Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Look Out For That Cliff: 15 TV Sensations Whose Popularity Faded Fast

Illustration for article titled Look Out For That Cliff: 15 TV Sensations Whose Popularity Faded Fast

1. The Monkees (1966-1968)

Illustration for article titled Look Out For That Cliff: 15 TV Sensations Whose Popularity Faded Fast

Thanks to the popularity of the phrase/website "jump the shark," TV fans everywhere are familiar with the idea of formerly good shows starting to suck. But even lousy shows frequently retain the substantial audience they've already built. What's rarer are shows that start out on top, looking like perennial ratings winners, then suddenly drop in viewership and prestige, washing out completely in five years or less. As The Monkees' popularity skyrocketed following its debut in the fall of '66, the hordes of wannabe rock stars who'd descended onto Sunset Strip publicly derided the four actor/musicians in NBC's prefab pop group, even though a lot of those haters hadn't been too proud to audition. The Monkees themselves were stung by their peers' rejection and mockery, and started wrangling for more creative control, with the blessing of pot-smoking producers Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson. For the second season, The Monkees was trippier and less frolicsome, and the band's core audience of pre-teens fled, not to be replaced by the generational tastemakers The Monkees sought. Swinging in '66, The Monkees was grounded in '68.

2. Miami Vice (1984-1989)

Few shows have captured the cultural zeitgeist quite like Miami Vice did in 1984. Embracing the flash and artifice of MTV and glorifying Reagan-era greed while superficially critiquing it, Miami Vice made rock stars out of actors Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, who responded by pursuing undistinguished music careers. Soon, the show's fashionable trendiness became its undoing, and by the end of its run, Johnson's T-shirt-and-Armani-jacket ensemble was well on the way to becoming pop-culture shorthand for laughable mid-'80s excess.

3. Batman (1966-1968)

Debuting as a midseason replacement in January 1966, the campy TV adaptation of DC Comics' Batman was a roaring success in its first half-season, aided by the radical decision to air two episodes a week, with Thursday's installment completing Wednesday's story. For the '65-66 season, the Wednesday and Thursday episodes both cracked TV's Top 10. But when Batman came back for a full season in the fall of '66, the viewing public had gotten bored with the show's formulaic gimmicks, and the ratings sank like fossilized guano. Batman was reduced to one episode a week for the '67-68 season, and bolstered with the arrival of Yvonne Craig as Batgirl, but like Batman himself, the changes didn't fly. The hottest show on television in the spring of 1966 was off the air two years later. (Are you paying attention, creators of Heroes?)

4. Texaco Star Theater (1948-1953); The Buick-Berle Show (1953-1955)

For its first year on the air, Milton Berle's variety show was so popular that nearly 80 percent of the sets in use on Tuesday nights were tuned to NBC. But there weren't that many sets back then. (Less than a million when the show debuted in 1948, and roughly two million by the end of '49.) As television infiltrated middle-American homes in the early '50s, Berle's often-abrasive Catskills humor declined in popularity. It didn't help that Berle relied increasingly on guest hosts, then abruptly changed the show's format to incorporate a mini-sitcom every week. In 1951, riding high, NBC signed Berle to a 30-year contract, guaranteeing a $200,000 yearly salary. In 1955, even though the renamed The Buick-Berle Show was still in the Top 20, Berle and his bruised ego slunk away from weekly broadcasting, and he earned his paycheck instead by putting on occasional shows and specials for NBC, right up to the '80s.

5. Moonlighting (1985-1989)

Some cult shows should stay cult shows, as Moonlighting fans realized when their favorite quirky little detective series—starring Bruce Willis, Cybill Shepherd, and a thick streak of self-reference—became a left-field TV blockbuster in its second season. Problems proliferated almost immediately, as Willis and Shepherd grew exhausted from the demanding schedule of a dialogue-heavy show, and used their sudden popularity to make demands that slowed production down even further. Moonlighting became notorious for its unscheduled reruns, and even made fun of the behind-the-scenes problems during the show. The show's audience started to get fully fed up after Willis and Shepherd's characters slept together at the end of the third season. Partly because of Shepherd's real-life pregnancy and Willis' working on Die Hard, the two actors were separated for much of the fourth season, with increasingly preposterous reasons supplied for the split. Viewers bailed, and Moonlighting was cancelled at the end of its abbreviated fifth season, ending with an episode in which the sets were dismantled and Shepherd and Willis received a lecture on professionalism from an ABC executive.

