Television Turmoil is a look at the worst and weirdest series to make their way onto the small screen.
In the late 80s, the landscape of television was undergoing a major shift. Cable TV had reached a larger audience than ever before and was slowly growing outward. Syndication had also grown in that time as a home for programs cancelled by the broadcast networks. Both cable and syndication would continue to expand throughout the 90s, but in 1987 they were just testing the waters.
In the fall of that year NBC, looking to continue their run as the #1 network in the country, conceived of a new syndication package just for its affiliated stations. Branded “Prime Time Begins at 7:30,” the initiative consisted of five cheaply made sitcoms that would air weekly in an attempt to attract viewers away from the other networks. From this programming block spawned Out of This World.
Another in the 80s high-concept sitcom genre, Out of This World follows Evie (Maureen Flannigan), a teenager who discovers that she is a half-alien with the ability to stop time itself. These incredible powers are mostly used for sitcom shenanigans as Evie and her mother, Donna (Dobba Pescow) try to go about their daily lives. Tagging along is a series of one-note characters, the most prominent being Beano (Joe Alaskey), Evie’s portly uncle who appears to have a Sisyphean desire to consume all food. Evie and her mother also regularly deal with their small town’s mayor, Kyle Applegate, played by the inspiration for Troy McClure himself, Doug McClure.
Then, of course, we get to Evie’s deadbeat alien father. Evie’s father, Troy, is from a distant planet known as Antares Prime and left years ago to return to his people. For reasons that the show never really clarifies, Troy cannot return to Earth permanently and must communicate with his family via the power of The Cube, which is essentially an intergalactic telephone. All of this is a prelude to the shocker that none other than Burt Reynolds voices Evie’s never seen, only heard father. By the late 80s, Reynolds career had fallen on hard times, although not quite hard enough to appear as Troy. Troy’s rare in-person appearances all happen with his face obscured like an extraterrestrial version of Vera Peterson.
Much of Out of This World plays out like a precursor to Sabrina the Teenage Witch only with no talking cat to liven things up and a thick layer of 80s cheese. Typically, Evie uses her powers in a way that causes trouble and must undo it in 20-minutes or less. Every now and again, Evie also has to hide her powers from others. Something that is much easier to do when you can simply stop time as opposed to using magic. Either way, things are generally wrapped up in time for Evie to learn her lesson and have a heart-to-heart with her cube dad.
As far as high-concept sitcoms go, Out of This World is painfully generic. Even by the admittedly low standards of 80s sitcoms this show fails. It is a program where no one seems to try too hard. Not the writers, not the actors, certainly not Burt Reynolds, who often sounds like he is recording from his home while reading lines off a hastily scribbled notepad. Even the effects of Evie’s powers offer little as it mostly involves the cast sitting still while a shot of a paint can freezes or a drink is left half poured out. There isn’t much variety with this particular brand of time-stopping powers.
Airing on Thursday nights as a lead-in to NBC’s comedy block, Out of This World was the show from the “Primetime Begins at 7:30” experiment most likely to succeed. By the end of the 87-88 season, NBC canned the initiative after three of the five programs drew less than the competition. Out of This World was one of the two shows that found life in weekend syndication after. It is easy to see why, outside of stronger ratings, the show continued. It was a family sitcom that was cheap to produce and easy to put on when you wanted your kids to just shut up for 30 minutes. It was the rare example of a show in this feature that found success. The program ran for three additional seasons in syndication and continued to be broadcast into the mid-90s.
Ultimately, Out of This World was bargain bin TV. The stories have been told before, the characters are a single trait amplified to 10, and even the canned laughter rings hollow. What it offered was something that was just becoming a hot commodity in the 80s: content, mindless content. Something to fill the hours that had a chance of appealing to a demographic. Our thirst for more content still continues today and one could argue that little has changed quality wise, but at least the skip button is faster now.
Next Time: Break out your saxophones as we head back into the world of superheros with Night Man.
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.