30 Years Ago: The Disastrous ‘Ferris Bueller’ TV Series Premieres
On Aug. 23, 1990, NBC attempted to bring the high school hijinks of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to the small screen with the series premiere of Ferris Bueller.
Even before the TV show hit the airwaves, there were plenty of red flags during production. John Hughes, the legendary director who had famously helmed the 1986 film, wanted nothing to do with the project. The filmmaker refused to have his name attached to the series in any way, distancing himself as much as possible.
In addition, none of the actors from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off reprised their roles for the television incarnation. Instead, Charlie Schlatter would star as Ferris, while Richard Riehle played his adversary, Principal Ed Rooney. Ami Dolenz would portray Ferris’ love interest, Sloan Peterson, while Brandon Douglas played Cameron Frye. Jennifer Aniston, four years prior to her breakout role on Friends, was cast as Ferris’ older sister, Jeannie, a role memorably played in the film by Jennifer Grey.
Despite these changes, NBC president Brandon Tartikoff called Ferris Bueller “a contemporary, hip show,” and predicted it would be a hit with young audiences.
Watch a 1990 TV Promo for 'Ferris Bueller'
However, from the beginning Ferris Bueller was saddled with the weight of living up to its cinematic predecessor. In an interesting narrative choice, series’ writers decided they’d be better off immediately addressing this issue in the TV show’s pilot.
In the opening scene of Ferris Bueller, the titular character broke the fourth wall and spoke directly to viewers, the same device used in the Hughes classic. The TV character explained he was the true Ferris and that the cinematic version was merely a character based on him. By doing so, TV Ferris addressed the biggest elephant in the room head on - or in this case, head off. After decrying Matthew Broderick’s portrayal as “too two-dimensional,” TV Ferris used a chainsaw to decapitate a cardboard likeness of the beloved movie character.
Watch the Opening Scene From 'Ferris Bueller'
This not-so-subtle message represented the TV show’s most pressing problem: Ferris Bueller desperately wanted to prove that it was different than its cinematic predecessor, yet almost everything in the series called back to the original film.
Schlatter’s cadence and vocal delivery of Ferris was a near-perfect match to Broderick’s version of the character. Supporting roles, like those of the Bueller parents or absent-minded school secretary Grace, were presented like weak imitations of the original characters. Even the score - made up of memorable synthesizer tones in the film - was repeated to lesser success in the TV show, here sounding more like a Casio keyboard, with constant sound effects announcing the lead characters name (just in case viewers forgot what they were watching). But the main problem was that the series wasn't able to recreate the heart of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Ferris, who was lovable and confident in the film, was arrogant and tiresome in the series. Jeannie, who famously showed she truly loved her brother despite their differences in the film, was nothing more than a spiteful sibling in the show. Even the TV series’ location made little sense, as Ferris now lived in Los Angeles, rather than Chicago.
Watch the Title Sequence for 'Ferris Bueller'
After debuting on Aug. 23, 1990, Ferris Bueller moved to its regular Monday night time slot for NBC, following another new sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. While the latter became an important staple of ‘90s pop culture, the former quickly disappeared.
Critics tore Ferris Bueller apart, opining that the show was missing the “undertone of ebullient youth and innocence” that the film had captured. The Philadelphia Inquirer declared the lead character had “no soul,” while USA Today likened Schlatter's version of the character to a ferret. Washington Post writer Tom Shales, responded to the pilot’s opening scene by saying, “Oh, then this is the ‘real’ Ferris Bueller? Fine. Now will the real Ferris Bueller please shut up.”
Ferris Bueller only lasted one season and was canceled prior to airing its last episode. (NBC would eventually broadcast the series finale in 1991).
Though Ferris Bueller’s short and disappointing run has since been pushed to the darkest corner of the television archives, the series still occasionally comes up in conversation. During a red carpet interview for her 2019 film Murder Mystery, Aniston was surprised by an Access Hollywood reporter who presented a picture of the Ferris Bueller cast.
“Why would you do that to me?,” the Hollywood star laughingly said while looking at the picture. Asked whether she’d ever consider a Ferris Bueller TV show reunion, Aniston was blunt. “That would be a really, absolute no. I don’t even think half of those actors are still in the business. Some of them have gone to do other really wonderful, noble things. Hard no.”
Watch the Entire Pilot of 'Ferris Bueller'