The Strange, Short-Lived ‘Bill and Ted’ TV Show That Time Most Righteously Forgot
If you were a fan of Bill & Ted in the late ’80s and early ’90s, then you probably recall a time when Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves’ rad, time-traveling high school party dudes were pretty much everywhere. They had their own animated TV spinoff, a Halloween show at Universal Studios and even a breakfast cereal (“the most triumphant part of this balanced breakfast!”). What you might not remember is their incredibly short-lived live-action TV series — and who could blame you?
This week marks the 25th anniversary of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, the surreal, totally bonkers sequel to the hit 1989 film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Although Bogus Journey wasn’t as successful at the box office as its predecessor, it was more positively received by critics and continued the popularity of Winter and Reeves’ cinematic BFFs — a pair of heavy metal-loving, air guitar-shredding slackers who travel through time in a phone booth.
A live-action TV series based on the duo was already in development before Bogus Journey came along and caused a bit of a delay, further exacerbated by underwhelming box office returns. Original Bill & Ted film writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon pitched their take on a TV series to FOX, but the network ultimately passed on it in favor of a pitch from the last person you’d ever expect: Darren Star, the creator of Beverly Hills, 90210. Yes, the same Darren Star that created Sex and the City.
The series finally premiered on June 28, 1992 under the title Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures — weirdly using the same name as the animated series. FOX recast the lead roles, replacing Alex Winter with Evan Richards and Keanu Reeves with Christopher Kennedy. Just look at these guys. They’re like knockoff versions you get on a street corner, and not even the good kind that could pass for the real deal if you squint just right:
To give you an idea of where this show stands in TV history: It’s easier to find photos of the Bill & Ted Universal Studios Halloween show than it is to find any half-decent photos from FOX’s live-action show. The pilot episode never aired, but seven more episodes did before Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures was ultimately canceled in August of 1992. Despite the absence of original writing duo Matheson and Solomon, the TV series did have some interesting talent, like acclaimed TV director David Nutter, who went on to helm episodes of The X-Files and Arrow, and Better Off Dead director Savage Steve Holland, who is credited with writing the unaired Bill & Ted pilot (which has surely become the holy grail to some nerd, somewhere).
Office Space star Diedrich Bader appeared in one episode, but he’s the only name you’d recognize. You can see him in this clip from the series premiere, in which Bill and Ted’s boss unwittingly travels through time and accidentally removes the sword from the stone before a hapless Arthur (Bader) can get to it:
It’s probably one of the better episodes of the series, which becomes increasingly dumb from episode to episode — like the third installment, titled “It’s a Totally Wonderful Life,” in which Rufus (Rick Overton) travels through time to prevent a terrible event and causes Bill and Ted to become lifelong enemies instead. How? It has something to do with Ted’s dad receiving an award that’s engraved with the words “chicken kiev.” Yes, really.
And yet, in the November 1992 issue of Starlog Magazine, series creator and producer Clifton Campbell said “It’s a Totally Wonderful Life” was the best episode they made. Even more baffling was Campbell’s explanation of the series’ concept, in which he shows very little reverence for the characters created by Matheson and Solomon:
It’s difficult to do a series where the lead characters don’t grow or have an evolving arc. Bill and Ted stay Bill and Ted, so the challenge in creating scripts was to come up with stories that were wrapped around incidents they bump into in their everyday lives. The idea was that Bill and Ted are basically fish out of water, dealing with things that don’t make sense to them.
Basically, he’s treating them like idiots. Look, no one would accuse Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan of being geniuses, but they do evolve and they do learn valuable lessons over the course of two fairly successful films — films that were successful enough to warrant this live-action TV series. They may be airheads, but they’re good-hearted dudes with their own wacky sense of logic and an understanding of respect and generosity. These are the guys that promote the concept of “Be excellent to each other.” They’re not total dummies.
Co-star Evan Richards echoes Campbell’s unfortunate view of the characters in the same issue of Starlog, which gives you a pretty good idea of where this show went wrong:
It was kind of goofy at times. Sometimes we would feel pretty stupid about the whole thing because these characters don’t seem to have a whole lot on the ball. But actually, they’re not so much stupid as just naive (…) We would be on location in some strange neighborhood, having to react to effects that weren't there and saying things like ‘Bogus, dude.’ We felt like we were playing a couple of idiots.
Richards and Kennedy reprised their roles as Bill and Ted for the animated series, which originally had Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves voicing their cartoon counterparts. When Winter was asked about the live-action series on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1991, he revealed that the network never asked the duo to be involved, and that neither of them approved of the series, which had been pitched to them as a comedy in the vein of Porky’s — of all things.
When Hall asked him what he thought of the show, Winter kept quiet before ultimately laying it out: “Okay, I’m going to look right in that camera and tell you the truth. It stinks, ladies and gentlemen. They really missed the boat.”
In other words, it was a most righteous failure.