by Sarah Marshall and Michael Magnes
Sarah Marshall: I’m not especially proud of any of the hobbies I used to waste my free time, but perhaps the most inexplicable is my fondness for watching compilations of old TV themes on YouTube. As a general rule, I love all sludgy runoff of pop culture past and present, and the themes to failed 80s TV shows provide its most potent concentration: the montages, the glittery synth music, the streetwise detectives running on the beach in tiny shorts. I vacillate between feeling ashamed of how many no-name actors I routinely recognize, and feeling that I’m spending my leisure time in exactly the right way.
Michael Magnes: It’s oddly thrilling to watch, say, Bryan Cranston, as a twenty-something playing a thug on “The Flash,” or Anna Gunn, face showing the barest hint of the Skyler White rictus, going down to the Jersey Shore on the imaginatively named “Down to the Shore,” and then to watch them on a critically-acclaimed prestige drama. It’s like finding porn in your father’s closet. Or finding out that he was a porn star. Or finding out that he was human. If celebrities are our gods then these are their humble beginnings.
So, in that spirit, here are seventeen of our favorite TV themes from the 80s — the ones that led us to feel the most confusion, amusement, and fear (ideally all at once).
1. “Hello, Larry!”: Before “Frasier” And “Portlandia”
Sarah: Watching TV theme compilations has exposed us to some gems, including the deeply terrifying “We Got It Made,” the apparently chess-based “ It’s Your Move” (described by the good soul who uploaded the theme as “perhaps Jason Bateman’s best TV work”), and my all-time favorite, “Hello, Larry!” — the theme for which convinced us to watch actual episodes, God help us.
Michael: McLean Stevenson left “M*A*S*H” to star in this, one of the biggest turds on American television ever. “Hello, Larry!” is a sitcom about a guy who lives in Portland, Oregon: The song would have us believe that he lives in Portland because he’s a miserable, divorced failure. Comedy in motion! Beats the rape jokes on Chuck Lorre shows, though.
Maybe Larry was really the original hipster. In some ways he was. McLean Stevenson left the most popular TV show in existence to star in a sitcom about a newly divorced, radio shrink man raising his daughters. I know, I know. A radio shrink in the Pacific Northwest? That’ll never work! Ever! Not even if they do an episode where the hoity-toity radio shrinks bonds with his working-class cop father by watching “Antiques Roadshow.”
In season one Larry had a morbidly obese sound engineer as his witless comedic foil, but producers replaced him in season two with Meadowlark Lemon of the Harlem Globetrotters. The theme song goes on to say, “You talk to people all day for a living, but all those easy answers you are giving — are you really living your life that way? Portland is a long way from L.A.” Get that tattooed on your face. You see kids, Larry is recently divorced and has to raise his kids, but he’s a miserable failure so he has to move to Portland. Portland in the 70s. Somehow I doubt there was any craft beer or Thai food. He was probably murdered by a serial killer after season 2. Just like the ending to “Frasier”!
When was the last time a TV theme song backhandedly insulted the town it was in? Any show that doesn’t take place in NY or L.A. normally takes some kind of perverse pride in its loser city status. Look at “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.” Nothing wrong there. Seems like a nice town. “Cheers” — who wouldn’t want to go to Boston if that’s the kind of bars they have? Or, uh, what’s another show that took place outside of New York or California. Uh… and didn’t have David Kelly involved. Oh, I don’t know, “Deep Space Nine.”
Sarah: I’m torn between taking offense at the characterization of Portland, my beloved home, as a city of failures, and vastly preferring that characterization to the one that Portland has now. Portland may now be crammed with free-range organ meats and redolent of rhubarb-sage compotes and oh God I can’t even finish this sentence because it’s the start to every lifestyle magazine article written about Portland in the last five years. But before Portland was a twee wonderland, it was the town where Mrs. LaVona Harding beat her daughter Tonya with a hairbrush as punishment for a lousy skating routine , the town where Bambi Bembenek limped into hospice care and D.B. Cooper boarded a 727 with an extortion plan so crazy it just had to work. So why can’t it also be the town where McLean Stevenson came to bask in obscurity — Portland! ha! — and milk some alleged humor out of his new hometown?
Michael: The point is that themes are supposed to make the location seem homey, comfortable, safe, an enjoyable place to stick around in, and not the armpit of America. People would have you think that this show never existed. No one talks about it. It’s not even on ION, and they play that episode of “Criminal Minds” where Jason Alexander is a serial killer all the time. “Hello, Larry”: ode to the terrible town, the show that television history wants to forget — but if we forget the sins of the past, we’ll just have more episodes of “2 Broke Girls.”
