The Strange Time ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ Became a Terrible TV Show

From 2014, Scott Beggs looks at the 1990 TV series based on one of our favorite 1980s movies.
Ferris Bueller Tv Show

We’re still a few years away from being able to hop a quick flight into space (after our self-driving car parks itself in the terminal), but if you want to feel like you’re standing on another planet, you should watch the Ferris Bueller TV show.

Created for NBC’s lineup in 1990, it’s an odd pop-cultural artifact that plays like a window into an alternative universe that somehow exists in our own without melting all physical laws into shoe-ruining mud. In it, Charlie Schlatter is Ferris Bueller, Jennifer Aniston is his pissy sister Jeannie, and Richard Riehle (before he became rich inventing the Jump To Conclusions Mat) is the stuffy Principal Ed Rooney.

The natural response is that these are impostors, that you’re somehow being tricked, and that instinctive mindset colors everything that the show does. It would probably be even stranger if the characters felt right while not looking right, but fortunately for everyone’s sanity, the show gets everything about continuing the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off story hilariously wrong.

It’s easy to imagine that this was a pure money grab on raw name recognition. After all, if a Ferris Bueller TV show were announced today, the entire internet would scream while pulling its eye-rolling muscles until embracing a fun program or deriding a bad/expected result. But we wouldn’t be surprised. We’d be resigned to it. That craven level of absent creativity is what we’ve come to anticipate, but this was 1990! A simpler time. Thus, it’s more likely that NBC wanted another Saved By the Bell and had an ace in the hole with name recognition on top (for, you know, a movie that was popular four years prior).

But if Zack Morris was the giant portable phone-wielding version of Ferris, 1990 also saw the launch of two other versions. Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Parker Lewis Can’t Lose also hit television with a teenage swagger, featuring Ferris-style characters who could talk themselves in or out of any situation. All in all it was an amazing little moment for devil may care high schoolers.

That was unfortunate for the real fake Ferris, and since the show was both lame and unpopular, it died after a single season while Parker and Will lived on to different degrees of success. Both were updates on the 80s character, and they both turned out to be better Ferrises than the new Ferris. Oddly enough, Parker Lewis’ girlfriend is even named Sloan, and in a bit of pre-Community/Cougar Town crossover love, there’s an episode of Ferris called “Ferris Bueller Can’t Win.”

So what makes Ferris Bueller such a jarring experience? The bizarro world element is the biggest sin. Without a single returning actor from the movie, the show feels like a store clerk trying to sell you a dead parrot while absolutely refusing to acknowledge that it’s dead. Like how Tom Cruise must have felt in Vanilla Sky when Cameron Diaz kept insisting that she was Penelope Cruz. You keep watching, waiting for everyone to admit they’re lying about who they are, and compounding it further is Schlatter’s spot-on vocal impression of Ferris down to his rhythm and inflection. Meanwhile, Aniston (a few years from proving her chops with Friends) is a weak replacement for Jennifer Grey, reducing the role down with a single acting trick: huffing after every sentence.

Of course it also didn’t help the show’s goodwill that it opens with Schlatter’s Ferris attempting to erase Matthew Broderick’s Ferris from our minds by cutting his head off.

As ill-advised as it is, it’s not difficult to imagine that Executive Producer John Masius and the writers saw it as an earnest answer to the dilemma of creating an In Name Only show focused on a character made famous by the guy who won’t be playing him for you. If this were a book character, it would simply be another incarnation, but Broderick is Bueller, the only Bueller we know, so Masius and company had to choose between never mentioning the absence or inventing a clever way around it.

Their solution was definitely clever, but it was also head-slappingly dumb and took the show into the next parallel universe over. We’re told upfront that this is the real Ferris while the movie was actually made about the TV Ferris we’re just now being introduced to (the parrot just moved a little! See?). The TV Ferris is such a righteous dude that they made a movie about him starring a guy he thinks stunk up the joint.

Tone deafness is one thing, but badmouthing a character that is so beloved that you based a TV show on him yet couldn’t afford the original actor is next-level moronic. On the other hand, they did capitalize some on the movie’s existence in a few other ways – like using a genuine speech from Barbara Bush where she quotes Ferris about how fast life moves. It’s the kind of thing that would exist as a fantasy sequence in any other show, ADRed or CGIed to life, but here it’s a deft touch that goes at least an inch in mythologizing New Ferris.

That may have shot them in the foot, though, because we’re told this high school kid is cool enough to get a movie made after him, but all we get to see is stock sitcom silliness.

Even with the off-center feelings, the show still could have built an audience if it were funny and entertaining, or if it merely held true to the character. As you can guess, it doesn’t. Schlatter’s Ferris is less of a zen master in sunglasses and more of an outright asshole. The movie Ferris was always ahead of the curve, gliding through life with a portable escape hatch. The TV Ferris is frantic by comparison. In the second episode, Mr. Rooney proclaims at the last minute that Bueller won’t be eligible to run for student body president, and the baldfaced antagonism of a principal toward a student plays gratingly, like if Mr. Belding punched Zack in front of Kelly. Still, where the movie Ferris might use the moment to reveal (or lie through his teeth) that he’d secretly planned all along for the slight, the TV Ferris scrambles into the crowd, desperately begging for people to run in his stead. Very un-Bueller.

The entire show is a misappropriation of what made the movie so charming. To be fair, the line between incorrigible scamp and annoying jerk is paper-thin, but the TV show lands on the wrong side of the cut. This Ferris is flappable.

And, yes, he wants to run for student body president for some reason.

Speaking of which, it’s more than a little strange to see Ferris in school. Call it a minor quibble, but after celebrating his ability to ditch class with impunity, watching a show that places him firmly inside the system that he didn’t care about is another cringe-producing element born from either not understanding the character, not being able to replicate him or not figuring out a way to keep a character famous for not being in school out of school.

This permeates the series. We get a glimpse of Ferris’ humanity near the end of the movie, but in the TV show, he’s constantly doing things for other people. In the fifth episode, he spends a ton of energy trying to create the “best birthday party” for Cameron; in the ninth episode he yells at his grandmother while trying to get new uniforms for the marching band; and in the seventh episode, Rooney essentially gets the best of Ferris the entire episode (and Jeannie makes out with Cameron).

Ferris Bueller is online thanks to some bizarre soul and a lack of copyright enforcement. As you could probably guess, John Hughes never signed off on the show or endorsed it in any way, but it’s still moderately cool that it exists (mostly because I was too young at the time to care). It’s a televisual platypus, and there’s even an overarching explanation for why this Ferris Bueller is so unlike Ferris Bueller: the TV version lives in California.

Scott Beggs: Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.