In a classic episode of The Simpsons, a beaming Troy McClure introduces three new Fox shows set in the Springfield universe. “Spin-off!” he shouts. “Is there any word more thrilling to the human soul?” What follows are some of the most hopeless TV pilots you’ve ever seen: the New Orleans crime drama Chief Wiggum, P.I.; the supernatural comedy The Love-Matic Grampa; and The Simpson Family Smile-Time Variety Hour, based on a similar experiment/horror show involving The Brady Bunch. They’re all hilariously worse than you can imagine, though completely plausible in the age of the three major networks.
Spin-offs have since become somewhat more acceptable, in part because there have been so many of them, both in film and TV. Some of them had to be good. But one relic of the late twentieth century whose reputation may never be rehabilitated is the made-for-TV movie, an equally cynical example of pop culture debris. Ubiquitous, cheaply made, heavily advertised then quickly forgotten, the TV movie reached its peak in the mid-’90s, when over 250 were released by the major networks in a single year. Many were failed TV pilots filling in the slots amid the summer reruns. Some were sequels that no one asked for (High Noon, Part II, anyone?). But most of them were mysteries, family dramedies, or issue-of-the-day dramas. I remember, for example, a very serious movie about child abuse with the unbelievably creepy title Do You Know the Muffin Man? To advertise the movie, CBS asked its NFL announcers to mention it during the Sunday game. So, during timeouts and commercial breaks, the announcers repeated that ridiculous title over and over until you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Every once in a while, someone at the network would talk the bigwigs into making a science fiction or fantasy film. And the results were often worthy of a Troy McClure-hosted special. Before the SyFy Network perfected the over-the-top parody of the genre with the Sharknado series, high-concept TV movies often had huge ambitions and an infinite advertising budget, since the network could pump out commercials for them all day. But the actual, ya know, film budget was often missing. You could stare at a single frame of one of these movies and instantly know that it was never released on a large screen. That’s why something like Game of Thrones, even at its most flawed, seemed downright miraculous to my generation.
How these films were made continues to baffle me. In some ways, they represent the hubris of the networks. The executives seem to be saying, “We’ll make a half-ass superhero kinda movie and our viewers will watch because they have no choice. What’re they gonna do, read a book?” But, as we’ll see in the list I’ve compiled, there is a Wild West quality to them, especially when compared with more modern made-for-streaming content. Someone, at some point, talked their way into making these films, and a board of old men approved them somehow, and now they exist for us to ponder. There were no rules beyond getting the audience to the next commercial break. There were even fewer expectations.
So here, for your consideration, are a few of the strangest, SFF-adjacent examples from the Golden Age of the TV Movie…
Not to be confused with the prematurely canceled ’90s cartoon of the same name, Gargoyles starred B-movie tough guy Cornel Wilde (from The Naked Prey). The opening voiceover raises the stakes pretty high: In the aftermath of the war between God and Satan, a race of creatures climbs out of hell to terrorize mankind every few centuries. In the modern age, the gargoyles are relegated to myth and statues, leaving humans completely unprepared for their next onslaught.
Whoa. That sounds serious. Until you notice that the gargoyles reemerge in a desert that is surely within driving distance of the studio. And it takes only a handful of armed townsfolk to quell the apocalyptic uprising. But those minor details aside, this movie remains a guilty pleasure for my generation, in part because of the Emmy-winning makeup wizardry of Stan Winston. The gargoyles aren’t that scary, but they look pretty darn cool, and some of them even fly. And by “fly,” I mean “slowly lift off the ground with a barely concealed cable.”
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1980)
This adaptation of Washington Irving’s story was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program, and continued to be played in reruns for years after its release. The commercials always promised something that might have some adventure, if not outright horror. After all, the Disney short features a climactic chase sequence that would give most kids nightmares. But the live-action 1980 version is essentially a sitcom romance with a very brief mystery tacked on about who the Headless Horseman might be. Is the nocturnal demon a real ghost, or someone in the village spreading mischief? Who cares, when you can spend two hours (with many commercials) with a young, handsome Jeff Goldblum in the role of Ichabod Crane?
Also, IMDb informs me that the original broadcast was hosted by Steve Allen and Gary Coleman (as seen above), who performed comedy skits during the commercial breaks. Having never seen any of that, I will confidently say it was the worst thing ever filmed.
Knight Rider 2000 (1991)
Here we have a both an unnecessary sequel and a failed pilot. The popular Knight Rider, about a crime fighter and his supercar K.I.T.T., had been off the air for five years by the time this futuristic reboot came out. No one can blame the network for trying to get some more life out of a fun franchise. But golly, this one is odd. It makes the mistake common in so many late ’80s/early ’90s movies: it assumes that the year 2000 would be wildly different, despite being only a few years away at that point. In this world, handguns are banned(!), Dan Quayle is President(!), and convicted criminals serve their sentences in a cryogenic freeze(!?!).