2. and 3. “Voyagers!” and “Cover Up!”: Have Prop Gun, Will Travel Through Time
Sarah: 80s TV themes also take you down some strange rabbit holes. When I stumbled across the opening for “Voyagers!”, a kind of proto-”Quantum Leap” that was canceled after only 20 episodes, I was immediately smitten. The show, which centers on professional time traveler Phineas Bogg and child history buff Jeffrey Jones, includes an episode in which the characters somehow interact with Cleopatra, Isaac Newton, and Babe Ruth, and another in which have to keep Princess Victoria from marrying a Russian duke (who for some reason has to win a shooting competition with Annie Oakley). I can’t help feeling that my childhood would have been vastly improved if the show had lasted for eight or nine seasons instead of one.
What I read more about the show’s star, however — the slightly Ryan O’Neal-esque Jon-Erik Hexum — was even stranger. This site has already delved into the glory that is Hexum, and you probably have to watch an episode of “Voyagers!” yourself to really understand how odd it is that the show wasn’t successful, boasting, as it did, a jodhpur-wearing, basso profondo Harry Hamlin knockoff. The real question, though, is why he wasn’t in anything else, and the bizarre answer is this: after “Voyagers!” was cancelled, Hexum starred on a new show, “Cover Up,” about a female fashion photographer (Jennifer O’Neill) who teams up with an ex-Green Beret (Hexum, of course), who goes undercover as a male model so they can fight crime together. (I know.) While filming the eighth episode of “Cover Up,” Hexum got bored between takes and fired a prop gun at his temple, accidentally killing himself when the force of the blank round propelled a quarter-sized piece of his skull into his brain. To make matters even stranger, his costar, Jennifer O’Neill, had accidentally shot herself the year before in her own home, while trying to find out if an illegally obtained handgun was loaded or not. (It was.) O’Neill, who also starred in David Cronenberg’s Scanners in 1981, has now been married nine times to eight husbands and currently runs a horse farm in Tennessee. You can’t make this stuff up.
Now, “Cover Up” is the kind of show whose actual premise is too insane to be topped by anything you might conjecture if you were just watching the theme blind, but other openings provide a little more room. Michael, for this next round, I’m going to play you some of the stranger and more wonderful themes I’ve come across, and let’s try to figure out what the show was about. (There are Wikipedia entries for an astonishing number of these failed shows, but where’s the fun in that?)
4. “Star of the Family” (1982): We Already Miss You, Jon-Erik Hexum
Sarah: So I’ll go first. My best guess: As you can tell from the horrifying jump-roping that starts a few seconds in, Michael Dudikoff plays Skippy, a burgeoning serial killer a la Patrick Bateman, for whom obsessive exercise is the only way of staving off homicidal urges. Brian Dennehy plays his long-suffering father, also the only one who knows Skippy’s secret: that he has already murdered three Linda Ronstadt-esque country/rock singers, and will undoubtedly kill again. This is bad news for Dennehy, whose beloved daughter Melinda is also trying to crack into the Ronstadt knockoff business. Every night he watches her on TV, comforted by the fact that she remains unharmed, but nonetheless helpless in his attempt to choose between his two children in a dilemma or Oresteian proportions.
5. “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (1982–1983): River Phoenix’s Finest Hour
Michael: Seventeen seconds into this and I’m confused. Sarah, what is? Is this a show about seven brothers marrying seven cows? Or are those buffalo? I’m from Long Island! I don’t know how animals work! Or marriage! Or if the sun revolves around the earth or the earth around the sun or a turtle or what.
Oh good. Now the lyrics come in and I’m watching a Tide commercial. Also there are clearly five brothers on horses. Not seven. Way to count.
Oh hey! Richard Dean Anderson (aka MacGyver) is one of the seven brothers (even though I only saw five) searching for seven brides, as the theme song tells us, and he’s riding a horse and not marrying a cow. I think.
Tim Topper as Evan. That is all.
So seven successful cattle ranchers are tired of having sex with their cows, and each other, so they’re looking for seven brides. They also like soft jazz. And Jeeps! They wrangle their cattle with Jeeps! That’s how farms work, right? With Jeeps!
“Dreaming, visions at night of the life they’ve planned” means dreaming of boning ladies and not each other, which is the sad reality of the seven brothers.
Sarah: Personally, I’m more intrigued by “Loving each other and living with pride.”
Michael: IT’S RIVER PHOENIX, EVERYBODY. AS GUTHRIE. I used to have a poster of River Phoenix up above my bed. You, know. The one of him in black and white and he’s soulfully playing the guitar. Playing probably “Polly” by Nirvana.
