originally published May 29, 2013
Having grown up as a non-hockey-playing only child in a Canadian town that was either winter or winteresque for more than half the year, I watched a lot of TV. I had a small handful of friends who lived within walking distance, but hundreds of friends who lived in that little box in my living room, from Fonzie to Latka. Sad? Maybe. Lonely? Perhaps. Pathetic? Hey, watch it.
Okay, so I spent much of the 80’s skitting from primetime show to primetime show, despite having only three networks and thirteen total channels (one of which was French) to choose from. When I see how much time my own kids spend looking at gifs of Benedict Cumberbatch on Tumbler, I don’t feel so bad. At least I had Moonlighting.
So when Wikipedia decided to hurl 1987 in American Television at me, I opted not to flip the channel.
Undoubtedly the most shocking moment on television in 1987 occurred early in the year, on January 22. Pennsylvania treasurer R. Budd Dwyer, who had recently been convicted of bribery, finished off his press conference in Harrisburg by withdrawing a .357 Magnum and taking his own life. Dwyer swore to the very end that he’d been wrongfully convicted, and stated that his suicide was an effort to have the facts of his case re-examined, and to shine a light on the failure of the American justice system. Some affiliates aired the entire press conference, right to the end. And I’m sure some viewers who saw that may have found a way to erase it from their minds by now.
I tracked down the full footage on Youtube. Trust me, you don’t want to see it.
In far less gruesome news, Remington Steele returned for its fifth season in January, 1987. It had been canceled the year before, its star offered the coveted role of James Bond in The Living Daylights. When NBC un-cancelled it, the Bond people rescinded their invite, not wanting the film franchise to be linked in any way to a TV series. Pierce Brosnan would only get another six hours of playing Remington before the axe fell again, and he’d have an eight-year wait to slip into the tailored Bond suit.
On April 19, The Simpsons made its debut as a short film on Fox’s The Tracey Ullman Show. The television network itself was only two weeks old at this point. On April 5, when Fox first went on the air, they aired the same episodes of Tracey Ullman and Married…With Children three times throughout the night in hopes people would flip over and tune in. This was the first time there were four American TV networks since the DuPont people switched from the television business to making industrial cleansers in 1955.
One month before The Simpsons began their slow and methodical plot to denigrate the face of television and lead us all into an amoral hellfire, television’s most holy visage suffered a scar from above. Televangelist Jim Bakker stepped down from his pulpit amid allegations of a rape scandal involving church secretary Jessica Hahn. While that charge would never make its way inside a courtroom, the savvy Charlotte Observer newspaper made sure we found plenty of reasons to hate Bakker, including millions of embezzled dollars.
Over the summer, housewives and those too sick or infirm to properly work a remote control mourned the loss of their favorite daytime television programs, as footage of the lengthy Iran Contra hearings dragged on through the summer. I remember that vividly – rainy and cold summer mornings I’d flip over to channel 6 in hopes of catching some wild The Price Is Right Plinko action, and I’d end up looking at Oliver North’s face. North was a poor substitute for watching plastic discs fall and bounce off little spokes.
And speaking of The Price Is Right, on October 15, host Bob Barker wandered onto the stage for the first time sporting white hair. Just a few days prior (though taped months earlier) he had been showing off his dyed-brown hair. The audience, thrilled at Bob’s honesty, gave him a one-minute standing ovation. During this minute, Bob spayed and neutered three domestic cats on the stage with his bare hands, laughing maniacally as the applause gave way to horrified screams.
In sitcom news, Valerie Harper was fired from her own show, Valerie, due to a contract dispute. She sued, won some cash, and the show continued for another four years after announcing that her character, the matriarch of a typically wacky 80’s sitcom family, had died. Over in another corner of NBC, 227 star Jackée Harry changed her name to simply ‘Jackée’ in hopes it will launch her to that next plateau of stardom. It didn’t.
Down the block at ABC, Mr. Belvedere, the story of a portly British housekeeper who inexplicably works for that guy from the Miller Lite commercials, was cancelled after three seasons. People complained, and the network brought the show back for three more. If only Fox had been so astute when Arrested Development got cut short almost two decades later.
On September 5, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand aired for the 2751st and final time, as ABC, devastated over the breakup of Twisted Sister, announced that no good music could ever be made in the future, now that Dee Snider’s dream was over. Dick Clark, saddened by the news, consoled himself by making money-angels in the piles of gazillion-dollar bills he’d already earned from the music business.
Almost a week later, on September 11, Dan Rather had a temper tantrum. He was working the CBS evening news remotely from Miami, where Pope John Paul II was beginning a rare North American tour (I believe Wang Chung was his opening act – it was a balls-out amazing show!). When a US Open Steffi Graf-Lori McNeil tennis match ran a little long, Dan got pissed and walked off the set. I suppose in his opinion, the final moments of a major sporting event should get snipped off so that we could hear news about the Pope, specifically how his flight was, and whether or not there was a movie on the plane. Dan was gone for six full minutes, despite the match only bleeding into two minutes of his time slot. Over 100 affiliates showed nothing but dead air.
I have been asked if I regret my childhood devotion to prime-time television. Truth is, apart from some of the later seasons of Night Court, I have no regrets. I’m glad I have grown though, no longer a slave to what the networks shovel my way.
Now I’ve got cable.