One Season TV
When people share their memories of MTV, one of the most common complaints is that "MTV doesn't play music videos anymore." While that is a true observation, it is also true that once MTV became a cultural phenomena and (more importantly) a cash-printing machine, its fate was sealed. MTV depended on easy access to the latest music videos and the hottest acts. And once music labels got over their shock about the growth of MTV, they realized they had all of the leverage. MTV ultimately needed the music labels more than the labels needed MTV.
So by the early 1990s, the labels were already playing hardball with MTV. Demanding fees for access to the latest hot videos, setting conditions on how their acts could be covered and the shape of potential interviews. It was clear to MTV executives that relying on a steady stream of music videos would be a mistake. So the rush was on to create original programming and while most of the networks efforts focused on game shows and reality programs, MTV did experiment with several original scripted programs. Most notably, the criminally forgotten Dead At 21.
Created by newcomer Jon Sherman, the series centered on the story of 20-year-old Ed Bellamy (Jack Noseworthy), who discovers that he was experimented on as a child. Microchips were implanted in his brain that made him a genius. The downside is that the chips will kill him when he's 21. Oh, and the people who experimented on him are terminating the project and now want him dead. So he's on the run, accompanied by his friend Maria (Lisa Dean Ryan). To make matters worse, he's framed for murder and is now being pursued by not only by the police, but by the mysterious hitman Agent Winston (Whip Hubley). Ed and Maria travel across the country, searching for the mysterious Dr. Heisenberg, who might be the only person able to save the teen's life.
Ryan and Hubley were by far the best-known actors on the show, with Ryan having just come off of stints on Doogie Howser, M.D. and Class Of '96 and Hubley coming off of the drama Life Goes On. But the cast also included Adam Scott in his first television role, playing Dan, a fellow genius who is murdered in the pilot. And let's not forget David DeLuise (Jesse, 3rd Rock From The Sun, Wizards Of Waverly Place), and Patricia Healy (Days Of Our Lives, Port Charles, Profiler)
Dead At 21 isn't a perfect show. Some of the dialogue can be clunky and the relatively small budget for the show is sometimes obvious. But overall, the series is well-acted and the half-hour episodes move along at a properly frantic clip. As is befitting a MTV series, the episodes are jammed with contemporary music, ranging from Guns N Roses to Nirvana. And that music-heavy soundtrack is likely the reason why the series has never been released on DVD and isn't even available on YouTube.
I've included the pilot episode below from an unlisted YouTube page, but there's no guarantee it will last long.
M.A.N.T.I.S. aired on Fox over the 1994-1995 season and it was a unique effort for broadcast television. The series was created by Sam Raimi and Sam Hamm, who had some impressive credentials coming into the effort. Raimi was just coming off of "Darkman" and "Army Of Darkness" while Hamm's most recent work included the co-writing the screenplay for Tim Burton's "Batman" and story for "Batman Returns."
On the face of it, the M.A.N.T.I.S. origin story owes more than a bit to the well-known tale of Tony Stark and Iron Man. In this version, Carl Lumbly played Miles Hawkins, a mild-mannered yet wealthy doctor who was shot and paralyzed during a riot. Bitter about his paralysis and the police's role in the riot, Hawkins creates an exoskeleton (Mechanically Augmented Neuro Transmitter Interception System) that allows him to not just walk, but perform superhuman feats. He builds a secret underwater lair and a space-age hovercraft to aid in his fight against evil. The two-hour pilot was directed by "X-Files" alumni David Nutter and was a sleek and fun action romp. But even more importantly, it was an action movie starring an African-American lead at a time when many in the industry still believed that audiences would never support a drama helmed by a non-white actor. Even more amazing, the ensemble was also African-American.
But the series quickly ran into problems. The show was completely revamped after the pilot. The pilot had featured Gina Torres as a pathologist, Bobby Hosea as a reporter trying to cover the story of the M.A.N.T.I.S., and Wendy Raquel Robinson and Christopher M. Brown as a pair of African students studying under Hawkins. Every major character save Hawkins was replaced for the series, with the not-so-black Roger Rees and Christopher Gartin joining the cast. The show pretended as if the storyline of the movie had never happened.
The series struggled from the beginning to find an audience despite being the lead-in on Fridays for The X-Files. Most of the episodes in the first half of the run centered around some variation of Hawkins using his suit to perform some rescue or other act of vigilantism. There was also an on-going battle with industrialist Solomon Box, who wanted control of the M.A.N.T.I.S. technology for his own evil purposes. But the show was retooled again in mid-season to make it more compatible with The X-Files and the new direction added all sorts of weird themes, including time travel, parallel universes and mysterious monsters. The season ended with Hawkins appearing to be killed off by (I am not kidding), an invisible dinosaur.
