What Went Wrong?
About This Column::
Good ideas, good qualities...BAD flaws; that's the trouble with many promising entertainment products. Every once in a while there's that one product (movie, television, video, or game) which had it all --concept, sound, visuals-- yet fell like a rock because of a few grating mistakes. Techtite's "What Went Wrong?" commentary examines such titles.
Earlier What Went Wrong Columns :---Montezuma's Return (PC)
For the current WWWrong page, click here.
An Analysis Column, by Techtite
The current entertainment product discussed is:
Mork & Mindy
(TV series, ABC, 1978-1982)
Getting into the bigger blunders in entertainment history --not just the pitiful blunders that were struggling to begin with-- let's tackle one of the once-best of shows, collapsing into the worst of shows in just one year's time: Mork & Mindy. What was at first a successful spin-off of Happy Days was reduced to near-garbage in short order...only to be cancelled, gratefully, at the end of that season. What Went Wrong?
As always, let's first be fair, and cover:
What Went Right? Not too long ago, an older, wiser, 1977 ABC network was riding high with Happy Days and its new spin-off, Laverne & Shirley. It was around that time that a little film came out in theaters called Star Wars, and who else would be demanding sci-fi TV shows than the son of Happy Days' creator, Garry Marshall. An episode of Happy Days was aired February 1978, where Ritchie (Ron Howard) dreams of meeting an alien named Mork (Robin Williams). Nobody would've predicted the popularity this episode had, leading to a demand for a spin-off series as early as the very next season! A new ending was shot for summer repeats, where Mork was in fact no dream, and his next assignment would be Earth, 1978. Mork & Mindy was the result.
The premise was unique, to say the least. Unlike numerous sitcoms placed in New York or L.A., this series had Mork land in Boulder, Colorado. Unlike numerous alien sitcoms from the 1960's about little green men with antennae, Mork was a human-looking Orkan who just happened to drink from his finger and sit on his head. Even more unusual for 1970's sitcoms was how, in the beginning, it was far from the typical "will they or won't they?" show, though more often a show about friendship. Mork was an alien on a mission, however, so episodes would always end with his latest report to his boss, Orson, telling the kids watching what lesson was to be learned each week. In short, at its best, it was a very cute show.
It helped that the series starred a comedic duo like Robin Williams and Pam Dawber. While Laverne & Shirley kept trying to shroud the rivalry between its lead actresses, Pam and Robin had a friendly chemistry that enhanced the whole series. Of course, it helped that Pam was a good sport, as the "straight man" in a lot of goofier Robin Williams shticks. Whether Mork was acting like his emotions were "locked away" in season one, or when he made his wedding proposal to Mindy into a whole musical number in season four, Robin and Pam were as compatible as peanut butter and jelly. They made a very good team.
The resulting "Mork-mania" of the series, at its peak, nearly rivaled the fandom for Fonzie on Happy Days. Orkan words like "Nano-nano" and "shazbot" became common phrases by the water cooler. The Orkan handshake became a commonly repeated joke. Fandom for Pam and Robin would grow as well, with Robin moving on to Oscar-Winning movie roles, and Pam moving on to no less than 31 roles in film/TV ever since, with the only time taken off being to raise two sons with husband Mark Harmon. In this light, Mork and Mindy did live happily ever after.
Of course, to the series' writers, the best plus was the "blank check" they had in scriptwriting, thanks to this fictional alien from a fictional alien world. "Ork" was a piece of imaginative whimsy, left totally unknown --and mostly, right to the end, unrevealed-- so they could write in any oddball comic shtick as simply being "what Orkans do." If they saw Robin Williams perform a funny routine acting like a kid, suddenly Mork could reverse his brain patters to be a kid again; if Mork being an unemotional monotone Orkan was no longer funny, suddenly a mere kiss from Mindy can break him free of his emotional bonds, allowing Robin to be even funnier. The series' plots knew no boundaries.
Unfortunately, that was half the problem...
What Went Wrong? Leave it to a spin-off of the sitcom that coined the term, "jumping the shark," to inevitably jump the shark. For landlubbers who are unaware, jumping the shark refers to the moment in Happy Days when Fonzie, to settle a bet, ski jumps over a shark held in a cage in the water. This was a plot filled with lunacy --a shark held within a cage, near a public beach?!?-- though it was bad for the series in one other aspect; what could Fonzie ever do, that could top jumping over a live shark? The term "jumping the shark" was born. The show had peaked, and it was all downhill from there.
