The 1991/1992 Primetime TV Season: 'Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventures'

Post by: Rick Ellis 02 September, 2021

In the summer of 1992, having your TV series debut in late June was not exactly a vote of confidence from the network about the viability of the show. This was still the era of summer burn-offs and despite the fact that it was based on a hit movie, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventures only aired seven episodes on Fox before it was canceled in early August.

The success of the 1989 movie Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure spawned related merchandise, a follow-up movie and a 1990 animated series with the same name that ran for two seasons. Season one was produced by Hanna Barbara and aired Saturday mornings on CBS. Bill & Ted stars Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter and George Carlin voiced the show during its premiere season, but for season two, the show moved to Fox Kids and changed production companies. The voices changed as well, with Reeves and Winter being replaced by Evan Richards and Christopher Kennedy, who were also tasked with starring in a planned live Fox TV series that was originally planned to premiere early in the 1991/1992 primetime season.

But there were problems, in part because Fox executives struggled to find a premise they liked. The original movie was written by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon and they were briefly spoken to about the proposed series. But as Solomon recently told me, the network apparently didn't have much interest in hearing any pitch from the duo. 

"We met with Fox but they never wanted us. Ever," explained Solomon. "They wanted Savage Steve Holland, who was hot at the time. And Darren Star (Beverly Hills 90210). So we never pitched. We just had one lunch where all I remember is saying 'well you obviously don’t want blah blah blah (can’t recall)' and they said 'yes! That’s exactly what we want!' They used that meeting as their obligatory meeting with us and we never heard from them again. I watched five minutes of the first show and never watched any more. It was a heartbreak. They completely - absolutely - misunderstood the characters from the core."

While I wasn't able to speak to either Holland or Star, the duo was signed to do a series pilot, with a story by Savage Steve Holland & Darren Star and a teleplay by Star. Directed by Andy Tennant, the pilot comes across like a bad tribute to "Porky's," albeit without the grossness or the wit. It's not clear now precisely what happened, but Clifton Campbell was brought in to run the show.

In this 1992 interview with Starlog Magazine, Campbell explained that there were some problems that held up the production of the series and he also rewrote history a bit:

"But by that time, the second Bill & Ted movie was coming out, and a clause in the contracts said the TV series couldn't go until Bogus Journey made a certain amount of money. Bogus Journey then came out and didn't do the business everybody hoped for, and that delayed things even more. Finally, with the episodes completed. Fox gave us a summer slot."

In the interview, Campbell also said he tweaked the premise of the movie to make it better fit a television series format:

"We felt that having Bill and Ted go back and forth in time each week would get stale. So, while we knew we had to keep the phone booth and some time- travel element, we also knew that we had to challenge that aspect. So, we played around with things a little bit. In one episode, we took them into 1 another dimension and into a cable TV system. In another, we shrunk Ted down to the size of a raisin. 

It's difficult to do a series where the lead characters don't grow or have an evolving arc. Bill and Ted stay Bill and Ted, so the challenge in creating scripts was to come up with stories that were wrapped around incidents they bump into in their everyday lives. The idea was that Bill and Ted are basically fish out of water, dealing with things that don't make sense to them. For example, we had one episode in which Bill and Ted were having trouble meeting girls, and they use the phone booth to bring Casa- nova into the present to watch how he handled the problem."

While Campbell admitted that some episodes were better than others, he said his favorite was an episode entitled "Totally Wonderful Life" (the episode is posted below) and looking at the episode in 2021, it's an interesting alternative look (although a pretty painful one to watch) at the future grown-up lives of Bill & Ted, which was also the starting off point for the 2020 feature film Bill & Ted Face The Music, written by Matheson and Solomon:

In that episode, Rufus awakens from a nightmare in which something has gone terribly wrong. He time-travels back to find that Bill and Ted have messed up. and the result is that Ted's father separates them permanently. Rufus returns to an awful future stemming from that past separation. He once again returns to the past, specifically six years after the separation, and witnesses Bill and Ted attempting to live their lives on their own.

"It was probably the most ambitious thing we did," Campbell notes. "The episode essentially looked at the legend of Bill and Ted, and it forced us to deal with three different levels of reality: The present, six years into the future and the distant future. Believe me, that's a lot to cram into 21 minutes."

Looking at the episodes now, it's easy to see why the network didn't have a lot of faith in the series. Evan Richards (as Bill S. Preston Esq.) and Christopher Kennedy (Ted Logan) are workmanlike as Bill & Ted, but they come off more as actors doing Bill & Ted cosplay.  They kinda look like Reeves and Winter and thanks to the animated series were familiar with the roles. Although watching the episodes, I'm not sure that's enough to make it work. And while Rick Overton was a funny stand-up, being cast as Rufus - a role played by George Carlin in the films - borders on a crime against nature.

But the biggest problem with the show is that it completely misunderstands what made the movies so delightful. It isn't just that the characters in the TV series are different than the ones seen in the movies. It's that they are altered in a way that is different and also less interesting. A creative decision which ultimately didn't please anyone.

Maybe the most interesting thing about the show is the quality of people working behind the cameras. Clifton Campbell had previously worked on Wiseguy and went on to work on Seaquest 2032ProfilerWhite CollarThe Glades and Sleepy Hollow. David Nutter (The X-FilesEntourageGame Of Thrones) directed two episodes. Joel Surnow (24Le Femme NikitaThe Commish) wrote an episode and was a co-executive producer on the show. Clearly, the staff had lots of talent, but Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventures is one of those ideas that doesn't seem to have real reason to exist other than its connection to the movie franchise. And without the familiar cast and original creative vision, not all of the raw talent in the world could have made the show a hit.


Last modified on Thursday, 02 September 2021 22:30