Ranking The Forgotten Shows of NBC's Must-See Thursday Night Lineup
There was a time, children, when America tuned in to NBC see what the likes of Jonathan Silverman, Brooke Shields, and Lisa Bonet were up to. Sure, it was because we misplaced the remote after watching shows we actually enjoyed, but it's still attention of a sort.
When I say "Must See TV," you probably think of the titans of NBC's Thursday night programs -- Jerry Seinfeld, Ted Danson, whichever of the Friends does not leave you quaking with fury. You probably do not think of Jonathan Silverman, Lea Thompson, and Mark Feuerstein. And yet, they are as much a part of NBC's Must See TV lineup as stars from programs you may actually remember.
That's because NBC hit upon a bold strategy between 1984 and 2004 when its Thursday night schedule strode the earth like a Colossus: use the monster ratings enjoyed by the likes of The Cosby Show, Cheers, Seinfeld, and Friends to draw audiences to new shows. Sometimes, this paid off in the form of hits like Will & Grace, solid performers like Scrubs, and whatever the hell Wings was. But more often than not, we wound up with subpar shows that NBC's powerhouse performers could prop up for a time until they ultimately collapsed under the weight of the public's indifference.
But which Must See also-rans truly needed their much more beloved schedule-mates to stay alive? We went through two decades' worth of NBC Thursday night lineups to rank the shows you've likely forgotten all about on the basis of which ones got the biggest boost from their lead-ins.
28. Stark Raving Mad (1999-2000)
As a society, we've come to the collective conclusion that Neil Patrick Harris is more than all right, and, as a result, we're willing to tolerate the occasional eccentricity. The magic tricks? Fine. The award show hosting? Tolerable in small doses. One more Harold & Kumar movie than there needed to be? A fellow's got to eat, hasn't he? But there are limits even to what we'll let NPH get away with, and that limit is apparently eighteen episodes of him playing a nervous book editor to Tony Shalhoub's horror novelist.
27. Union Square (1997-1998) and 26. Battery Park (2000)
These two shows -- the first from 1997, the second from 2000 -- were part of NBC's ill-conceived "Let's just name things after places in New York, and see if people will tune in" strategy. It's a shame, too, because I had really high hopes for my Park Slope Food Co-Op spec script.
25. Coupling (2003)
NBC imported Coupling from the U.K. and then promptly proceeded to ruin it. This makes me very happy because because the creator of the U.K. version of the show once sent me a strongly worded email when I wrote something critical about his show. You take your victories -- however petty and small-minded they are -- where you can.
24. A Different World (1987-1993)
[Interior, NBC headquarters, 1987]
TV Producer: Wow, we sure do have a hit on our hands with The Cosby Show.
NBC Executive: I'll say! Bill Cosby is a beloved entertainer, and I can't see anything emerging ever that would ever cause society to shrink in horror at the mention of his name.
TV Producer: I agree! For that reason, we were thinking of creating a spinoff that revolves around the most beloved child in the Huxtable family.
NBC Executive: Malcolm-Jamal Warner? He'd be a terrific choice to build a show around.
TV Producer: No. Not him.
NBC Executive: Tempestt Bledsoe? Even better. She's...
TV Producer: No, no.
NBC Executive: Look, Keisha Knight Pulliam is a little young for her own series, but we can make it wo...
TV Producer: Think older.
NBC Executive: But Sondra is hardly ever on the show.
TV Producer: Not her.
NBC Executive: Were you thinking about inventing a Huxtable child for this spinoff?
TV Producer: No. We use Denise.
NBC Executive: [Staring, uncomprehendingly]
TV Producer: Played by Lisa Bonet.
NBC Executive: Still not ringing a bell.
TV Producer: We'll have Kadeem Hardison wear these flip-up sunglasses.
NBC Executive: Sold! Now let us enjoy these celebratory glasses of wine that Dr. Cosby has poured for us.
23. Hope & Gloria (1995-1996)
Hope & Gloria ran for thirty-five episodes over the course of two seasons, as Americans tuned in each week to breathlessly unravel the mystery of which one was Hope and which one was Gloria. Even today, it's a riddle not fully solved, as inscrutable as the enigma of which one is Rizzoli and which one is Isles.
22. Grand (1990)
Okay, this one's weird. Grand started off as a soap opera parody in the vein of Soap -- just with fewer viewers -- then pivoted to becoming a run-of-the-mill sitcom before returning to its roots as a parody of soaps before NBC sent it to live on a farm upstate. Along the way, NBC dithered so long about bringing it back for a second season that when it did return, several cast members had to be written off the show because they had lined up other gigs. And if Wikipedia is to be believed -- and you doubt Wikipedia at your own peril -- this is one of just a few shows that ran for two seasons yet aired every episode during the same calendar year. That's a hell of a lot more interesting than anything that ever happened on Veronica's Closet.
