8 cringe-worthy original reviews of hit TV shows that completely got it wrong
Which show "as a whole, is not as well cast as it could be"?!
When it comes to classic TV, everybody's got an opinion, but it's always fun to look back to see what critics said upon encountering some of TV's most memorable franchises for the first time. While series like M*A*S*H and Cheers became some of the most celebrated TV shows of all time, critics who viewed the pilots were not shy about expressing concerns about not just the writing, but also the cast and settings.
Of course, most of the doubts expressed by the earliest critics commenting on what became massive hit shows proved to be completely unfounded. We went back to see what writers from magazines like TV Guide, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter had to say about TV hits from the 1950s through the 1980s.
Have a laugh at this highlight reel of critics who just didn't get it, when it came to spotting the potential in what became some of TV's most successful franchises and hit series.
1. 'M*A*S*H' 1972 review
Everybody knows that M*A*S*H struggled in its first season due to its time slot, not due to the quality of the show. You need only look to how its incredible ensemble cast spun the dramedy into the most-watched show in TV history the moment it got shifted on the TV schedule to catch more viewers. It seemed M*A*S*H's first season troubles stemmed from the limited audience the show was reaching, but this off-base 1972 review in The Hollywood Reporter certainly couldn't have helped:
"The same absurd attitude that prevailed in the movie is in the series, and it should have a fine run. Gene Reynolds produced and directed from a script by Larry [Gelbart]. Alan Alda stars as Hawkeye, and he is very good. This show, as a whole, is not as well cast as it could be, but that shouldn’t impede the overall success.
McLean Stevenson is funny as Colonel Blake, and Gary Burghoff as Radar, is also good. Loretta Swit as Hot Lips and Wayne Rogers as Alda’s co-star both seem weak. Karen Philipp as 'Lt. Dish' is fine."
Not only is it laughable to see Swit and Rogers downgraded as weak points, but also a fleeting character defined as a standout. The writer, Sue Cameron, ends her short review by suggesting that M*A*S*H was the inferior show on the night it aired, saying, "It was a fast-paced show and will be a nice lead-in to Sandy Duncan."
2. 'Cheers' 1982 review
The Hollywood Reporter is the source of this next review, too, which was mostly a glowing endorsement of the major hit sitcom Cheers, except for this thorny bit at the end, which makes a point of suggesting the setting of the workplace sitcom would be its downfall. As if hanging at Cheers wasn't half the appeal of the show!
"All of which brings us to the one single thorn in this otherwise fragrant bouquet of rosebuds. The series, to date, has been confined to the Cheers bar set — a single room that is being asked to play host to every activity on the show. From a story standpoint, it's confining to the point that it could quickly become the Achilles heel of the series. It means we must hear about life outside the walls of Cheers, but never really see it. It also means that audiences across the country must use their imaginations — a talent most seem to have left in the womb."
The writer Richard Hack takes time to cover his bases at the end of his review, to clarify that Cheers could prove him wrong, saying, "On the other hand, perhaps Cheers is just the show to change all that. We hope so. It's that well done — with nary a hangover in sight."
Cheers did, in fact, help "change all that," as later season episodes that did wander outside of the bar were rarely as fun as running gags across episodes like "Bar Wars" and run-ins with series regulars like Harry the Hat, all scenes mostly planted in the bar. Of course, the show also had great episodes that took place in various character homes and patron office spaces, too, proving the critic's instincts doubly wrong.
Later on, hit series like Seinfeld would even be criticized for leaving its primary setting too often, suggesting that when you create characters as iconic as the cast of Cheers, you don't need to shift the setting to keep the audience entertained.
3. 'Bonanza' 1959 review
If you love TV Westerns, then you should have a soft spot in your heart for Bonanza, which ran for 14 seasons and became one of the best-loved Western series in television history. Not only did it receive numerous nominations and awards for writing, acting, concept, music and sheer popularity, but it also ranked first on Nielsen three seasons in a row because people of all walks of life loved tuning in. That's why it's hilarious as the funniest Hoss episodes to read this review from Variety in 1959:
"...for all its pretentions [Bonanza] proves to be little more than a patchwork of stock oater ideas without a fresh twist to distinguish it …. It had a pathetically overworked storyline that was predictable and cliché-ridden…. The show received capable performances from its regular, Lorne Greene, Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker, and Landon, but they play stock roles and there’s little opportunity for anyone to do a standout job. Bonanza at this point doesn’t show much promise of living up to its name.”
