While Bill & Ted may not have the huge nostalgic value of, say, Back to the Future, it remains one of the most distinctly enjoyable 80s series — even though the second film came out in 1991 — and a personal favorite of mine. Sure, the slacker buddies genre does not suffer from a lack of entries at this point and the whole franchise is wrapped in a soft layer of cheese, but it never ceases to amuse me that the two guys who save not just the world but humanity at large aren’t the brightest lightbulbs in the drawer. It amuses me even further that a third Bill & Ted film is in the works, twenty years after Bogus Journey came out.
But for those too impatient to wait for another sequel, there’s a surprising wealth of additional journeys of “The Two Great Ones” out there. Between 1989 and 1992, Bill & Ted enjoyed a surge of popularity, and as such, leaped into all types of media formats. Today we’re going to take a look at a pair of efforts that tried to take William and Theodore to the small screen — all with mixed results.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures: The animated TV show (2 seasons, 1990-91)
Oddly enough, if you’re looking for as close to a true sequel to the films, the animated series (at least the first season) is the best place to find it. Hanna-Barbera agreed to make the cartoon, which first found a home on CBS and later on Fox. For its initial season, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures kept the time travel premise and majority of the cast (including Alex Winters, Keanu Reeves and George Carlin) intact. The second season took an unfortunate turn, as a change of production companies and networks resulted in new voice actors (who were also starring in the live action series — more on that later) and a move away from time travel to more ludicrous vistas, such as exploring the inside of a human body. The first season had 13 episodes, the second 8, and there was not to be a third.
For this article, I watched a season one episode, “This Babe Ruth “Babe” is a Dude, dude”. The episode begins with the duo extolling the virtues of the hilariously retro sneaker pumps (remember those?) before spotting Rufus at a bowling alley. Bill’s midriff-bearing tank top does not get more manly over time, by the way. Rufus is stealing bowling shoes to help outfit Yankee soldiers during the Civil War (just go with it). The guys go on to school, where they accidentally knock an autographed Babe Ruth baseball into a shower which erases the signature. What to do? Go find this babe, of course!
They travel to the Civil War, where they witness (and participate in) the birth of baseball and help slaves escape via the underground railroad. From then it’s on to meet Count Dracula and then Babe Ruth. It sort of seems like the whole episode is a setup for the titular joke, but it at least keeps moving quickly as Bill and Ted jump through multiple time periods.
In general, the animated series comes off as a little too “cartoony” for my tastes. You know, over-exaggerated character designs and movements, Loony Tunes sound effects, and a complete lack of subtlety. On the other hand, it’s not completely dumb, with plenty of historical jokes (such as how Stonewall Jackson got his nickname) sprinkled in. Watching it from the future year of 2011, it’s easy to poke fun of the “modern” archaisms, such as Rufus giving away LP albums while bemoaning that he can’t get rid of 8-tracks. There’s a smattering of computer animation for the circuits of time sequences, and I have to say, that has not aged well at all (like, well, most early 90s computer animation).
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures: The live-action show (1 season, 1992)
No matter what I said above, the animated series was a masterpiece of the written word and performed arts compared to the live action series. 1992 was the death knell for Bill & Ted, the last gasp of the franchise, and it quickly joined the Fox tradition of “interesting ideas, instant execution.”
The live action series played out in seven episodes over the summer of 1992, and was a disaster before it even begun. Fox ignored a series pitch from the writers of the movies, instead turning to Beverly Hills 90210 alum Darren Starr’s idea to sex it up and downplay the time-travel element. Reeves and Winters declined to be involved, and so Evan Richards and Christopher Kennedy stepped into the roles (they also replaced the original actors’ voices in the second season of the animated series).
I took a look at the fourth episode, “Hunka Hunka Bill and Ted,” for this article. It has the duo traveling back to meet (and inspire) Elvis, which felt like the most “movie-like” plot to watch. I’ll start by giving credit where it’s due: the opening titles have better music and are more entertaining than the cartoon. The new actors do a decent job aping the movie versions, although Ted’s obviously trying too hard (Reeves’ lovable stupidity is tough to get right without it being annoying, though). And not to be too picky, but the Rufus replacement is like 100 pounds heavier than George Carlin, which is distracting.
The whole production has a vibe that’s, for lack of a more specific way to explain it, early 90s Fox sitcoms. It feels a little cheap and thin, although it’s serviceable. Characters are as unsubtle and shallow as they can be, and the pace is too swift to be treated with any gravitas. Just when a character needs to arrive, they’re there; just when Elvis is down, Bill plays his songs and everyone starts dancing like a huge choreographed routine; etc.
Two thoughts popped out at me in regards to the larger franchise. The first is that there’s no real reason behind Bill and Ted’s time traveling — they don’t *need* to save Elvis, because he’s already been well established, but they go and do it anyway. There’s no explanation why this is important for their growth as the “two great ones” (which is key to the movies). It’s kind of like Quantum Leap without any urgency.
The other thought is that nobody in the past even blinks at the fact that they’re wearing weird clothes, using strange terms, and wielding odd technology like walkmans. It would just get in the way of the rapid running time, I suppose.
It could just be that the premise of the movie wasn’t enough to sustain more than a single feature, nevermind a sequel plus two spin-off TV series. They aren’t the worst things in the world, but I can’t see myself watching another episode of either one. It’s a shame that the original creators and actors didn’t get a crack at the live action series, as that really could’ve been something…
Maybe in another timeline.