Supertrain: The Show That Almost Derailed A Network

Entertainment | August 15, 2021

Source: (MeTV).

In 1977, ABC found success with The Love Boat, a show which followed a particular pattern: each episode had three storylines, with one storyline focused solely on the crew, and the other two working in stories of the passengers. NBC tried to capture some of that success, using a different vehicle though.

The interior of the train. Source: (Pinterest).

A Train With A Discotheque

Supertrain, which aired on February 7, 1979, takes place on, you guessed it, a train. This train is no ordinary train though; it is a nuclear-powered bullet train with some rather unusual amenities. It has a swimming pool, shopping center, gym, library, and medical center. And of course, a discotheque. I am not sure why you would need all of that on a train which can travel from New York City to Los Angeles in 36 hours, since it has a top speed of 250 mph. However, the train cruises along at a mere 190 mph, which makes it slower than some trains around the world. Logistically, this didn’t work either, since it should have taken fewer than 36 hours to make the trip. It does, however, make stops in Chicago, Denver, and a fictitious town in Texas. Just like The Love Boat, the show has multiple intertwining storylines; as one review in Vanity in 1979 stated, “it’s a ‘Love Boat’ on wheels which has yet to get on track.” However, The Love Boat focused on love, while Supertrain attempted to create suspense stories. That was not so easy.

Source: (Retroist).

The Network President Had Previous Successes

The show was when Fred Silverman was the president of NBC. Prior to Supertrain, he had significant success, helping to establish a line-up which included the likes of All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show on CBS, and, once he moved to ABC, he was responsible for shows like Happy Days and Charlie’s Angels. With these successes, he had a reputation for knowing what was going to work. Not this time. 

Harrison Page, Ilene Graff, and Joey Aresco. Source: (IMDb).

The Train Was The Star Of The Show

The show failed in a number of ways. Unlike The Love Boat, which featured well-known actors, Supertrain featured Edward Andrews and Robert Alda. Not only did they not focus on the cast, but they also didn’t focus on the scripts. However, they did throw money at the set. To film the show, they had three trains, which cost NBC $10 million: a full-size, two-story train, a mid-size one to create realistic, medium-distance details, and the mini-Supertrain. The small one ran on a 3,000-foot track through miniature towns and landscapes, making it literally a rather impressive model train set. 

One of the guest stars, Fred Sadoff. Source: (IMDb).

Trying To Recover After A Really Rough Start

For the premiere of the show, they had a tough time finding guest stars, ending up with singer Steve Lawrence and Don Meredith, the football player-turned actor. In this episode, Lawrence played a gambler who thought someone wanted to kill him. The premier failed to attract audiences, and as it continued to flounder, they tried to retool it, bringing in new crew members, and guests like Tony Danza, replacing the producer, reworking the genre and adding a laugh track (a strange choice for an action-drama). Despite these attempts, there was no saving the show, which TV Guide ranked as 28 on its 2002 list of the “50 Worst TV Shows of All Time.” After they tried to save the show, Robert MacKenzie criticized it in the May 19, 1979 issue of TV Guide, saying that "This tale d-r-a-g-g-e-d even more than previous episodes despite the attempt to glamorize it with models in bikinis and Peter Lawford playing his usual shopworn sophisticate." 

Source: (Core77).

The End Of A Doomed Run

Silverman himself said that “The shows were just lousy, and it plummeted.” In the February 9, 1979 issue of Variety, the show was critiqued by the Telefilm Review, which said that “without better scripts, the train’s trek may well end in 13 weeks. More emphasis on characters, less on the train, is in order.” The article was pretty close in its prediction, as the show ended after 12. Supertrain, with its nine episodes, had incurred enormous debt, costing the network millions of dollars.

Shortly after the end of Supertrain, Silverman left NBC. He started his own production company, and in 1986, produced Matlock.

Tags: NBC | Robert Alda | Supertrain

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Linda Speckhals


When she’s not out walking her dog, or taking in a baseball game, Linda loves learning about history, science, and philosophy. She will travel wherever the wind may blow, and happily loses herself in a book, whenever she can. At heart, she is a music loving tree-hugger.