Learning to Love Bad TV

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We’re told, again and again, that we’re living in a Golden Age of Television. The evidence for this typically comes down to a handful of shows, most of them airing either on cable (Mad Men, Breaking Bad,) pay-networks (Game of Thrones, True Detective,) or streaming services (Orange is The New Black, House of Cards). What we’re actually living in is a market-driven demographic shift whereby the audience for “serious adult drama” has come to prefer HD TVs, streaming, DVRs and the level of control that comes with it to the theatrical moviegoing experience, thus driving the “serious adult drama” genre to the small screen.

Meanwhile, the networks’ and the cables’ actual bread and butter continues to be reality shows, assembly-line CSI/NCIS/SVU/etc procedurals and dirt-dumb sitcoms – creating an amusing split: There are the “New Golden Age” shows that get big write-ups and think pieces published about them near-constantly by entertainment journos and “regular” shows whose existence largely bypasses the attention of the thinkpiece writers.

I think this is part of why Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which yes, to be clear, took way too long to figure out how to be good) caught such overwhelming critical flack so early on: TV writers obliged to check it out due to its feature film tie-in pedigree who probably hadn’t bothered to watch an NCIS-style network procedural in years. See also: Hannibal, (which I’ll have to get to one of these days) which has polarized (re: “love it or hate it”) audiences and critics with its schlocky B-movie sensibilities i.e. performances that all fall within some range of high camp, garish color palette, gleefully excessive gore and plot points like the serial killer with a mechanical cave-bear exosuit.

But in the not too distant past, dedicated television didn’t mean avoiding bad shows – it meant learning to love them. The syndication boom of the 90s (short version: A massive increase in the number of 24-hour channels meant a much lower bar to getting a show on the air, TV’s version of the “straight-to-video” boom) brought high-concept and “camp” back into fashion; starting with Baywatch – which bombed as a network offering but became, for a time, the most popular show in the world in syndication – and finding it’s level with Sam Raimi and Rob Tappert’s trendsetting Hercules and Xena shows.

Most of what blazed across the airwaves in this era was terrible, but some of it was rather amusingly so. Here, then, is a compilation of “classic” television of the time that was so bad… well, you know how the saying goes…

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deadly games

Deadly Games
It wasn’t just syndication producing these wonders: Upstart network UPN was responsible for this one. Deadly Games might be the single stupidest piece of media “about” video-games ever produced – and that’s saying something. Our hero is a physicist whose big stress-relief hobby is programming a game in which the hero “The Cold-Steel Kid” (based on himself) must save a damsel in distress (based on his ex-wife) from The Jackal (based on his father). A freak accident brings Jackal and his minions into the real world, where they play out their programming by attacking “The Kid” and trying to kidnap the girl – thus drawing her back into his orbit.

The “gimmick” of the show was that Jackal would summon up the other enemies from the game (which was depicted as having 100% photo-realistic graphics in 1994) to attack the heroes, and that all of them were caricature “game villain” versions of people the programmer felt had “wronged” him in some way: For example, in the pilot he battled “Killshot,” who threw exploding footballs and was based on (what else?) a mean jock who’d bullied him in school.

And here we have the problem with the series: It didn’t seem to realize that its “hero” is obviously a huge jerk with major issues. Even setting aside the how pathetic spending all that time and energy on an interactive fantasy of getting his ex back by blowing up various people who pissed him off over the years is… the guy’s “grudge list” is a bit absurd. Bad guys based on your mother in-law, old boss (he threw explosive pink slips) or a divorce lawyer? Okay, I guess… but one of these guys was a car mechanic, based on a guy who “The Kid” felt had overcharged him once. Today, the show is best remembered for a curious Star Trek connection: Leonard Nimoy direct the pilot, while Brent Spiner and LeVar Burton both turned up as villains.

thunder paradise

Thunder in Paradise
A notorious entry in the “Baywatch, but with a ______” genre, this series had Hulk Hogan and another guy who was not Hulk Hogan as a pair of former Navy SEALs living on the Florida coast and working as freelance vigilante mercenaries, which they must balance with being father figures to The Hulkster’s young daughter. “Thunder” is the name of their custom-built weaponized speedboat, which they use on their missions and because it mandates that a large percentage of the action scenes have to happen near places where women in bathing suits are.

Most of it was shot on various resort locations in Walt Disney World, and parts of Disney’s EPCOT Center were used for exteriors and interiors that called for a “futuristic” look. Notably, the show (which only lasted 22 episodes) was turned into an FMV CD-Rom game for the infamous Philips CDi; the results of which were predictably horrible. But in an unusual move, the live-action footage shot for the game was actually repurposed into an actual two-part episode of the show.


“The Night Man” was a Malibu Comics character briefly made part of the Marvel Universe when they purchased their onetime competitor. For some reason, somebody decided he needed a TV show, which wound up running a shocking 44 episodes.

Nightman’s powers? He doesn’t need to sleep. Well, he can also “sense” evil, but the whole not-sleeping thing is his real central gimmick: He has a whole night to fill up, and instead of catching up on work or getting a hobby he opts to become a seriously less-interesting version of Batman. Again, somehow they got two full seasons out of this guy; because it was the 90s and just seeing sort of a superhero running around once a week was kind of a novelty.

Still, the series at least had a sense of its own pedigree: One heavily-hyped (for syndication) episode featured a team-up with Simon MacCorkindale as his infamous 80s TV hero Manimal.


Beastmaster: The Series
Let’s get one thing straight: Don Coscarelli’s fondly remembered ’80s cable mainstay THE BEASTMASTER is… not actually all that good, though it is fun. But anything was better than this, surely the laziest of the dozens of Hercules/Xena rip-offs that seemed to get made out of every fantasy franchise anyone could get their hands on.

Future The Young & The Restless player Daniel Goddard took over for Marc Singer as Dar, while a succession of model/actor beefcakes and pinups who’d never be heard from again (and also Isla Fischer) drifted through the surprising three complete seasons as various villagers, damsels and baddies. At least they had the presence of mind to get Grace Jones for one episode.

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Image of Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.