1-2. 30 Rock and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (2006)
Nearly every TV season sees two or three new series that were seemingly cut from the same cloth. Fall 2011 just seems to be an exception because there are so many freshman shows with overlapping premises, themes, or reference points: Grimm and Once Upon A Time each seek to answer the question “What if fairy tales were real?” Pan Am and The Playboy Club are both steeped in the mid-century aesthetics and “changing mores” milieu of Mad Men. Nearly every new sitcom is about either a young female protagonist finding new living arrangements after or before her boyfriend cheats on her (2 Broke Girls, Apartment 23, and New Girl) or a male protagonist dealing with society’s completely imagined “crisis of masculinity” (How To Be A Gentlemen, Last Man Standing, Man Up).
At least most of these series will face the challenge of establishing their own identities on separate networks—a scenario more favorable than the one NBC presented to its 2006 newbies 30 Rock and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. Despite the shows’ differences in tone and length, there was much ado that fall about which portrayal of behind-the-scenes life at a Saturday Night Live-like show would earn a second-season renewal: Tina Fey’s eccentric, New York-based showbiz farce or its more sober, Aaron Sorkin-helmed West Coast analog. By focusing on the characters behind the characters and subtler methods of biting the hand that feeds it, 30 Rock eventually won the day. Though that might just be the viewing public playing into Studio 60’s dire warning that they’d been “lobotomized by a candy-ass network hell-bent on doing nothing that might challenge their audience.” You know, like making multiple takes on the same premise.
3-4. ER and Chicago Hope (1994)
Two of the longest-running medical dramas of the ’90s premièred in remarkably close proximity to each other: CBS’ Chicago Hope introduced the staff of its titular Windy City hospital on Sept. 18, 1994, while viewers got their first glance at the ER of Chicago’s County General the next night on NBC. The series eventually settled into opposing Thursday-night slots, where ER handily trumped Chicago Hope in the ratings—as well as Emmy nominations, notching 15 in its first season alone. Mandy Patinkin beat George Clooney and Anthony Edwards for the Best Actor In A Drama honors that year, but Clooney, Edwards, and ER’s revolving door of medical professionals (Hello, Dr. John Stamos!) would have nine more years of blood-soaked emergencies and sudsy romances than the six seasons enjoyed by the docs of Chicago Hope. And, according to an informal survey of real-life doctors conducted by Entertainment Weekly, ER also held the advantage in the medical accuracy department.
5-7. Delta House, Co-Ed Fever, and Brothers And Sisters (1979)
How deep was the impact of National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1979? Not only did it inspire a cottage industry of raunchy grindhouse copycats like King Frat, but it also gave reason for ABC, CBS, and NBC to each try their hands at transposing the antics of Faber College’s Delta Tau Chi to the small screen. ABC’s Delta House had the distinct advantage of being an official Animal House spin-off, with a pilot penned by Animal House screenwriters Harold Ramis, Doug Kenney, and Chris Miller and cast holdovers including John Vernon’s Dean Wormer and Stephen Furst’s Kent “Flounder” Dorfman. What it didn’t have was the freedom to fully explore the gleeful, R-rated anarchy of its source material.
Neither did the broader, duller collegiate cut-ups of Co-Ed Fever and Brothers And Sisters. While the not-so-inventively nicknamed student bodies (Co-Ed Fever had Tuck and Gobo; the wannabe D-Days and Blutos of Brothers And Sisters had names like Checko and Zipper) of those two series had all the fun the censors would allow, at least Co-Ed Fever tried to add some variety to the formula, focusing on the first co-educational class at fictional Baxter College. Then again, it was also the first of the series to be canceled, lasting a single “special presentation” broadcast; Delta House and Brothers And Sisters were both booted off campus by April of ’79.
8-9. Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell and Saturday Night Live (1975)
Two comedy-variety hours with ensemble casts; two live broadcasts on Saturday night (albeit one in prime time and the other in late night); two claimants to the same name. In fall of 1975, the smart, old money was on Howard Cosell: America knew who he was, and who outside of Maryland had ever heard of Chevy Chase? John Bel-who-shi? But Lorne Michaels’ brainchild knew comedy, music, and the post-counterculture audience that TV had long ignored. Even the middle-aged found ABC’s host stiff and unfunny, and Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell was off the air after 18 weeks. Michaels’ program—initially titled NBC’s Saturday Night; the “Live” was added in 1977—hasn’t budged since.
