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The Best TV Shows with the Worst Titles

Photo of Ben Travers By Ben Travers | Indiewire June 23, 2014 at 11:04AM

These TV shows are great -- there's no denying it -- but the titles they've chosen are of far less quality.
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Lena Dunham in "Girls" on HBO
HBO Lena Dunham in "Girls" on HBO

Terrible titles are rather prevalent on television, but usually the content is on par with the D-grade moniker. "Medium" wasn't a great show, but its title was worse. Same goes for "Ugly Betty" (let's just refrain from calling any young girl ugly, okay?), "JAG" ("What does that mean? I don't care." *changes channel*), and "Covert Affairs" (stop with the puns, USA). 

Even some new shows are suffering from BTS (Bad Title Syndrome). As compelling as the words "Halt and Catch Fire" become once you know the meaning behind them, they're impossible to deal with until then. AMC also dropped the ball with "Turn": Is it a pun? Was it a USA show first? Should I simply turn away or turn it off? No matter the interpretation (it's really talking about switching sides, or turning into a spy), it's far too passive a title to register the dramatic urgency of its show. 

What's even more surprising than a room full of creative thinkers, network executives and marketing reps moving forward with the aforementioned terrible titles are the shows that actually rose above them to become terrific entertainment. These seven shows are excellent on every level other than the first thing you see every week, front and center, flashed before your eyes to sum up what you're about to watch. The titles may have worked out in the end thanks to the outstanding content backing them up, but as titles in general there's plenty left to be desired. Now then, the list:

1) "Will & Grace"

What Were They Thinking?

Arguably, David Kohan, Max Mutchnik, and NBC were thinking about the characters on their show -- they were establishing a pun where Will not only refers to Will Truman, but his grown-up attitude in general. He was the will to Grace's, well, lack of Grace. It's here the play on words falls apart, leaving us with two names simply strung together. 

Why It Doesn't Work:

To be fair, "Will & Grace" wasn't the first show to just take two names and stick the "&" symbol between them. "Laverne & Shirley" tried it in 1976 (successfully) and plenty of new shows have incorporated it with mixed results ("Rizzoli & Isles," "Franklin & Bash," "King & Maxwell" -- wow, TNT has a pattern). Precedent doesn't make it original. In fact, it makes it the opposite. Despite glowing ratings for many of these shows, they're simply unimaginative, lazy titles that -- especially with "Wlll & Grace" -- fail to encapsulate the show as a whole. The show wasn't just about our two leads. Karen and Jack made "Will & Grace" last.

2) "Sex and the City"

What Were They Thinking?

HBO was looking at two things when it named its smash original series about four female friends living in New York City: 1) Candace Bushnell's book had the same name and was quite influential for the show: She wrote advice columns for The New York Observer, just like Carrie Bradshaw did for the fictional New York Star. Both women share the initials CB, and I can only imagine Bushnell also stared out her bedroom window in Manhattan, wondering about all things big and small. 

2) "Sex" was in the title. Recognizing its main leg up on the competition was that they were a premium network, able to show content the Big Four could not, HBO very much wanted to put its very naked selling point front and center. Obviously, it worked out just fine.

Why It Doesn't Work:

No one can say the title isn't accurate. Four friends talk about sex, have sex and wax philosophical about sex, all while living in Manhattan and exploring, honoring, and, of course, having sex on every corner of the island. These are the themes of the show. But Sarah Jessica Parker's star-making role transcended those themes quickly when she stopped talking to the camera. "Sex and the City" may not be as obviously simplistic as "Name & Name" but it is "Theme & Theme," with "and" instead of "&." It's fine, but it feels more like blanket coverage than a carefully constructed mission statement. Also, the very '90s title hasn't helped the show hold onto its once sterling reputation (and the film sequels didn't help either).

3) "Girls"

What Were They Thinking?

"Girls" was conceived to be a preemptive take on "Sex and the City," focusing on young women who had yet to establish themselves as professionally and personally as Miranda, Samantha, Charlotte, and, to a lesser extent, Carrie had when their show began. Unofficially, it was titled as such because people kept referring to it as "the show about girls." Seems ok, right?

