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Monday, December 17th, 2012

'Woops!': Or How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Apocalypse

Sometimes TV shows drag their unfunny, uninteresting, yet highly rated feet across our living rooms for years. “Who let this happen?” we ponder as our foreheads turn red from frequent smacks. Other times, the powers that be get things right. That’s where “Brilliantly Canceled” comes in, looking at the shows that didn’t make it past their first season and saved us all a ton of grief.

This Friday, the world as we know it is going to come to an end.

During a parade in a small town, two kids are going to drive their remote control car in front of a float carrying a missile with a nuclear warhead. The missile will accidentally be launched from the kid's remote, leading to immediate retaliation from possibly a kid a hemisphere away also messing with his remote, leading to all but six people leaving this mortal coil.

And if Woops! is to be believed, in this post-apocalyptic world you will be in danger once every few weeks. You'll have to work together with your five new friends and roommates in a somehow unharmed house to fight a mutant spider. Then you'll have to fight a mutant turkey. You might become addicted to hallucinogenic berries. But the one pair of clothing you own and wear every week will never stink. The generator will keep the electricity flowing constantly unless it advances a plot, and you'll meet Santa Claus. You will be so preoccupied that you wont think about your dead loved ones at all.

We will soon find out whether or not the Mayans had advance knowledge that the world will end on December 21, 2012, or if they were simply lazy, but what we do know is that Woops! was a part of one of the more intriguing primetime lineups in television history. Woops! (not spelled Whoops! Sorry!) premiered on September 27, 1992 and concluded its run on December 6th of that year, flickering its images of post-nuclear holocaust despair with a laugh track at 10:30 p.m. EST on Sunday nights. It concluded Fox's four hour comedy block that featured a long running all time classic (Married…With Children), a not so long running, Emmy award winning classic (The Ben Stiller Show), completely forgotten shows that starred now recognizable names at the beginning of their careers (Tobey Maguire and Great Scott, Téa Leoni and Flying Blind), another high concept show known exclusively for the concept and not the actual quality of the show itself (Herman's Head), and Roc (Roc). But, Woops! is the only show from that night to make it onto TV Guide's Worst TV Shows of All-Time list.

Why was Woops! considered to be the 42nd worst show in all of times back in 2002? It's because creator and executive producer Gary Jacobs — who got his start writing on The Dick Cavett Show, eventually executive producing the three seasons of Empty Nest when it was at its most popular — boldly took the big leap of running a situation comedy where the situation was "there are six people left on Earth" before taking a step backward by having those people as your standard set-up and punchline machines. Viewers tuning in for a regular workplace comedy, or a sitcom revolving around a couple, were turned off by the premise alone; more adventurous viewers were put off by the same old comedic beats. Visually, the show already felt like a live action cartoon, with the characters wearing the same clothes in every episode, and its Land of the Lost special effects.

But only in some episodes would Jacobs and the writing staff embrace the inherit absurdity of their show and effectively become that rare breed of Live Action Sci-Fi Comedy, where the plots involved the weird environment affecting the characters. In the others, Woops! focused on the group dealing with one another and their disparate backgrounds, which was simply not as interesting or funny and instead felt perfunctory to lay groundwork for future episodes, so viewers can like the people they're watching. It wasn't the fault of the actors, but the awkwardness of caricatures trying to deal with human problems was very hard to shake. While a six person ensemble cast (two years before Friends. Just throwing that out there. You never know.), the one character that wasn't a broad stereotype, the one that that could therefore could nominally be the leader was bland, nice, inoffensive schoolteacher Mark Braddock, played by Evan Handler. Handler is known now as Harry from Sex and the City, David Duchovny's BFF and agent on Californication, and Hurley's BFF on Lost that tried to convince him to jump off a cliff that one time. It took a few episodes to figure out where I knew Mark Braddock from, because like all people, Evan Handler looked a lot different twenty years ago as opposed to now.

The other five characters were designed seemingly in an attempt to combine to represent the totality of Earth's population back when it was numbering in the billions. Alice McConnell was the Proud Feminist. Suzanne Skillman — a.k.a. Naaaancy? Nannnncyyy Taylor?!?! in Groundhog Day — was the vacuous, ditzy, pretty woman with Sex Appeal. Frederick Ross was The Minority (more specifically, The Black Guy.) Curtis Thorpe was The Wall Street Dick. Jack Connors existed to be Thorpe's polar opposite: a happy-go-lucky Homeless Man, who would gleefully play practical jokes and be grateful for having a roof over his head. (Connors would follow suit with the show and in later episodes become more of a cartoon: between flashes of supreme intelligence he was a moron, and despite having a home would put all of his belongings in a cart.)