M.A.N.T.I.S. might not have been a great show, but it should be remembered for being one the show that brought the first African-American superhero to primetime television.
NOTE: If you're interested in seeing M.A.N.T.I.S., the entire series is available on Amazon Prime Video.
The 1960s and early 1970s were the golden age of television shows built around truly insane concepts. A mother reincarnated inside a car (My Mother The Car), a comedy set inside a German WWII prisoner-of-war camp (Hogan's Heroes), a show about a group of inept calvarymen and the Native Americans who cheat and trick them (F-Troop). That type of television has mostly fell out of favor by the 1990s, but briefly resurfaced later in the decade with shows such as The Secret Diary Of Desmond Pfeiffer and the 1996 short-lived CBS comedy Thanks.
Thanks was created by Phoef Sutton and Mark Legan, both of whom had impressive TV credits. Legan was just coming off of stints on Dave's World and Grace Under Fire. And Sutton had previously worked on Bob and Cheers. So if anyone could pull off a comedy about the Puritans settling in America, these two guys could do it. And having watched all six episodes recently, the resulting show has some brilliant moments. But I also have a feeling that there was some network pushback about the execution, because there is definitely a shift in tone after episode four.
The series begins with the Pilgrim's first spring in the New World. There has been more snow and a lot less food than they had expected and a lot of the humor is based around the hunger and the group's puritan ways. Mark Dutton plays James Winthrop, who runs the local general store with his wife Polly (Kirsten Nelson). They have three children - Abigail (Erika Christensen), Elizabeth (Amy Centner) and William (Andrew Ducote). The family also includes James's mother Grammy Winthrop (played by Cloris Leachman). Jim Rash plays John Cotton, the self-described "village idiot," and the role feels as if it was originally written for Chris Elliott.
There are a couple of running jokes in the first group of episodes, including one involving a long-winded, the very religious Reverend Goodacre (Keith Szarabajka) who sees the hand of the devil in even the most everyday activities. There are lots of jokes about potential sinful behavior and the hypocritical behavior of the townspeople. When confronted with tobacco for the first time, the magistrate suggests it must be a sin and should be abolished. "But shouldn't we try something before we say it's a sin?," asks someone. "We never have before now," he replies. People are thrown into the stocks for dancing and in one episode Elizabeth is thrown into the stocks for seemingly predicting a future that sounds a lot like our modern-day lives.
In fact, ten-year old Elizabeth is part of one of the most consistent running gags in the show. She is constantly suggesting better ways of doing things or wondering out loud whether the world might someday change in an unexpected way. When examining the incredibly small carrots the villagers grew in their first harvest, she wonders out loud if someday someone might be able to sell the wee carrots for extra money by claiming that they are "gourmet." "Marketing," she explains to her father. "It's all about the marketing."
Cloris Leachman doesn't have much to do in the first couple of episodes, but episode three has her lobbying for her own room and it gives her a chance to show off her impressive ability to chew up scenery and deliver a punchline. She's also the center of episode five, in which she falls for a traveling salesman played by Orson Bean. That episode might have the funniest line in the series: "My mother always told me, you don't buy a mule before you ride it."
Episode six is the final episode and it is probably also the most consistent. Viewers are finally introduced to the local Native American tribe, who teaches them how to grow crops and catch turkeys. The episode ends with a Thanksgiving meal and a bunch of jokes that mock the impact the Pilgrims would eventually have on this new world (or at least, a world that is new to them).
The episodes do take a bit of a shift in tone midway through the season. A lot of the jokes about sinful behavior and the stocks go away, which makes me suspect that the network was concerned some viewers might be offended by the light-hearted mocking of religion. Regardless, Thanks has some funny moments and I suspect if it had received a longer episode order (and hadn't been burned off in August), it might have survived and lasted several seasons.
Several of the cast later had memorable roles in other television shows. A decade later, Jim Rash played Dean Craig Pelton on the NBC sitcom Community. Kirsten Nelson went on to play police chief Karen Vick on Psych and Erika Christensen has appeared in a number of movies and television shows, ranging from Traffic to the character Julia Braverman-Graham on Parenthood.
The entire premiere episode of the show is posted below and you can click here for an episode guide for the series.