It’s fair to say that television is the medium where you’re least likely to find high-concept experiments with genres, but more often than not there is the quirky sitcom or police procedural or whathaveyou with some sort of fantasy premise or genre-bending element. Even if you don’t count failed pilots like the action-comedy where Peter Boyle’s soul possesses a bulldog, Poochinski, there are still shows like Bewitched, My Mother the Car, Cop Rock, Harry and the Hendersons, and, let’s be honest, Twin Peaks. To be fair, though, these shows only really stand out because television is a medium that loves its rigid conventions and they’re not really all that “weird” if you compare them to novels or films. What does get me are the shows that are so bizarre and unappealing in conception that they seem like they were originally conceived as some writer or executive’s joke that at some point on the assembly line got mistaken for a serious pitch. The proverbial example of what I’m talking about is the failed British sitcom Heil Honey, I’m Home, a romp about aspiring politician Adolf Hitler and housewife Eva Braun living next door to some nosy Jews. However, my Internet celebrity idol and rival, the Cinema Snob, already covered that one in great detail. So instead let me talk about Woops!, a sitcom about six people who appear to be the sole survivors of a global nuclear holocaust. Despite getting canceled in 1992 before it even had one full season run – and remember this was long before the time it became all but standard practice to cancel a show after three or four episodes – it managed to spawn a Christmas episode.
The first episode of Woops! – not to be confused with the somewhat similar and equally obscure but much better BBC series Whoops Apocalypse – explains that the nuclear holocaust happens because a…couple of kids somehow launched a missile in the middle of a parade? Whatever the hell was supposed to happen in the intro, I am genuinely impressed that a comedy about a nuclear holocaust tried so hard and so successfully in its premise to avoid any poignant political commentary. Anyway, our narrator and the first protagonist the audience is introduced to is Mark, whose defining characteristic is that he’s an educated Jew (yes, really). He survives because, while cashing a check at the drive-through window at a bank, he happens to be in a Volvo. Now because I spent my life learning about porn parodies and obscure ’80s slasher films rather than the traditional hallmarks of knowledge for American men like cars, I had to ring up my friend Josh for this one.
CHAD: So do you consider yourself a standard-issue American male?
CHAD: So you know at least a little bit about cars?
JOSH: I know some things.
CHAD: Okay, so imagine a guy surviving a nuclear holocaust just because he’s in a Volvo. Is that supposed to be a joke of some kind?
JOSH: Well, in the ’70s and ’80s Volvos had a high safety rating, so I can see what they’re getting at.
So, according to Josh, the joke does make sense. Score one for the writers. But I’m not going to let that stop me from nitpicking a throwaway joke from a sitcom canceled almost two decades ago. For one thing, you can clearly see Mark has the window open and has his arm sticking out, yet he survives an explosion that completely obliterates the bank. Volvos must have had one hell of a safety rating indeed.
According to Mark’s narration, the nuclear blast has turned “the city” into a desert. I’ve seen a stronger grasp of science in a Flat Earth Society newsletter. Yet, even though the nuclear bomb was apparently reinforced with black magic, Mark does find a farm in a valley, where he encounters the other five survivors. Now here I should point out that sitcoms are often criticized for having characters that are defined solely by two or three characteristics that exist just to have jokes pinned on them. For the writers of Woops!, they genuinely just stick to one or two. So we have Mark (Jew and the “sane one”), Jack (ex-hobo and has the personality of an eight-year old), Alice (liberal), Fred (black), Suzanne (dumb), and Curtis (snob). Yes, apparently in the early ’90s fictional women came in only two flavors: Lisa Simpson or Kelly Bundy.
So, how does a show of this caliber handle its Christmas episode?
