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Tune in Tonight: "Supertrain, Episode 1"

Tune in Tonight: "Supertrain, Episode 1"

Devin Nunes' release last week of what was supposed to be a shocking memo carefully enumerating when, how, and with whom Hillary Clinton collaborated to steal the Presidential election from Donald Trump turned out to be, of course, nothing, changing no one's mind on either side. It was a grand display of hubris, the conviction that you could present bullshit to the masses, and they'd not only eat it up, they'd ask for seconds. Hubris, of course, is what powers both politics and the entertainment industry. Sometimes, it's just effective enough to succeed, and then other times, it's a glorious, legendary flop, leaving wasted time, ill-spent money, and ruined careers in its wake.

Sometimes, you end up with Supertrain.

Supertrain was such a flop that it actually became synonymous with the word "flop." An hour long comedy/drama/action-adventure/mystery/etc. that could be reasonably described as "Ayn Rand's The Love Boat," it failed so hard that it nearly bankrupted NBC. It was overseen by network president Fred Silverman, who had had a remarkable run at ABC, greenlighting The Love Boat, Fantasy IslandCharlie's AngelsThree's Company, and Laverne & Shirley. At NBC, however, he seemed to build a retainer wall of shit, approving Hello, LarryPink Lady and JeffSupertrain, and the hiring of Jean Doumanian to replace Lorne Michaels on Saturday Night Live, in barely a two year time period. 


Not just a failure, but an expensive failure, each episode of Supertrain cost $4 million to produce. That's $13 million in modern dollars, or twice as much as it costs to produce an episode of Game of Thrones. One can assume that most of the money went into miniature trains and set design, since virtually nothing went into the script. That was fine, though, the train was all that mattered, so hyped up it was even featured on a Today segment, one in which Tom Brokaw could barely contain himself from laughing. But who would have the last laugh? Well, Tom Brokaw, because Supertrain is terrible.

The two hour premiere episode, wonderfully titled "Express to Terror," opens with business tycoon Winfield Root (Keenan Wynn) announcing his plan to build an atomic powered luxury passenger train capable of traveling from New York to Los Angeles in just 36 hours.  To clarify, that's not any faster than standard Amtrak trains ran at the time; nevertheless, the board members of Root's company react to his announcement in "watermelon watermelon" muttering shock, with one grousing "You're letting your psychotic fascination with railroads lead you into a suicidal gamble with the future of this company!"

As you wonder why he didn't say "You're letting your psychotic fascination with railroads derail the future of this company!" (I mean, it was right there), plans for Supertrain go full steam ahead (see, it's not hard). It boasts the finest in futuristic 70s decor, meaning everything is burnt orange and silver, and the elevators are prominently marked ELEVATOR in a classy art deco font. Though the trip only takes a day and a half, Supertrain features a disco, a hair salon, a shopping center, a gym, and a pool, not to mention a staff large enough to run the Four Seasons (in fact, there's so much staff that most of them just stand around smiling at the guests). Before we even leave Grand Central, we see one of the predominant issues with Supertrain, both as a concept and as a show: trains don't have a lot of room in them. Their interiors are small because standard train tracks themselves are barely five feet wide. To the show's credit (and this is the only credit I will give it), it doesn't try some TARDIS shenanigans where it's somehow bigger on the inside than it looks. Everything on Supertrain is shrunk down to the point of claustrophobia. Some of the male actors fill the doorways they're standing in, and are inches away from their heads hitting the ceiling. There's something hilariously weird about how Supertrain is intended to be the future of luxury travel, and its pool looks like something you'd buy at Wal-Mart to keep your German Shepherd cool in the summer.


Nevertheless, even though an airplane is both cheaper and can make the same trip in a fraction of the time, the crowd is so eager to board this tin can on wheels that they shove past conductor Harry Flood (Ed Andrews) in the middle of his welcome speech. Supertrain's maiden voyage is the media event of the year, with both reporters and ordinary citizens standing outside in the snow to watch this thing slowly, painstakingly make its way out of the station. But, uh oh! The trip is barely underway before we see gloved hands planting a briefcase full of dynamite in one of the cabins. The cabin belongs to Mike Post (Steve Lawrence), presumably named in honor of the TV theme song composer, who owes some amount of money to someone. It's never really made clear, nor is his relationship with Stella Stevens, playing a pushy Hollywood agent, and Don Meredith as Rick, who might be an actor, but whose most notable quality is that he's an alcoholic.

When the briefcase is accidentally thrown off the train, the mysterious hitperson then traps Mike and Rick in Supertrain's steam room, breaking the doorknob and turning up the heat. It shouldn't take too long to kill them in this matter, considering the steam room is about the size of a linen closet, but they manage to escape. Who could the person who means to do Mike harm be? Could it be the silent, sunglasses wearing thug who's always lurking around wherever Mike is? Mike thinks so, so during a stop along the way (where Supertrain is greeted by a marching band and onlookers bearing signs that read WELCOME SUPERTRAIN), rather than getting off the train and fleeing for his life, he sets up an unnecessarily elaborate plan to trap the presumed hitman and leave him behind, risking the safety of both Rick, and Cindy (Char Fontane), the woman he's been flirting with since before Supertrain even left New York.