Raise your hand if you think the Cartwrights are cut from a different cloth than other Western characters?
4. 'Bewitched' 1964 review
In TV history, Bewitched is an unconventional success story. It ran for eight seasons, mostly due to its impressive cast of regulars and Elizabeth Montgomery's excessive charm, but it ended due to disinterest from both its star and the studio. Despite that, the show has been spun-off and rebooted as cartoons, comics, and a big-screen blockbuster, not to mention it inspired the similar hit series I Dream of Jeannie. So this little snipe at the series from Glenn Herzer in TV Guide in 1964 proved as backwards as a man marrying taking a witch as a wife, "I don’t think Bewitched will 'be-watched' for very long."
5. 'The Brady Bunch' 1969 review
There are five seasons of The Brady Bunch, the little sitcom that proved it could go further in syndication than primetime. When the show landed in syndication, suddenly more kids discovered the show, and its audience spiked. It's easy to see why, when Sherwood Schwartz himself has said the show is written from the perspective of the kids. This aspect of the show clearly shot right over the head of this reviewer, Tony Scott, writing for Variety in 1959:
"Will lightning strike twice for Sherwood Schwartz? On the face of it “Brady” prospects aren’t too good.
It’s pure slapstick with a pair of leads not teethed in it: Robert Reed ('The Defender') and singer Florence Henderson."
The series is now considered iconic, parodied in movies, and expanded through TV movies and spin-offs. Henderson is considered irreplaceable on the show, the idyllic TV mom who became a symbol of grace and patience, and Robert Reed's measured Mike Brady the character that steered the ship. Scott gave this concession at the end of his review, giving Schwartz the respect he deserves:
"The basic theme is not new but the premise is pregnant with potential. The expectancy of how the conglomerate families will make out should hold the viewers for a time, anyway. They can be assured that Schwartz won't let it get dull. There are too many ways to go and a laugh track on cue."
6. 'The Beverly Hillbillies' 1962 review
The Beverly Hillbillies was famously a hit show that critics just couldn't get a grip on. Its premise was designed to thwart intellectuals and embrace a concept rooted in sheer zany fun.
And that premise was a huge hit with TV audiences who shot the show to No. 1 in Nielsen ratings during its first and second seasons, despite critics like Gilbert Seldes in TV Guide, who wrote, The "whole notion on which The Beverly Hillbillies is founded is an encouragement to ignorance," and a critic in Time harshly claimed it was "dedicated to finding out how many times the same joke can be repeated." One critic in Newsweek who called it "the most shamelessly corny show in years" did get the joke, though, saying it was "triumphantly foolish."
Maybe some early critics were just bitter that this show struck oil without their support? The Beverly Hillbillies series kept on hitting with audiences through a TV movie, reunion special and even a theatrical release featuring a cameo from Buddy Ebsen. What can ya say? Audiences just clamor for more Clampett, nothing pretentious about it.
7. 'Family Affair' 1966 review
From the makers of My Three Sons came Family Affair in 1966, a series so popular it got a modern remake. About a wealthy bachelor who takes in his brother's orphaned kids, the butler Giles French may have been the critics' favorite character, but it was the kids who went on to have books written about them and toys mass-produced and merchandised because, of course, there were children in the audience who wanted their own Mrs. Beasley doll. That's why it's funny that TV Guide's Cleveland Amory took time to shake his finger at the series by singling out the show's youngest cast members:
"The children, 15-year-old Cissy (Kathy Garver) and the 6-year-old twins, Jody (Johnnie Whitaker) and Buffy (Anissa Jones), are primarily responsible for making Family Affair the appalling thing it is."
8. 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.' 1965 review
Emmy Awards nominations showered The Man from U.N.C.L.E. from its first season on, and in 1966, the series even snagged a Golden Globe for Best TV Show. The spy show became so popular in that time that there are still props in presidential libraries and museums dedicated to the actual CIA, making the show a permanent part of spy culture.
In fact, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. so charmed audiences, extra film was cut so they could release episodes in theaters after they debuted on TV. There was a spin-off and merchandise galore, and the spy-craze the show created expanded its legacy right up to today, with movies still being made. So it's an extra joke for fans of the show to read this other attempt at a takedown from the TV Guide critic Cleveland Amory in 1965:
"They should have kept U.N.C.L.E. on while they dropped the bomb… for all the fast pace and gimmickry, there just isn't enough charm… [a] take-off which doesn’t come off."
Clearly this critic's communicator was jammed.