15 forgotten and fascinating TV flops from 1987

Not even Dolly and Oscar Winners could save these overlooked superheroes, variety shows and prison comedies.

Images: The Everett Collection

A short while back, we posed a question: "Was the 1977–78 television season the worst ever?" There was good reason for the inquiry. By the end of the season, 45 of 96 network shows had been canceled. A nationally syndicated news headline sighed in relief, "TV's Worst Season Slowly Nearing an End." The television critics at the time could not see into the future.

Fast forward ten years, and there is a season to challenge that statement. More than 50 new network television shows would premiere in 1987, and few of them would make it past 1988. Corey Haim even had a sitcom in 1987. (Roomies, if you're wondering.) Adding to the onslaught was the newborn Fox network, which kicked off in 1987 with weekend-only programming. While Married... with Children, Full House and The Tracey Ullman Show — birthplace of The Simpsons — would find great success, the rest can be hard to remember.

But let's dig down 30 years into the cellar of 1987 to find some of the more fascinating, forgotten and overlooked series of that year.

1. Buck James

Gunsmoke and McCloud veteran Dennis Weaver may have played a doctor, but there was still a whole lot of cowboy in him. The Texas surgeon was also a rancher. Think Dallas meets E.R., only it lasts a mere 19 episodes.

Image: ABC / YouTube

2. Dolly

Leading in to Buck James on Sunday evening was this celebrity showcase, which tried to keep the variety show genre alive a good decade after its heyday. Even the Muppets, Pee-Wee Herman and Tom Petty, not to mention a writing staff loaded with TV comedy veterans, could not turn this into a hit. It was simply the wrong era.

Image: ABC

3. Frank's Place

Tim Reid starred as a black Ivy League professor who heads to New Orleans to run a restaurant. Hugh Wilson, creator of WKRP in Cincinnatti, crafted this ahead-of-its-time dramedy. Despite airing just one season, it was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series.

Image: CBS / Viacom

4. I Married Dora

Juliette Lewis played the elder daugher in this sitcom, which is most notable for its meta ending. "It's been canceled," the dad says to his family. "The flight?" asks Dora (Elizabeth Peña). He then turns to the camera, breaks the fourth wall and proclaims, "No, our series!" Cue the laughter and hugs!

Image: Sony Pictures Television

5. J. J. Starbuck

This was a spin-off, of sorts, from Tenspeed and Brown Shoe. "Tenspeed and whatnow," you ask? That was an underrated 1980 series with Jeff Goldblum as a karate-loving accountant.

Image: NBC

6. Leg Work

Oscar winner Frances McDormand co-starred in this incredibly Eighties P.I. show about a former Assistant D.A. turned gumshoe. The big hair, the padded shoulders, the neon, the Porsches — there was no doubt this was 1987.

Image: 20th Century Fox Television

7. Max Headroom

Most of you probably remember the stuttering talking head as the animated spokesman for New Coke ("C-c-catch the wave!"), yet his cyberpunk sci-fi series goes overlooked. ABC aired the dystopian tale, which ranked at No. 101 in the Nielsen ratings.

Image: Warner Bros. Television Distribution

8. The New Adventures of Beans Baxter

Savage Steve Holland, writer-director of the cult John Cusack film Better Off Dead, helmed this teen spy action-comedy. David Spade turned down the lead role in what turned out to be a modern, Fox-network take on Get Smart.

Image: 20th Century Fox Television

9. The Oldest Rookie

Paul Sorvino played the aging desk cop who finally decides to see action in the streets. Only 14 episodes were made.

Image: Touchstone Television / CBS

10. Once a Hero

A Marvel-related comic book series? This would have no problem making the air today. The sci-fi sitcom centered on a comics artist who sees his creation, Captain Justice, come to life. Adam West appeared in the fourth episode! However, it was never seen in the U.S. Only three episodes aired. Marvel even produced a tie-in Captain Justice comic book. The publisher canceled that after two issues.

Image: New World Television

11. Private Eye

A private eye works the seedy underbelly of showbiz in 1950s Los Angeles. Hot off The Goonies, Josh Brolin landed a key role as the sidekick. Even a time slot after the stylish Miami Vice could not help this neo-noir.

Image: Universal Television

12. Sable

Filling the void of Once a Hero was this action show, which was based on a hip, pulp-inspired comic book (Jon Sable: Freelance). The series centered around a vigilante and mercenary who posed as a children's book author. No, really.

Image: ABC

13. The Slap Maxwell Story

With a catchy name like "The Slap Maxwell Story" and Dabney Coleman as "Slap," what could go wrong? Well, for starters, the title character was thoroughly unlikeable.

