15 forgotten and fascinating TV flops from 1987

Not even Dolly and Oscar Winners could save these overlooked superheroes, variety shows and prison comedies.

Images: The Everett Collection

A short while back, we posed a question: "Was the 1977–78 television season the worst ever?" There was good reason for the inquiry. By the end of the season, 45 of 96 network shows had been canceled. A nationally syndicated news headline sighed in relief, "TV's Worst Season Slowly Nearing an End." The television critics at the time could not see into the future.

Fast forward ten years, and there is a season to challenge that statement. More than 50 new network television shows would premiere in 1987, and few of them would make it past 1988. Corey Haim even had a sitcom in 1987. (Roomies, if you're wondering.) Adding to the onslaught was the newborn Fox network, which kicked off in 1987 with weekend-only programming. While Married... with Children, 21 Jump Street and The Tracey Ullman Show — birthplace of The Simpsons — would find great success, the rest can be hard to remember.

But let's dig down 30 years into the cellar of 1987 to find some of the more fascinating, forgotten and overlooked series of that year.

1. Buck James

Gunsmoke and McCloud veteran Dennis Weaver may have played a doctor, but there was still a whole lot of cowboy in him. The Texas surgeon was also a rancher. Think Dallas meets E.R., only it lasts a mere 19 episodes.

Image: ABC / YouTube

2. Dolly

Leading in to Buck James on Sunday evening was this celebrity showcase, which tried to keep the variety show genre alive a good decade after its heyday. Even the Muppets, Pee-Wee Herman and Tom Petty, not to mention a writing staff loaded with TV comedy veterans, could not turn this into a hit. It was simply the wrong era.

Image: ABC

3. Frank's Place

Tim Reid starred as a black Ivy League professor who heads to New Orleans to run a restaurant. Hugh Wilson, creator of WKRP in Cincinnatti, crafted this ahead-of-its-time dramedy. Despite airing just one season, it was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series.

Image: CBS / Viacom

4. I Married Dora

Juliette Lewis played the elder daugher in this sitcom, which is most notable for its meta ending. "It's been canceled," the dad says to his family. "The flight?" asks Dora (Elizabeth Peña). He then turns to the camera, breaks the fourth wall and proclaims, "No, our series!" Cue the laughter and hugs!

Image: Sony Pictures Television

5. J. J. Starbuck

This was a spin-off, of sorts, from Tenspeed and Brown Shoe. "Tenspeed and whatnow," you ask? That was a underrated 1980 series with Jeff Goldblum as a karate-loving accountant.

Image: NBC

6. Leg Work

Oscar winner Frances McDormand co-starred in this incredibly Eighties P.I. show about a former Assistant D.A. turned gumshoe. The big hair, the padded shoulders, the neon, the Porsches — there was no doubt this was 1987.

Image: 20th Century Fox Television

7. Max Headroom

Most of you probably remember the stuttering talking head as the animated spokesman for New Coke ("C-c-catch the wave!"), yet his cyberpunk sci-fi series goes overlooked. ABC aired the dystopian tale, which ranked at No. 101 in the Nielsen ratings.

Image: Warner Bros. Television Distribution

8. The New Adventures of Beans Baxter

Savage Steve Holland, writer-director of the cult John Cusack film Better Off Dead, helmed this teen spy action-comedy. David Spade turned down the lead role in what turned out to be a modern, Fox-network take on Get Smart.

Image: 20th Century Fox Television

9. The Oldest Rookie

Paul Sorvino played the aging desk cop who finally decides to see action in the streets. Only 14 episodes were made.

Image: Touchstone Television / CBS

10. Once a Hero

A Marvel-related comic book series? This would have no problem making the air today. The sci-fi sitcom centered on a comics artist who sees his creation, Captain Justice, come to life. Adam West appeared in the fourth episode! However, it was never seen in the U.S. Only three episodes aired. Marvel even produced a tie-in Captain Justice comic book. The publisher canceled that after two issues.

Image: New World Television

11. Private Eye

A private eye works the seedy underbelly of showbiz in 1950s Los Angeles. Hot off The Goonies, Josh Brolin landed a key role as the sidekick. Even a time slot after the stylish Miami Vice could not help this neo-noir.

Image: Universal Television

12. Sable

Filling the void of Once a Hero was this action show, which was based on a hip, pulp-inspired comic book (Jon Sable: Freelance). The series centered around a vigilante and mercenary who posed a children's book author. No, really.

Image: ABC

13. The Slap Maxwell Story

With a catchy name like "The Slap Maxwell Story" and Dabney Coleman as "Slap," what could go wrong? Well, for starters, the title character was thoroughly unlikeable.

Image: ABC / Warner Bros. Television

14. Werewolf

Chuck Connors, tough-as-nails star of MeTV favorite The Rifleman, worked one of his final regular roles in this Fox horror series. The chilling synthesizer score and smoky atmosphere made it a solid piece of '80s genre television for this still giddy from the "Thriller" video.

Image: Sony Pictures Television

15. Women in Prison

Sounding like a 1970s exploitation film on paper, Women in Prison encapsulated the nascent Fox network's overdriven urge to be provocative. A cute shoplifter in thrown in the clink, where she dwells with a murderer and prostitute. Perhaps it paved the way for Orange Is the New Black?

Image: Sony Pictures Television

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