21. Nothing In Common (1987)
So in 1986, Tom Hanks and Jackie Gleason made a movie called Nothing In Common about an estranged father-and-son relationship, and I went to go see it in theaters thinking it would be a high-larious comedy when, in fact, it was more melancholy and not really developed with an audience of fourteen-year-old boys in mind. Also, Jackie Gleason has a gangrenous foot, which is an image that sill haunts me thirty years later.
Anyway, NBC looked at that and said, "sitcom," which it was for about seven episodes in 1987. Presumably, the gangrenous foot didn't make the final cut.
20. Daddio (2000)
Like Grand, Daddio is one of the few shows that ran for multiple seasons with all its episodes airing in the same calendar year. That is the only noteworthy thing about Daddio, other than that its cancellation freed up Michael Chiklis to go make The Shield, so that probably worked out best for everyone.
19. Caroline In The City (1995-1999)
It is a little known fact that there was a giant wheel in the office of 1990s NBC programming chief Warren Littlefield -- The Wheel Of Beautiful Single People. When it came time to slap a show on after Cheers or Seinfeld, Littlefield would give the wheel a spin and it would land on both a star and the occupation he or she would play as a beautiful single person living and loving in Manhattan. One day, the wheel came up with Lea Thompson as a cartoonist. "Can't argue with the wheel," muttered Warren Littlefield, and that's how Caroline In The City was born.
At one point, Caroline In The City, Fired Up, The Naked Truth, and Suddenly Susan were bundled away from their Thursday safe haven to new slots on Mondays, with NBC billing those shows as "the Ladies Of Monday Night." The shows failed because the patriarchy crushes all. Also, those shows were no good.
18. Dear John (1988-1992)
Before NBC settled on its winning formula of building shows around fabulous-looking young people bedding one another, it tried a different tack: Judd Hirsch, feeling sad about his marriage ending. But hey, they kept that going for four seasons, thanks in no small part to a remarkably kicky theme song about loss and sorrow (which my esteemed colleague Omar Gallaga will unpack later this very Must See TV Week!).
Also, Dear John was one of Jere Burns's first regular TV gigs, so we have this show to indirectly thank for Wynn Duffy. I'm willing to give it a respectful nod.
17. Out All Night (1992-1993)
You could have given me a 1,000 guesses as to what this show was about and who starred in it, and I never would have come close to getting it right. It starred Patti La Belle and featured Vivica A. Fox and Morris Chestnut? Man, that is news to me. I suspect it would surprise half the cast, too.
16. Madman Of The People (1994-1995)
For a time in the 1980s and 1990s, TV networks kept trying to build a series around Dabney Coleman. "He's cantankerous and lacking in warmth," the thinking seemed to go. "What's not to love?" And so you had Buffalo Bill, in which Coleman played an off-putting talk show host; and The Slap Maxwell Story, in which he was an off-putting sportswriter; and Drexel's Class, in which he was an off-putting school teacher; and finally Madman Of The People, in which he was a newspaper editor who was off-putting. All I can say about Madman Of The People is that I really enjoyed Slap Maxwell.
15. Leap Of Faith (2002)
This is not the Steve Martin/Debra Winger movie about a charlatan faith healer. Which is a pity because it might have done better had it been that and not yet another show about single people laughing and loving.
14. Inside Schwartz (2001-2002)
I'm not entirely convinced that Inside Schwartz wasn't inserted onto the list of NBC's Thursday night sitcoms to see if I was paying attention. "Surely, he'll spot this obvious fake," one of the conspirators will giggle. After all, the only trace I can find of Inside Schwartz's existence is this Friends promo in which the Breckin Meyer series is tacked on like an afterthought.
"See what happens to all your favorite Friends on Friends. And stick around afterward for this other thing. Maybe you'll have lost your TV remote."
13. Rhythm & Blues (1992)
"White DJ gets mistakenly hired at black radio station" sounds like a TV show premise you'd pitch if you were actively trying to actively mock TV programmers, but whoever was employed at NBC in 1992 was apparently beyond parody because this show made it to the airwaves. Alas, it only lasted five episodes after depleting our nation's reserve of "White people dance like this, but black people dance like this" jokes.
12. Suddenly Susan (1996-2000)
To be honest, most of these shows have slid right off my brainpan, with my only memory supplemented by hasty Wikipedia searches minutes before my editors pushed the Publish button on this article. But there's something I remember very vividly about Suddenly Susan from its first episode. It's when the titular Susan -- played by Brooke Shields -- goes hat-in-hand to beg the magazine editor played by Judd Nelson to rehire her after she left her fiancé at the altar. "Suddenly, Susan," the Judd-ster says, agreeing to give her the gig, "you're interesting."