To be fair, the garish redesign of the iconic K.I.T.T. has a tasteless, early aughts feel to it, so they got at least one prediction right. Plus, they brought William Daniels back, whose voicework was always the real star of the show. Despite decent ratings, this did not spawn a new series. Hasselhoff hands over the keys to a new set of heroes, but we would not see Knight Rider again until a new reboot in 1997 (and yet another in 2008).
The Birds II: Land’s End (1994)
Go ahead and squint at the title. No, you’re thinking. No, they couldn’t have. Oh yes, Showtime did in fact release a TV-movie sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s chilling, unprecedented 1963 masterpiece.
There is a strange art to making a sequel to a movie released many years earlier. Sometimes it involves bringing the hero back for one more ride. Sometimes it involves passing a torch. In the cases of 2010 (1985) or HBO’s Watchmen (2019), it involves asking serious questions about what the world would look like years or even decades after the monumental events of the first story.
Birds II isn’t interested in any of that. It’s got Birds in the title, so it’s got birds flapping around causing mayhem and pecking people’s eyes out. Tippi Hedren, who played the protagonist in the first film, appears as a mere side character(!) in this one. Like, what? WHAT? Not surprisingly, she was deeply embarrassed by her involvement in the project, as was director Rick Rosenthal, who removed his name. So good luck finding a copy of Alan Smithee’s Birds II.
Fail Safe (2000)
The original Fail Safe, based on the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, and directed in stark black and white by Sidney Lumet, could be described as a deadly serious version of Dr. Strangelove. (The resemblance is so strong in fact that Strangelove’s director, Stanley Kubrick, filed a lawsuit alleging copyright infringement, which was settled out of court.) Released in the same year as Kubrick’s satire, Fail Safe walks us through the terrifying consequences of a nuclear bomber squadron acting on erroneous orders to attack Moscow. Most of the action is confined to claustrophobic war rooms, as the President and other government officials try to order the planes back, while assuring the Soviets that this is not a deliberate act of war.
The decision to remake Fail Safe in 2000 was already a strange choice, given the end of the Cold War and the optimism (at the time anyway) for better relations with Russia. But producer George Clooney, who also stars as the misled bomber pilot, had even higher ambitions. Fail Safe would be the first live teleplay broadcast in nearly 40 years. With multiple cameras and a ’60s-style black and white palette, the new version would mimic the tension and despair of the old. And it would feature an equally talented cast, including Richard Dreyfuss and Harvey Keitel.
The reviews of this film are more accurately described as “confused” than mixed. Everyone seemed to agree that the performances were great, the tone was consistent, the sets were ominous. But the collective response seemed to be something like: “Okay…but why?” Why did this need to remade, why did this need to be shot live? I feel bad dismissing such a marvel of theater and technology, but I find myself asking the same question. But…why?
The 100 Lives of Black Jack Savage (1991)
Truth be told, The 100 Lives of Black Jack Savage is the reason I wanted to write this article. It’s out of order chronologically, but when I explain the premise to you, you’ll understand why I had to save it for last.
So, the premise. Hoo boy… There’s this guy named Barry, a con artist who is on the run from the law. He escapes to the fictional Caribbean island of San Pietro, which is ruled by a thoroughly crooked governor-general. Barry takes over a castle that is haunted by the ghost of a pirate named Black Jack Savage. Jack has been cursed, and if he attempts to leave the castle, a horde of demons called snarks will drag his soul to hell. The only way to break the curse is for Jack to save a total of one hundred lives, which will make up for the crimes he committed in life.
Oh, we’re only halfway through this: Barry learns that he faces a similar fate in the afterlife, and so he and Jack must join forces to right the wrongs they’ve committed. And what’s the best way to do that? Well, Barry will use a superpowered Blackbird speedboat to fight crime, while wearing a pirate costume. Oh, and Barry’s friend Logan will build a Ghostbusters-style machine that will hold off the snarks so Jack can join him on his adventures.
What the hell did I just type?
Black Jack Savage was part of The Wonderful World of Disney program, and it led to a very short-lived series. One very satisfying thing about each episode was the life counter, which would show how many lives were left for Barry and Jack to save. But because of its confused tone, the series had trouble finding an audience beyond a thirteen-year-old me. It ended after seven episodes, and with 89 lives still left on the counter. Sorry, Jack.
Note: This trailer is the intro from the TV show. You know how I know? Because they switched out the actors who played Jack. You know why I know? Because I’ve wasted my life on pop culture nonsense.
Please, share with us in the comments the TV movies that still plague your memories. Bonus points if the relentless commercials promised something as exciting as Star Wars, but the end result felt more like a knockoff Atari 2600 game.
Robert Repino (@Repino1) grew up in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. After serving in the Peace Corps in Grenada, he earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College. He works as an editor for Oxford University Press, and occasionally teaches for the Gotham Writers Workshop. Repino is the author of the middle grade novel Spark and the League of Ursus (Quirk Books), as well as the War With No Name series (Soho Press), which includes Mort(e), Culdesac, D’Arc, and Malefactor.