunday night animation block since then.

2005: American Dad! (Fox), Super Bowl XXXIX

What the hell, it worked once for Fox right? Technically, American Dad! debuted after The Simpsons on Super Bowl night, but let’s not split hairs. It was the first new Seth MacFarlane animated series since Family Guy debuted, and although it was very similar in terms of characters it’s not a spinoff. American Dad! is currently on its seventh season and is coming back for an eighth. This despite never rising above #79 in the ratings.

2010: Undercover Boss (CBS), Super Bowl XLIV

The last new series to debut after the Super Bowl (as of 2013) is Undercover Boss, aka Rich White Guys Are People Too. People apparently dig watching powerful company heads mingling with the hoi polloi they emploi (sorry, couldn’t resist), as evidenced by the nearly 39 million viewers who tuned in for the show’s debut. That’s the highest total since the second-season premier of Survivor in 2001, and the most viewers for a new post-Super Bowl series since The Last Precinct in ’86. It was a different time back then, folks.

The fourth season of Undercover Boss is now underway.

The Scorecard

No, I didn’t forget a show. This is the wrapup, where I review and rate how many successes and failures there are in this lot. I define a loss as any show that lasted one season or less; a tie lasts 2-4 seasons, and a win goes for more. I’m moving Undercover Boss to the win column since it seems to be a lock for a fifth season.

Losses (7)Brothers and Sisters, MacGruder and Loud, The Last Precinct, Hard Copy, Grand Slam, The Good Life, Extreme

Ties (2)Airwolf, Davis Rules

Wins (7)The A-Team, The Wonder Years, Homicide: Life on the Street, Family Guy, American Dad!, Undercover Boss

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The cast of Fox's Glee, singing

Watching Glee has become reverse porn for me

The cast of Fox's Glee, singing

OK, that's enough singing. Seriously, stop.

Yeah I watch Glee, so what? YOU CAN’T JUDGE ME! I’ve been a fan since the pilot episode, although I want to make it clear that I am not a Gleek. When those plucky New Directions kids busted out Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” at the end of that episode even a cynical bastard like me felt good about it. Those good feelings carried through for most of the first season and I enjoyed the show’s mix of humor, darkness, and unabashedly hammy musical performances.

But as the second season wore on, I found myself losing interest in the musical numbers. I’m not that big a Broadway fan to begin with, and my tolerance for movie musicals is only slightly higher. After awhile I just feel worn down by the over-the-top earnestness of Broadway music, and it all just feels so corny. So that’s a problem. And then on top of that, Glee started pulling out entire episodes dedicated to one artist. I could hang with the Madonna one, but I think I watched ten minutes of that first Lady Gaga shitstorm. Almost any time the show launches into a number from the last decade or so, I totally zone out.

So where does the reverse porn comparison come in? Simple — I’m watching the third season now, and I find myself routinely fast-forwarding through just about all the singing — especially Rachel’s numbers (seen one, seen ’em all). That means I am skipping the musical performances (sex scenes) in a show that is ostensibly built around musical performances, in order to just watch the dialogue. Reverse porn. Well, except for Blaine’s songs. That boy can sing good!

Once I get past the music and focus on the plot, believe it or not, the show itself is still quite good. And hey, by skipping the songs I can blow through an episode in about 25 or 30 minutes, which leaves more time for Storm Chasers!

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Young People's Day Camp swag

Retrotisement: Young People’s Day Camp

This will probably mean nothing to you if you didn’t grow up in the New York/New Jersey/Long Island/Connecticut area in the ’70s and ’80s. But for the rest of us, you probably saw this commercial no less than 5,000 times on stations like WPIX (now the CW), WNYW (now Fox), and WOR (I don’t even recall what this station is now).

One look at that talking balloon and you know what this is for — Young People’s Day Camp! I was as reclusive a kid as you’d ever meet, but even I thought this looked like a lot of fun. Of course it’s too late for me, but not for your kids. Young People’s Day Camp is in fact still around!

Anyone know where I can score some of this sweet YPDC swag?

Young People's Day Camp swag

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Tube talk: 2008-09 TV season report card

Television.  Love it or hate it, it sure beats reading or taking out the garbage.  I don’t post all that frequently about TV on this site, but man do I spend a truckload of time watching it.  So here’s a breakdown of the shows I watched over this past television season, and what I thought of them.  Overall it was a pretty good year, and the spectre of the writers’ strike is already a distant memory.

American Dad - Stan and RogerAmerican Dad! – I can only guess that more of Seth MacFarlane’s attention has been directed towards this show than Family Guy, which is the reason it has consistently been the funnier of the two.  Or maybe he isn’t overseeing it, and that’s why it’s funnier.  Either way, this season saw a drop in quality from the previous few but was still pretty good.  Any bit with a Roger/Steve pairing was usually pretty good, but there were good laughs to be had elsewhere as well (Steve and friends facing off against the cool kids at school and the inspired Roger/Hayley costume switching gag to name a few).

One of the best elements of American Dad! is its willingness to explore Roger’s various neuroses and personalities for something other than comedy.  “The One That Got Away” is a prime example – Roger tracks down an unknown crook who maxed out his credit card, and it turns out to be himself living a completely separate life.  This kind of relatively nuanced writing has been done before on AD and I hope to see more of it. Final grade: B-

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Tube talk: Lie to Me

I’m tired of always being Johnny-come-lately when it comes to hip new shows.  So when I saw the previews for Fox’s newest drama, Lie to Me, a few weeks ago I thought it looked like a good chance to get on the ground floor of something decent.  Having watched the pilot episode I think I may have found something worth following, which means it will probably be canceled by February.  That’s not to say I was blown away by it, but I’m intrigued enough to set a series recording on my DVR, so that’s gotta be worth something.