Oh hey, a lady. Man. I hope she’s not the only bride in the show. From what I can tell the brothers have to fight to the death to marry her.
Sarah: My personal theory about this show is that it depicts the seven sons of a couple of Broadway actors, who love “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” so much that they moved out west to try to make the story their reality, while also making the Wyoming theater scene something to write home about.
6. “Paper Dolls” (1984): Possibly The Greatest Show That Has Ever Existed
Sarah: My GOD, there’s a lot going on here. Let’s break down what we learn from these credits.
• This is a show about ladies who put lipstick on with A BRUSH! So, you know right way, they’re better than you.
• The show’s characters are not just beautiful but INTIMIDATING to you, middle-American woman aged 24–36, since they wear silver bat wings and pin all their hair directly above your foreheads. So you’d better watch, or they’ll make fun of you and your shitty Jordache jeans. (The characters on this show haven’t even heard of jeans.)
• Houston, we have Morgan Fairchild.
• And a tired Lloyd Bridges.
• “Introducing Nicollette Sheridan.” Riding a seashell to shore.
• One night, Zeus descended to the earth in the form of a thousand doves and mated with Morgan Fairchild. She gave birth to Jon-Erik Hexum, Nicollette Sheridan, and 50 Bonne Bell Lip Lites.
7. “Jennifer Slept Here” (1983–1984): Turns Out, Ghosts Only Sexy When Played By Patrick Swayze
Michael: Ah! Jesus. What a way to open a show. Floating eyes and the lyrics kicking in: “Hello!” This is terrifying. “It’s me!” Who? Who’s talking to me? “And only you can see me.” God. Where’s my Lexapro. I’m having an anxiety attack right now. “I just saw the most beautiful ghost in the world.” So, am I to understand this is a show about a man in love with a ghost? “And she slept here.” In my room! OH MY GOD! BURN IT DOWN!
The entire opening credits are rendered in artists’ sketches, not unlike police sketches. I’m not sure who the ghost is, but remember that scene in Ghostbusters where Dan Akyrod has sex with a ghost? Yeah. He insisted that be in it, probably.
I kind of want to watch every episode of this now.
8. “Murphy’s Law” (1988–1989): Not To Be Confused With “Murphy Brown”
Michael: Is George Segal a detective? Shouldn’t this show be about a lawyer and not a detective? This feels like a “Mad TV” parody of a TV show.
Sarah: I’m going to admit right here and now that, as a preteen, I harbored a vague crush on George Segal. So I wish I could settle in with a tape of “Murphy’s Law,” which makes the interesting choice of exploring the sexual tension between George Segal (already fairly old and somewhat portly) and a beautiful, much younger Asian-American woman. Segal looks like he plays a slightly sleazy Times Square talent agent who makes most of his money off peep shows. Meanwhile, from what I can surmise, actress Maggie Han plays a beautiful spy who takes a job in Segal’s peep show in order to escape surveillance from her old bosses at SMERSH. Josh Mostel obviously plays one of a host of Newman impersonators employed by George Segal’s Rent-a-Newman business (for work! play! or home!), “Hello, Newman!”
A fun fact about Maggie Han, per her Wikipedia page: “At the age of 16, Han enrolled at Harvard University. Upon the suggestion of a stranger, she contacted a local modeling agency and began working part time. When she was offered more jobs than she could handle, Han decided to pursue modeling as a full-time career. Partway into her sophomore year, Han went to Paris and modeled for six years. When she returned to America, she went back to Harvard to finish her studies.” If anyone could have saved Jon-Erik Hexum from his own idiocy, it was Maggie Han. Also, imagine their children.
9. “Lady Blue” (1985–1986): Post-”Falcon Crest”
Sarah: One of the many 70s and 80s gimmick shows in which the protagonist being a lady and a cop was enough of a gimmick by itself. (Actually, this is still pretty much the case.) Obviously, this show was built around the premise of a strong “will they or won’t they?” vibe between Jamie Rose of “Falcon Crest” and Danny Aiello, and was immediately canceled when the showrunners realized that Danny Aiello is in fact an asexual organism.
10. “Raising Miranda” (1988): Walter White In LA Gear
Michael: It’s Bryan Cranston (as Russell) and he has a mullet, bad stubble, and a sleeveless shirt. It looks like he plays a wacky neighbor or something in this one. Two people are raising Miranda, but we don’t care about them. Maybe this is where it all started. Maybe this is where Bryan became the one who knocked. Maybe it’s about him murdering a family. I mean. Look at that smile.
