NBC had high hopes for its sitcom based on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The network aired a sneak preview before the start of the 1990-1991 season, which ranked in the Top 10 for the week. Ratings fell quickly once the season got underway. NBC cancelled Ferris Bueller in mid-December but burned off the final episode in August 1991.
Ferris Bueller Comes To Television
Released in June 1986, the coming-of-age comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off ranked as one of the ten highest-grossing films of 1986 (others included Top Gun, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and The Karate Kid, Part II) . The film, which starred Matthew Broderick, Mia Sara and Alan Ruck, had its network television debut when it was broadcast by NBC on Sunday, May 14th, 1989 following the series finale of Family Ties. It averaged a 17.6/29 Nielsen rating and beat its network competition, which included the final chapter of ABC’s “War and Remembrance” miniseries .
On May 24th, USA Today reported that NBC was working on a television version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as a mid-season replacement for the 1989-1990 season . Although a series never materialized during that season, NBC’s interest in the property continued. The network repeated the film on Sunday, March 4th, 1990. It ranking third in its time slot and 43rd for the week, averaging a 12.7/20 Nielsen rating .
Later that month, NBC released a list of the thirty pilots it was considering for the 1990-1991 season. A television version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was included . It was one of ten pilots spread across ABC, CBS and NBC based on movies. The others included series based on Parenthood, The Witches of Eastwick, True Believer, K-9, Look Who’s Talking, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Big, Uncle Buck and Steel Magnolias .
When NBC announced its fall schedule, Ferris Bueller had given the Monday, 8:30-9PM timeslot following The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, another new sitcom. Charlie Schlatter would star as Ferris. NBC President Brandon Tartikoff called Ferris Bueller “a contemporary, hip show” while lavishing even more praise on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, predicting it “will be the hottest show ever; it has a possibility for a 30-plus share” .
Ferris Bueller was produced by Maysh, Ltd. Productions in association with Paramount Television. It was developed for television by John Masius, who also served as executive producer.
Big Shoes To Fill
As with any television adaptation of a film, there would be the inevitable comparisons between those playing the characters on the small screen with those who portrayed them on the big screen. Given that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off had been such a financial, critical and popular success, the cast of Ferris Bueller were put in an unenviable position. Charlie Schlatter in particular was given the difficult task of replacing Matthew Broderick as Ferris.
Joining Schlatter in series were Ami Dolenz as Ferris’s girlfriend Sloane Peterson and Brandon Douglas as Ferris’s best friend Cameron Frye. The roles had been played on the big screen by Mia Sara and Alan Ruck. All three were in their junior year at Ocean Park High School in Los Angeles.
Ferris’s sister, Jeannie, would be played by Jennifer Aniston and his parents Bob and Barbara by Sam Freed and Cristine Rose. Rounding out the television cast were Richard Riehle as Principal Edward R. Rooney and Judith Kahan as his secretary Grace, who was in love with Rooney.
A Few Tweaks For The Small Screen
Ferris Bueller was not a continuation of or sequel to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Nor was it a prequel to the film. Rather, within the universe of the television series the movie was said to have been based on the real Ferris Bueller as depicted by Charlie Schlatter. In the premiere episode, Ferris pulled a cardboard cutout of Matthew Broderick out of his closet and proceeded to cut it in half with a chainsaw. He had not been thrilled with the way Broderick portrayed him on the big screen.
Despite this, there were no further mentions of the film in the television series, no references to Ferris being famous for having had a movie based on his life. And while in the film Ferris and Sloane were already in a relationship, in the television series Sloane was a recent transfer to Ocean Park High who Ferris had fallen for.
Ferris Bueller Can Do Anything
Right from the start, Ferris Bueller depicted its title character as a 16-year-old who could do anything, however improbable. In the series premiere, after Jeannie demanded he keep a low profile at school, Ferris rode off in a limousine. In a later episode he would take a helicopter to school. He had an answering machine in his locker, along with parking passes and who knows what else. He also spoke Japanese.
Ferris was the one everyone at school turned to when they needed help, be it answers to a test, getting out of Spanish class, better food in the cafeteria, a parking sticker for the teacher’s lot. He was a whiz with computers, able to log into a police computer system to change Jeanie’s bail to $250,000 or doing the same with an airport’s booking system to change someone’s flight.
Like the film, the television version often broke the fourth wall by having Ferris speak directly to viewers. He apparently had video cameras everywhere and while in his bedroom would often show viewers footage of other characters at school or elsewhere.
In the series premiere, Ferris declared that he and Sloane were going to fall in love. All they had to do was meet first. It took several attempts but eventually he wore her down and convinced her to skip out and get lunch at the beach.
Unfortunately, after telling her to follow her dreams Sloane announced she hoped to transfer to another school to pursue performing arts. It was a recurring plot point throughout the first three episodes, culminating with Ferris using his computer skills to place her lower on a waiting list to give himself time to figure out how to convince her to stay at Ocean Park High.
