The Best TV Shows with the Worst Titles
Getting a TV show on the air in the first place is less likely than winning the lottery, and finding an audience for it can be an even more unlikely prospect (especially in this current state of Peak Television). But what doesn’t help a great show is having a bad title, which can turn audiences off before it can even get started. For some, like AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead, it’s sheltered by a connection to a strong franchise, while others (like HBO’s Girls) were launched to great fanfare. For many series though, a bad title often means it is not long for this world (making some part of TV’s best one-season wonders).
Allison Keene, Chris Cabin, and Haleigh Foutch take a look at some of those terribly named series below that despite their titles, are (or were) really good. Feel free to add some of your favorites in the comments as well, you Love Monkey, Studio 60, and Dirty Sexy Money fans (or even the ten of you who stuck around for AMC’s re-naming of Turn: Washington’s Spies). We feel your pain when having to convince friends that no, seriously, this show is actually good.
Halt and Catch Fire
Here’s a tip from someone who will likely never be involved in the titling or writing of a television show – cool it with the terminology. There’s a whole bunch of tech talk in this hugely under-appreciated series (which follos the revolutions that led to the personal computing boom) that most laymen – this writer included – won’t completely understand, but that’s not what makes the series so bracingly smart. Rather, it’s in its central quartet of figures, played brilliantly by Lee Pace, Mackenzie Davis, Scoot McNairy, and Kerry Bishé, where the series finds its pulse and rough, complex excavation of history. Each character functions at once as a fully formed personalities and symbols of distinct, conflictive perspectives on the age of computing. (This isn’t even bringing up Toby Huss, former supporting player on The Adventures of Pete and Pete and the big thumping heart of this show.) The title, in essence, glosses over the all-important personality of the show and goes right for the historical and technical implications of the series, which is by no means a debilitating fault but explains why the show hasn’t caught on like some of AMC’s other, less ambitious programs. — CC
Thankfully, ABC’s poorly-titled (you’ll see a theme here with ABC comedies) Happy Endings ran for three seasons before the network pulled the plug, but it also suffered from the hallmarks of a terrible TV title. Not only did its title have nothing to do with the series, but it also cast a weird sexual pal over the proceedings. Created by David Caspe, Happy Endings was at first styled as another Friends-esque sitcom, but it soon became something far more subversive and, frankly, gloriously bizarre. Starring a stellar cast lineup of Eliza Coupe, Damon Wayans, Jr, Casey Wilson, Adam Pally, Zachary Knighton and Elisha Cuthbert as a group of wildly diverse friends, the show rarely missed a beat in documenting their Chicago lives with the utmost hilarity, never being afraid to dive into some of the best and weirdest comedy possible. — AK
Oh ABC, 2011-2013 was not good to you when it came to titling your comedies. Trophy Wife was a sweet and very funny comedy that was basically the broadcast version of Big Love (er, minus the actual polygamy or all of that Utah compound stuff). Bradley Whitford may have been the man who was the nexus of the show’s connected family, but he was (sorry BW!) the least interesting character on it. Instead, the interactions among his two vastly different ex-wives Marcia Gay Harden and Michaela Watkins) and his third, former party girl wife (Malin Akerman), as well as their children, was the reason to watch the show (particularly break-out star Albert Tsai). The women played off of one another beautifully, and the show kept finding plausible reasons for them all to more or less be living together in the same house, yet it never became rote or predictable. Trophy Wife was a dumb name for a smart show, and one that made it unfortunately difficult for most viewers to want to invest in. — AK
Lena Dunham once said that the title of her increasingly insightful and heartfelt comedic melodrama came from a discussion with producer Judd Apatow, pitched softly and easily accepted after quite a lot of uncertainty. It makes total sense in hindsight, as the title has always been a bit of a shrug, a “fine, I guess” kind of solution to a genuinely difficult question. To be fair, there is a sense that Dunham is toying with terminology here, as the show indeed takes a look at the struggle to attain something like female maturity, but the blandness of the title makes it easy enough for people to shrug off the series’ more rattling truths. It’s arguably one of the most honest depictions of modern twenty-something dating to ever see release (along with the now defunct Looking) and it’s the show that brought Dunham, Adam Driver, Alex Karpovsky, and Allison Williams to prominence. Beyond those accolades, however, the show dives into an age of entitlement and egomania without overtly judging or praising the so-called “Millenials,” which is likely why so many people hate the show. It neither reinforces nor completely dismisses the contributions of a generation that this writer is included in, which is a mighty accomplishment for a show with such a humdrum title. — CC
Don't Trust the B-- in Apt 23
The only thing worse than cursing in your show title is bleeping it (see $#*! My Dad Says. Or don’t, no one else did!) Don’t Trust the B– in Apt 23 may be one of the worst titled shows in the history of television. It’s too long, it’s unwieldy, it’s a pain to write, to say, and to explain. Yet the show itself also happened to be one of the funniest, weirdest, and most innovative sitcoms to grace the airwaves. Nahnatchka Khan’s (Fresh Off the Boat) series starred Krysten Ritter as the scamming, titular bitch, alongside Dreama Walker as her doe-eyed roommate. But the show’s scene stealer was James van der Beek playing a hilarious augmented version of his real self. The B has more in common with the excellent FXX series Man Seeking Woman than anything ABC has ever aired, and it probably should have been a cable comedy series. So alas, ABC pulled it from its schedule and aired the remaining episodes online, and it was the last we ever saw of the series’ portrayal of the panty-hating Japanese superhero Shitagi Nashi, people getting “weird” on pills and playing Mario Cart, and unexpected John Woo references. The show’s uniquely wonderful comic sensibilities are most certainly missed. — AK
Fear the Walking Dead
Look, it’s all fine and well that you want to spin off a new series from The Walking Dead. It’s a genuine phenomenon with a fan base that rivals most major churches in terms of devotion, and it makes sense to create a new narrative out of a fictional landscape as large and unexplored as Robert Kirman’s land of the undead. And, as it turns out, Fear the Walking Dead is a tense, subtly expressive action-melodrama, top-lined by great performances from Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis, and written with an acute sense of the uneasy balance between civilization and the anarchy of beasts. The title of the show, however, is not only a clear ploy to tap into name recognition, but also staggeringly unoriginal. It’s almost as if they went into Google’s Keyword Finder and figured out what word is most synonymous with The Walking Dead, and then spent the whole of ten minutes figuring out how to work it into the title. — CC
“Selfie.” (Here we go again, ABC). Ugh. Let’s be real, most of us indulge in the occasional selfie now and again, but there’s just something about that word that rankles. It’s a tiny, sneer-worthy word that evokes vanity, attention-seeking, and superficiality, and for some reason somebody decided to slap that universally disliked moniker onto one of the sweetest, most promising romantic comedy series in recent memory. A modern reimagining of Pygmalion (or My Fair Lady if theater and ancient greek mythology aren’t your jam), Selfie starred Karen Gillan as Eliza Dooley, a narcissistic party girl obsessed with living her best Instagram life, and John Cho as Henry Higgs, an old-fashioned, straight-laced marketing executive Eliza enlists to revamp her image after a viral video tarnishes her internet fame. As the story always goes, it turns out he has just as much to learn from her as she does from him.