11. “Hometown” (1985): Thirtysomething… Or Something
Michael: Remember when every show was “Thirtyomething” — you know, about rich white people having problems about what to serve at dinner or something? Yeah. Me neither. But it’s Jane Kaczamarek, aka the mom from “Malcolm in the Middle,” as a rich white lady! These people really like their hometown. There’s nothing ethnic about it! The synth music and rocking smooth guitar riffs are super sweet, bro.
Sarah: Truth: I love “Thirtysomething.” For me there are few things more comforting than spending ten minutes watching Peter Horton, aka Bicycle Guy from Singles, attempt to pick up a woman in a hardware store. Throw in Ken Olin babbling about his integrity and I am THERE, baby.
12. “Crime Story” (1987–1989): All You Need Is Farina
Sarah: Oh, Dennis Farina. Why is it that no matter how many terrible TV shows and movies you appear in I can feel no animosity toward you — even after you had the temerity to replace Jerry Orbach on “Law & Order.” You’re just there, with your Chicago accent and your vaguely perturbed expressions and your vaguely stylish ties. You make anything you’re in at least somewhat watchable. From whence does the Farina magic spring? Only science can tell us.
That said, “Crime Story” actually looks amazing. Based on the theme song and the number of hats present, I’m assuming it takes place in Las Vegas in the 50’s, and stars Farina as a hardnosed dick (God, it was nice to have an excuse to write that) who just wants to keep the city safe. I imagine there are a lot of voiceovers about scum and a lot of time spent staring jadedly at the headless corpse of a topless dancer (though probably not the topless corpse of a headless dancer). Of course, it seems equally possible that Farina plays a mobster, but do 50s mobsters wear hats and look quite so beleaguered? I have so many questions. He also spends large portions of the opening credits running around, which suggests that the show was yanked form the air when his heart just couldn’t take it anymore.
Mainly, though, I’m obsessed with the fact that “Crime Story” costars Stephen Lang, whom you may remember as the vaguely Brad Dourif-esque actor who played scumbag tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds in the movie Manhunter, in which Farina also starred. Does “Crime Story” finally see the fruition of their chemistry? Does Stephen Lang play Dennis Farina’s therapist — a sexier Dr. Melfi? If Dennis Farina is a mobster, does he cry about ducks? Does he have a showgirl confidante? Is the Kennedy assassination somehow worked in? Above all, why isn’t “Crime Story” still on?
13. “Call to Glory” (1984–1985): Oh, Gabriel Damon
Michael: Top Gun will be a popular movie in two years so here’s Craig T. Nelson flying a plane. I’m pretty sure that’s why this show exists. Or maybe it’s shameless baby boomer nostalgia because LOOK! KENNEDY! THE COLD WAR! CASTRO! LIFE WAS WEIRD! But it’s okay because Elisabeth Shue will save us by brushing back her hair and before you know it, an old man with a silly moustache winks at you and the opening is over. Thank God!
Sarah: This show also featured Gabriel Damon, who would one day play Spot Conlon in Newsies, and remained the love of my life. Seeing him as a small child in this show is somewhat troubling for me.
14. “Everything’s Relative” (1987): Serenity Now!
Sarah: While in a fugue state, George Costanza sublets a Larry and Balki’s apartment and moves in with a feckless bodybuilder to whom he finds himself disturbingly attracted. He dampens his urges by convincing himself that the bodybuilder is a younger brother kept secret from him by Frank and Estelle. The series ends when George can no longer deny his urges and drowns himself with the Waterpik.
15. “Whiz Kids” (1983–1984): Nerds Like Us!
Michael: INT. Computer nerd is sitting at desk. He is typing. He is a nerd because he has glasses on and no tan because he is a nerd and never leaves the house. Did we mention that he’s a nerd? Zoom in on the computer and show us scenes of the show. He also makes polygons fly out of his computer and kill his fish, or something. And he’s a magician. He watches men in their underwear. Show flashing lights and his glasses again because he’s a nerd. And then… wait a minute. …. Melanie Griffith?
Sarah: It might be Melanie Gaffin, but it’s hard to tell with the fabulous Casio font they’re using.
Never mind her! Girls are icky! Back to the computer and the floppy disks! And more polygons in his fishtank. He’s a nerd. Pan over computers. He has more than one. He’s a nerd. Make him smile. He’s a nerd. Now, make sure you get the tinniest synthlike music you can, and make it sound like a robotic humming bird fluttering over a daisy. End scene.
Sarah: If anyone happens to have a tape of this, they should probably send it to me.
