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TV’s Weirdest Plotlines

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Man finds genie in a bottle; alien crash-lands into family’s garage — they may sound like headlines ripped from a supermarket tabloid, but they were the premises for two successful television shows (I Dream of Jeannie and ALF).

Television has produced shows based on wild scenarios since its inception. The Flying Nun introduced us to a perky novice who took to the air in a breeze, and years later My Two Dads showed us a reworked nuclear family in which two men raised a daughter that each believed to be his own biological child. Hogan’s Heroes served up laughs via the cagey captives of a Nazi POW camp, and later Cop Rock featured singing and dancing set against the backdrop of a brutal police drama. One could easily wonder what the network executives were thinking when they added such shows to their lineups, but a few of these series actually found success and went on to become TV classics.

Wacky shows like My Mother the Car and The Charmings didn’t survive their respective freshman years on the air, but other equally bizarre offerings like Mister Ed and Herman’s Head enjoyed respectable runs in primetime. Preposterous plots also weren’t able to derail the castaways on Gilligan’s Island or the crew from Lost in Space, which were both embraced by viewers who were only too happy to suspend their disbelief long enough to laugh along with the crazy antics.

Imagine the meeting wherein a network executive was pitched the idea for a show about the wacky hijinks at a World War II POW camp or a talking horse or even a flying nun. Even though these plots were totally far-fetched, some of them were surprisingly successful, while others disappeared from the screen faster than Jeannie could blink them away. We’ve compiled our picks of 10 of the strangest ones to grace TV land. Some were good, some were bad, but all were uniquely off-the-wall just the same.

ALF, NBC, 1986-90
Premise: A wisecracking alien moves in with a suburban family
A furry, cat-eating creature named Gordon Shumway (voiced by Paul Fusco) traveled from the planet Melmac and crashed into the Tanner family’s garage. The typical American family promptly invited him into their home, nicknamed him ALF (short for “Alien Life Form”) and treated him like one of their own. In return, ALF agreed to keep his paws off Lucky, the family’s cat, and provided sarcastic musings on everything from suburbia to the Tanners’ nosy neighbor, Mrs. Ochmonek (Liz Sheridan).

The Charmings, ABC, 1987-88
Premise: Snow White and family awaken from a spell in present-day California
The classic fairy tale turned into a “Grimm” reality for Snow White (Caitlin O’Heaney, then Carol Huston), Prince Eric Charming (Christopher Rich) and assorted others, including their children (Brandon Call, Garette Ratliffe), a dwarf (Cork Hubbert) and her wicked stepmother, Queen Lillian (Judy Parfitt). After being asleep for centuries, the group tried to fit into the suburban California landscape with Snow as a fashion designer and Eric as an author of children’s books. Unfortunately, thanks to Lillian’s evil machinations, happiness was usually rarely in the cards for this dysfunctional brood despite visits from old friends like Cinderella and Jack with his magic beanstalk.

Cop Rock, ABC, 1990
Premise: A brutal crime show in which cops and felons often burst into song
A sort of cross between Hill Street Blues and West Side Story, this over-the-top cop drama interspersed brutal crime scenes with singing and dancing. The stories were set in the most crime-ridden sections of Los Angeles and dealt with racism, drugs and murder. The show’s violent subject matter, however, never stopped any of its cops, jurors, robbers or murders from belting out tunes that detailed their respective woes.

The Flying Nun, ABC, 1967-70
Premise: A young nun who uses her habit to fly
Sister Bertrille (Sally Field) was bright, funny, filled with energy and able to fly through the air using only her habit. The trick had something to do with her small 90-pound frame, the large wing-shaped habits worn by the nuns in her order and the coastal breezes that consistently surrounded the Convent San Tanco in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she lived. The young novice was prone to riding the warm gusts of air all over town despite the fact that Sister Sixto (Shelley Morrison) and the rest of the order often frowned upon her preferred mode of transportation.

