How could this pilot not get picked up?

1984 pilot about aerobics instructors by day, secret agents by night is a buried treasure

A friend pointed me to the (long, long) opening credits of this unsold pilot from 1984. Even as a veteran sniffer-outer of TV cheese, I had not known about this one: Aaron Spelling came up with a two-hour pilot for ABC about beautiful women who work by day as aerobics instructors, but work by night as secret agents, riding motorcycles and helicopters and blowing things up with booby-trapped lipsticks. All under the supervision of their tough-but-fair house mother Polly Bergen, and set to a New Wave-ish theme song. Yet ABC turned it down and burned it off as a TV movie. You never know what foolproof ideas those networks will reject.

Believe it or not, there is a little bit of actual serious TV history that goes with this jaw-droppingly ridiculous clip. 1984 was a period of transition for all three of the old networks, as they were in the process of clearing out the shows and programming strategies that had worked for them in the late ’70s, and transitioning into new strategies to deal with increased competition (from cable and home video). ABC in the late ’70s and early ’80s was known as the cheesiest network with the corniest taste, and Aaron Spelling was their star producer. After Dynasty, however, his shows got worse and worse and less successful with the public, and ABC began to get impatient with how bad his shows were (including the ones that ran, like Hotel and Matt Houston) and how old-fashioned they seemed. What you’re seeing in that rejected pilot is the ’70s old guard trying to do what they’d always done with a slight nod to new music and fashions, not realizing that this would not work in a TV world where there were already many more options for viewers.

A year later ABC would get new management and move aggressively toward quality drama, spending the years 1985 to 1990 as the network most likely to take chances on unusual dramas. This left Spelling out in the cold, and he had very public disagreements with the new head of ABC, calling him an elitist and lamenting “I can honestly say I don’t know what the networks want anymore.” Finally ABC chose not to renew its exclusive agreement with Spelling, whose career seemed to be over until he rebounded by hooking up with the new network, Fox. But 90210 and Melrose Place (and his subsequent work for an even newer network, the WB) were, while cheesy, a step up in quality from what he’d been turning out for ABC in the ’80s.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.