One episode that had no science-fiction elements in it that worked fairly well was "The Election," an installment that was eighth in the production order but was the sixth episode aired so it could be shown two days before the Bush Sr./Clinton election. When the group decided that whoever kept the generator running should receive permanent residence in the private bedroom, a switch clicked in Wall Street Dick's brain. Curtis so badly missed having any semblance of power and desperately desired a permanent term in the private bedroom so much that he insisted an election be held between himself and Mark to determine who can live in the room without the masturbating former homeless man, choosing to ignore the fact that he doesn't know anything about generators. Mark knew all there is to know about generators, but he initially was no match for a determined Curtis. Wall Street Dick redefined himself after polls he conducted himself said he was impervious by speaking exclusively in a southern accent and accusing his opponent of not being "farm folk." It immediately swayed the other characters, even The Black Guy, who had been established as intelligent and used to be a pathologist. In response, Mark hired Alice as his campaign manager, who had Mark project youth, which meant jogging and shaking hands and speaking in the Kennedy accent. It wasn't enough since Curtis Thorpe obfuscated his lack of technical know-how by insisting he had a plan for the generator to never break. "But the plan is a secret. But I promise we will all become better looking, and possibly live forever." Alice found a smoking gun: A cancelled check written out by Thorpe to Mistress Morganna's Pain Palace. (Any ambiguity disappeared once the memo was read: "For bondage and discipline. I've been a bad businessman.") Mark refused to go negative, and was rewarded by losing because Suzanne forgot to vote. In the clever closing moments, the generator broke down. Curtis simply shrugged off his constituents' pleas to fix it. "But we voted you to a six year term!" The end. Someone was a democrat.

At worst, you can say "The Election" was kind of didactic, but during its best moments it exhibited a Stephen Colbert caliber humor and irreverence. The pathologist being swayed over nonsense? It worked there, because it was a part of a 23 minute long satire. But despite all that, "The Election" will never top the one episode that some people might actually remember from Woops!, the episode that best melded the show's dark undertones with its outré characterization, the final episode that ever aired, "Say It Ain't So Santa," better known as "That Episode When Santa Claus Dealt With Survivor's Guilt and Had a Mental Breakdown."

Stuart Pankin — who I best know as the jerk Principal in Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher for some reason, despite his lengthy IMDB page — played a Santa Claus dealing with the deaths of Mrs. Claus and his elves. At first, the gang obviously didn't believe that the man who was stuck in their chimney was really who he said he was, but when Santa knew of Curtis' private wish to Mr. Claus that he obliterate the entire ozone layer because he has massive stock on suntan lotion, they changed their minds. Things took a dark turn when Santa hit the egg nog pretty hard. ("I'm not driving!") After hearing some Christmas carols, Santa broke down and admitted to killing his wife and his employees. He claimed that out of panic he didn't open the fallout shelter when Mrs. Claus and the elves cried out for help. "I hope to God you never have to hear an elf scream," Santa Claus said, which was followed by one of the most inappropriate instances of studio laughter of all-time*.

* I wish any video from Woops! was available on YouTube for me to embed, especially that moment. I swam through the murky depths of the internet to find video of seven and a half of the ten aired episodes of this series and they are in a file format that to myself is impossible to transfer to a website-friendly one. Besides, uploading copyrighted material is illegal. I'm not willing to go to jail for this.

The entire second act and half of the third was predictably awkward after that revelation. Jack — who of course upon first seeing Santa ran and sat on his lap — now was almost apoplectic and was uncharacteristically angry. Santa insisted to be referred to as Clem, and proceeded to suck at any chore that fell under the umbrella of "farming." (Clem: "I am ready to go out there and hoe, hoe, hoe! Sorry. Old habits die hard." Jack (angry): "Like elves!") Santa wrapping the hay in wrapping paper we had never seen before or since instead of stacking them, or cooking a huge candy cane instead of regular food would be cute under normal circumstances, but his earlier revelation made it almost tragic, and the mood was — for lack of a better phrase — weird as all hell. It was only at the very end when the viewers mercifully discovered that Father Christmas cannot physically open a door, so he isn't a cold blooded killer. The reindeer picked him up because Santa regained the Christmas spirit, and he flew away (off-camera of course). The next morning, a huge tree magically appeared with lights and ornaments and presents. The episode ended with a masturbation joke. Merry Christmas.

With our current obsession over the end of days, I would not be surprised if this show gets a reboot, or something suspiciously similar to it in premise appears in the near future. If Woops! was on today, I can easily imagine conspiracy theories popping up on the internet over the mutant spider appearing as soon as Suzanne did, or endless speculation on Jack's tossed off comment in "Days of Berries and Roses" of "Makes you wonder about the people that lived here" as more and more random objects were fished out by the survivors in the house's attic. I can see reviewers commenting that the show was improving because even Wall Street Dick — the biggest cartoon of all, who in "Curtis Unglued" lost his tie and subsequently became comatose, only for the tie to be found and for Thorpe to believe it was 1986 — showed some character development in the Santa episode, when in a weirdly touching moment, Curtis and Jack realized that the former during one holiday season kicked the latter on 49th and 5th in New York City.

"Oh wait a minute. In a refrigerator box? Wrapped in a urine soaked blanket? That was you?!" Shakespearean veteran actor Lane Davies said, realizing the identity of the man he kicked before getting into his limo in a much simpler time. "Oh well that's just too much!" And then they hugged.

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  • ManfredYon

    Phew. I thought you were going to bag out Whoops Apocolypse