What Went Wrong?
A Review of the Fox live action Bill and Ted Series
Written by Linda Kay
What went wrong? In a word, everything. This short-lived series will
probably go down in history as one of the most ill-conceived, badly executed TV
series spin-offs ever made (and that's saying something).
Fans of the Bill and Ted movies were quite disappointed when this
series made its debut on June 28th, 1992. The series was produced for Fox after
many years of attempts to adapt the show for the network (the project was
delayed due to the release of Bogus Journey, when it was decided the sequel
would have to make so much money before work on the show would start . . . when
the movie brought in lower than expected returns, it delayed the series even
more). It was finally developed for television by Clifton Campbell,
who was also the executive producer. "I feel we did seven good
episodes," Campbell is quoted in the November 1992 issue of Starlog
Magazine, "The series came at a point when audiences had essentially been
flooded with Bill & Ted, but I felt we were able to give the audience a
different take on it."
In the same article, Campbell goes on to explain that
"Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, who wrote the original movie and sequel,
had an idea for the series that Fox wasn't too excited about. Then, Darren
Starr came up with an idea that Fox got excited about, and the show was on
Darren Starr was one of the people behind the hit Fox
series Beverly Hills 90210. This was undoubtedly their first mistake on
the road to disaster. One can only guess what idea Ed and Chris had
pitched to Fox and how much better it probably would have been!
Fox was primarily interested in T&A type shows at the
time, and as Alex Winter explained on a 1991 appearance on The Arsenio Hall
Show, "They came to us and showed us a script and said, 'We're doing this
show and it's like Porky's. You interested?' No thanks."
Arsenio had asked the question of why Alex and Keanu hadn't appeared on the
series, guessing it might be because they were movie stars and TV would be
beneath them. Alex explained this wasn't the case, it was simply that no
one asked for their input or suggestions, and what they were presented with was
not acceptable to them.
It wasn't a case of the
producers not knowing what they were doing. Campbell acknowledged they
took liberties with the original idea. "We felt that having Bill and
Ted go back and forth in time each week would get stale. So, while we knew
we had to keep the phone booth and the time-travel element, we also knew we had
to challenge that aspect. So, we played around with things a little
bit. In one episode, we took them into another dimension and into a cable
TV system. In another, we shrunk Ted down to the size of a
raisin." (I'm not sure if this episode was ever filmed or not, but no
such episode ever aired.)
But the biggest key to the show's downfall comes when
Campbell explains about what he felt was another hurdle the show had to
overcome. "It's difficult to do a series where the lead characters
don't grow or have an evolving arc. Bill and Ted stay Bill and Ted, so the
challenge in creating scripts was to come up with stories that were wrapped
around incidents they bump into in their everyday lives. The idea was that
Bill and Ted are basically fish out of water, dealing with things that don't
make sense to them."
This whole philosophy is nonsensical, especially to fans
of the Two Great Ones. The characters don't grow or evolve? They
never learn anything? And while Bill & Ted may be considered fish out
of water, they are in a sense, but they don't feel out of place anywhere or with
anyone. It's not a case of them not understanding what's going on around
them, they just narrow it down to its rudimentary element, dealing with things
in a very straightforward and practical way. They don't treat Socrates or
Genghis Khan any differently than they would anyone else. The
possibilities for stories about The Two Great Ones should be limitless, as
they're classic comic characters. And to say this is a hindrance to a TV
series is ridiculous. Does Ralph Kramden ever stop being a pompous
know-it-all? Does Lucy ever stop getting herself and everyone else into
trouble? Television audiences want their TV characters to stay the same,
otherwise a series would have no stability.
Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventures starred Evan
Richards as Bill, Christopher Kennedy as Ted and Rick Overton as Rufus.
The show also starred Don Lake as Mr. Preston, Lisa Wilcox as Missy-Mom, Mat
Landers as Detective Logan and former Toon Jockey Danny Breen as the newcomer
to the Bill and Ted universe, Mr. Kielson - the ever flustered manager of Nail
World, the hardware store in which Bill and Ted work.
Campbell cites It's a Totally Wonderful Life as one
of the best examples of the show. Fans generally agree it is about the
worst. Rufus is worried about a dream he has regarding the Two Great Ones
and goes back in time to try to prevent anything from happening, but instead he
causes the problem and Ted is sent to military school, which eventually leads to
Bill and Ted becoming mortal enemies. It isn't implausible that Rufus
might make a mistake of some kind, but his mistake is to accidentally write
Chicken Kiev instead of Detective Chet Logan down to have the name engraved on
an award at Nail World. When the award is presented to "Chicken
Kiev" (no one would catch the mistake beforehand?), Ted's dad is mortified
(he hates chicken kiev), Ted blames Bill for the mistake, and they end up hating
each other. The idea of Bill & Ted ever hating each other is so far
removed from fans' minds it was painful to watch but even doubly so to have it
happen over such a stupid incident.
With such attitude behind the project, it's no wonder the
actors didn't understand or care about the characters they were playing.
Their performances (in both the live action and animated episodes they did for
Fox) are flat and lifeless, with them sometimes even throwing contemptible looks
at people. While the actors reportedly did have brief, informal
conversations with Keanu and Alex, they said their ultimate take on the
characters came from the movies themselves.
