Television Turmoil is a look at the worst and weirdest series to make their way onto the small screen.
When attempting to pinpoint the moment TV became a regular fixture in people’s live, most point to the 60s as that era. Television sets became more common in households and, as a result, writers and producers had to find new ways to hook audiences. If the 50s provided the base for what television was, the decade that followed found various ways to experiment with it. The sitcom was perhaps the most experimented genre of this era. From talking horses to hillbillies who hit the big time, networks were coming up with the wildest ideas to entice viewers. It was also the birthplace of the supernatural sitcom.
One of the trickiest subgenres to crack, the supernatural sitcom thrived in the 60s thanks in part to the success of two female-led programs, I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched. While the two shows had vastly different ways of writing their leading women, both understood why people tuned in. It wasn’t for the milquetoast male leads or the supporting cast. People wanted to see the antics of Barbara Eden and Elizabeth Montgomery (Jeannie and Samantha, respectively). In many ways, Jennifer Slept Here walks the path these shows created.
Debuting on NBC in 1983, Jennifer Slept Here was part of an effort by the network to put out the most ridiculous shows imaginable. Airing on Fridays sandwiched between orangutan-as-politician program, Mr. Smith and previous entrant, Manimal, Jennifer Slept Here was low concept in comparison. Ann Jillian stars as the titular Jennifer Farrell, a movie actress who passed away in 1978 and is now a ghost. When her home is purchased by the Elliot family, Jennifer mentors and befriend oldest son, Joey (John P. Navin Jr), but only he can see her. This leads to various gags where the family questions Joey’s mental state, but never actually tries to get him help. Rounding out the cast are Joey’s parents, George (Brandon Maggart) and Susan (a very underutilized Georgia Engel), as well as Joey’s precocious sister Marilyn (Mya Akerling) who exists mainly to have a cute kid on screen. Joey’s friend, Marc (Archie Comics’ very own Glenn Scarpelli) also appeared frequently, usually to make a situation worse.
Unlike most of the shows I’ve covered, Jennifer Slept Here isn’t terrible. In fact, I’m willing to call it perfectly cromulent television. If you can get beyond the layers of 80s cheese and ignore the implications of a teenage boy hanging out with a hot female ghost only he can see, there is a fun program here. It even boasts one of the best TV theme songs, performed by Joey Scarbury, the mind behind The Greatest American Hero intro. What more could you ask for?
Most of the episodes center on Joey getting up to typical teenage shenanigans while Jennifer attempts to teach him about life, usually with the help of her ghostly powers. Sometimes the rest of the family is also involved, but that is rare. Like the shows I mentioned up top, Jennifer Slept Here knows what people came here for. Ann Jillian is the star, and she does a great job playing Jennifer as someone desperately clinging to her life. Also like those 60s programs, the show will go as wacky as possible if they think it will land a laugh. There’s an entire episode involving an exorcist (played by Zelda Rubinstein, naturally) who traps Jennifer in a bottle, which will supposedly remove her from our plane of existence. It doesn’t, of course, but the show does revel in a shot of Joey laughing at Jennifer’s bottled existence that borders on horror.
While the wackiness might have turned off some viewers, it’s more likely that airing opposite The Dukes of Hazzard hurt the show’s chances. Jennifer Slept Here was all but officially canned when NBC aired repeats during the summer only for the program to find its audience. With reruns frequently landing in the Top 30, the network was ready to give Jennifer another shot at life, only to be thwarted by another revival.
By summer of 1984, Ann Jillian agreed to join the cast of her old show It’s a Living, which was being revived in syndication, effectively cancelling Jennifer Slept Here regardless of network desires. The revived It’s a Living was a success running for 4 seasons. Jillian would stay on for just a single season before departing after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
During her treatment, Jillian became a vocal advocate for cancer research and prevention, helping to destigmatize breast cancer and spread awareness. Jillian eventually beat her cancer and even became the subject of a made-for-TV movie, The Ann Jillian Story, where she played herself. She mostly retired from acting in the 90s to raise her son and continue promoting breast cancer awareness.
As for Jennifer Slept Here, it has mostly fallen into the obscure pile like many of the shows found in this column. While it never reached the heights of the programs that inspired it, Jennifer was a good example of what makes the supernatural sitcom work. Buying into its own wackiness, but never at the expense of the comedy. It has more genuine laughs than groans, and that is always a welcome surprise.
Next Time: We remain in the realm of the supernatural with the TGIF head-scratcher Teen Angel.
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.