Herman’s Head, Fox, 1991-94
Premise: A glimpse into the inner workings of the male mind
Lovable loser Herman Brooks (William Ragsdale) was always at odds over which course of action to pursue in even the most simplistic situations. Frequent glimpses into his chaotic mind revealed the four conflicting aspects of his personality, namely the compassionate Angel (Molly Hagan), the lustful Animal (Ken Hudson Campbell), the anxious Wimp (Rick Lawless) and the intellectual Genius (Peter Mackenzie), which explained his chronic inability to make a decision he could feel completely confident about.

Hogan’s Heroes, CBS, 1965-71
Premise: Inept Nazis get outsmarted by their American captives
Set during World War II, this sitcom derived its humor from the inhabitants of a Nazi POW camp equipped with a steam room, barbershop and all the amenities of home. The American prisoners took their orders from Col. Robert Hogan (Bob Crane), whose men were held in Stalag 13 and supplied classified information about the enemy to the Allied forces. The camp’s monocle-wearing commandant, Col. Klink (Werner Klemperer), proved no match for the POWs, who repeatedly helped prisoners escape and kept the Germans from successfully carrying out any of their plans.

I Dream of Jeannie, NBC, 1965-70
Premise: Bachelor astronaut becomes master to a sexy genie
Astronaut Tony Nelson (Larry Hagman) stumbled across a mysterious-looking bottle that washed ashore on a beach. He uncorked it to find that he had freed a 2,000-year-old and very well-preserved genie, named Jeannie (Barbara Eden). She lived to serve her new master and offered to give him anything his heart desired. But the handsome and single Tony would have none of it. Instead he preferred that Jeannie not use her magic, mostly because it usually got him into trouble when she did. The two eventually married and lived happily ever after despite repeated attempts to break them up by Jeannie’s twin sister (also played by Eden).

Jennifer Slept Here, NBC, 1983-84
Premise: Dead film star’s ghost helps boy through adolescence
Screen siren Jennifer Farrell (Ann Jillian) may have died years earlier, but her presence was still felt in the Beverly Hills home where she once lived. Jennifer sporadically appeared to the home’s new resident, a pubescent teen named Joey (John P. Navin Jr.), to help him with girl trouble or any other issues that seemed to bother him. Naturally, since no one else could see or hear her, Jennifer’s assistance often complicated poor Joey’s formative years.

Mister Ed, CBS, 1961-65
Premise: A talking horse speaks freely to his owner
Wilbur Post (Alan Young) and his wife, Carol (Connie Hines), decided to trade in their big-city existence for a quieter life in the country. They found the home of their dreams, which came complete with a talking palomino named Mr. Ed (voice of Allan “Rocky” Lane), who would only speak to Wilbur. The horse got poor Wilbur in and out of a variety of odd scenarios, all of which were usually the result of Ed’s chattiness.

My Mother the Car, NBC, 1965-66
Premise: A man’s mother is reincarnated as a talking car
This bizarre sitcom followed the relationship between Dave Crabtree (Jerry Van Dyke) and his deceased mother, who came back into his life in the reincarnated form of a classic 1928 Porter automobile (voice of Ann Southern). Naturally, Dave was the only one who could talk to the auto, which he appropriately dubbed “Mother.” His attachment to Mother was curious to his wife (Maggie Pierce) and detested by Capt. Manzini (Avery Schreiber), an antique-car collector. Manzini tried desperately to steal the Porter away from Dave, but was foiled every time thanks to the bond between this Mother and son.

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Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess

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Xena Warrior Princess

What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.

Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.

Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.

Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.

Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?

Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.

Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Character: Xena

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Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife

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McMillan And Wife

Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.

Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.

And wifey?
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.

Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.

Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.

Tragedy?
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.

What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.

Other characters
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.

Famous guest stars?
Kim Basinger

The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.

Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.

Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.

Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.

The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.

A winner?
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.

Distinguishing features?
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.

Do say
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.

Don’t say
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.

Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.

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Classic TV Revisited: The Royal

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The Royal

The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.

The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.

Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.

Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.

Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”

A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.

First broadcast: 2003

Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden

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