10-11. The Addams Family and The Munsters (1964)
Only God and Don Draper know what it says about the psychological condition of the United States a year after the assassination of President Kennedy that the times could support two sitcoms about happy, well-adjusted nuclear families composed of monsters more secure in their self-image as “regular” Americans than the Cleavers. The Addams’ show had the classier pedigree: It was inspired by Charles Addams’ macabre New Yorker cartoons. (Addams earned his consulting fee by sticking names on his ghouls for the first time—so that the actors would know what to call each other. The network liked his ideas fine, though they did reject his original suggestion that the little boy be named Pubert.) The Munsters were also spin-offs of an established cultural phenomenon: Because the show was produced by Universal, it could use makeup designs based on the studio’s run of classic horror films. That included the makeup for the Boris Karloff-James Whale Frankenstein monster, which the studio previously guarded as if it gave the bearer instant access to nuclear launch codes. Both The Addams Family and The Munsters lived on in syndication for decades and proved iconic enough to render their male leads, John Astin and Fred Gwynne, respectively, virtually unemployable for years afterward.
12-13. Do Over and That Was Then (2002)
In 2002, two shows premièred near-simultaneously on two different networks, both about 30-ish losers who are magically transported back to their high-school days, thus giving them a chance to improve their lives by changing the course of future events. The attention both shows received for their resemblance to each other turned out to be the only attention they got, and both were quickly canceled. Penn Badgley, who played the hero of Do Over, and Tyler Labine, who played the hero’s best friend on That Was Then, have since gone on to bigger, longer-lasting things, but most of the people involved with these series probably wish they could go back 10 years and tell their agents to take a pass.
14-15. Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 (1993)
On January 3, 1993, Paramount’s latest entry in the long-running Star Trek franchise, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, debuted. On February 22, 1993, J. Michael Straczynski’s sci-fi series Babylon 5 aired its pilot episode, although the series wouldn’t start its full first season until the following year. Both shows were set aboard space stations charged with guarding important travel points, and both were serialized, telling long-form stories intended to last the run of the series. There were also enough similarities in terms of character and plot to catch the eyes of already-attentive sci-fi fans, but what could’ve been chalked up to coincidence became even more complicated when Straczynski indicated that he tried to sell his original idea for Babylon 5—including a series bible, character concepts, and artwork—to Paramount in 1989. Paramount passed on Straczynski’s concept, but later announced it was developing its own space-station show, and conspiracies abound. At this point, there’s no official word on whether DS9 owes anything, directly or indirectly, to B5, and there likely never will be. But while the debate will continue to exist between fans, at least both shows had decent runs and are still considered high-water marks of their genre.
16-17. Ferris Bueller and Parker Lewis Can’t Lose (1990)
Much of the appeal of John Hughes’ 1986 high-school comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off comes from the way it pretends it’s possible to solve high school. Ferris has everything under control; he can manipulate his parents, dodge the principal, make time with the hottest girl in school, and solve his best friend’s psychological problems without ever breaking a sweat—he just needs to be clever enough to plan for everything. Bringing this approach to the small screen makes a certain amount of sense, provided the series found a way to cut down on Ferris’ potential for smugness. Ferris Bueller star Charlie Schlatter didn’t manage this; the show was canceled before the end of its first season, and these days is remembered (if at all) as an early outlet for then-unknown Jennifer Aniston. Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, which starred Corin Nemec and debuted a week after Ferris in the fall of 1990, had a better idea of how to handle its impossibly perfect protagonist. Lewis was just as capable as Bueller, but significantly more laid-back: He had problems with women, a powerful nemesis in the principal’s office, three best buds, and a clear understanding that not every teenage problem can be solved with a fourth-wall-breaking smirk. Parker Lewis’ genial hijinks lasted three seasons before ending in 1993, and the show remains a minor, yet fondly remembered, cult classic.