Image: ABC / Warner Bros. Television

14. Werewolf

Chuck Connors, tough-as-nails star of MeTV favorite The Rifleman, worked one of his final regular roles in this Fox horror series. The chilling synthesizer score and smoky atmosphere made it a solid piece of '80s genre television for those still giddy from the "Thriller" video.

Image: Sony Pictures Television

15. Women in Prison

Sounding like a 1970s exploitation film on paper, Women in Prison encapsulated the nascent Fox network's overdriven urge to be provocative. A cute shoplifter is thrown in the clink, where she dwells with a murderer and prostitute. Perhaps it paved the way for Orange Is the New Black?

Image: Sony Pictures Television

 
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Burrellfan1 10 months ago
Max Headroom was #101 in the ratings because people didn't get it, not because it was not any good. Dale Robertson was great in J.J. Starbuck, but he did not like how the show was done. I wish someone would put out this show on dvd.
TheSentinel 10 months ago
Out of all those shows listed above, the only ones I actually watched and remember were Max Headroom and Private Eye. In fact, I still remember the opening montage for Private Eye:

Allen5Brain 10 months ago
I loved Beans Baxter!
I remember watching Max Headroom, but he was just more entertaining in the New Coke commercials.
Amalthea 10 months ago
Am I the ONLY one who remembers Beans Baxter??? I also watched Dolly, Max, Werewolf, & JJ (AND "Tenspeed & Brownshoe").
ScarlettKaiju Amalthea 10 months ago
I caught it on TV Land, but I remember Beans Baxter. It was hilarious! I also loved Once a Hero. The Adam West episode, and two others, aired in the UK. I was fortunate enough to at least hear an audio recording of it, and it was glorious. West played a TV actor who played Captain Justice in the 1960's who was treated shabbily by the studio when a "dark, gritty" feature film was made. It ends with him crossing into the comic book world to literally become Captain Justice, a lovely Valentine to those of us who grew up with "The Bright Knight." Alas, if it didn't surface when he passed, I'm guessing we'll never see it.
Big3Fan 10 months ago
Tim Reid was great as Venus Flytrap in WKRP. He was especially good in the episode 'Who is Gordon Sims' when he is exposed as an Army deserter. Earlier in his career he teamed up with Tom Dreesen, the first interracial comedy team.
OldTVfanatic 10 months ago
I actually liked Sable, which got me interested in the original comic book. And Werewolf was okay, but the rest I didn’t really delve into.
WILD OldTVfanatic 10 months ago
The show was nothing like Jon Sable, though. I only continued to watch it because I'm a big fan of "Iron" Mike Grell. My favorite comic growing up was The Warlord. I wish that they'd have not changed Jon Sable from the character's look or his origin.
Moverfan 10 months ago
Loved Dolly and Frank's Place and never watched any of the others. Always thought Dabnry Coleman and Larry Linville could have played all kinds of different characters if casting directors hadn't always thought of them as the bad guys.
bradyguy 10 months ago
Hmmm....seems unlikely that David Spade, with NO television experience whatsoever, would be offered the lead on a sitcom...even on FOX...
top_cat_james_1 10 months ago
"Adding to the onslaught was the newborn Fox network, which kicked off in 1987 with weekend-only programming. While Married... with Children, Full House and The Tracey Ullman Show — birthplace of The Simpsons — would find great success, the rest can be hard to remember."

Wow. Where to even begin? Well, first of all, "Full House" was an ABC program. You're thinking of "Open House" which premiered two years later, and was a spin-off from "Duet", which DID debut in 1987.

Also airing on the fledgling Fox network in 1987, "Mr. President", starring George C. Scott.

PPZJD 10 months ago
"Sable" was indeed terrible, but trust me, it was a TERRIFIC comic ("Jon Sable - Freelance") by Mike Grell, one of the original independent titles from the 80s that heralded the rebirth of comics during the era. This was supposed to be a vehicle for Gene Simmons, a huge fan of the character and series, but he wasn't, shall we say, athletic enough for the role. As usual, network TV got completely wrong! First Comics was a dynamic publisher out of Chicago as well -- see Howard Chaykin's "American Flagg!" for a great, adult dystopian tale of late 21st Century Chicago.
OldTVfanatic PPZJD 10 months ago
I didn’t think Sable the tv series was bad, just never given a real chance. It didn’t help that ABC toned down the violent tone of Grell’s comic book but at least it was an effort.
JohnAustin779 10 months ago
I don't remember any of these at all, except Max Headroom. I think that Werewolf show, Private Eyes, and Leg Work sound pretty cool, though. MeTV should create a new channel just dedicated to the lost shows of TV that don't get shown anymore. The "one hit wonders" of television, so to speak.

