Television failure is in the eye of the beholder: That’s the chief service performed by the cable channel Trio’s ”FLOPS!” series, which is spending June showcasing notable commercial miscalculations in TV and movies and on stage. The project is summarized by the channel’s new documentary Flops 101: Lessons From the Biz, which examines everything from Darren Star’s weak 1995 soap opera ”Central Park West” to Elaine May’s famous 1987 cinematic swan dive, ”Ishtar.” Trio accompanies this special with its ”Just Plain Cancelled” series, featuring such legendary failures as 1990’s singing-policeman show ”Cop Rock,” the Jerry Van Dyke sit-com ”My Mother the Car” (1965-66), and the misbegotten 1980 variety show ”Pink Lady and Jeff.”
”Flops 101,” written and produced by Daniel Snyder, is an irri-subject, marred fatally by its organizing gimmick. It delivers its ”lessons” in a schoolmarm voice-over that yammers orders like ”Now, write these down, class…. Press and hype are unmanageable.” Yeah, like THAT’S what we want from a doc — exhortations on how to process information about how bad, say, ”Waterworld” was. ”Flops 101” has a lot of good raw material, namely shrewd commentary from cultural observers like The New York Times’ Frank Rich and TIME magazine’s James Poniewozik about how ”failure” can be just another term for ”too challenging” (as in the case of ”Cop,” created by Steven Bochco). There are also insightful remarks by a few brave people actually involved in these flops, like one of ”Cop”’s stars, Peter Onorati (who went on to act in another Bochco show, ”Civil Wars”). He speaks eloquently about how it feels when a project that’s entered into with the spirit of adventure is rejected by the public. It’s clear that the sensible Onorati doesn’t hold anything against viewers. He knows it’s just the way the culture goes pop: Some things click with an audience and other ideas don’t. More grievous in ”Flops 101” are its errors of omission, such as a failure to mention that some of ”Cop”’s wittiest operetta interludes were written by the classy pop composer Randy Newman.
As for the shows themselves, well, they’re more uneven — as opposed to outright artistic flops. Certainly it’s not difficult to see what Bochco was trying to do with ”Cop”: create a television version of the stage musical, with the drama heightened by characters breaking into song. You’ll see familiar faces, such as ”Hill Street Blues”’ Barbara Bosson and ”Gilmore Girls”’ Kathleen Wilhoite, vocalizing from the heart. But the effect is jarring, and too often the tunes repeat a line or a sentiment we’ve just watched play out.
Just as intriguing in its own way is, believe it or not, ”My Mother the Car.” The sitcom was built around one of the all-time goofiest of concepts — a man’s mother is reinCARnated as a classic automobile, a 1928 Porter, voice provided by, as the credits say, ”Miss Ann Sothern.” (Sothern was even then a TV demi-legend as the star of the ditzy 1950s sitcom ”Private Secretary.”) Does ”Mother”’s premise sound stupid? Let me remind you that commercially speaking, so did ”Gilligan’s Island” (and that lasted for three seasons), and that artistically speaking, so did ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (and that lasted seven and was freakin’ great). Here’s my flop lesson: It ain’t the idea, it’s the execution.
In the case of ”Mother,” Dick Van Dyke’s younger brother was a perfectly good straight man for the talking car, for the sunny actress playing his smart wife (Maggie Pierce — where’d she go?), and for the recurring villain, the antique-car collector Captain Manzini, who was played by the handlebar-mustached Avery Schreiber. The series was cowritten by Allan Burns, a very talented man who wrote for everything from ”The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to ”The Bullwinkle Show.” I’m not saying that ”Mother” was in either of those shows’ league, but it was completely in keeping with a TV landscape that included ”Mister Ed” (talking horse) and ”The Munsters” (friendly monsters) — gimmick family shows that didn’t set out to do much more than make you chuckle. ”My Mother the Car” gets a bad rap chiefly because snobs think a silly idea can’t be redeemed. In television, it always can, which is a conundrum apparently too advanced for ”Flops 101” — and why this doc needs to go to grad school.