There's a local station that shows reruns of any sitcom it can find that's "family-friendly," and currently in the rotation is Charles in Charge. Yesterday I watched an episode. Why?
Because I think it's interesting to watch a really bad show, just to see why it's bad. And Charles in Charge may have been the worst sitcom of its era. But just because it's so bad, it's probably the definitive sitcom of the era. Any time you see someone trying to make fun of bad '80s sitcoms, they wind up channelling Charles in Charge. The blueprint of CiC was all over the South Park creators' That's My Bush, which basically took typical CiC characters and situations and applied them to the residents of the White House, thus creating a one-joke flop. Proving that you should never borrow anything from Charles in Charge, even when you're making fun of it. But anyway, here's what goes into a really bad sitcom, from the one episode I saw yesterday (I'd seen the show as a kid, as did almost everybody in or around my generation):
- A really bad theme song that belongs to no apparent genre of music
- A hero played by a guy who was added to Happy Days several years after it had already begun to suck (Scott Baio)
- The hero's dumb buddy, named, appropriately enough, Buddy. Buddy Lembeck, to be accurate. Among people of a certain age, the name "Buddy Lembeck" is kind of a magic incantation inducing laughter, a symbol of the worst in sitcoms, of a character so dumb you can barely tell how he breathes, of a perpetually fishy stare, of bad "jokes" that everyone in the audience can predict about ten minutes in advance. As an experiment, say "Buddy Lembeck" to someone who grew up in the '80s and see if they don't laugh, or at least recoil in horror. It's like saying "Erich Von Zipper" to a child of the '60s.
- Child actors who grew up too fast. This led to inappropriate, unintentional (I hope) suggestions of sexual tension between Charles and the girls of whom he was supposed to be In Charge, and that Lolita vibe may explain the show's popularity among people who love '80s camp.
- Produced directly for syndication and therefore shot as cheaply as possible, with only two sets, both of which look like they are going to fall over at any moment.
- Plots like this one -- at any rate, this was the plot of the episode I saw: Charles is dating two girls at the same time, and trying to keep one from finding out about the other. To his horror, he finds that Buddy Lembeck has volunteered him to be a judge in a beauty contest (conveniently held in the only other standing set, the local diner), and both his girlfriends are entering. Now who's he going to vote for? To make matters worse, both the girls of whom he is In Charge (I never could figure out if he's the nanny, or the bad-haired butler, or what) decide to enter the contest too. The girls, by the way, consist of a blonde airhead and a blonde feminist. The feminist initially wants to enter the beauty contest in order to condemn it when she gets up to speak, but she winds up liking the pretty dress so much that she wants to win as much as anybody. Now Charles has four contestants, all of whom expect him to vote for them. So he does the only ethical thing and votes for the only girl he doesn't know personally. But he learns his lesson when his girlfriends dump him and somebody throws food at him and Buddy signs him up to be the judge in another beauty contest!
- A studio audience that says "OOOOOH!" and "YAAAAYYYY!" when a character so much as sneezes.
Now, if your brain has not yet imploded from the very act of reading about a show like this, I'll conclude with two things:
1) The thing about watching a crappy '80s show is that bad shows were worse back then than any show could get nowadays. Today's bad sitcoms are basically mediocre but have a certain basic professionalism in acting, production values, script structure. A bad '80s sitcom like Charles in Charge or Small Wonder looks like it was created, written and directed by cave trolls. And that unbelievable amateurishness is part of the reason why people remember these terrible shows fondly, while nobody looks back fondly on the bad-but-well-made sitcoms of the '90s.
2) I think there's a good argument to be made that the really bad shows are not just badly-made, but morally repugnant. That is to say, if you look at a truly horrible show, you'll often find that it expects us to like characters who are in fact complete creeps, or that it presents sexist/ageist/ambiguously-incestuous plot developments as if there was nothing wrong going on. Look at the above plot description. Count the number of jerky, creepy, sexist, dumb things in it. And that's just one half-hour, minus commercials. This is what separates the worst from the merely bad in TV World: if good art uplifts us, a grade-F TV show makes us feel like worse human beings just for having watched it.
This is the first in an occasional series on Things That Suck.