Glenn Frey, the Eagles co-founder who died Monday, had one of the great careers in popular music. He also -- long, long ago -- starred in a TV show. Therein lies a story.
Frey, in fact, starred in two series. The first was "Wiseguy," a successful CBS drama of the late '80s (which also -- trivia alert -- starred Jonathan Banks, who would one day become Walter White's nemesis). But the other show...yes, the other one made TV history.
"South of Sunset" launched Oct. 27, 1993. Hopes were high for this dramedy about a private eye and his partner, played by Aries Spears, who would go on to star in Fox's "MadTV.” But then, hopes were supposed to be high.
Besides Frey, "Sunset" was also produced by Stan Rogow, a well-regarded show-runner who would one day produce "Lizzie McGuire," which launched Hilary Duff's career. Moreover, CBS had relentlessly hyped the show throughout the World Series (between the Blue Jays and the Phillies). Everyone who had seen the series had seen the promos simply because they couldn't miss them.
The theory was (and this theory pretty much still holds true) that if enough people see the tune-in promos enough times, then they can’t help but tune in to the show. It’s called “human curiosity,” or “what have I got to lose, besides an hour of time?”
Of course the promos didn't hint at the troubles that had already dogged the series (and of course they never do). Foremost, "Sunset" was delayed -- rarely a good sign, then or now. It was supposed to launch early that season but was held. Reasons (then or now) were unclear. Did CBS want to hold it until after the series to get a tail wind from all the promotion? Or: Was CBS worried about the show?
Both answers appeared to have been "yes." The network demanded changes in the pilot. That meant neither critics nor advertisers actually saw anything before it aired. That was ominous. As Rogow later told writer Robert Strauss, "There was a perception we had something to hide, but we just didn't have the pilot ready," he said. "Forgive me, people in publicity, but how about trying the truth? Why not send the critics two other episodes we had finished and tell them the pilot was still being worked on? At least we would have been reviewed."
Then, the big day arrived. And...drum roll...no one watched.
Or almost no one: The show got a 9 percent share of the viewing audience, considered to that point to be the lowest share for any series in history, or so was the widely held assumption at the time.
But a record or not, the distinction was irrelevant. No one watched, and a few days later CBS canceled "South of Sunset," another historic landmark, for this was the first time in TV history a drama had been canceled after just one episode. A couple of game shows had been axed after one episode back in the '50s, but this was a drama-- big difference. TV history had been made and, for the most part, it was a record that remains virtually unbroken to this day. (Fox would later cancel something called "Lawless," starring former linebacker Brian Bosworth, after one episode in 1997, saving "Sunset" the distinction of being the only drama....)
What happened? In distant hindsight, hard to say. Frey wasn't an actor, per se, but lots of stars aren't actors (per se) and go on to successful, sometimes hugely successful, runs. Was the show actually "bad?" Again, badness is rarely a factor in TV success or durability -- lots of bad shows, even certifiably terrible ones, survive, occasionally thrive. Besides, tapes no longer exist. Memories appear to have been erased too.
Did CBS's promo attack hurt the show? Those theories were floated at the time too -- that viewers were so turned off by the promos that they refused to watch, in sort of a mass silent protest... Another theory: The intended "Sunset" audience -- men -- had no intention of watching this anyway. They were watching baseball after all and not planning their post-series viewing activities.
Rogow, Frey and Spears were (presumably) philosophical about the disaster. Had he chosen, Frey could have even pulled a quote or two from a song to explain the ignominy of one-and-done in TV, for example: "Every form of refuge has its price..."
In any event, they each went on to successful careers or continued them.
The show changed TV too: Networks ever since have displayed more patience, reasoning that TV after all is expensive, and you may as well earn back some of your investment. These days low-rated series last for months, on the assumption that audiences will eventually discover them on some other viewing platform.
Meanwhile, there is a postscript. An ironic one.
"South of Sunset" earned an Emmy nomination.
Seriously. For Outstanding Individual Achievement in Graphic Design and Title Sequences...
"South of Sunset," alas, did not win.