18-19. The Chair and The Chamber (2002)
Prompted by the success of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, the early 2000s became an era of rampant conceptual plagiarism among game-show producers. The phenomenon hit its low point with ABC’s The Chair and Fox’s The Chamber, two quiz shows that premièred within days of each other in 2002. Both strapped contestants into a torture chair and asked them trivia questions while stressing them with unpleasant stimuli, like a menacing alligator on The Chair and muscle-contracting electrodes on The Chamber. Players had to keep their heart rate down during the ordeal, or else it was game over. Each show’s production company accused the other of stealing ideas, and filed competing lawsuits. They shouldn’t have bothered—both programs were instant failures. The Chamber was a sadistic mess whose loudness and visual confusion tortured the home viewing audience as much as it did the contestants; Fox aired only three episodes. Meanwhile, the producers of The Chair ran up against the seemingly self-evident truth that watching someone try to keep their heart rate down does not make for pulse-quickening TV. (The awkward small talk from fish-out-of-water host John McEnroe didn’t help, either.) The better a player performed, the more tedious the show became. The episode of The Chair in which a contestant took home the maximum $250,000 was perhaps the dullest quiz-show jackpot win ever. After it aired, ABC pulled the series so it could bore America no further.
20-21. Voltron and The Mighty Orbots (1984)
Although the run of its original syndicated series, Voltron: Defender Of The Universe, only lasted from 1984 to ’85, the Voltron franchise has proven remarkably durable—up to and including Nickelodeon’s new Voltron Force and a possible feature film. The show’s basic premise is what makes it so enduring: What could be cooler and more universally appealing than a gang of human-piloted robot-crafts that alter shapes and combine to form one massive mech-warrior?
For some reason, though, the same premise didn’t confer similar staying power on The Mighty Orbots. The series debuted just two days before Voltron in September 1984, but the less-popular Orbots was canceled three months later after only 13 episodes—despite some fantastic animation and the heightened profile of a Saturday-morning slot on ABC. Even the few attempts at stoking an online rivalry between the two have been pathetically lopsided; when asked by a blogger who would win in a fight, Voltron or The Orbots, one Comic Vine commenter drolly answered: “Voltron, I know more about him.”
22-23. The Transformers and Challenge Of The GoBots (1984)
Another animated-robot rivalry from 1984 had some legitimate heat to it, however: The Transformers versus Challenge Of The GoBots. Both shows debuted in the fall of that year, but The Transformers had the clearer initiative—and, perhaps more importantly, Transformers toys sold better than their clunky Gobot counterparts.
It didn’t help that the writing and animation of GoBots was patterned after the toys’ blocky designs and dumb names. At first, though, the competition between the two brands created a perverse marketing synergy, and it seemed that GoBots might actually give Transformers a run for its money. The history of vehicle/robot metamorphs has since been written by the victor.
24-25. Cashmere Mafia and Lipstick Jungle (2008)
Two Sex And The City veterans went head-to-head in 2008 with near-identical shows that both aped their predecessor. Cashmere Mafia, produced by SATC creator Darren Star, ran on ABC and starred Lucy Liu as one of four ambitious female best friends who try to have it all in New York City. Lipstick Jungle, produced by SATC author Candace Bushnell, ran on NBC and starred Brooke Shields as one of three ambitious female best friends who try to have it all in New York City. Thanks to scheduling issues and a WGA strike, both shows suffered before they even debuted, thanks to unclear première dates and time slots. In the end, even a increasingly bitchy rivalry between former collaborators Bushnell and Star couldn’t save either series: They were both losers, with Cashmere Mafia running only one season, and Lipstick Jungle canceled after two.
26-27. Ghostbusters and The Real Ghostbusters (1986)
Children of the ’80s will likely remember Filmation’s Ghostbusters cartoon as a pretender to the throne of what would eventually be known as The Real Ghosbusters. The latter followed the animated adventures of the characters introduced by the Ivan Reitman film, getting added cred from voiceover legend Lorenzo Music as Peter Venkman and Arsenio Hall as Winston Zeddemore. The busting of ghosts was also central to the Filmation series, but fans of the film would be disappointed to find few similarities to the live-action movie. (One example: Instead of Slimer, the crew featured a gorilla named Tracy.) However, the seeming impostor predated its more famous inspiration: It was based on Filmation’s 1975 Larry Storch-Forrest Tucker vehicle The Ghost Busters. Columbia Pictures needed to obtain the rights for the name of Reitman’s movie, so Filmation’s Ghostbusters cartoon rightly billed itself as the “original.” Filmation sued Columbia in 1985, and as part of the out-of-court settlement, the movie-based, “ain’t afraid of no ghosts” cartoon was required to call itself The Real Ghostbusters.