6. The Arsenio Hall Show (1989-1994)

Although the ratings never quite matched the media hype, Arsenio Hall's syndicated late-night talk show was a definite cultural force at the dawn of the '90s, spawning SNL parodies, incendiary Entertainment Weekly covers, and hand-wringing op-eds about the show providing a forum for political candidates and controversial rappers to reach young people. But PR success isn't always real success, and when the media turned its attention to the Letterman/Leno late-night wars in the fall of '93, the loss of heat around The Arsenio Hall Show proved fatal. By spring of '94, it was put on permanent hiatus.


7. Grace Under Fire (1993-1998)

NBC had Seinfeld and Mad About You, but in the early '90s, nobody could beat ABC at turning stand-up comics into sitcom stars. In the wake of Roseanne and Home Improvement, ABC struck again with Grace Under Fire, another blue-collar, family-oriented sitcom built around a down-to-earth comedian. Except Brett Butler, the sassy, Southern-accented star, wasn't as down-to-earth as she initially appeared. After Grace Under Fire became the highest-rated new comedy of the '93-'94 season—finishing in the Top 10 for the year, and the year after to boot—Butler's behavior became increasingly erratic. An addiction to painkillers and paranoia over who was really in control of her show led to a revolving door of producers, writers, and co-stars, and an eventual pink slip for all at the end of the '97-'98 season.

8. Ally McBeal (1997-2002)

Divisive even when it was a hit, Ally McBeal turned the legal-drama genre on its ear, focusing more on the tumultuous love life and cartoonish fantasies of the young lawyer played by Calista Flockhart than on her frequently outrageous caseload. Shepherded by iconoclastic writer-producer David E. Kelley, Ally McBeal didn't look or feel like anything else on television in 1997, and though some viewers were appalled by the show's goofy interludes and apparent undermining of hard-won feminist ideals, demand for all things Ally was so high that after its second season, Kelley created an edited-down half-hour sitcom version of the show. The spin-off—along with Kelley's focus on the more prestigious The Practice, and his usual loss of interest in any of his shows past their second year on the air—led to a rapid decline in quality. By the end of Ally McBeal's fifth and final season, fans were exhausted by the wheel-spinning romantic subplots and excessive craziness, so Kelley put his notebook of wacky ideas back on the shelf—before dusting it off again a few years later for Boston Legal.

9. Who Wants To Be A Millionaire (1999-2002)

Conspiracy-minded game-show buffs still feel raw about the treatment and eventual fate of the ABC primetime version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, which seemed to herald a return to the game-show glory years of the '60s and '70s, but which instead almost killed off the genre for good. Debuting in August of 1999 as an end-of-summer "event," Millionaire became an instant hit, driven by the egalitarian call-in-to-qualify contestant-picking format and by the affable nature of host Regis Philbin. But ABC quickly began tinkering with success, first by expanding the number of nights a week the show aired, then by fiddling with the qualification round to bring in a livelier and more diverse contestant pool. Meanwhile, other networks were flooding the airwaves with knockoffs, with one head of programming privately admitting that he hoped to kill off prime-time game shows with oversaturation. The gambit almost worked. But while Millionaire itself went into steep decline by the end of its second season—eventually losing its prime-time slot and moving into syndication—the slow-drip, flashing-light format that the show popularized lives on in the prime-time games that keep popping up in its wake.

10. The Flip Wilson Show (1970-1974)

In 1970, comedian Flip Wilson reaped the benefits of America's post-Woodstock fascination with anything that only seemed radical, and for its first two years on the air, The Flip Wilson Show finished the season's ratings at number two, just behind Marcus Welby M.D. and All In The Family, respectively. But in its third year, it couldn't even crack the Top 20, and after its fourth year, it was cancelled. Blame the fact that it was up against The Waltons in year three. Or blame the tiredness of Wilson's race-focused shtick, which rarely rose above "black people act like this, but white people act like this." Mostly, blame the existence of shows like All In The Family, which proved that America could take their comedy with a little more punch.

