When Ferris Bueller Came To Television

A look back at the (thankfully) short-lived TV adaptation of Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

We’re throwing a 30th anniversary screening of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on June 3rd at Videology in Brooklyn and you should totally join us!

Ferris Bueller might be the most intolerable television spin-off of a beloved motion picture ever. That may sound riddled with hyperbole, but everything that made John Hughes’ 1986 comedy favorite so beloved is completely absent from its TV counterpart. Not that the majority of audiences realized this. The program debuted on NBC in late August of 1990, aired 12 of its 13 produced episodes before increasingly diminished ratings resulted in its cancellation. 

Its replacement show was Blossom, which was a huge success. Whoa! So clearly if such an inane sitcom as that Mayim Bialik vehicle could run for years while Ferris Buellercouldn’t even survive its freshman year amidst a pop culture landscape when viewers were at their undemanding peak, something truly was rotten. To get to the core of the problem, let me recommend you watch the cold open and credits for the series.

The entire pilot episode is embedded below, but life is so very short that we cannot recommend you waste any of this on such an forgettable TV footnote…

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It makes sense for the showrunner — in this case John Masius, who later went on to greater success with Providence and the later seasons of Dead Like Me — to want to distance itself from John Hughes’ film, particularly because Hughes wanted nothing, including his name, associated with the series. Smart move.

However, Masius decided that the best way to get some space between the new Ferris (Charlie Schlatter) and Matthew Broderick was to have the former take a chainsaw to a cardboard standup of the latter. It should have been a bold declaration of independence from the source material but was instead a great and mighty fuck you to anyone who loved Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the first place. The creative angle here was that Hughes’ movie was actually based on TV’s Ferris (hardy har har har). What was actually being said to audiences at home was that this show had nothing to do with the movie they loved, almost daring them to change the channels. 

Other major differences in the series include transporting the action from the Chicago area to a California beach community (there is no reason for this other than perhaps a network note asking if teens were more likely to watch shows where the promise of volleyball games looms ever-present). Jeanie, played by a then-unknown Jennifer Aniston, is now a senior, with Ferris as her junior underclassman. She is still bitter and one-dimensional though, with the third act transformation from the film that gave her depth all but forgotten. And, perhaps most notingly, Ferris has yet to win Sloane (Ami Dolenz) over as the series opens.

Any discussion of Ferris Bueller must include a mention of the show’s constant use of a synthesizer to underscore nearly every scene, with the wacky theme song persistently popping up to remind viewers just what the hell they were watching. If you somehow made it through the opening credits sequence above, you are aware that the music is as pleasant as a wet fart while wearing linen pants. 

So what, if anything, good can be said about the series? Richard Riehle does a fine job as Rooney, and seems to be the only character here actually trying to deliver a performance that isn’t phoned in. Kudos also go to the show’s use of licensed music, which includes tracks like The Lightning Seeds’ “Pure” that seem consistent with what movie Ferris (i.e. Ferris Prime) would actually listen to.

The greatest problem with the show, other than its very existence, is that Fox already scooped NBC with their own Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, a series whose inate Ferris-esque properties made the film adaptation feel wholly unnecessary. Also, it was actually funny and original and featured characters who were more than just ciphers (what the hell is up with TV Ferris’ parents anyway?)

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The entirety of Ferris Bueller is available to watch on YouTube. But life moves pretty fast, so don’t waste your time on it.

Join us this Friday at Videology for a 30th anniversary screening of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

We’ll have a special Buellercentric playlist, trivia, the opportunity to meet your Den of Geek favorites, and, best of all, we’ll be giving away 50 Dancing Ferris POPs from Funko! See you there!

Chris Cummins is a writer and comic book historian. You can follow him on Twitter @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.