Friday, December 05, 2008

Canceled 1970's TV: Supertrain!


The 1970's gave rise to one of the most insidious trends ever on network TV: intercut parallel plots. Intercutting was the enabler for such top-rated shows as "The Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island", which ruled the airwaves starting in the mid-1970's and running into the 80's. Both of these shows featured three sets of guest stars every week, who'd each arrive on the show with some sort of personal problem that seemed either ridiculously complex (a failing marriage) or deep-seated in the character's psyche (fear of heights or some such). In the end, though, all of these problems proved simple enough to be solved in the 12 or so minutes allotted to each character's plot line, making you wonder why they couldn't have figured it all out themselves while sitting on the couch at home.

What made both of these shows so successful were three things: a beautiful, romantic setting, a solid and trustworthy main cast, and an endless stream of B-list guest stars. Guests on "The Love Boat" included such 70's stalwarts as Richard Dawson, Tom Poston, John Ritter and Paul Williams, as well as new faces like Jamie Lee Curtis and a very young Courteney Cox. "Fantasy Island", being on the same network (ABC) and with similar ratings, had a similar guest list.

NBC, which at that time was even more of a joke than Fox is now, wanted in on some of this action. Remember, this was long before "The Cosby Show" or "Friends" or "Seinfeld". The network only had three shows in the top 20 ("Little House on the Prairie", "CHiPS" and "Diff'rent Strokes"), so they set out to create their own ripoff of "The Love Boat", this time set on a cross-country train. This would allow them to have various settings around the country, as well as the train itself (just like on "The Love Boat"), and it would give them the same rotating guest cast anchored by a few regulars working the train. What would set it apart from its ABC competitors? In the long tradition of train movies, it would be less a comedy/drama and more of a suspense thriller. The result: SUPERTRAIN.

But it didn't quite work out as planned. All you need to know about this show can be found in the first ten minutes of the first episode, which is absolutely hilarious.



It's almost impossible to know where to start with this.

First of all, this was, to that point, the most expensive television show ever made. NBC spent millions on a large number of massive new sets, several large and detailed train models (and their own in-scale sets to go with them), not to mention the giant cast. Whereas "The Love Boat" was able to use (and re-use) stock footage of the Pacific Princess whenever exterior shots were needed, NBC had to create sets for the "Supertrain" stations, had to film models rolling through the countryside, and had to use a lot of optical effects to make things seem bigger than they are. This needed to be a top 20 show just to even begin to pay for itself.

Secondly... a pool?! On a train?!

I do give the show props for the hot-pants clad female staff, and now that we're 30 years on I'm entertained by the faint whiff of sexual harassment as the lead service attendant tells "his girls" how he's in love with all of them (to a chorus of giggles!). Hey man, people weren't so uptight in those days.

The show ran for only nine episodes from February-May 1979, with a retooling in the middle that replaced about half of the regular cast. Its final change in the ninth episode was the addition of a laugh track in an attempt to make the unintentional humor seem otherwise. I'd love to see that, but unfortunately that episode hasn't made it to YouTube yet. Probably will eventually.

There's a great site here that goes more into detail on "Supertrain" than I ever could.

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This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.

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I'm married. I like to travel. I have no kids. I have a house... that I'm bad at maintaining. I used to collect classic video games. I own a lot of musical equipment that far outstrips my ability to use it. When I was younger, I was in a band. I like gadgets, and I'm an Android guy. Someday, I would like to live on a different planet.

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