Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What is the worst show you’ve ever reviewed? Why was it so bad? Did you waver over the grade or rating you gave it?
Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter
I’ve compared “Mixology” to contracting TV herpes, “Fuller House” to exhuming a bloating, gaseous corpse and called “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders” the perfect xenophobic TV show for Trump’s America. Still, there’s little doubt that no show has ever made me so irate for its mere misguided existence than a little show called “H8r” on The CW. If you don’t remember “H8r” the premise was this: Mario Lopez drives his F-list celebrity friends like Snooki around in a limo humiliating random civilians who had the temerity to post slightly negative things about them online. The entire premise was that celebrities, most in this case famous for absolutely nothing, don’t just deserve protection against anonymous online trolls, but that it’s a service to go around exposing, badgering and mocking those trolls. Somehow, the execution was even worse than the concept, with Mario Lopez lurking in the corner smirking his bedimpled smirk the entire time. A medium that once allowed devoted viewers to become “Queen For a Day” made the brief-but-ill-fated transition to declaring viewers weren’t worthy of having voices at all. It’s a true low point for the entire medium. From The CW to Mario Lopez, everybody associated with that show will forever have a black mark against their name, The CW to letting it on the air at all and Mario Lopez for believing in it so smugly.
April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics
I was asked to review “Leave It To Lamas,” a reality show that bowed in 2009. There were no redeeming features to that odious clunker. It lacked the joie de vivre of “The Osbournes” and was a “day in the life” multigenerational yarn with all the flavor of a reused tea bag. The family dogs had better-unscripted lines than the cast. It’s worth noting that Lorenzo’s parents – Fernando Lamas and Arlene Dahl – were amazing in their heyday, and even for what career material he was cast in, Lorenzo did well too. There was absolutely no need for a show like this. Don’t fret for E! (the network) which has since recovered mightily with the Kardashian juggernaut.
Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR
This one is easy, because it was so bad I still talk about it: UPN’s ill-fated 1998 comedy “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer.” This show wasn’t just terrible because it was an awful, cheapo UPN sitcom that stranded two actual TV talents, Chi McBride and Dann Florek. It was beyond awful because it featured McBride as Pfeiffer, a black British nobleman who becomes Abraham Lincoln’s valet in the White House. During the Civil War. When slavery was still a thing. UPN and the show’s producers tried to insist Pfeiffer wasn’t a slave – or making fun of slavery – while most TV critics tried to figure out why they were making a Civil War-era ripoff of “Benson” with Florek as Lincoln in the worst wig I’ve ever seen. I vividly remember McBride trying to intimidate me during a press conference by answering my incredulous questions with the old joke about some people being so sensitive they think the game of billiards is racist (white ball pushes all the colored balls off the table to win. Yeah. Awful.)
At a time when the word “normalization” is in vogue, I ask you to imagine what it felt like, as a black culture critic, to see a major TV network suggest Americans laugh at a comedy set in the Civil War starring a black servant. This was one year before that fateful fall season when every new show aired by the top four TV networks featured only white people in their core casts. Fortunately, even America wasn’t as oblivious as TV executives back then, and “Pfeiffer” died a quick death before the end of its first season, amid protests from the NAACP and certain TV critics.
Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine
Oh my god. In 1995, Showtime aired Howie Mandel’s “Sunny Skies,” a Canadian-produced sketch show that I think, was aiming to be a “Mad TV” with curses that would help Mandel shake off his “Bobby’s World” schtick and get him some grown-up cred. It was awful. Of the 13 episodes, only five aired in Canada. And they are kind to everything! But this was just a mess no matter where you lived. Unfunny bits, useless profanity and an across-the-board bad fit for the comic and his supporting ensemble…which included the great Stephen Root and Tim Bagley, as well as a young writer named Louis C.K. I had interviewed Mandel before screening it (this was back when they had to send us VHS copies) and in the piece, I followed his comment that he had gotten “to stretch every acting muscle for this show” with the assessment that unfortunately, it was the jokes that were stretched the thinnest. After the issue hit stands, his publicist called me and left a blazing voicemail, threatening to never let any of her clients talk to TV Guide Magazine ever again and declaring that, since “Howie was nice enough to give me an interview, I should have written something more positive.”
But that’s not this works. That’s not how any of this works.
Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Uproxx
One of the benefits of Peak TV is that I don’t have to review terrible shows nearly as often as I used to. Back in the day, I was obligated to write about every new show premiering, regardless of quality, so The Star-Ledger’s archives have essays from me about “Homeboys in Outer Space,” “Cavemen,” “Emeril,” “The Simple Life,” and too many other shows that give me a full-body cringe just thinking about. These days, there’s so much TV that I often don’t even finish watching, let alone write about, the absolute worst of the worst.
Still, sometimes exceptions have to be made, as I did a few years back for ABC’s “Work It!”, a show so terrible people still don’t believe it was a real show. It’s not just that it featured two guys cross-dressing — I used to own “Bosom Buddies” on DVD, people — but that it was part of a flurry that year of terrible “mancession” comedies (see also “Man Up!” and “Last Man Standing,” which actually stuck around a while) suggesting that men had been left behind and women now ran the world — and, in this case, about two men who decided the only way to survive would be to drag up and get jobs as pharma girls. Every character — the women suckered in by their terrible disguises in particular — seemed as if they were suffering from a brain injury, every joke and even every set was put together with as little effort as possible (the pilot has a scene at a nightclub with production values that a junior high school drama production would be embarrassed by). In the end, I had no regrets about panning it in my review — noting the trans community’s protests of it, I said, “’Work It’ could be seen as an insult to the transgender community, sure. But it’s also an affront to all women, and men, and thinking adults” — because it was bereft of both ideas and even the slightest bit of care by any member of the creative team.
Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com
The obvious answer would be “Under the Dome,” but I got so much enjoyment out of that “show” that it holds a dear place in my heart. Ditto for “The Event.” But one show that delivered no such love in any way, shape or form was ABC’s “Work It”, the cross-dressing comedy that still haunts my nightmares. Everyone knew it would be truly awful, yet it still managed to be even worst than that. “Work It” only lasted two episodes, but television is still stained.
Erik Adams (@ErikMAdams), A.V. Club
From what cobweb-ridden desk drawer did Woody Allen pull the overripe culture-clash concept that was then stretched thin across a half-dozen episodes in “Crisis In Six Scenes”? And how desperate for prestige was Amazon (or how Byzantine the filmmaker’s deal with the online retailer’s studio arm) that it didn’t just shelve this stinker and content itself with the fact that it was going to distribute Allen’s next few films? A year prior to its premiere, he told Deadline of the decision to do the series, “I have regretted every second since I said OK”; what sounded like characteristic self-deprecation in 2015 turned out to be an omen in 2016. I’ve given harsher reviews to shows based one or two episodes, but “Crisis In Six Scenes” is the worst show I’ve watched in its entirety for a review. I wound up damning it with faint praise, granting it a “C” on the basis of a few jokes that hit their landings, and the fact that even a bad Woody Allen project has a basic competency at its core. I was too lenient. For its leaden performances, for its warmed-over straights-versus-heads premise, for the feeling that its writer-director-star would rather be watching a basketball game than contributing to a medium that he clearly feels is beneath him, “Crisis In Six Scenes” deserved to be branded with what we at The A.V. Club call “the gentleman’s F”: A D-, an undignified mark signifying not spectacular failure, but rather unremarkable mediocrity from people capable of better.
Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire
So I recently reviewed “The Orville,” a show which has inspired a fascinating sort of dislike in me, largely because I was not that happy with how it callously ripped off “Star Trek.” But while it’s the first show I’ve ever been tempted to give an F grade (the ultimate grade ended up being a D) I am going to say that it does not beat Netflix’s “The Ranch,” a show which made me actively angry upon first viewing, and after the prankery of IndieWire’s own Ben Travers made it my mortal enemy. I can rewatch “The Orville” with minimal suffering. The scars of “The Ranch” will never leave me. Remember, Ben, the ancient Klingon proverb: Vengeance is a dish best served cold.
[Editor’s Note: Death is an experience best shared. – Love, Ben]
Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox
To be the worst TV show I’ve ever reviewed, a series can’t just have a bad pilot. Sure, it’s hard to overcome a bad pilot, and I’ve seen some stinker pilots over the years. But it’s also, ultimately, just an episode of TV. I can put it behind me easily enough. No, to be the worst TV show I’ve ever reviewed, I have to watch multiple episodes and I have to get the sense that the ONLY people the show could possibly be for are the people who made it and nobody outside of that circle.
Which brings me to Starz’s “Gravity,” a little remembered “comedy” about a suicide survivors support group that gradually became a show about a detective who had nothing to do with them. The detective was played by the show’s co-creator, Eric Schaeffer, who had hit every branch on the way down as he toppled from Hollywood’s heights. (The one TV show he made you might have heard of was FX’s “Starved,” mostly notable for airing in the same hour as the first seasons of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” It was canceled. “Sunny” went on to greatness.) There was a core of sweetness to “Gravity,” somewhere, and Krysten Ritter was a capable leading player. But the series was just too strange — in the premiere, Ritter, an atheist, went to Heaven, where she met her dream man, an Irish grifter, but none of this seemed to have much bearing on the plot or her worldview — to really connect, and after watching four episodes of it, I felt bummed out at all of the wasted promise. Even worse, “Gravity” was paired with Season 2 of my beloved “Party Down,” so I can blame it completely unfairly for that show’s cancellation.
I’ve probably seen shows I found more incompetent than “Gravity” over the years (here’s my review of it for The AV Club, which has lost its original F grade — a grade I did not struggle over), but I’ve never seen one that seemed to me to waste almost everything it had going for it almost immediately. It takes a special kind of badness to pull that off, and “Gravity” had it in spades.
Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), TVGuide.com
There are definitely other shows I loathed more and didn’t review, but ABC’s “Black Box” is the first thing that comes to mind. It took me days to get through the pilot and I still shudder when I think of Kelly Reilly’s impish dancing scenes. Did you know that Dr. Catherine Black is not only a brilliant neurologist but a brilliant dancer? But only if she goes off her bipolar meds. That’s when jazz music starts blasting too. Sounds familiar. The show may have had good intentions (the creator’s father is bipolar and a doctor), but it was insufferably annoying, trite and a tonal, woeful mess that was just buying time until her next twirl on the balcony. Excuse me while I go bleach my brain.
Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire
“Fuller House” represents everything wrong with reboot culture, in that it’s an incredibly lazy attempt to recreate what was once an earnest — and largely successful — bid at family comedy. “Full House” may not have been the best of its genre or era, but it was good! “Fuller House” could very well ruin those fond memories for nostalgic viewers and create a whole new set of awful ones for first-timers. It’s the only series that angered me, pained me, and worried me while watching.
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
A: “BoJack Horseman” (three votes)
Other contenders: “The Deuce,” “Outlander” (two votes each), “Halt and Catch Fire,” “The Lowe Files,” and “People of Earth” (one vote each)
*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.