28-30. Threshold, Surface, and Invasion (2005)
Network executives looked upon the breakout hit of fall 2004—ABC’s Lost—and said, “Lo, bring unto us more of those, writers of Hollywood.” And thus were produced three shows that all debuted the following fall: CBS’ Threshold, NBC’s Surface, and ABC’s own Invasion. Each focused on what the networks thought was important about Lost (dense, science-fiction mythology that would take years to untangle) and ignored the one thing that really resonated with the audience: the show’s characters. People were less invested in The Island than the people who crashed onto it; striking the correct balance isn’t easy. Had the three shows that debuted in 2005 spent their preproduction time crafting five characters whom people could connect to, instead of trying to create five years of mythology, then perhaps one of the shows would have lasted past a single season.
31-34. Heroes, Jericho, Kidnapped, and The Nine (2006)
Another result of Lost’s success: Network executives decided that what television audiences now wanted were shows where one story arc played out over one or multiple seasons. (24 can shoulder some of that blame as well.) Never mind that most of these shows didn’t seem to have a season-two game plan; executives thought that people would hang onto the shows for an entire season, building water-cooler buzz much like Lost. It worked like gangbusters with Heroes, which NBC debuted in 2006, and CBS’ Jericho had enough of a fan base that a second season was ordered in reaction to a grassroots viewer campaign to save the show. But there were some high-concept flameouts in 2006 as well. NBC ordered Kidnapped, in which the son of a prominent businessman was abducted and a shady retriever slowly unraveled the mystery in order to get the kid back alive. Over on ABC, The Nine was an ensemble drama that played the events of a bank robbery and hostage situation out via minute flashbacks and the post-traumatic reflections of the victims, who included Tim Daly, Scott Wolf, and Chi McBride. Both pilots shared the same high-quality, movie-like production values, but went about their business too slowly post-pilot. Viewers quickly lost interest, and both were canceled before the end of the season. The Nine lingered long enough for a conclusion that didn’t resolve anything, while Kidnapped had a chance to make a rushed final episode that revealed the fiend behind the abduction.
35-36. Bring ’Em Back Alive and Tales Of The Gold Monkey (1982)
In the wake of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, ABC and CBS quickly scrambled to come up with their own small-screen take on classic adventure serials, with the fruit of the networks’ labors premièring within two days of each other. ABC struck first blood with Tales Of The Gold Monkey, starring Star Trek: The Motion Picture alumnus Stephen Collins as Jake Cutter, a former Flying Tiger who, with his trusty one-eyed dog Jake by his side, soared through the skies in a Grumman G-21 Goose, delivering air cargo while battling the occasional Nazi. Meanwhile, CBS decided to dig into the recent history books, transforming real-life adventurer/big-game hunter Frank Buck into the lead character of Bring ’Em Back Alive, where he was played by a just-barely-pre-Scarecrow And Mrs. King Bruce Boxleitner. What both networks quickly learned, however, was that Raiders’ success had less to do with serial-styled action and more to do with the combination of Harrison Ford, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg; both series were finished after a single season.
37-38. Supertrain and Time Express (1979)
During the late ’70s, viewers were unable to escape hourlong, guest-star-laden anthology dramas. Inspired by Saturday-night ratings juggernauts The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, Supertrain and Time Express offered several storylines tied together by a single shared location. Presumably working on the premise that what works on the water will equally rock on the rails, NBC created Supertrain, about a nuclear-powered train that featured ridiculously gauche amenities like a swimming pool and a shopping center, and regularly featured guests with romantic dilemmas or other business and personal woes. Heading out of the same station but taking a complete left turn, CBS offered up Time Express, starring real-life husband and wife Vincent Price and Coral Browne as the host and hostess of a locomotive capable of taking its passengers back in time to key moments of their pasts. Although the series were unabashedly modeled on The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, respectively, each reached its final destination before its episode count hit the double digits.