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 again."

    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.