So, when did Mork "jump the shark"...? Around the time the script writers went too far with Orkan, other-world lunacy. Sure, Ork was the land where people flew in eggs and, as Mork once put it, "the sky is yellow and brown, and the plants are smarter than the people" (a line that led to the inquisitive response, "Pittsburgh...?" in a funny bit). However, did they have to initiate the stupidest plot thread in sci-fi history; the one all out-of-ideas sci-fi shows would rip off for years to come? The plot thread that implied:
What this boils down to in the "Real World" is this: poorly directed, obnoxious child actors would act like the snooty "elders" from Ork. Meanwhile, older, respected, veteran comics would be Orkan "little kids," acting like they were toddlers who had to go potty. Oh, brother.
This concept wasn't just stupid; it was contradictory. Mork always gave his reports to Orson, who was clearly a deep-voiced, older actor. Are we to believe Mork was contacting some mere "infant" with these reports? Furthermore, it implied that Mindy was being romanced by a "man" who would soon be, in fact, a teenager, and later a young boy. If the series is ever to have a "reunion special," Mork would have to be played by an 8 year old!!! Clearly, this was a concept without any thought behind it.
This made even less sense, when the common sitcom ratings ploy was used; Mork and Mindy would be married, and have a child. You can imagine what sort of "adult baby" idiocy ensued; Mork would get pregnant --yes, MORK-- and give birth, through his navel, to a small egg. The egg would grow, and out would pop a grayish-haired Mearth (from Earth), played by veteran comic Jonathan Winters. The poor guy!
How bad was the concept of "Mearth"...? Pretty bad. If the writers were on hard drugs while concocting this storyline --which would explain a lot-- they sobered up fast...with no idea where to go with this joke after its delivery. So, Mork and Mindy have a senior citizen baby...now what??? Not even the great Jonathan Winters knew what to do with the role, delivering jokes with little more humor than calling Mork "mommy" and Mindy "shoe." Every time Winters was on screen, it was painful to see a distinguished comic acting like he needed his diaper changed. Fans could take this only so long, as dropping ratings made very clear. Mercifully, this 1982 season would be Mork & Mindy's last.
Does the story end there? Sadly, no. The original "season" finale was to be a cliffhanger --D'OH!!!-- that left Mork & Mindy trapped in time until season five. Silly scriptwriters; there would be no season five, so for all intent and purpose, the last "real" episode was a total downer. In this three-part storyline, Mork would be threatened by an enemy named Kelnik...Mindy's home was destroyed...Mork's secret is revealed to one and all on Earth...and worst of all, in the confusion of attempting escape, Mork's family would be trapped in time, trying to find their way back...forever! Say it ain't so, Frank Marshall!
On the one hand, it was nice for ABC to give the show enough advance notice about the cancellation, so they could tape one more episode, and end the series on a "happy" note, not a cliffhanger (if only ALF was given as much respect from NBC!). On the other hand, such advance notice was clearly not early enough; the final new episode to ever air --"The Mork Report"-- was an obvious rush job, and a very bittersweet farewell. Mork wishes to get a promotion from Orson, by reporting on married life (um...after being married for nearly a year by now...wouldn't he have made such a report already?), leading Pam Dawber, Robin Williams, and Jonathan Winters to plod along while everything goes wrong and oh gee the pot on the stove is boiling over yada yada yada. This isn't even getting into how this "finale" resolved the open ending of the cliffhanger from the prior episode: by ignoring it completely! As much as I agree that such bad memories are best forgotten, fans deserved a resolution to its story, not just a post-it-note "happy ending" tacked on the series finale.
It deserves concluding this commentary by reminding fans that, at its peak, Mork & Mindy garnered Robin Williams a Golden Globe, won Dawber and he a People's Choice Award, and was only #3 in the ratings in its first season. I guess the lesson Mork would send to Orson about all this is; feel free to let your sitcom ideas fly free. Just make sure your feet are still on the ground when you do. Nano-nano!