Sunday, August 18, 2013

Nostalgia Theater: TV's Gung Ho Gets the Heave-Ho

It seems like both before and since Fox's M*A*S*H was able to spin a very successful and acclaimed theatrical release into an eleven season television run on CBS, studios have perpetually been chasing after the magic formula for turning big screen success into small screen longevity. Case in point, TV's Gung Ho. What's that you say, you've never heard of Gung Ho, the series? Oh, I see. You've never heard of Gung Ho, the movie. Very well then, let's reconnoiter a bit, shall we?

Directed by Ron Howard and starring Michael Keaton, Gung Ho is the story of smart talking auto worker Hunt Stevenson (Keaton), who convinces Japanese car company Assan to open facilities stateside and help put his small Pennsylvania town back to work. What follows are the predictable culture clash, fish-out-of-water hijinks as Stevenson has to mediate between the devil-may-care Americans (George Wendt, John Turturro, Clint Howard) and their by-the-book bosses (Gedde Watanabe, Sab Shimono). Here's the trailer:

While Gung Ho was a minor success on its release in March '86, before the flick even came out, Paramount honchos already had visions of a TV spin-off dancing in their eyes, and they quickly got ABC to commit to a series without a pilot. While the bulk of the film's Japanese cast (headed by Watanabe as Assan exec Kaz Kazuhiro) reprised their roles, Keaton was obviously out, replaced by stage actor Ned Eisenberg, who was in turn dismissed for being "too ethnic-looking." Replacing Eisenberg as Stevenson was 31-year-old unknown Scott Bakula. When the TV version of Gung Ho premiered on ABC in December of '86, it looked like this:

Bear in mind, I didn't even know this show existed until three days ago, when a chance viewing of the feature film on cable sent me on an expeditionary excursion deep into the cavernous recesses of the Internet, leading us right to this very post. Whether the cheesy song with the overly on-the-nose lyrics ("Compromise! That's what it's all about!"), or the interactions between the cast (that last shot with Bakula and Watanabe...), I think my buddy Brian Hall summed it up perfectly when I showed it to him: "If that weren't real, I would think that was the most brilliant parody of an 80's sitcom I had ever seen." 

As if to underscore that point, here's an ABC promo for the premiere:

Not having seen an actual episode of the show, I can't speak to its relative quality (though, based on the above, I'm gonna go ahead and say that it probably wasn't great), but it probably didn't help matters that ABC slotted the show on Friday nights opposite the twin ratings juggernauts of Dallas on CBS and Miami Vice on NBC. Thus, the writing was on the wall fairly early, and after an exceptionally brief nine episodes -- and despite the impassioned entreaties of star Bakula* -- it was heave-ho for Gung Ho by early '87. Sayonara! 

* Shed no tears for Bakula, though. Just over two years later, he would begin a five-year run on NBC's Quantum Leap, and hasn't stopped working since, be it on stage, screen, or in space.

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