11. Commander In Chief (2005-2006)

In January of 2006, Geena Davis won a Golden Globe for her leading performance as the United States' first female president, in the freshman ABC hit Commander In Chief. By May, the show had been cancelled. The trouble started early for Commander In Chief, when creator/show-runner Rod Lurie fell behind, forcing the show into reruns earlier than planned. ABC replaced him with veteran producer Steven Bochco, who immediately jettisoned some of Lurie's quirkier, "domestic life of a president" elements and tried to make the show more of a political thriller. But the combination of long production delays and the changing focus sapped viewer interest, and ABC failed to find a timeslot for Commander In Chief that could stand up to shows that hadn't taken three months off for retooling. In the end, the show became an object lesson in the new reality of network TV. Fill your allotted hour every week, or die. A lesson soon learned by…


12. Jericho (2006-?)

Illustration for article titled Look Out For That Cliff: 15 TV Sensations Whose Popularity Faded Fast

The fall '06 TV schedule saw the utter collapse of serialized dramas, but CBS' Jericho was the exception that proved the rule. Over its first 11 episodes, Jericho's story of a small Kansas town and a mysterious apocalyptic event drew a strong, steady viewership, and ended 2006 as one of the TV year's surprise success stories. But the back half of the first season didn't air until the end of February, nearly three months after the final episode of the first half. In the tide of returning and replacement shows—including buzz-gatherers like American Idol, Lost, and The Sopranos—interest in Jericho washed away, and the show ended the season 48th in the overall ratings. CBS gave Jericho a backdoor cancellation by not announcing it as part of the fall '07 schedule, and fans responded by campaigning the network to bring the show back. CBS responded with a limited midseason run this coming year, but whether it'll be an epilogue or a second act remains to be seen.

13. The O.C. (2003-2007)

The O.C. made a deep and immediate impact when it debuted in 2003, generating equal amounts of adulation and loathing for its portrayal of snarky, privileged SoCal teenagers with unusually marketable tastes in music, and a proclivity for getting into fistfights. But shortly after the show's first season injected ephemera like "Chrismukkah" and the band Rooney into the pop-culture universe, The O.C. took a ratings nosedive, losing 26 percent of its audience for season two. Season three saw another 15-percent drop (in spite of the kinda-unexpected death of principal character Marissa Cooper), followed by an abysmal fourth and final season, which saw only 3.63 million viewers tuning into the series finale—just over a third of the show's average first-season viewership. Crippled by increasingly unwieldy and ridiculous storylines (Homicidal surfers! Cage-fighting!) and scheduling missteps, The O.C. never managed to capitalize on the zeitgeist heralded by its first season.

14. Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (2006)

Illustration for article titled Look Out For That Cliff: 15 TV Sensations Whose Popularity Faded Fast

The rapid demise of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip was prime fodder for television bloggers and critics, who delighted in debating the various merits and flaws of Aaron Sorkin's lumbering behemoth. The show's creators (and viewers) never seemed to figure out whether to approach it as a drama or comedy, a conundrum amplified by the obvious—though superficial—similarities to that other NBC series about a sketch-comedy show. The ample pre-season buzz and promising pilot, didn't keep the show from rapidly devolving into heavy-handed Sorkin-isms and huh?-inducing escapades, such as the notorious snakes-are-loose-in-the-studio debacle. In spite of the immediate post-pilot ratings drop-off, Studio 60 received enough positive reviews and favorable demographics (rich people apparently loved it) that NBC ordered a full season. After limping through the remainder of that season, Studio 60 finally bit it, yet still managed to gather a handful of 2007 Emmy nods.

15. Twin Peaks (1990-1991)

David Lynch's attempt to infuse a sprawling prime-time soap opera with cinematic quality and gravity, plus his own professional obsession with dark secrets, odd behavior, and vague supernatural forces, sparked a rabid following: The entertainment media of the time eagerly tracked the rise of "Peaks Parties," where fans would assemble over coffee, pie, and doughnuts (all heavily fetishized in the show) to watch the latest installment and debate over all the cryptic images and rationed information. But where media hype and critical praise drew in hordes of viewers, the slow pacing and intentional strangeness drove them away just as quickly, and the ratings rapidly dropped. Lynch largely left the show to work on Wild At Heart, and the series spun its wheels, burying itself in the character-driven minutiae of its weird little mountain community, and losing any sense of forward momentum. In part as a ratings stunt, ABC pushed for a resolution to the show's central murder mystery, and briefly lured back a lot of viewers for the much-advertised big-reveal episode. But with the series' most tangible, approachable question answered, impatient viewers had even less reason to hang around for backward-talking dwarves and a crazy-acting cast. ABC suspended the show, but under pressure from fans, brought it back briefly, adding an ill-conceived, off-tone romance for protagonist Kyle MacLachlan. When that failed, the network killed the show for good, leaving Lynch to bitterly launch On The Air, a satirical follow-up series about the stupidities of network television. Unlike Twin Peaks, though, that show wasn't even briefly popular.