Rooney, however, sensing a way to stick it to Ferris, pulled some strings and got her transfer to Swan Lake, a performing arts school, where she could study dance. Everything worked out in the end when Ferris saved the day, Rooney agreed to start a dance program at Ocean Park High and Sloane decided not to transfer.
Television critics were overwhelmingly negative in their reviews of Ferris Bueller. Matt Roush, writing for USA Today, lamented the fact that the series lacked the “undertone of ebullient youth and innocence” seen in the film and labeled the television version of Ferris Bueller a “ferret” . Tom Shales, in The Washington Post, discussing the opening sequence in the premiere which saw Charlie Schlatter cutting through a cardboard cutout of Matthew Broderick: “Oh, then this is the ‘real’ Ferris Bueller? Fine. Now will the real Ferris Bueller please shut up” .
The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Jonathan Storm wrote that Ferris Bueller “has a central character with no soul” . Howard Rosenberg, however, in The Los Angeles Times, was very enthusiastic about the series, which he called “a likable addition to the NBC schedule.” He saw Charlie Schlatter as “sharper-edged [but] nevertheless an appealing Ferris” and called executive producer John Masius “a master of the amusing throwaway line” .
Many critics compared Ferris Bueller to Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, another new sitcom, this one on FOX, that was arguably just as inspired by Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as NBC’s Ferris Bueller was. Unlike the official spin-off, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose drew modest praise. John J. O’Connor, for The New York Times, wrote that “Ferris’s character gets away with his antics precisely because of his seemingly innocent facade, and so Mr. Broderick was perfect for the role. The smirking Mr. Schlatter is likely to leave most viewers reaching instinctively for their wallets” . Corin Nemec as Parker Lewis, on the other hand, “is indeed white-bread perfect for the kind of fellow who finds the very concept of school totally bizarre” .
And Matt Roush, who was so critical of Ferris Bueller, argued that Parker Lewis Can’t Lose had “a giddy sense of the absurd that keeps it from being a total turnoff” .
Ferris Does This, Ferris Does That
Aside from the initial storyline about Sloane potentially transferring, the only recurring plotlines in Ferris Bueller were Rooney’s hatred of Ferris and Jeannie’s attempts to show her parents that Ferris wasn’t the innocent angel they thought he was. In reality, Rooney was fairly incompetent and actually needed Ferris around on several occasions. And Jeannie, although conceited and cruel, didn’t hate Ferris nearly as much as she pretended to.
In one episode, Ferris ran for Student Body President but was disqualified. So, he found someone to run in his place: a rough and tumble biker named Shred who most of the students feared. Ferris and Cameron pulled a Pygmalion and turned Shred into Les, a handsome, refined student who everyone loved, including Sloane and Jeannie.
In another episode, Cameron worried he had no potential and was tired of being known only for his friendship with Ferris. He tried out for wrestling, auditioned for a play and participated in a science fair. He finally got noticed when he accidentally destroyed a statue of Rooney, leading Rooney to suspend Ferris and allowing Cameron to save the day for once.
Cameron was the focus of two other episodes. In one, Ferris wanted to have Cameron over for a little birthday party but Sloane convinced him to throw a big bash instead, something Cameron insisted he didn’t want. The party wound up being held at Rooney’s house and Cameron was not happy. In the other, Cameron fell for a new student whose father, a police officer, forbade her from seeing him. To help his friend, Ferris decided to pretend to date the girl so Cameron could see her but unfortunately she fell in love with Ferris instead.
Another episode saw Ferris dealing with the effects of a black aura around his person, as diagnosed by a psychic. His chauffeur died, he received an F on a paper and Rooney caught him in the middle of a stunt and gleefully announced an imminent expulsion. Then an earthquake hit and Ferris found himself trapped with Rooney in the principal’s office, Cameron and Jeannie were stuck in the school basement and the Bueller parents were stuck in an elevator with a man in a chicken costume.
(In a nod to Parker Lewis Can’t Win, this episode of was titled “Ferris Bueller Can’t Win.” Several months after Ferris Bueller had left the airwaves, the May 19th, 1991 season finale of Parker Lewis Can’t Lose was titled “Parker Lewis Can’t Win,” which saw Parker Lewis dealing with his own bout with bad luck.)
Other episodes involved Ferris convincing a janitor to impersonate the tough new dean of students, only for the power to go to his head; Sloane refusing to dissect a frog and Rooney forcing Ferris to get rid of the school dog in return for not punishing her; Ferris going overboard for his two month anniversary with Sloan, who broke up with him and started dating the foreign exchange student Jeannie had her eye on; Ferris buying a used car that Cameron thought was haunted, Sloane refused to ride in and Rooney wanted for himself; and Ferris convincing the student body to honor Rooney by telling them he was dying after a surprise inspect embarrassed Rooney because everyone had skipped school to go to the beach.
The 13th and final episode saw Ferris and Cameron attempting to rewrite their report on Lyndon Johnson in one day after Cameron plagiarized their first attempt. They tried to get started by were sidetracked and ended up in a bad part of town where Cameron’s mother’s car was towed and impounded. Jeannie’s car wound up in the same impound lot and all three spent the night sleeping on the sidewalk.
