You know how sometimes you hear the premise of a TV show and go, “Yeah, I’m not gonna watch that”? It happens to me a million times every season. It might lead you to say, “Why did someone green light this?” Sometimes, though, I’ll hear about a TV show of the past and go “Wait, what? This can’t be a thing!” But then I discover it was indeed a thing. Why was it a thing? Whether popular or not, these are shows that at least became things. And lo, my friends, below are 7 TV shows of yesteryear that I cannot insist enough actually existed.
The Flying Nun (1967-1970)
My parents would always tell me about this show when I was younger. Like My Mother the Car (which is also full of WTFery), this seems like it stemmed from a single joke that somehow became a hit. This show, starring Sally Field, was about a young novice nun who joins a convent on a hill and, due to a combination of factors—the starchiness and aerodynamic nature of her cornette, the particularly windy nature of the hill, Field’s weighing only 90 pounds—earns the ability to fly around in the sky. I mean, sure. How a whole sitcom could be built around that is anyone’s guess, let alone how it could lead to 82 episodes!
Clutch Cargo (1959)
You remember that part in Pulp Fiction where young Butch Coolidge is watching some cartoon with an Inuit child talking with a really weird mouth? That was a real thing; it was called Clutch Cargo and it ran for 52 episodes in 1959. It was one of the cheapest “adventure” cartoons of all time for one simple reason: all they did was draw still images and then superimposed real human mouths performing the dialogue so they wouldn’t have to animate. That’s a thing that really happened. If you watch some old cartoons, like Return to the Planet of the Apes, you notice the characters barely move and shots are repeated, but at least there’s SOME animation going on. Clutch Cargo had nothing but creepy human mouths.
Remember how cool Tron seemed upon its release in 1982? It had some of the most up-to-the-moment digital effects ever created at that point, and actually still mostly holds up today. What you are less likely to remember is that right afterwards, they decided to use that technology for a short-lived action TV show about a police computer expert (Desi Arnaz Jr.) who invents a “hologram” (don’t worry; they explain what that is) that can leave the computer at night, take human form, and fight crime. He’s called “Automan,” or the Automatic Man. The show also credits a character named “Cursor,” which is just a special effect light that buzzes around. This brainchild from genre TV maven Glen A. Larson (Battlestar Galactica, Magnum, P.I.) will not be his only appearance on this list. Automan only lasted 12 episodes.
Cop Rock (1990)
Steven Bochco became a television dynamo with his groundbreaking and long-running ’80s police procedural Hill Street Blues. He’s also the man behind other popular dramas like L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, and Doogie Howser, M.D.. If you think a 16-year-old doctor is the weirdest concept he came up with, just imagine a hard-bitten police procedural that is ALSO a fully-produced musical. “…What?!” you ask. Yes. Yes, it really happened. Cop Rock only lasted 11 episodes, and it’s maybe not hard to see why, considering its mission statement was to bring the world a crime drama wherein people would suddenly break out into song completely earnestly, without a nod to the camera or an attempt to explain it as a joke.
Blue Thunder (1984)
The premise of this show might not ring as that weird, but its execution is another story. In the 1980s, big-budget action TV was all the rage. If you didn’t have enormous, elaborate stunts and car chases and gadgetry, GTFO (or whatever the 1980s slang variant of “GTFO” was). 1983 saw the release of a film called Blue Thunder, about a high-tech experimental police helicopter. That proved popular enough to get a TV show. Now, as I said, a TV show based on a movie about a helicopter isn’t in itself nutty, but what is nutty is the cast. Though star James Farentino was normal enough casting, his sidekick was a pre-Saturday Night Live Dana Carvey. On top of that, the two cops in “Rolling Thunder,” the ground support unit, were former football players-turned-all-purpose jokes, Bubba Smith and Dick Butkus. Butkus, by the way, played a character named “Butowski,” as Blue Thunder apparently realized it couldn’t NOT call him something to do with butts. The show was canceled after 11 episodes. Not only because people weren’t interested in the concept, but because THERE WAS ANOTHER HELICOPTER ACTION SHOW ON AT THE SAME TIME. Airwolf beat it in the ratings. I mean, jeepers.
This is a show that, try as I might, I can’t seem to get over. I love it so much that this is real. Another Glen A. Larson joint, this one focused on an international playboy named Jonathan Chase (Simon MacCorkindale), who spent years tucked away in the darkest parts of the world learning a very particular set of skills. It sounds a bit like the set up to Batman, but instead of becoming a ninja crime fighter, Chase learned, through mysticism and shamanism and other things that make Westerners go, “Ooh, foreign!” Best of all, Chase mastered the art of transforming into different animals, specifically a panther, a falcon, and some kind of a snake. It’s ridiculous. And my favorite part of the whole thing is the exceedingly long opening titles, which run through a whole theme song before William Conrad pops in with his narration. Listen to the narration; it’s legitimately the best. This show only lasted eight episodes.
The Secret Service (1969)
I’m a massive fan of Gerry Anderson, whose pioneering “Supermarionation” technique of using large scale marionettes and model sets gave us cracking shows like Stingray, Thunderbirds, and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. By 1969, Anderson wanted to branch out to live action TV, but the prohibitive cost of the move meant he had to hedge his bets by the end of the ’60s. This gave us this bizarre curio which featured comedian Stanley Unwin—credited as Father Stanley Unwin—playing a version of himself that was part of a covert operation called BISHOP, which put clergymen in spying situations. The Secret Service armed Father Unwin with technological innovations like the “Minimiser,” which could shrink him down into a puppet for such missions. Alternating between live action and marionettes was weird, but placing them side by side was weirder. And by this point, the marionettes were hyper-realistic, so we just basically got a show with creepy puppet replica people for no reason. The Secret Service lasted 13 episodes.
There you have it—seven of my favorite weird-as-hell TV shows that I’m still baffled were real things. Tell me some of yours below!
Image: 20th Century Fox Television
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!