16. “A Year in the Life” (1987–1988): The Triumph of Vague Nostalgia
Sarah: A year in the life what, Adam Arkin? Is the sad music playing because Sarah Jessica Parker is in this? Are these people all dead? Is this an episode of “Lost”? WHAT ARE THEY IN A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF? Why are they playing touch football? I DON’T KNOW! I CAN SEE THEIR MOUTHS MOVING BUT THERE ARE NO WORDS BECAUSE OF THE FUNERAL MUSIC PLAYING OVER EVERYTHING. Anyone who watched this probably killed himself. This show was a suicide meme.
17. “Hell Town” (1984): Robert Blake Will Never Not Be Terrifying
Michael: Robert Blake is a priest in a tough inner city, but there are goats and nuns wearing overalls. This is one confused television. Okay. So, he’s getting ready to enter the fray in the big bad city and he tells God, his fourth best friend, “Already heavenly father, let us go among them.” What is this music? Like a conga line? Is this an episode of “Treme”? They won’t bow down! Not even to Robert Blake! They don’t know how! His coat does everything! It keeps him warm. Puts out fires. Robert Blake has always looked like a serial killer, hasn’t he? Whitman Mayo and Jeff Corey are… in a field… with a goat… in the inner city… in Hell Town… Oh God. 44 seconds into it and Robert Blake has the most smug look on his face as he sits between a nun and a guy in a suit. Robert Blake chastises a cat and then prays by a cow’s ass. He’s a tough guy cause Hell Town is a tough place and he drinks beer and plays pool and sings with nuns and uh… goats? There are a lot of goats in Hell Town. Remind me not to visit.
Sarah: Further research reveals that Sammy Davis, Jr. sang the theme song, which makes me incredibly sad.
80s TV Shows We Wish Existed
Sarah: So in my excavation of 80s TV themes, I was sorry not to encounter certain scenarios that seem to me to be TV gold, and just as able to get on the air as Voyagers! Some of my ideas, should I ever have the opportunity to go back in time: A sitcom about struggling figure skaters touring with the Ice Capades, a la “It’s a Living” (and probably also featuring Ann Jillian); a slasher-inspired miniseries like “American Horror Story,” but produced in 1982 and therefore way better (and starring Brad Dourif as the sensitive English teacher at Slaughter High, Lisa Whelchel as a stuck-up cheerleader, Kirk Cameron as the class clown, and Keith Gordon as AV Club Pete); and a “Hello, Larry!- inspired sitcom called “Hello, Nixon!” about Tricky Dick opening a piano bar in the California desert after resigning, hiring Julie and Tricia as waitresses, and summarizing the episode’s events each night with a song.
Michael: A sitcom starring Bryan Cranston as a cartoonist, who made a Where’s Waldo-type book,called Here’s Waldo. A show about a talking dog who solves mysteries in his spare time after being a fortune teller in a traveling carnival, but the dog also has anger management issues and has to see a carnival mandated therapist who is a cat. Title: Barking Mad.
Sarah: I can’t tell which are weirder: the shows that didn’t get made or the shows that did. To wit, how many of these movie spinoffs have you actually heard of?
“Working Girl” (starring Sandra Bullock); “9 to 5” (featuring the flawlessly named Peter Bonerz); “Ferris Bueller (whose opening featured Charlie Schlatter, the new Ferris, chainsawing a standee of Matthew Broderick and generally appearing vaguely sociopathic; also, Jennifer Aniston); the live action AND animated “Police Academy”shows; “Baby Boom”; “RoboCop”; and “Dirty Dancing” (which I would cut my own arms off in order to own on DVD).
I mean, if those exist, then why not these ones?
A sitcom version of Amadeus (featuring Jeffrey Tambor as Salieri and Charlie Schlatter as Mozart), “Young Guns” (featuring the movie’s entire original cast, because they didn’t have anything better to do), and “Escape from New York” (featuring Ann Jillian as Maggie and Meadowlark Lemon as the Duke).
Michael: Let’s not forget Citizen Kane remade entirely with the Muppets.
Sarah: And then there are the actors who didn’t quite survive the eighties — career-wise or otherwise-wise, and who really should have been in everything: for my money, the list includes Ann Jillian, Stephen Lang, Dack Rambo, Maggie Han, Robert Urich, Peter Bonerz, and Jon-Erik Hexum (farewell, sweet prince).
Michael: Don’t forget about Tim Topper. I love him.
Sarah: Maggie Han, if you’re out there, we love you, and we want you to come back.
Sarah Marshall and Michael Magnes are the co-creators of an imaginary TV show called “LadyCop,” which stars Nick Nolte in a blond wig as a lady and a cop, who’s sometimes so busy being a cop he forgets how to be a lady. Aw, hell.