Some say TV is in a golden age. When you look at some of today’s high water marks, it’s easy to see why. But step back in time only a few years and even TV’s lesser known highlights had their own unique appeal.
Some say TV is in a golden age. Ground-breaking shows like Hill Street Blues and Twin Peaks changed what audiences would tolerate on network TV. Then HBO’s The Sopranos and The Wire ushered into a new kind of high art show, one not beholden to advertisers. Seinfeld did the same for comedy which lead to Curb Your Enthusiasm and the Larry Sanders Show.
Now Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Westworld and Game of Thrones are the high water marks every other show must contend with. Of course, there were shows that sadly ended way too soon like Freaks and Geeks and Deadwood, but there were also ground-breaking shows created by geniuses in the 90s that never reached the audiences they deserved either. David Lynch, Oliver Stone, Stephen Colbert, and Ben Stiller all created innovative shows that went nowhere. They now have a second life on YouTube. Let’s take a look back at what might have been.
On the Air – 1992
At the height of Twin Peaks’ success co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost decided to try their hand at a sitcom for some reason. The result was the flop On the Air, a behind the scenes comedy about a 1950’s era variety show. It featured Twin Peaks actor Miguel Ferrer, David Lander from Laverne and Shirley, and the ever-loveable Kim McGuire AKA Hatchet-Face from John Water’s movies. It was a smart show, satirising Hollywood egos and backstage drama. At times it had classic Lynchian undertones and reached levels of wonderful surreal-ness. But it failed to connect with executives and audiences and only three episodes made it to air.
Wild Palms – 1993
Ok, technically this was a miniseries but Wild Palms, like Twin Peaks, was far ahead of its time. Produced by Oliver Stone, it was set in a new-future LA and dealt with political paranoia, mass media manipulation and anticipated interconnected virtual reality. Its dreamlike production and cyberpunk aesthetic made it a challenging but rewarding show. In a time before you could get a payday loan on a Sunday it predated many of the privacy and government over-reach issues that plague us today. Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) directed an episode as did Bill and Ted director Peter Hewiltt. Writer William Gibson even made a cameo. It starred Jim Belushi, Kim Cattrall, and Angie Dickinson.
Exit 57 – 1995
We were all deeply saddened when Stephen Colbert put The Colbert Report to rest, but it’s worth looking back at what made him great. Exit 57 was a short-lived Comedy Central sketch show that featured the cast of what later became the Amy Sedaris-driven tour de force Strangers with Candy. It was a time when Comedy Central was willing to take chances on bizarre shows. It featured sketches that went nowhere, intentionally bad production, downright silliness, as well as smart inventive anti-comedy. Amy Sedaris’ brother, the best-selling author David Sedaris, even served as writer on the show for a short time.
Heat Vision and Jack – 1999
And finally, we come to perhaps the greatest show that never was. It’s not a hard sell. Ben Stiller and Community creator Dan Harmon produced it. Jack Black plays an astronaut with superintelligence and his sidekick is a talking motorcycle voiced by Owen Wilson … and the actor Ron Silver plays himself. Need I say more? It was created after The Ben Stiller Show was cancelled and feels like a project the network felt obliged to give Stiller after the show won an Emmy. He even jokes about it at the opening of the pilot. It’s as if all these great people got in a room and said let’s see what we can get away with.