Television Turmoil: Supertrain

Television Turmoil is a look at the worst and weirdest series to make their way onto the silver screen.

There are few people in the 70s TV landscape as influential as Fred Silverman. Described as “The Man with the Golden Gut,” Silverman was renowned for his ability to tell which shows would be a hit. This particular brand of executive-myth building started with stints on CBS and ABC, where he helped revitalize both networks and, in the latter’s case, helped elevate it to the #1 network for the first time. M*A*S*H, All in the Family, The Waltons, Three’s Company and Charlie’s Angels are just a few examples of the programs that premiered under his watch.

It comes as no surprise then that Silverman’s jump to NBC in 1979 was seen as a great acquisition for the Peacock network. NBC had spent much of the decade floundering, and the prospect of luring away the executive who led their rivals to success was just the turnaround they needed. To say things didn’t quite go to plan is a massive understatement. Silverman’s failure at NBC is seen as a dark mark on both his career and the network’s history, but today’s focus is on perhaps the biggest flop produced in that period.

Supertrain technically came into production before Silverman had jumped to NBC, but it was under his watch that the show was heavily advertised and given a big 2-hour premiere in February. This makes sense when you take into account how much money had already been poured into the program. By the time Silverman had come on board, Supertrain was already the most expensive TV show made in the U.S. The three separate models of the titular train, each different sizes for various shots, alone were $10 million. Not to mention an accident involving one of those models early in the production. With all this money flowing, NBC must have had a powerful concept to go along with it, right?

A pretty impressive train. Now, imagine seeing this about 20 times an episode.

Well, does copying another show’s concept count? At its core, Supertrain is essentially The Love Boat (Another hit from Silverman’s ABC tenure) placed on a train. Not just any train, mind you. This train is super. Specifically, it is a nuclear-powered bullet train capable of traveling cross-country in just under two days. The train also comes stocked with various amenities: a swimming pool, a gym, a shopping center, and even its own dance club. It’s a train functioning as a cruise ship. Which all seems very cool, if you’re willing to overlook how astronomical the upkeep cost on all of that would be.

Similar to the show that it’s aping, Supertrain focused primarily on the passengers of the train from week-to-week, telling an interconnected story about their lives with the crew of the train being relegated to B-plots. As an idea for driving viewer interest, it is solid. Unfortunately, the guest stars the show pulled in weren’t the most enticing. The big 2-hour premiere focuses mostly on singer Steve Lawrence with a hammy performance from Vicki Lawrence (no relation) to back it up. Other episodes feature Dick Van Dyke, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Larry Linville and Tony Danza all good gets, but hardly the ones you need to attract a big audience. During the program’s brief 9 episode tenure, only three members of the main cast stuck around. Of those three, the closest thing to a known name was Robert Alda (Broadway star and father of Alan Alda) who played the train’s doctor. A thankless role, just like every other on the show.

Therein lies the biggest problem with Supertrain, the train is the only actual character. With so much money poured into the models, an episode of the show cuts to shots of the train often. Characters marvel at the train and discuss the life-changing experience being in it is. Even during promotion for the show, the train was the only thing anyone talked about. This was particularly clear during an episode of Today that aired before the show’s premiere. The only thing the newscasters had to hype the show with was the train. The major talking point seemed to be the enormous cost. It reeks of a group of people knowing failure is imminent and not being able to say so. The producers pinned all their hopes on the concept of a big, fast train being enough to attract an audience.

Even the ad writers knew the train was the actual star.

None of this is helped by the mediocre writing. Most of the story in an episode seems dragged out to make an hour and involves generic suspense plots like: an unknown assassin (this happens in both the first and second episode), a kidnapping plot, a jewel heist and in one extremely baffling instance, a presidential candidate’s twin taking his place. None of the stories offer anything besides cheap thrills and something to pad out the runtime in between shots of the train.

The program also has a serious tone problem. While “daring” suspense plots would take up much of the main story, the crew members were often relegated to comedic subplots that felt incongruous with the drama going on elsewhere. These plots would occasionally intersect and make the entire crew look either oblivious or uncaring to the very real murders, thefts and various other crimes going on.

Supertrain’s premiere failed in the ratings and the program was eventually pulled for retooling. This mostly just amounted to putting some women in skimpy swimsuits on the train and calling it a day. Shockingly, that also failed to garner much interest, and the train was stopped a month later.

Taken as a whole, it is easy to see why Supertrain is regarded as a massive failure. The show’s enormous budget, coupled with the US withdrawing from the 1980 Olympics, nearly put NBC out of business. Maybe with better writing or a more engaging cast, the show could have thrived, but sometimes things are just doomed from the start. Sometimes a bad idea needs to be called out before it can grow. A lesson learned many times over, but rarely retained.

Next week: We move to the late 00s for a GEICO inspired flop, ABC’s Cavemen.

As always, thanks for reading! If you have any suggestions for future shows you want to see covered, leave them in the comments below. For more great content, follow me on Twitter @JesseSwanson.