originally published September 2, 2013
As my television dependency shifts more and more from standardized broadcast schedules to the liberating realms of Netflix and Hulu and torrent dowloads, I find myself less and less interested in the annual fall offerings of fresh meat, filtered through tried-and-tested formulae. There was a time when a new slate of pilots would whet my curiosity at the next direction of pop culture.
Looking back, the year that ultimately steered my obsession with network TV into the shallow waters of rehabilitation was 1990. Some good shows found their way out of the sludge of mediocrity that year: Law & Order, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Parker Lewis Can’t Lose all popped up in 1990, but we were also handed more than our fair share of drek.
This year… who knows? I hear Seth McFarlane has a live-action sitcom and AMC is plugging the ever-loving hell out of Low Winter Sun, but that’s all I’m really aware of. Twenty-three years later and my expectations are still tempered by the crapfest from 1990. Will we ever sink this low again? My guess is probably.
This really happened. While NBC was pushing that giant Law & Order boulder down the mountain – the fragmentary pieces of which are still rolling along with a steady momentum – ABC felt that what was really missing from the standard police procedural was the bright splash of musical theatre.
Cop Rock was created by Stephen Bochco, the masterful mind who also crafted two of the 20th century’s greatest police dramas, Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. This was not Mr. Bochco’s finest brainstorm. Picture a tense courtroom scene being run straight into the ground when the jury breaks into a gospel-style chorus of “He’s guilty!”. It’d be great if that happened in real life, but there is no television audience who wants to see this. Despite an intriguing cast that included the guy who played banjo with that freaky kid in Deliverance and that other guy who was liquefied after being covered in toxic waste in Robocop, this heinous slap in the face to common sense only lasted eleven episodes.
Most TV junkies who lived through the dreaded fall of 1990 remember Cop Rock. But few will recall there was another attempt at fusing a standard television formula with musical theatre. Hull High hit the NBC airwaves a month earlier, and though it failed to garner the public’s impassioned disdain the way the musical police drama would, it also failed to find an audience. I was in high school back then, and while I was thrilled to find the character of Parker Lewis to relate to that year, this effort was simply too hideous to patronize.
Rather than incorporate a bunch of musically-inclined kids like on Glee, or pull the pin on reality and have the characters break into occasional song, Hull High featured a Greek chorus who filled us in on what was going on. By rapping. Rapping in a way that would appeal to some mysterious demographic of non-rap-lovers and non-TV-watchers that NBC must have believed to exist.
One worthy note from Hull High: the main character, history teacher John Deerborn, was played by Will Lymon. Will now narrates those “Most Interesting Man In The World” Dos Equis commercials.
The TV Gods really wanted us to get up and dance in 1990. Not content to simply crap all over the police drama and high school genres, ABC also unleashed Elvis, a half-hour drama about the King of Rock ‘n Roll’s youth. It took ten episodes of miniscule audiences for the network to pull the plug on this mess, but they got a bit more mileage out of the idea by editing the episodes into a four-part miniseries.
Elvis was played by Michael St. Gerard, who had portrayed the King in the Jerry Lee Lewis bio-pic Great Balls Of Fire the year before, and would play him again on an episode of Quantum Leap a few years later. I found a few Elvis fans online who still fawn and drool over this show, so maybe there was something to it, at least for that handful of King-heads (or whatever Elvis fans are collectively called).
The Adventures Of Super Mario Bros. 3, for which Princess Peach apparently put on a few pounds, was not a third entry in a franchise but rather an animated series based on the third entry in a video game franchise. SMB3 was the hottest thumb-puncher on Nintendo’s flagship console in 1990, and as with anything else in the chum-bucket of popular culture, its franchise owners felt the need to whore it out to every conceivable platform.
I’ll admit to some bias here. By 1990, I wasn’t interested in Saturday morning cartoons apart from the Looney Tunes shorts, which are timeless and ageless. I was not the target audience for a show like this. But I remember watching Mario and Luigi hopping around London or Paris or something, and thinking there was absolutely nothing fun about this show. It even made me hate the video game a little.
CBS is not above reproach in 1990. They pinched out this little nugget of forgettable animated fare – Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures, based on the Keanu Reeves and that-other-guy movie from 1989. I chuckled like a hopped-up dental patient at the film, but even at my young and naïve age, I knew this cartoon was sell-out bullshit.
Kudos to CBS for scoring the film’s original cast for season one’s slate of 13 episodes, including George Carlin, who can redeem almost any rotten concept. For reasons that could only be related to poor lawyers securing weak contracts, a live series was being planned for the Fox network, so the original cast was yanked from season two of the cartoon. The animated series got cancelled, Bogus Journey had a tepid box office return, and the live series ran for seven crappy episodes in the summer of ’92, using the same scab cast from the cartoon’s second season. Some ideas are best when they stand alone, Hollywood.
Oh right… ABC also put out a cartoon based on the New Kids On The Block, probably because hey, the Beatles had one. Screw you, ABC. It’s really no wonder the fall of 1990 soured me on the assembly chute of network television.