Why It Doesn't Work:

Wrong. Let's move past the dozens of parodies mocking its title (mainly because they're shooting at an easy target), and onto more important issues like the infantalizing nature of a word like "girls." These aren't girls. They're women. They're old enough to get a job (though Hannah obviously doesn't appear fond of such things), have sex (now we're hitting her interests) and make important life decisions affecting their future. Calling someone a "girl" doesn't carry the same horrific connotation as "boy" can, when used in the wrong connotation, but it's a step in the wrong direction. (Even if it's meant as a self-aware commentary on the state of these four women/a generation of women, it's a line Lena Dunham skirts far too often anyway). 

4) "Cougar Town"

What Were They Thinking?

Remember when a "cougar" was a thing? Suddenly, all young men wanted to talk about was older women, approximately the age of their mothers. Creepy? Yes. Trendy? At the time. A good idea for a TV title? No. Bill Lawrence, Courtney Cox, and Co. tried their darndest to repurpose the title, incorporating new jokes next to it in the flashy Florida-driven title sequence every week. Still...

Why It Doesn't Work:

...the title has proven an insurmountable burden for some viewers, and had to contribute to ABC's axing the comedy before TBS picked it up. 

5) "The Sopranos"

What Were They Thinking?

This one's easy. It's the last name of the family in focus. Bada bing. There's your title.

Why It Doesn't Work:

Names only carry the lofty meaning now assigned to them after we witness the content that backs them up.

Before "The Sopranos" became "THE SOPRANOS," aka David Chase's iconic, barrier-breaking HBO drama, it was the title of an original program on a network yet to truly break out in the medium. Chase didn't have to use that last name, and again, names only carry the lofty meaning now assigned to them after we witness the content that backs them up. Plus, if you look were to say what's "a soprano" instead of "the sopranos," suddenly you're talking about singers. Is it a show about singers? No. Will your children ask you if that's what it's about? Yes. Try to avoid sending them to therapy. 

6) "Happy Endings"

What Were They Thinking?

David Caspe's "Friends"-esque comedy (without the Ross and Rachel drama and set in Chicago) always toed the line between family-friendly and overtly sexual, but that's not what they had in mind with the title. It was supposed to be a play on how life doesn't always give you exactly what you want, or at least not in the order you might expect. After the pilot, though, that never really became the theme of a show largely about nothing at all.

Why It Doesn't Work:

Ah, "Happy Endings." How I'd like to look back on you with nothing but fond memories. Alas, when friends inevitably ask what the show is about, their first assumption isn't a group of friends trying to stay that way after one leaves another at the alter. They think it's about a massage parlor giving hand jobs. Or they think it's somehow related to a fairy tale, which is closer to the truth. Still, Caspe may or may not be kicking himself, considering the critically lauded but ratings-starved comedy only lasted three seasons -- the title couldn't have helped.

7) "Trophy Wife"

What Were They Thinking?

Honestly, I have no idea. 

Why It Doesn't Work:

This one seems almost too obvious to include, but "Trophy Wife" is the most championed of this year's canceled shows (even more than "Community," which was at least given repeated opportunities to succeed). It deserves not only resurrection, but rebranding. Many wondered why the family-centric half-hour single-cam comedy wasn't paired with "Modern Family" for a killer hour of family programming. It made sense for ABC to bolster their freshman series with an established veteran; both appealed to similar audiences; both had large casts with familiar faces old and young; both even primarily about an older man marrying a younger woman to the chagrin of the rest of the people in his life. 

Yet while "Modern Family" skirted the issue by marketing itself as an ensemble comedy about more than just the dad, "Trophy Wife" put its young lady front and center, forcing audiences to focus on the hard-to-believe partnering. Putting those two titles together on a schedule would have never looked good to executives at ABC, no matter how much it made sense off the page. 


This article is related to: Television, Lists, Sex and the City, Girls, The Sopranos, Trophy Wife, Cougar Town, Happy Endings







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