Of course that isn't who's trying to kill Mike, because we have more than an hour left. Nope, he was just an ordinary salesman, who just happens to dress and act like a minor character in Mean Streets. In keeping with the atomic powered tonal shifts in the show, which happen once every three minutes or so, Mike and his friends assaulting an innocent man and abandoning him in the middle of nowhere is treated like screwball comedy. This is also the case for the repulsive B plot, in which Winfield Root's granddaughter, Barbara (Deborah Benson), boards the train and almost immediately sets her cap for Supertrain social director Dave Noonan (Patrick Collins). Dave has all the charm and sex appeal of a tub of off-brand margarine, but Barbara gotta have that social director D, and it's up to the rest of Supertrain's staff to stop him from giving in to her seductive ways.

It looks as though the hitman might actually be Cindy's abusive husband, Jack (Don Stroud). But no, it's not him either, although he does end up trying to kill Mike. In a twist that has to do with mistaken identity, and somehow makes even less sense once it's explained, it's another character entirely, one who up until that point had maybe three lines of dialogue, thus making their reveal as the hitman far more puzzling than shocking. Mike ends up clinging to the outside of Supertrain in a fight for his life, while Root, in full Mayor of Amity mode, refuses to let a little thing like a murderer on the loose stop his maiden voyage. No, he insists that the best way to save Mike's life is to make Supertrain go faster, so fast that it sends crew and passengers alike flying backwards inside the train. Though in reality Mike should be rendered to a red smear, somehow this only incapacitates his would-be killer, leaving Mike just a little shaken up when it's over.


Supertrain triumphantly arrives in Los Angeles on time, having completed its journey with only four people violently killed along the way. Root announces that his thirsty granddaughter intends to be on board for the trip back to New York, and that Dave should "attend to all of her needs personally." Doh ho ho, the boss is all but ordering him to bone his sexy granddaughter, what's a bland, unlikable shlub like Dave to do? It's a living!

You know, some legendarily "bad" movies and TV shows don't always live up to the hype. Mostly, like Ed Wood's oeuvre, they're just boring. Supertrain, however, somehow manages to be worse than expected. It feels like it's shot in real time for every step of the titular railroad's 36 hour voyage, with long stretches devoted to a rivalry between Rick and a movie director played by George Hamilton that has no bearing on either the A or B plots, and the budding romance between Mike and Cindy, who generate all the heat of a wet matchbook. This is further padded by exciting "behind the scenes" shots of Supertrain staff polishing windows, choosing fresh fruit, serving drinks, and carrying luggage. If shots of a model train speeding through some unidentified part of the United States stir your bits, it's got plenty of those, but you have to endure the rest of the soap opera/action/goofy comedy that comes with it.


It tries to be a number of things--drama, comedy, thriller, even a touch of science fiction--all of it with breathtaking incompetence. You'd think it'd be in poor taste to follow up the smutty gag of Dave constantly being cockblocked by his co-workers with a scene in which Jack smacks around Cindy, but Supertrain does just that. The climactic scene in which Mike tries to avoid being either shot to death or pulverized is set to a disco beat, and the fact that four people died is far less important to Root than a broken window on Supertrain is played for sad trombone laughs. As with virtually all flop TV shows, it's impossible to believe that anyone, let alone Fred Silverman, who all but spun television gold for most of his career, could have looked at this and thought "Schedule it, don't change a thing." While no one ever confused The Love Boat with Masterpiece Theater, at least it was consistent in tone, and never tried anything like mixing gross, juvenile sex comedy with a subplot involving spousal abuse. Supertrain can't even maintain tone in a single scene, let alone an entire episode.

One can assume that Silverman and Co. thought that the audience would be too dazzled by Supertrain itself to be concerned about plot or character development. Alas, not to belabor a point, but what appears to be a hotel reduced to half its size and then laid on its side isn't the most exciting setting for a comedy/drama/thriller/mystery. It takes a huge suspension of belief to buy that someone could be sneaking around a train either cheating on their spouse or committing murder undetected, in hallways so narrow that two people aren't able to pass each other without ducking out of the way. A train with a pool sounds pretty fancy, until you see that the water looks like it would barely come up to your knees. There's a smug sense of "Wait till the rubes at home get an eyeful of this" to the whole proceedings, which makes it that much more unwatchable.

And yet...I have committed myself to watching all nine episodes of this shocking display of hubris, in what will likely be a far more grueling experience than watching all three Amy Fisher movies. I expect to come away from it born anew, but in a bad way, born already railing at rich out of touch network presidents and television producers whose success depends on believing that their audience will watch and love anything they show to them, no matter how lousy it is, as long as it cost a lot of money.

Original airdate: February 7, 1979

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