That would be something I'd highly be interested in because all those types of shows have never been shown or seen again past their air dates. It would definitely be interesting 🤔🙂 because some of those shows that were considered bad back then might actually be considered good now 🖖.
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Michael Moverfan 10 months ago
In 1991, a local tv station celebrated its 30 anniversary. So for a month of weekdays, they had an hour where they ran an old show, sometimes an hour show, sometimes two half hour shows. These were shows they'd aired in the past, somehow they got permission.

Some of those shows I'd not seen since they first aired.

They did it again ten years later, but not as good a selection of shows.

About 2000 there was a Screen Gems poackage for syndication. At least here, it was mostly Bewitched and something else, but I did see some Partridge Family episodes, and in December, they ran a selection of sitcom Christmas episodes.

Of course, for many shows, that sort of thing isn't a standout now, so many speciaty and subchannels, and tv shows on DVD.

Moverfan Michael 9 months ago
We had a station do that for four or five summers--they'd choose two weeks (I think) for old/classic programming. One night they'd run Love That Bob, another night would be George Burns & Gracie Allen (as an example...although I do remember seeing Love That Bob). My favorite nights were the Honeymooners and You Bet Your Life.
denny Moverfan 9 months ago
There was a channel called TRIO that used to show these type of shows about 10 years ago. It's no longer on satellite, not sure if it exists anymore.
Moverfan denny 9 months ago
I don't think it does either, but I remember watching it on DirecTV--at the time, it was the only channel carrying full-length reruns of Laugh-In...and Late Night With David Letterman (good lord, that boy was skinny!).
timothys71 10 months ago
While some of the short-lived, forgotten TV shows were truly bad, others had a lot of potential but, for whatever reason, just never did well enough in the ratings to keep them on the air. That might be a cool idea for MeTV; setting aside an hour in the schedule (perhaps on weekends) to bring back some of those lost shows (assuming that whomever owns the distribution rights will make them available for broadcast).
TheSentinel timothys71 10 months ago
Private Eye was one of those shows I thought had potential (and it also helped that it aired right after Miami Vice on Fridays when it premiered).
Barry22 10 months ago
With the exception of Max Headache, I mean Headroom, (which sucked) I don't remember a single one of these.
LalaLucy 10 months ago
I can remember Dolly's variety show. My mom really likes her so we did catch some of that. Max Headroom I can recall from the commercials and the fact he turns up in Back to the Future 2 later on. Slap Maxwell I never caught but do recall it since it had a funny title and Dabney Coleman to offer (Love to hate him in 9 to 5 and Tootsie). Other than that, I am sure I read about the rest in mom's TV Guide but don't really remember them....
F5Twitster 10 months ago
Re “Hugh Wilson, creator of WKRP in Cincinnatti, crafted this ahead-of-its-time dramedy.”

Only one “t” to a customer: how big does a city have to be for you to spell it correctly? The name is spelled CINCINNATI.

As for

“This was a spin-off, of sorts, from Tenspeed and Brown Shoe. ‘Tenspeed and whatnow,’ you ask? That was an underrated 1980 series with Jeff Goldblum as a karate-loving accountant.”

It’s offensive that you didn’t think equal co-star and Tony Award-winner Ben Vereen as Tenspeed (he got first billing) wasn’t worth mentioning.
dangler1907 F5Twitster 10 months ago
Anger issues?
LoveMETV22 dangler1907 10 months ago
They (MeTV) did provide a link in that snippet that explained and gave more info on the show.
denny F5Twitster 9 months ago
You seem fun.
CaptainDunsel 10 months ago
So "J. J. Starbuck" was a spinoff from "Ten Speed and Brownshoe" you say? But not even a couple of words on what it was about?
Or that it starred the legendary Robert Preston, or that Ben Vereen's Tenspeed Turner was a regular?
Dale Robertson, actually.
MrsPhilHarris 10 months ago
I like the sound of Private Eye. 🕶 🚬. 🥃 🔍
cperrynaples MrsPhilHarris 10 months ago
Yes, it was very similar to Crime Story, another lost gem!
Barry22 cperrynaples 10 months ago
Big fan of Crime Story, the theme song, a remake of Runaway, was also good.
Nala92129 10 months ago
I always thought "Women in Prison" was FOX'S answer to "Cell Block H." Remember that show?
MrsPhilHarris Nala92129 10 months ago
Yes! It ran for about 8 years.
cperrynaples MrsPhilHarris 10 months ago
That was an Australian soap opera! It can't really be compared to WIP which was a comedy along the lines of Married With Children!
justjeff 10 months ago
I watched, and enjoyed Max Headroom. I wish it had done b-b-b-b-b-better...
Peter_Falk_Fan justjeff 10 months ago
I occasionally watched "Max Headroom". At least he lasted longer than the New Coke he was touting.
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