This was the worst lie I ever heard on television, and I watch presidential candidate debates. Susan was never interesting -- not before, not then, not at any point in the show's ninety-three-episode run. Kathy Griffin and Nestor Carbonell were among its supporting players, for heaven's sake: what chance did dull-as-dishwater Susan have? She's lucky Judd Nelson didn't rehire a nearby coatrack.
11. The Naked Truth (1996-1998)
In The Naked Truth,
Brooke Shields Téa Leoni joins a magazine tabloid after leaving her fiancé at the altar a messy divorce where she interacts with wacky entirely unmemorable co-workers.
I just realized that The Naked Truth was basically where they sent Suddenly Susan's factory overruns.
10. Fired Up (1997-1998) and 9. Good Morning, Miami (2002-2004)
For a while, Mark Feuerstein kept popping up on NBC's Thursday night programming, first in a recurring spot on Caroline In The City -- I believe he played "The City" -- and later in these two eminently forgettable shows, playing affable fellows of no consequence. "This will finally be the vehicle that assures Mark Feuerstein's place in the firmament," Warren Littlefield doubtlessly said as he tried throwing more stuff against the wall. That Feuerstein has subsequently enjoyed success in the USA Network series Benevolent Rich People Doctors Will Consent to Treat You Poors Presented by Koch Industries merely underscores that Warren Littlefield was a misunderstood visionary.
8. Jesse (1998-2000)
There were forty-two episodes of Jesse starring Christina Applegate. I defy you to recall one detail from any of them.
7. Veronica's Closet (1997-2000)
Real talk: I am of the opinion that Cheers was a much better show when Shelley Long was trading smoldering glances with Ted Danson, and that with the arrival of Kirstie Alley in 1987, Cheers became Just Another Show. In an alternate timeline, Shelley Long stays on Cheers, and the series continues to crank out memorable episodes like the ones that were commonplace during its first few years. Kirstie Alley, meanwhile, is the one who stars in straight-to-video movies with Corbin Bernsen. That's a timeline I wouldn't mind living in.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying Veronica's Closet was a garbage show.
6. Just Shoot Me (1997-2003)
Between this, The Naked Truth, and Suddenly Susan, someone at NBC thought we really gave a shit about people who work in the media. As someone who was been employed in the media for more than two decades now, let me assure you, we can barely sustain one terrible sitcom, let alone three. Our A.A. meetings aren't even that compelling.
5. The Days And Nights Of Molly Dodd (1987-1988)
Boy, did people love themselves some Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. Unfortunately, none of those people were employed by NBC, which cancelled the show after two seasons. Molly Dodd found a second home on Lifetime, back when airing your series on basic cable was the sort of thing you didn't talk about in polite society, like having a distant relative doing time for murder. But it scored Emmy nominations and critical praise, so the next time you're enjoying original programming on TNT or USA or some other basic cable outlet, nod respectfully in the direction of Molly Dodd if you wouldn't mind.
4. Cursed (2000-2001)
Cursed began life as a show where Steven Weber is cursed by a blind date and suffers horrible misfortunes week after week. Eventually, the show changed its name to The Weber Show because that was totally what was keeping audiences away. Sadly, the expected outpouring of Steven Weber fans -- people who thought NBC was airing a show about grilling, and illiterates tricked into thinking NBC was reviving Webster -- failed to materialize, and the show, new title and all, was gone after seventeen episodes.
3. Boston Common (1996-1997)
I remember watching Boston Common -- not closely enough to remember anything about it, other than that it was about a rube trying to make his way in Boston and that Traylor Howard was involved somehow. But it's my fear that, sometime in the near future, when I'm a toothless old man undone by the ravages of time, I'll start reciting key plot points and dialogue from Boston Common. And that's when my family will look at each other sadly and say "He's too far gone now. All he can do is babble." That's no way for a man to go.
2. The Single Guy (1995-1997)
We're asked to swallow a lot when we commit to a TV show. But the premise behind this two-season metaphor to NBC's mid-'90s commitment to banality -- "Ewww, all these beautiful women keep trying to forge long-term relationships with me, when all I want to do is hang out with Ernest Borgnine" -- was just one swallow too much. Further compounding NBC's hubris was the expectation that America would buy the idea that this object of desire was one of the two dudes from Weekend at Bernie's...and not Andrew McCarthy, either. No sale, America said, back when America was wise.
The heartbeat of NBC's Must See Thursday night lineup may have grown faint when the network broke up its two-hour comedy block with episodes of The Apprentice, but it was this Friends spinoff that finally held the pillow over Must See TV's face until its legs stopped twitching.
It was an ironic end, given that Friends was once a pillar of NBC's Thursday night schedule and that the network had successfully extended the Must See brand in the past by spinning off Frasier from Cheers. But given the sexy single people sameness that permeated Thursday nights for the better part of two decades, it was certainly appropriate that NBC would find itself going to the same well one too many times. The network would have been better off building a spinoff around Ross's pet monkey.