Evan Richards (Bill) was said to have winced when asked
about the show for Starlog Magazine's November 1992 issue. He went on to
explain that it wasn't a horrible experience. "It was
kind of goofy at times. Sometimes we would feel pretty stupid about the
whole thing because these characters don't seem to have a whole lot on the
ball. But actually, they're not so much stupid as just naive."
He later says, "We would be on location in some strange neighborhood,
having to react to effects that weren't there and saying things like 'Bogus,
dude.' We felt like we were playing a couple of idiots." (He
had similar complaints about doing the voices for the animated series, stating
that "We had to be real spastic all the time, yelling 'Hey dude,' and not
really knowing how our voices would match the cartoon expressions.")
Could anyone imagine Keanu or Alex saying they felt that way about Bill and
Ted? Evan Richards did go on to say, "But then we realized that Bill
and Ted simply had an attitude that was different. Their logic is totally
separate from what the rest of the world knows."
This change in attitude is confirmed by one of the
directors of the series, whom this author had a chance meeting with at an
airport terminal. When asked about how the actors did in the series, he
simply said, "They got better."
The episodes themselves are a hit and miss affair; mostly
miss. Scenes from the unaired pilot (which was a part one of two, but it's
never been confirmed that part two was ever filmed) can be seen in the opening
theme song of the series. They are the black and white scenes showing a
gangster's car shooting at Bill & Ted in their phone booth. This
episode finds the dudes obtaining their jobs at Nail World, a hardware store run
by Mr. Keilson who's a comic version of an authoritarian figure (neither scary
nor particularly funny). They are offered the jobs only if they will
date one of his young relatives, who is known for not being able to get a
date. Bill & Ted flatly refuse, saying she's a dog. (This is Bill
& Ted??) The plot of the episode actually involves Bill & Ted's
wandering into a black and white comic book and bringing the monochromatic
heroine back to San Dimas with them. Another disturbing scene involves
Missy Mom asking Bill to rub suntan lotion onto the backs of her legs.
This takes the whole Bill / Missy Mom thing into a rather disturbing and
unpleasant area. It's one thing for a young man to gawk at his
mother-in-law, who just happens to be slightly older than him, but quite another
for her to ask him to rub the back of her legs! (And besides, who can't
reach the backs of their legs?).
Thank goodness two elements of the original theme song in
the pilot were dropped. The first was showing Rufus preaching at the
Church of Bill and Ted, and the other was him opening his sermon with the words
"Life was a bitch for Bill and Ted . . . " In episode one,
entitled Nail the Conquering Hero, fans realized that something was
amiss. Even in the very first scene, which shows Bill & Ted time
traveling from a nine hour session of playing video games (they have to time
travel to play video games?) and talking about how they can't be spending their
paychecks on video games and Frosted Slushies (that's what they call them!) if
they ever want to make a video. Bill indicates he is drinking a Frosted
Slushie, but the cup is a regular cup, the type one would more typically get
coffee in, and doesn't even have a domed lid! A small point, to be sure,
but when simple details like that aren't right it does make a difference!
The first episode of the series also revealed another
bizarre change, when Rufus was shown taking the dudes' place at Nail World
(while they're chasing Mr. Keilson through time) and talks a customer into
buying more water sealant by lowering his sunglasses and staring at the
man. A twinkle in his eyes later, the man is buying more sealant.
Where in the annals of Bill & Ted's canon was it ever implied that Rufus had
magical powers? The Three Most Important People, maybe, but Rufus, no).
Not all of the episodes were completely terrible.
The second of the series, The Lives That We Live, was actually quite
funny and had some good moments. If more of the episodes could have been
like this one, the series might have had a chance and the fans could have
forgiven their blatant disregard for what made the original characters
click. The reason this episode probably works so well is because the
supporting characters and situations (those in the soap opera spoof) are funny
in and of themselves. This episode was very close in attitude to another
movie spin-off series called Weird Science, which was a very creative and
inventive series for the USA Network.
The episode in which they bring The King to the present
day to participate in an Elvis lookalike contest was an interesting idea and
yielded some good moments (especially when Elvis loses the contest!).
However, the next episode has them dreaming of their Destiny Babes,
totally ignoring the fact they had already fallen in love with the Princess
Babes (an oversight true Bill and Ted fans are hard to forgive). The idea
of them bringing Casanova to the future to give them tips on winning women was a
cute one, though, and a scene in which they "tune" their air guitars
was kind of cute.
Harder to enjoy on any level was Deja Vu, an
episode which introduces Ted's mother as a jealous woman catfighting with Ted's
teacher (a former love interest of Detective Logan's) in the hall of San Dimas
High. This kind of thing was just completely out of place in the Bill and
Ted universe. The final episode of the series, Stand Up Guy,
Clifton Campbell himself admitted was the weakest of the series, saying they
just couldn't figure out what to do with Einstein wanting to be a stand up
comedian. Even Arte Johnson's performance as Einstein couldn't make anything
of this completely pointless and boring entry.
When Arsenio Hall asked Alex in 1991 if he'd seen any of
the series, Alex said he had, but didn't continue. When pressed further,
Alex decided it was okay to speak his mind (since Arsenio wasn't aired on Fox
anyway) and said, "Okay, I'm going to look right in that camera and tell
you the truth. It stinks, ladies and gentlemen. They really missed
the boat." Even though the show didn't air until almost a year later,
fans were to find out for themselves that Alex was absolutely right.