Failed Pilots – Tagteam

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To save the suspense on whether Tagteam — self-styled as a single word — is any good, it’s with a heavy heart I must report the biggest missed opportunity since every participant in James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke failed to nudge the wheel into oncoming traffic. ABC’s 1991 pilot starring ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper and Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura seems like a true can’t miss, coming three scant years after Roddy’s turn in genre classic, They Live, and with Jesse’s incredible 1987 double-bill of Predator and The Running Man still within touching distance.

With 20-inch biceps, and a dimpled butt-chin so severe, he probably poos out of it, peak Ventura was the wild combination of a baritone voice in a Navy Seal’s body, while decked out like your nan going down the local function room with the girls from the bingo to watch a nice young man dressed like a fireman take out his cock. In the homophobic hellscape of 80’s masculinity, here was a man so tough, he could fearlessly swan around in flowery tights and a feathered earring, and still be the baddest motherfucker in any room. And then there’s Roddy. Someone who couldn’t exist outside the bonkers world of pro wrestling, Hot Rod was a pure tornado of sweat, violence, and surrealist cocaine-scatting. A Canadian in a kilt pretending so hard to be Scottish that he believed it himself, his brawling in-ring approach of lightning quick punches and eye-pokes was mirrored by his frenetic promo style. Like watching a stand-up routine by someone about to get dragged offstage and violently medicated by a bunch of panicked orderlies, wrong-footed viewers were in for anything, from breaking beer bottles over his own head, to a non-sequitur about leaving so he could “eat a garage.”

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With Tagteam initially conceived and cast as a solo vehicle for Ventura, the pair suggested adding Piper as another lead, finally putting the Rock and Dave Bautista of their era together onscreen. Picture this — Lethal Weapon, with Roddy as the craziest possible Riggs, and weary Jesse being too old for this shit. That’s what I thought I was in for with Tagteam, but sadly, they’re stepping into a script that could have been written for any random pairing of blokes. Warren Oates and Martin Kove. Ernest Borgnine and Adam Woodyatt. Syd and Eddie. With the pair’s pre-formed personalities, and the bickering buddy format there for the taking, bafflingly, Tagteam writes them as like-minded and affable generic wrestlers. Jesse’s sole personality trait seems to be ‘eats grapes’ — tossing them into his mouth as he lays in bed in one scene; buying a whole crate from the store in another — while Roddy’s so dialled down from the Hot Rod we’re used to, when taunted about an upcoming bout, he replies with an earnest “we’re sure gonna give it our best shot!

In a real stretch, Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura plays Billy ‘The Body’ Youngblood, in familiar tie-dye and feather boa, while Roddy stars as Glasgow’s own ‘Tricky’ Rick McDonald, with a brown leather waistcoat and Ultimate Warrior style arm tassels. We begin backstage, with Jesse locked in Roddy’s painful submission hold, for the old ‘you thought he was hurting him, but he was just fixing his back!’ A small boy wanders in with an autograph book and gives us exposition about the pair recently changing gimmicks from ‘the Lizard Brothers’, with green scales and fake ears. How can we trust anything from Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura, now we know he used to drink baby’s blood with the Queen and the rest of his illuminati lizard mates?

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With a full house of 25,000 fans (though filmed in a darkened arena to hide how small it is), the promoter gives a pep talk before their upcoming match with the Samurai Brothers. Clearly, a lot of hard graft went into a script which required the invention of just two fictional tag teams, and named them both ‘The Something Brothers’. Similarly, when we meet the Samurais, played by the WWF’s Orient Express alongside Mr. Fuji, it’s a real show of wordsmithery, with “the Unpredictable Soji” accompanied by “the Unpredictable Mr. Saki.”

Tagteam quickly adds itself to the list of fictional universes where wrestling is real, as the promoter’s glamorous wife, Leona, takes our boys aside and orders them to take a dive. If they don’t, she’ll tell her husband they’ve been hitting on her and they’ll be blackballed, just like Tyrone the Terrible (the only half-decent fake wrestler name we get). And also, just like Jesse Ventura was threatened with for real in 1986, when Hulk Hogan grassed him up to the boss for trying to unionise backstage. So that Tagteam‘s viewers won’t be confused, a handsome ring announcer dubbed with the voice of ‘Mean’ Gene Okerlund explains to the live crowd of wrestling fans the very complex rules of a tag team match. As is their wont, the inscrutable, sneaky Japanese chuck salt in Jesse’s eyes, though despite the plot-quandary of taking a dive or suffering the consequences, the lads casually get the win. True to her word, Leona whispers into her husband’s ear, and they’re both immediately fired.

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So low is their self-esteem, they dismiss the idea of opening a wrestling school, as that’s for champions, not losers. Roddy offers to take the heat, so Jesse can keep his job, but he won’t have it. Not only are they besties who’ve always got each other’s backs, but roommates too. Middle-aged, perpetually shirtless roommates, with no savings, sharing one giant loft they can no longer afford. Their beds are only a few feet apart, in full sight of each other, but thankfully Tagteam seems to take place in a wholly asexual world, without a hint of erotic tension or flirtation, even after the eventual introduction of a helpless blonde.