Well, let me just say I’ve watched all of David Lynch’s “sitcom” Rabbits where people in rabbit suits speak in non sequitors to each other with a randomly playing laugh track, and this was the first time I ever felt inspired to say aloud, “I can’t believe this exists.” My feeling of astonishment began creeping in when the six survivors meet Santa Claus – and not a guy dressed as Santa, the episode soon establishes, but a real-life Father Christmas. If the thought of Santa flying around a desolate Earth dusted with the irradiated remains of millions of men, women, children, and fuzzy pets isn’t enough to create a wave of horror beginning in the very core of your being that somehow washes across time and space to cause your six-year old past self to break down in tears, don’t worry, things are just kicking off. See, Santa is understandably depressed, and the six survivors decide to cheer him up a bit by inviting him to their rather slapdash Christmas festivities (which aren’t that good because, you know, society and culture have been horrifically and quickly snuffed out!) Drunk on eggnog, Santa admits that he’s not really sad because humanity is all but dead, but because when the nuclear bombs hit the North Pole (why would any country target the North Pole?…Oh, whatever) Santa fled into a downstairs shelter and in a panic failed to open the door for Mrs. Claus and the elves, who were all slaughtered in the blast.
What can I say but…
A disclaimer: I love black comedy. Also I can understand, dear reader, if from my summary you’re under the mistaken impression that black comedy is what Woops! is aiming for. It isn’t. For the sake of comparison, let me mention one of my favorite comic books, the classic The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special, where intergalactic assassin Lobo is hired by the Easter Bunny to kill Santa Claus, and in the end he violently dismembers a corrupt Santa and his cowardly elves. The difference is that with The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special the humor is clearly pitch-black from start to finish. With Woops!, the tone never ceases to be light and frothy. This somehow makes the episode more disturbing than anything involving a mercenary gunning down elves.
The saga does get a resolution of sorts. A dispirited Santa sticks around and tries to help out around the farm, but because all of his skills are Christmas-related “hilarity” ensues. Upset by Jack’s loss of faith in the magic of Christmas – you know, because Mrs. Claus and the elves were all killed by a blast of superheated air as a direct result of Santa’s actions- Santa tries to leave but he can’t figure out how to open the door, since he’s so used to coming down chimneys. Alice explains that this means it’s not his fault that he couldn’t open the door to save his loved ones from being melted. You know, except for the part about dying from a nuclear explosion, this would be a cute joke in a kids’ movie or something along those lines. Here, though, it’s like attaching a rape joke to the Easter Bunny’s penchant for candy. With Santa’s depression gone and his faith in himself and the magic of Christmas restored, he leaves to look for other survivors.
Here’s the thing that I’m finding difficult to convey to anyone who hasn’t actually watched this. The whole premise and plot might actually work as a satire of Christmas specials, and maybe at some point in the writing process that was the idea, but it doesn’t come across that way at all. It isn’t so much that the material is played straight, because there is at least a little awareness of just how ridiculous the proceedings are, but that there’s so much dissonance between the tone and the premise that it can make a person’s head explode like Krakatoa. It’s like a typical Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles episode with a scene where characters casually discuss bestiality and necrophilia, or a third-grade production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It just completely overturns all your expectations as a consumer of entertainment, and not in a good way.
About Woops! in general, I get that this show was probably meant to be more of a spiritual sequel to Gilligan’s Island than an actual attempt at a post-nuclear war sitcom, and in that sense its humor really does fit in with the sub-genre of “weird” ’60s sitcoms like Green Acres and I Dream of Jeannie. Maybe if it was better written it could have worked that way, but even then the timing would have still been all wrong. For one thing, by 1992 Reagan’s hit revival of nuclear war paranoia had pretty much fizzled out. For another, compared to safe middlebrow fare like The Cosby Show, the early ’90s were a time of relatively edgy sitcoms like Roseanne and Married…With Children. When you boil it down Seinfeld was just a sitcom about the social lives of four single New Yorkers, and even that was much darker than this show about 99.99 percent of the human race being wiped out.
Badly conceived and executed as Woops! was, I have to admit I do feel as if I got something out of the Christmas episode. I can’t honestly say I was entertained by it, even in a “so bad it’s good” kind of way, but I do feel like a biologist who just discovered a new species of flesh-eating mold.