Tune in Tonight: "W*A*L*T*E*R"
If you were born between 1960 and 1975, you grew up in front of a television that was playing M*A*S*H. Regardless of where you lived or what socioeconomic class you were in, you watched it, or at least, your parents did, which meant you did by default. The only kids who didn’t were those who grew up in weirdo hippie homes without television, raised by parents who made them eat stuff like brown rice sprinkled with wheat germ, long before that became fashionable. Otherwise, your ass was in the living room Monday nights at 9, and if you weren’t watching it then, you were watching it in reruns. You can still catch it in reruns, thirty-five years after it went off the air.
It’s a myth that M*A*S*H lasted twice as long as the Korean War. It actually lasted more than three times as long. It lasted longer than the Korean War and World War II combined. It stayed on the air long after the Vietnam War, which was what both the TV series and the original movie were really about, ended. The show ended while still on top of the ratings, evidently having completely exhausted the topic of life in the military and how war is not healthy for children and other living things. Because M*A*S*H was still successful when it finished its run, it was inevitable that, approximately fifteen seconds after the finale aired, spinoffs were planned. One was AfterM*A*S*H, which limped through an unimpressive two seasons, the other was W*A*L*T*E*R, which only got a single pilot episode, aired once and never seen or heard about again.
W*A*L*T*E*R was to be about the continuing adventures of Walter “Radar” O’Reilly, the child-like base clerk who keeps a teddy bear in his barracks. A weaselly con man in the movie, in the TV show Radar is impossibly naive, despite being played by the same actor, Gary Burghoff. Burghoff left the show in season eight, claiming that he was burned out and wanted to spend time with his family. Reportedly, Burghoff was also a gigantic, combative asshole to work with, which, when you consider that he looks like a human Cabbage Patch Kid, is both difficult and hilarious to imagine.
Realizing that continuing to play Radar was his sole ticket to money, power, and sex-hungry sluts, Burghoff eventually signed up for another go at it. W*A*L*T*E*R takes place in 1954 St. Louis, where Radar, or rather, Walter, as he prefers to be called now, ends up after losing his farm to poor investments, and his new bride to another man. Though working in a yarn shop seems like it would be too much for someone of Walter’s delicate disposition, he’s a beat cop, partnered with his cousin Wendell (Ray Buktenica) who, despite presumably growing up in the Midwest, talks like a Brooklyn cab driver.
Walter seems to be alternately inept and highly efficient at his job, depending on how the jokes are written. Despite their cliched blustering sergeant's claims that St. Louis is a simmering cesspool of crime, a typical day for Walter and Wendell consists mostly of snagging jaywalkers and settling arguments between burlesque dancers. In a weirdly paced flashback, we learn that Walter, despondent over his short-lived marriage ending, was once talked out of suicide by an aggressively perky drugstore clerk named Victoria. Victoria is played by Victoria Jackson, long before the brain slugs took hold. She does the same off-key singing and handstand shtick that she did on Saturday Night Live, and though it seems more likely to drive someone to end their own life, it’s enough to encourage Walter to go on with his.
While on patrol, Walter and Wendell discover that their wallets have been stolen. The young pickpocket is played by an actor named Meeno Peluce, and if you’re a connoisseur of 80s television you’ll recognize Meeno Peluce, because he was in fucking everything. He had guest appearances on The Love Boat, Diff’rent Strokes, Happy Days, Silver Spoons, and more than thirty other TV series. I’m pretty sure he did the weather report on my local evening news at one point, and appeared in my senior class video. Meeno Peluce is also the brother of Soleil-Moon Frye, and I can only assume that the fights over which one of them had the dumber name must have been brutal.
Because only on television do cops make a habit of befriending petty criminals, Walter reaches out to the pickpocket, who claims that his father died in Korea. The show ends with Walter and his new young friend agreeing to meet at the local soda shop every Saturday, and Victoria kissing Walter on the cheek, sending him into paroxysms of anxiety.
The primary issue with W*A*L*T*E*R seemed to be timing: for one thing, it aired in the middle of summer, traditionally not the best time to launch a new TV series. For another, it was preempted by coverage of the Democratic National Convention (vote Mondale in ‘84!) in some parts of the country, which meant that some potential audience members never got a chance to see it at all. Also, well, it wasn’t very good, although actual show quality seems to matter very little in the success of a TV show, particularly a sitcom, so it’s more likely the scheduling was the biggest problem.
To be fair, it wasn’t terrible either. W*A*L*T*E*R is probably one of the most inoffensive things to ever air on television that wasn’t either made specifically for children or the Hallmark Channel. If Reader’s Digest’s “Life in These United States” column was made into a TV show, it would look like W*A*L*T*E*R. To drop another reference to something from the same time period, it’s like those Almost Home cookies, soft and bland but more or less palatable.
Undoubtedly, had it been picked up as a series, the show would have focused on the wacky shenanigans Walter and Wendell would have gotten into as bumbling cops, with Walter developing a father-son relationship with the pickpocket while shilly-shallying and dilly-dallying over whether or not to start a relationship with Victoria, who obviously has the hots for him. And once they ran out of those ideas, they could have just resorted to the inevitable surprise visits from various members of the 4077th. Just imagine the hijinks of Maxwell Klinger spending time in little ol’ St. Louis! Yeah, thanks, Walter Mondale. Thanks for NOTHING.
Original airdate: July 17, 1984