Here’s the gist of Lie to Me: It stars Tim Roth as Dr. Cal Lightman, a freelance expert in the practice of detecting deception (the character is based on real-life deception expert Paul Ekman).  He was formerly employed by Uncle Sam, but now runs the for-profit Lightman Group.  Lightman and team (played by Kelli Williams, Monica Raymund, and Brendan Hines) are hired by government agencies, local police, businesses, etc. to help ferret out liars and maybe solve some crimes.

Lightman’s special skill is that he can spot a liar within a few seconds by picking up on the slightest of body movements.  So basically he’s like a cross between Dr. Gregory House and the guys from The Mentalist and Psych.

Tim Roth in "Lie to Me"

In the pilot episode Lightman and the gang are working two cases at once.  The first involves the death of a high school teacher, and the team’s quest to both find the killer and prove the innocence of the prime suspect – a sexually repressed teenager and Jehovah’s Witness.  The second case sees the group looking to clear the good name of a Democratic congressman accused of paying for sex.  As Lightman pithily observes, “we all pay for sex one way or another.”  Or something like that.

Roth is a capable actor and not without his charms, but he’s going to need to step it up a bit if he’s going to carry the weight of an entire series.  That’s because his co-stars are pretty milquetoast, with the exception of Raymund as Ria Torres, a sassy Latina who was recruited from the ranks of the TSA for her natural ability to spot liars.  She spends most of the episode being incredulous over Ligthman’s shenanigans, and is effectively the foil of the group.

Whether or not Lie to Me succeeds will likely hinge on how well the writers can expand beyond the whole “liar liar, pants on fire” gimmick and flesh out the characters.  House has done this successfully despite still being very formulaic, so it’s not without precedent.  But I won’t judge the show too harshly based on one pilot episode (that’s what dimwitted studio executives are for).  It kept me entertained for an hour, and that’s really the important thing, isn’t it?

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Strolling through the fields of the TV dead

Next to the NFL Draft, the most exciting administrative period of the television year is when the networks announce their upcoming schedules (known in the business as Upfronts). Sad, I know, but true. But before I turn my astute analytical skills on next year’s new shows, I’d like to take a moment to remember the fallen.

Some canceled shows are undeserving of their fate; they are taken off the air before their time thanks to a fickle fan base or clueless (gutless) network executives. Then again, some were around far longer than they deserved. Here’s a partial rundown (a full listing is available at The Futon Critic):

  • The Class (CBS) – Some dismissed this as a poor man’s Friends, but I felt this was the most promising new comedy since Scrubs. I wasn’t totally sold on The Class at first, but it quickly grew on me. The writing was sharp and most importantly, I actually cared about most of the characters. Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Richie Velch) was easily the funniest of the group, but I was pleasantly surprised at the comedic chops of Jason Ritter (Ethan Haas), son of the late John Ritter.
  • Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC) – I can’t compare this series to previously acclaimed Aaron Sorkin efforts like The West Wing or Sports Night, because I didn’t watch them. But for all its flaws, I enjoyed this show. Yeah there were some glaring weaknesses – the forced romance between Matthew Perry and Sarah Paulson’s characters, as well as how almost every episode became a vehicle for Sorkin’s rants – but even with all that I still looked forward to new episodes. It seems NBC will at least air the remaining episodes, much to the chagrin of the show’s detractors I’m certain.
  • Andy Barker, P.I. (NBC) – At what point will network executives realize that Andy Richter’s career peaked on Conan O’Brien’s couch?
  • The War at Home (Fox) – This was a show of many mysteries, but two in particular still puzzle me. The first is how this show actually made it through two seasons, and the second is why I watched most of the episodes. Michael Rapaport, who I enjoyed on Boston Public, continually looked as if he had literally wandered onto the stage just as taping started, without having read the script at all. I have a hard time believing he is really that bad an actor, but I guess it’s possible. The fact that I watched this for as long as I did speaks more to the dearth of good comedies on TV than to the quality of this one. It won’t be missed.
  • Show Me the Money (ABC) – Stupid premise and botched execution aside, this country needs more William Shatner, not less.
  • The Winner (Fox) – This show wasn’t just unfunny, it was aggressively unfunny. I’d rather be kicked in the groin after taking a calculus exam than watch another minute of this abomination. The Winner took place in 1994, which I suppose was a setup to allow the writing staff to till the fertile comedy soil of AIDS and O.J. Simpson jokes. Because we never really got enough of those, you know. I really hope for Seth MacFarlane’s sake his name was only attached to this steaming turd because he lost a bet or something.
  • Standoff (Fox) – I’m not going to sob in my pillow that Standoff isn’t coming back, but it was a decent series that had potential. Once they moved away from the Tuesday night schedule (and away from House), the writing was pretty much on the wall however. Ron Livingston and Rosemarie DeWitt were a good pairing, although this was another example of a not-quite-believable romance. But when the show was on (as in the episode where they found themselves in a literal Mexican standoff) it was very good. But holy crap, the Queer Eye-style opening was horrific.
  • The Real Wedding Crashers (NBC) – Hmmm, someone remind me why NBC is the fourth-rated network again? How does garbage like this get greenlit in the first place?