Trio has distinguished itself as the channel for the thinking pop culture nut. From the ongoing “Brilliant but Cancelled” feature, which revives television shows that should have made it but didn’t (in July, for example, you can see the entire run of John Cassavetes’$2 1959 detective show Johnny Staccato) to the “Film Fanatic” series, hosted by Amy Sedaris, which lines up juicy double features every Saturday and Sunday night (one upcoming weekend combines Orson Welles’Othello with Neil LaBute’s Nurse Betty), its offerings are consistently fresh and surprising. Unlike the classic-TV lineups on TVLand and Nick at Nite, with their warm, nostalgic, drop-by-anytime quality, the programming on Trio is carefully curated, almost obsessional; imagine an evening with a friend who shelves his Rockford Files episodes in chronological order and won’t let you go home till you’ve watched every one. (I just hope that last month’s NBC/Vivendi merger, in which the American network, now known as NBC Universal, bought out the French entertainment conglomerate, doesn’t deprive Trio—one of NBC’s new acquisitions, along with USA and the Sci-Fi channel—of its uniquely quirky personality.)
This Sunday at 8 p.m., the network will premiere an original documentary, Flops 101: Lessons From the Biz, as part of its monthlong celebration of Hollywood’s great failures. Every night in June, the network will revisit examples of grandly failed television shows, movies, and even products (there will be documentaries about New Coke and the DeLorean car). In all, over 25 different programs are scheduled, ranging from David Lynch’s turgid Dune to Orson Welles’ unfinished career-ender It’s All True to the entire run of short-lived series like Steven Bochco’s Cop Rock (the singing-cop musical! With a score by Randy Newman!) or the bizarre My Mother the Car, in which Jerry van Dyke’s dead mother is reincarnated as a 1928 Porter. There are flops that should have made it, like the mysteriously underrated movie SoI Married an Axe Murderer (starring a young Mike Myers), and flops that should never should have been, like the excruciating Pink Lady and Jeff, a racially disturbing, decidedly unhilarious variety show from the Carter years that paired Solid Gold regular Jeff Altman with a Japanese girl-group. (See a clip here.)
Flops 101 proceeds under the assumption, voiced at the opening by theater critic Michael Riedel, that “While the show may be lousy, the story of the show, and why it flopped, is always compelling.” True enough; ever since Aristotle, our definition of drama has involved the fall of men from greatness, and, as several of the interviewees in Flops observe, most show-business shipwrecks are examples of just such tragic hubris. There is, of course, Ishtar (1987), writer/director Elaine May’s film whose very name (referring to the fictional desert country where the story took place) has become a synonym for “bad movie”—one critic dubbed Battlefield Earth “Ishtar of the Apes,” while Kevin Costner’s Waterworld was known as “Fishtar.” The segment devoted to May’s desert folly is one of the high points of the documentary, with actor Charles Grodin and others sharing their memories of the ill-fated shoot in Morocco. Production designer Paul Sylbert recalls May’s request that a square mile of sand dunes be leveled by bulldozer in order to capture a shot. “We could have done it in Brighton Beach,” he observes glumly.
The documentary is held together by an annoying voiceover in which an off-screen schoolteacher condescendingly lectures us, her “students,” on the basics of entertainment mathematics, a conceit that quickly gets too cute for its own good, and adds nothing to the inherently interesting material. After noting that Paul Simon’s disastrous Broadway musical Capeman lost $11 million, the teacher scolds: “Class, we could build a whole new school auditorium for that.” First of all: We? Huh? Second: For $11 mil, Frank Gehry could build the auditorium.
Still, if you can ignore the pedagogical intrusions—increasingly difficult as the hourlong doc wears on—Flops 101 is full of vivid storytelling from industry insiders: screenwriters, producers, and critics who clearly cherish the lore of Hollywood’s great bombs. Perhaps for legal reasons, Flops is short on actual clips from the often dubious works of art; the visuals consist mainly of still photos and press clips from bad reviews (“Capeman Investment Slip-Slidin’ Away,” reads one headline). But this just leaves more room for the talking heads to wax philosophical about what the various artistic disasters have in common, in an attempt to come up with a unified theory of flops. Entertainment writer Charles Fleming speaks of the “talismanic power” of flops, the way the industry needs to invoke them as if to ward off bad luck (“At least it won’t be another Ishtar“). Frank Rich of the New York Times points out that a true flop is one that not only ends careers, but brings down whole studios, as happened with Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, a legendary meltdown that went 600 percent over budget and helped lead to the demise of United Artists Studio. (Heaven’s Gate will be the subject of its own made-for-Trio documentary, Final Cut, premiering on June 13.)
If any one theme emerges in tale after tale of Hollywood hubris run amok, it’s that movie-star ego, outsized ambition, and somebody else’s money make a dangerous cocktail. Yet there are plenty of overblown, ill-conceived vanity projects that nonetheless manage to become runaway hits—Mel Gibson’s Passion, for example. Flops 101 promises “lessons from the biz,” but ultimately it leaves us pondering the same mystery that left Cimino, May, Bochco. et al., in the dust: No one can predict the mysterious combination of factors—overspending, bad press, miscasting—that will bring down any given project. Flops are like natural disasters, an inevitable—and inexplicable—part of the entertainment ecosystem. With Trio’s “Flops” festival running through the month of June, hurricane season is upon us.