We cut to them shoving a piano up a flight of stairs, now working as removal men. Jesse’s back goes out, and the piano falls down the stairs, smashing straight through the brick wall like a wrecking ball, and down onto their truck, which explodes in a fireball, in a weird, one-time use of cartoon physics. Unemployed again, it’s not until they head out for the Friday big shop that fate throws them a bone, in the form of over-zealous criminals. Four armed robbers coming for a single cashier at an empty supermarket, the lads beat them up with hokey wrestling moves, with the cops, having witnessed such a textbook example of police brutality, assuming they must be undercover. “You did all of this unarmed? It’s too bad you’re not cops…

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Now, you’d think the pitch of ex-wrestlers being forced to find work would see them opening a private detective agency, or becoming bounty hunters, or just plain old muscle-for-hire. What does Tagteam do with these middle-aged men? Why, send them to the police academy! If this sounds like the dumb idea a child might have, that’s because it literally is, sparked by the six-year-old son of Tagteam‘s writer saying it would be neat if there were wrestlers who became cops. Big Bossman should have sued. According to what I’ve just Googled, the upper age limit on new recruits (at least in 2018), is 37. Roddy was 36 at time of shooting, while Jesse was 40. As a blatant excuse to cover for the fact neither man would cut their hair for a TV show, the commander announces some recruits have been “pre-selected for undercover assignments.” The police academy sections are sadly lacking in guys making beep noises with their mouths and enormously-breasted women falling into swimming pools.

After scenes at the assault course and firing range, the lads are getting sworn in, with Jesse’s big muscles accidentally tearing his new uniform when he salutes. Meanwhile, a dogwalker, played by the college girl Venkman flirts with during the ESP test in Ghostbusters, accidentally sees two mob guys murder a pair of undercover cops in a parking garage, and gets put into protective custody before the trial. You can see where this is going.

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Roddy and Jess rock up to the bustling precinct for their first day at work, to sneers of derision from the rest of the cops. “Looks like we started recruiting from clown camp,” says one, “all rookies look like that,” says another. What, like aging bodybuilders with skullets? To save on paying another actor, the trainer from the academy’s been promoted to new commander of their precinct, and immediately puts them to work as plain clothes backups at the dogwalker’s safe-house. ‘Plain clothes’ is certainly one way to describe Jesse Ventura’s fringed beige leather jacket, bandana, and giant pink feather earring.

One of those shows that’s made far worse by having a stupidly accelerated time-frame, they’re fresh off their two week training course to a first day on the job protecting the witness of a trial that could bring down the city’s mob boss. Oh, and the trial is tomorrow. The godfather locates the safe-house, and sends his goons over to kill the witness. Incidentally, these are the same goons who’ve been fingered for the cop murders; just two defendants in a capital murder trial, free to wander about and do more killing. The bad guys take out the other cops with spin-kicks and shotguns, leaving Roddy and Jess to disarm them by literally pulling a rug from under their feet, before throwing them through a window, rather than slapping on the cuffs. In fact, nobody arrests these goons for trying to kill more cops on the eve of their trial for cop-killing, and they scamper away.

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But in the kerfuffle, the witness also made a break for it, jeopardising the trial, and giving the commander no option but to suspend the wrestlers. Again, this is still their first day. The next morning, the witness is still missing, and if she can’t be located by 3pm, the whole trial will collapse. Rather than, like, taking their own car, Roddy and Jess steal a cop car and head to the local dog pound, where they correctly guess that the witness is hiding. The setting’s mainly an excuse to introduce a homeless dog with a bandaged paw, who clearly would have been a sidekick had it gone to series.

Racing the witness to the trial with three minutes to spare, Jesse and Hot Rod have to fight off more goons, including the defendants, who jump out of a van in front of the courthouse with machine guns and aren’t immediately riddled with bullets by a SWAT team. Rather, there’s an endless fight scene that beautifully exposes how dumb wrestling moves look outside of a ring. On the steps of this enormous mafia trial, everyone stands back and watches the bad guys get hit with clotheslines, double arm-wringers, classic Roddy Piper nose-rakes, and an honest-to-God Irish Whip into a wall. At one point, Jesse defends himself with a bag of manure, which sprays shite everywhere as he blocks the bad guy’s punches with it. The bad-action nadir is when Jesse, getting choked with a lead pipe, holds out his hand, and in slow-mo, Roddy tags in and takes over.

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With all of this somehow not having caused a mistrial, the commander’s thrilled with the new recruits, barely 24 hours in, still suspended, and showing up to initiate a lengthy courthouse brawl in a stolen cop car. But they did deliver the witness. In our denouement, a shirtless Jesse opens the door of the apartment to a thank-you visit from the dogwalker. Roddy emerges, also shirtless, wearing only a kilt, as she whistles to signal the poorly dog from earlier, who sprints in and tackles Roddy to the floor. I correctly pegged him as their new canine sidekick, which they give the awful name of ‘Bodyslam’. We end on a pan across a gallery of photos pinned to the wall, of the lads together in their wrestling days, finishing on a shot of them as cops, which best of all, shows us what the Lizard Brothers actually looked like.

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Tagteam‘s lone episode was burned off the night before the 1991 Super Bowl. A co-production between Disney and Carolco, as Ventura tells it, the pilot was so well-received, it was picked up for 13 episodes, with $1m of sets built, and a writer’s room assembled from the team that penned Magnum PI. Exteriors were to be filmed at a Venice Beach mansion, which Roddy moved into for the duration. But he didn’t have time to unpack, as the morning of the first shoot, production was put on hold, with Disney and Carolco now on either sides of a bitter lawsuit. Tagteam promptly fell into Development Hell, never to resume. It’s a shame, despite the dreary episode we’re left with, as we know pilots are often unrepresentative of what a show might become. A prime Jesse ‘The Body’ and ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper, headlining their own A-Team style Saturday night goon-punching action series, with a dog? That could have been TV magic. Though if it had happened, Jesse Ventura wouldn’t have gone on to become governor, nor would the world have had the VHS Fighting Fit with Rowdy Roddy Piper. Robbed of Roddy’s advice, an entire generation of children would likely have been snatched by random street-paeds, never to be seen again. Maybe everything does happen for a reason.

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~ by Stuart on August 16, 2019.

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