Selfie suffered from more than a terrible title (it had an almost insufferable pilot to match that focused exclusively on Liza’s worst qualities), but in a few short episodes Selfie turned it all around. Gillan made Liza lovable in spite of her obvious flaws and Cho made Henry interesting in spite of his drab, bourgeois tendencies. Together, the two were dynamite, playing off each other easily, leading to hilarious odd-couple moments that occasionally transitioned into electric chemistry. What really set Selfie apart was the earnest sweetness with which the series handled that central relationship and the well-paced unfolding of intimacy between the polar opposite characters. Unfortunately, we never got to see that relationship reach its pinnacle because nobody wanted to tune in for a show with a title they could barely say without grimacing. — HF
Probably the most infamously bad-title-good-show is Cougar Town, which played with the fact that it hated its title by retitling itself each week in its opening credits during each episode. Though the Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel series did lamentably begin as one focused on “man-hungry women of a certain age” (using the now outdated and still regrettable slang “cougar”), the series evolved into a really beautiful (and very funny) look at a close group of friends and neighbors living along the central Florida coast. The unusual TV locale played a big role in making the series unique, and its great cast (Courteney Cox, Christa Miller, Busy Philipps, Dan Byrd, Josh Hopkins, Ian Gomez, and Brian Van Holt) all made the best of good material, which managed to convince viewers to keep watching for three years on ABC, and for three more years on TBS despite its awful title. — AK
When (Oh When!) will Donal Logue get his due? It’s bad enough that he’s currently slumming it in Gotham, one of the most brazenly silly and erratic series to hit the flat-screen, but it’s even worse when one considers the fact that he had an involving, wonderfully written crime-melodrama in Terriers not all that long ago. One of FX’s shaggier offerings before thunderous marvels the likes of The Americans, Archer, and Louie made them a powerhouse, Terriers followed a pair of down-and-out, unlicensed private investigators, played by Logue and True Blood breakout Michael-Raymond James, in San Diego, taking on small-time criminals and, naturally, the police while also wrestling with their own demons, namely alcoholism and a prison term. The title is apt, once you get into the show and lock onto its barbed charms and world-weary perspective, but for first-time viewers, there’s nothing particularly inviting about the series’ name, which may explain why it never got past Season 1. There have been talks recently, following the series’ debut on Netflix, of a revival, but this is largely rumor over reason, at least for now. One would hope, however, that a show that actually wove its procedural nature and season/series-long arcs together with skill and subtlety would capitalize on a second chance, even if its name makes you think of midnight programming on Animal Planet. — CC
On a list of terrible titles, ABC Family’s Bunheads may actually be the worst. It doesn’t tell you anything about the story, possesses none of the series’ charm, and is just generally kind of unpleasant to say. Amy Sherman-Palladino’s bittersweet Gilmore Girls follow-up should have been Sutton Foster’s big break. The acclaimed theatrical actress has been tearing it up on Broadway for more than a decade with her vibrant personality and immense talent, and with Bunheads, she finally had a leading vehicle to reach a broader audience…except it was called Bunheads, so nobody watched it, which is a shame because it was a lovely show.
Bunheads maintained a lot of Sherman-Palladino’s idiosyncratic charm that made Gilmore Girls such a hit — the idyllic small town vibe, the whip-smart rapid-fire snark, and a number of returning cast members — but Bunheads was something different; darker and more mature. Foster starred as Michelle Simms, a classically trained ballerina-turned-Vegas-showgirl who absconds with a devoted suitor to escape her ho-hum life. Their impulse marriage lands her in his quiet hometown where she works as a dance instructor, bonds with his stern mother (Kelly Bishop), and tries her best to do right by the young ballerinas under her tutelage, despite the fact that she has a gift for mucking everything up. And boy does Michelle make a lot of mistakes, but she’s resilient, clever, and devoted, so, like her loyal petite primas, you just can’t help but love her. Fortunately, we’ve got Younger to keep Foster on our TV airwaves, but thanks to Bunheads’ premature cancellation, we’ll never get to see Michelle recover from her last big mistake, leaving the series on a note that’s decidedly more bitter than sweet. — HF
[This is a repost of an older feature for your reading pleasure over this holiday weekend.]