TV Will Never Be That Bad Again

I’ve been having a surprisingly good time in a talking-back-to-the-screen sort of way with the season 1 DVD of Hotel, due out July 21. The show is really terrible in a lovable kind of way, perhaps the worst-written of Aaron Spelling’s successful series (and anyone who has ever watched a Spelling show knows that this is saying something). It was Dynasty meets The Love Boat: after Love Boat was canceled past its prime, Spelling bought Arthur Hailey’s novel Hotel and used it to carry on his favourite format, the guest-star vehicle. As on the Pacific Princess, a mix of old, young, famous and semi-famous guest stars would have various romantic problems, one of which would involve one of the members of the permanent cast. But because Spelling’s most successful show at the time was Dynasty, the problems were mostly soapy and sensationalistic.

People vaguely remember the show for the better-than-average cast — James Brolin, Connie Sellecca (who spends large sections of Episode # 2 in her underwear being stalked by a mysterious killer who magically makes her record player play Ravel’s “Pavane Pour Une Infante Defunte”) and Anne Baxter (brought in in a weird All About Eve maneuver to replace an ailing Bette Davis). But I wasn’t prepared for the sheer level of badness on display here, not from the actors, who do what they’re told, but from the writers, who appeared to have been on several substances that hadn’t even been discovered yet in 1983.

I’ll list some memorable moments later in the post, but watching a show like this reminds me of a principle I formulated a few years ago: no major-network show today would be allowed to be as bad as the worst shows of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Not that there aren’t bad, unwatchable shows. There always are plenty of those. But while today’s flood of network notes and multi-executive tampering may hamper many shows, it also keeps the bad shows relatively sane: a totally ridiculous, moronic plot or line of dialogue will at some point be objected to by somebody, because a script has to be approved of by so many people. The worst shows of 25 years ago didn’t get as many notes, there was less competition (only three networks, remember) scripts weren’t always as extensively rewritten as they are now, and the wishes of a powerful producer like Aaron Spelling were pretty much law, no matter how bizarre.

And that is how you get scenes like this — bits of two real, un-dubbed scenes, plus the actual voice-over at the end of the episode — being broadcast in prime time on a major network: the producer’s daughter Tori strikes up a friendship with a robot. A robot who talks in funny robot-talk like the robot from the Robin Sparkles video. Except this isn’t a parody. And ABC really did air it in a Christmas episode in 1983. No show today could possibly be anywhere near as bad as this.

Like I said, there are bad shows today, but this is a kind of over-the-top, demented badness that you don’t often see today; a bad show on ABC today tends to be dull and predictable, not insanely stupid. In a way, the bad shows of yesteryear are a bit like some of the weirder HBO shows of recent years, like Carnivale, in that the network doesn’t really care if they make sense or not. The difference, I hasten to add, being that the producers of those shows actually want them to be good (whether they succeed is another question, but not really the issue here). When you get a producer with almost-unchecked power, a network that doesn’t care about making sense, and genuinely bad writing, you get a show that deserves the MST3K treatment.

Anyway, Hotel is a show that — in one season — features the following, among others:

– Robert Vaughn in drag (he’s a master of disguise who sneaks into the hotel disguised as a chick)

– Robert Reed as a child molester; Brolin figures out that he’s the molester because the girl said she was watching a monster movie when she was molested, but according to TV Guide, there were no monster movies on TV until Reed came back into the room.

– Jan Smithers (whom Brolin soon married in real life, but forgot to divorce his first wife; that would have been a better plot than the one they used on TV) plays an old flame of Brolin’s who is dying, and is given the following “serious” line of dialogue: “When they told me I had Lou Gehrig’s disease, I couldn’t believe it. I don’t even watch baseball on TV.”

– Shelley Winters takes the three main characters hostage and puts Anne Baxter on mock-trial (“Ah’m accusing you of MURDER!!”). Meanwhile the two other plots go on as per normal and the rest of the hotel staff doesn’t seem to notice that the stars have all been kidnapped at gunpoint.

– Heather Locklear, Spelling’s good-luck charm, plays a beauty contestant whose evil stage mother, played by Connie Stevens, wants her to win by “being nice” to Hollywood Squares host Peter Marshall. The first five minutes of this plot consists of Locklear doing a combination of aerobic dance and stripteasing to the tune of “She Works Hard For the Money,” while all the well-dressed hotel guests and her mother look on approvingly.

In addition to trivializing child molestation and deadly diseases, it also trivializes the Holocaust by doing an episode where a guy meets his concentration-camp tormentor in the fancy hotel. The other main plots in the episode? Pamela Hensley from Buck Rogers plays a runaway heiress who melts the icy corporate heart of her father’s assistant, played by Ken Howard, and Connie Sellecca pretends to be married to one of her co-workers, with disastrous results. The moral: the Holocaust is as important, but no more so, than sex with The White Shadow.

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