Alan Rachins appeared as himself in the pilot episode, brought in to convince Rooney not to expel Ferris. At the time, Rachins was co-starring in L.A. Law as attorney Douglas Brackman, Jr. Digger Phelps, Buddy Hackett and Tone Loc would play themselves in later episodes.
The second episode opened with Ferris watching Barbara Bush speak on television, mentioning him by name. In reality, the then-First Lady had actually quoted a line from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off while giving a commencement speech at Wellesley College on June 1st, 1990.
The November 26th episode included a reference to ABC’s Cop Rock: a police officer explained that he had met a lot of police officers and judges during his career and none had yet to burst into song.
Viewers Tune In; Viewers Tune Out
In July 1990, NBC announced it would “double pump” six of its new series before premiere week, airing the pilot episodes twice before the 1990-1991 season officially kicked off. The network would start with a sneak preview of Ferris Bueller in late August. Other new shows getting the double pump treatment included Working It Out, Law and Order and Hull High .
The sneak preview of Ferris Bueller aired at 8:30PM on Thursday, August 23rd following a repeat of The Cosby Show. It was seen by 22.9 million viewers, easily winning its time slot but losing roughly one million viewers from The Cosby Show. It drew a strong 14.2/25 Nielsen rating, placing it 6th for the week .
When the premiere episode was repeated in its regular time slot on Monday, September 10th at 8:30PM it ranked second in its time slot with 18.2 million viewers and a 12.4/20 rating, good enough to tie for 26th for the week . The following week, when Ferris Bueller officially premiered in its time slot the series fell to third in its time slot against Major Dad on CBS and MacGyver on ABC, with a 10.7/17 rating, ranking 57th for the week (it also lost nearly four million viewers from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air) .
On October 2nd, USA Today reported that Ferris Bueller was in danger of cancellation. Brandon Tartikoff was quoted as saying “it is a little too early to make a decision on Ferris Bueller,” but he pointed out that even the NBC/McDonald’s “McMillions on NBC” sweepstake was not bringing viewers to Ferris Bueller (the “McMillions” sweepstake had its first drawing on Monday, September 24th, 1990 — during Ferris Bueller‘s third episode) , .
NBC pre-empted Ferris Bueller on Monday, November 19th, to try out the pairing of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air with The Parenthood, after previously airing an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air with Amen on a Saturday. Reportedly, whichever show held more of its lead-in would replace Ferris Bueller on Mondays . However, the special showing of The Parenthood fared no better than Ferris Bueller — in fact, it did somewhat worse, drawing a 9.1/14 rating, tied at 52nd for the week .
On December 3rd, the 11th episode of Ferris Bueller was broadcast. It was the last episode to air in its regular time slot. The series was pre-empted on December 10th for a repeat of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. NBC announced its mid-season scheduling changes on December 12th, dropping both Ferris Bueller and The Parenthood. Blossom would replace Ferris Bueller Mondays at 8:30PM .
On Sunday, December 16th, NBC broadcast an episode of Ferris Bueller from 7-7:30PM that was watched by only only 8.3 million viewers. More people watched True Colors on FOX. The episode ranked 85th for the week. An episode of Parker Lewis Can’t Lose aired from 7:30-8PM on FOX and was seen by 9.9 million viewers . It was the closest the two shows came to competing head-to-head.
Ferris Bueller‘s cancellation came just in time for critics to make note of it in the year-end wrap-ups. Matt Roush listed Ferris Bueller among “Shows we’re glad are going away” . Tom Shales ranked Ferris Bueller fifth in his “10 Worst Shows of the Year” list . And John J. O’Connor included the show in his rundown of “truly dreadful moments” in the television year — it, along with Hull High, was one of “those teen shows assuring young audiences that teachers are dopey and education is a drag” .
NBC burned off a leftover episode of Ferris Bueller on Sunday, August 11th, 1991. It tied for 90th for the week with a 3.5 rating . For the 1990-1991 season overall, Ferris Bueller ranked as one of the most popular series among viewers aged 12-17, behind The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and America’s Funniest People but ahead of its replacement Blossom and Doogie Howser, M.D. .
Although it may have been a bad idea to turn Ferris Bueller’s Day Off into a television show, some blame for the failure of Ferris Bueller must be attributed to its time slot. NBC intentionally plugged one of the weakest holes in its schedule with The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Ferris Bueller, two new and untested sitcoms. For Ferris Bueller, competition included Major Dad which saw an unexpected rise in ratings during the 1990-1991 season, ending in the Top 25 . The 1990-1991 season as a whole had no new hits. Even The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, which ended the season as the highest-rated new sitcom, only ranked 41st .
As for Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, the FOX series aired for three seasons and 73 episodes, wrapping up its run in June 1993.
TV Land aired the November 5th, 1990 episode of Ferris Bueller in May 2004 during a marathon consisting of sitcoms featuring the cast of Friends before they were famous. Ferris Bueller served as Jennifer Aniston’s segment.
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Originally Published January 1st, 2004
Last Updated April 21st, 2018