In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, there were two types of TV shows: The ones featuring Norm and Cliff Clavin drinking beer, and ones starring orphans being sassy. Cheers holds up as among the best TV of all time. History hasn’t been quite so kind to shows with orphans.
America’s infatuation with parentless children began 90 years ago with the birth of Lil’ Orphan Annie in 1924. The precocious red head charmed Americans in the newspaper and on the radio for a half century. Through Depressions and World Wars, she was a constant source of adventure and optimism. Following the Broadway revival of Annie in 1977, came the idea to bring darling orphans from the big stage to the small screen.
Good Times (1977) – Faced with dwindling ratings and the departure of Esther Rolle, CBS turned to their own pre-teen orphan a mere four months after Annie’s Broadway breakthrough. A young Janet Jackson became the Neil Armstrong of television castaways. The show went further into the tank over the next few seasons but the seed had been planted. Open your hearts, America. The orphans, are comin’!
Diff’rent Strokes (1978) – Feeling the sea change in television, NBC decided to up the ante and offer the world a show based around not one but TWO orphans. But, if we’re being honest, America was only paying attention to one of the newly adopted kids – Arnold (Gary Coleman). If the show revolved around Willis (Todd Bridges), it wouldn’t have made it to Christmas. That guy was more of a throw-away character than Scooter on The Muppet Show. Strokes was a ratings smash. Arnold had a kung fu grip on America’s heartstrings and wasn’t letting go anytime soon.
Mork & Mindy (1978) – Determined to not get left behind in the orphan arms race but apparently unsure how to cast young children, ABC decided to spin off their hit Happy Days with an unconventional jetsam character of its own – Mork. Though technically not an orphan, the show was about a kindly woman who takes in an innocent and teaches him about functioning in the world. We see what you did, ABC. We see.
The only thing Hollywood loves more than a fresh idea is trying to create a carbon copy of that fresh idea. If there can be two movies about Olympic distance runner Steve Prefontaine, you can bet there will be duplicates of the orphan trend. These shows were no exception.
Webster (1984) – The prolonged success of Diff’rent Strokes turned network executives into full-on orphan junkies, turning anywhere possible for a quick fix. Sitcoms were being reworked just to get parentless children in the fold. The precocious phenomenon known as Gary Coleman made the idea of a charming black kid with a growth problem a commodity more sought after than the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. Enter Emmanuel Lewis as Webster. The Webster producers always insisted that it was not a rip-off but, let’s be honest, Deep Impact and Armageddon had less in common than Webster and Diff’rent Strokes.
Punky Brewster (1984) – Seeing America’s reaction to an extremely old man taking in abandoned young children on Diff’rent Strokes, NBC went back to the elderly adoption well with Punky Brewster. Punky followed that tried and true formula of mom-abandons-denim-and-bandana-clad-girl in a shopping mall; girl decides to squat in an apartment adjacent to a single old man; old man is awarded custody by Chicago social services. Essentially, Punky was her adoptive father Henry’s precocious Life Alert bracelet.
Rags to Riches (1987) – Not convinced America was tired of Annie, NBC rebooted the singing orphans with Rags. The premise – a millionaire playboy adopts six orphaned teenagers to live in his Bel Air mansion. Each week the girls sing and perform music videos bankrolled by the playboy. That seems completely reasonable and not at all creepy, right?
A couple shows featuring parentless kids were churned out and quickly dismissed by the American public. 1980s America was OK with a former B-movie star being their President but they were never fully able to embrace sister orphans.
My Sister Sam (1986) – A 16-year old girl from rural Oregon grows tired of living with her aunt and uncle after the death of her parents so she decides to move to San Francisco and live with her older sister, the photographer (and former Mork & Mindy star, Pam Dawber). As audiences slowly realized Mork wasn’t walking through that door, they turned the channel.
Double Trouble (1984) – Mischievous identical twin orphans! Well, at first they lived with their dad in Iowa. But after some network re-tooling, the spunky teenagers were relocated to New York City and forced to live with their kooky aunt. As the old saying in television goes, get higher ratings or we’ll kill off your father.
If we’ve learned anything from Biggie, it’s that when faced with a shortage of product, drug dealers cut supply with baking soda. It lessens the purity but it keeps the money rolling. These shows are examples of TV execs doing the same thing:
Small Wonder (1985) – After striking out with his nerd son (worst character in TV history) a scientist father creates a parentless child robot and adopts her. This show represented the Hollywood cry for help during the drug epidemic of the 80s.
Perfect Strangers (1986) – Mork & Mindy over? Time for ABC to revisit the adult orphan route. This time, instead of an alien, the writers took a rural farmer from a small Greek island and dropped him off in Chicago. You wouldn’t think a network could squeeze out seven years of jokes about an adult citizen from a developed nation navigating the Windy City. You would be wrong.
Alf (1986) – A wisecracking English-speaking alien crashes into the garage of a nerd family. They take him in and laugh as he systematically destroys their social life and repeatedly attempts to murder their cat.
My Two Dads (1987) – Nicole Bradford’s mom just died. The judge grants joint custody to the two men who were laying the wood to Nicole’s mom a dozen years earlier. Comedy ensues. Two small problems: 1) advanced paternity testing became available over two decades prior to the judge’s decision; 2) any woman who was juggling a tight-assed financial advisor as well as a mullet-sporting struggling artist, probably was a bit of a trollop. I’m guessing there were more than two potential dads.
Just Going Through the Motions
By the early 1990’s, orphans no longer equalled ratings. At the same time, there were still a few straggler TV execs who weren’t ready to quit. Grown up versions of the kids who still thought wrestling was real a good two years after the rest of us knew.
Growing Pains (1991) – Much like Good Times, the family sitcom starring Kirk Cameron was looking for a jolt in ratings after they ran out of story lines. Shockingly, the family show with zero redeeming children was able to survive seven painful years. In a last ditch effort to find America’s love, older brother Mike picked up a troubled, homeless Leonardo DiCaprio and the Seavers took him in. Not even the future-A lister could rescue the family full of whiners. The magic was over. The orphan era had reached its conclusion. Hit the bricks, kids without parents. Your days in show biz are over!
1980s orphans now being out of style like Z.Cavariccis, Hollywood moved on to the next phenomenon – neanderthals with hot wives. Years later, season four of The Wire showed us that being an orphan wasn’t really about canned laughter and group hugs.
Today, all that’s left of the orphan TV community is the BBC America’s Orphan Black, and that’s actually a show about human cloning. Looking back, it’s clear that none of these orphan shows from the 80s were remotely good. Well, at least we have Norm and Cliff on Cheers, a show whose greatest episode was titled “Thanksgiving Orphans.”