Let Me Tell You a Little Story

November 8, 2007
Let me tell you a little story. When I was about six years old, I was watching television in the early evening, as I was prone to during that time. The program that engaged me was an episode of Rocko’s Modern Life, a typical 90’s cartoon on Nickelodeon. Heffer, Rocko’s large friend that was the cartoon representation of a cow, had become a security guard, and it was his first day on the job. The next fifteen minutes of the show consisted of him walking the halls of an abandoned building while he experienced The Shining, right up to two twins sitting at the end of a hallway saying “come play with us.” Eight years later, I remembered this and laughed.

That was 90’s television, right there. Somewhere between Bugs Bunny and 1991, cartoon creators got tired of pandering to their audience by making jokes children would enjoy. They started writing episodes for themselves, the writers; the mentality shifted to, “man, if I could work a Pulp Fiction reference into Rugrats, I’d die happy.” This translated into one heck of a strange broadcasting period.

This is a great topic to discuss, simply because 90’s TV represented some of the most ridiculous programming ever. Hindsight treats that decade of television about as well as Chris Hansen treats the people on To Catch a Predator. There were so many shows that were so strange that you wonder why they existed. I have so many questions that need to be answered, particularly after they’ve had six-seven years to marinate: what exactly was All That? It was like Saturday Night Live, but performed by teenagers who weren’t funny and who couldn’t say “hell” on air. What grade was Doug supposed to be set in? I honestly can’t tell. They all seemed to get around town effortlessly, suggesting they were in high school, but Doug had the imagination of an eight year old. Did they use that show to prove that you had a color TV by making the people all the colors of the rainbow? Roger was lime green for God’s sake.
Heck, I could go on for days about this. I honestly can’t put into words how strange Ren and Stimpy was; I feel like that show was thirty minutes worth of overt sexual references that went right over my head. Overall, there were ten writers in total who are credited for work on Ren and Stimpy. Ten writers! I can only assume this started in a board meeting where someone said something off color, followed by nine people thinking, “I can top that.” That show should’ve been called something along the lines of, “Good Ideas we had while Hung-over.”
Other cartoons bothered me. We really needed a show about a cat and a dog fused together at the midsection (Catdog)? Here’s a paradox: how did that animal go to the bathroom? Draw me a diagram where this successfully occurs. And Hey Arnold bothered me as well, simply because there weren’t any episodes that addressed the previous ones. Every episode of Hey Arnold could’ve been the pilot. Like the episode where Arnold tutored and befriended a bully; they ended the episode the best of friends, and then… nothing. They treated each other like they always had. I can’t watch a show where every episode occurs in a vacuum.
They recently released the box sets of seasons of shows like Boy Meets World and Clarissa Explains it All. And that reminded me: what a weird show Clarissa Explains it All was. It mainly consisted of Melissa Joan Hart explaining the world to me while her wise*** brother sucked up to any object with a pulse. I just remember thinking he’d talk to a rock if it didn’t interrupt him. And then there was a recurring segment where some guy would climb through Clarissa’s window, announced by a guitar riff. That never made any sense; if he was a good enough friend to her that he could show up at her house at all hours of the night, why couldn’t he just come through the front door? It’s not like he was sneaking in either; I remember her parents would come in and greet him.
And Boy Meets World won’t go unscathed either. How long can they spread out an on-again off-again relationship (Corey and Tapanga)? I think they dated from about sixth grade to the end of their natural born lives. Is that even remotely realistic? And they always tried to broach topics like sex, and it never really panned out, mainly because this was the 90’s. I think network television was as afraid of directly referencing sex on the air as they were of accidentally flashing Jimmy Hoffa’s last known whereabouts. So when Boy Meets World tried to broach the subject, producers basically had to address sex while dancing around… everything.
There was basically one quality show that came out of the 90’s: Reading Rainbow. It worked on so many levels. Teachers loved it because it was like a forty-five minute break; they could grade, sleep, smoke, whatever they really wanted. That was basically because kids loved it too; I despised the book Stella Luna, but when Reading Rainbow portrayed it, I was enthralled. I grew up in Arizona for elementary school, so I can’t definitively say what was going on for Virginia students, but you missed out on a quality childhood memory if your class didn’t sing along with the opening credits. I think it influenced a whole generation; I still remember the theme song. You probably do and just don’t realize it. Finish this sentence: “Butterfly in the…”. Yeah, I think the show worked.

I can’t really speak to what other generations have gone through with their television watching. However, if I can make a dramatic over-generalization about our generation: I truly believe we’ve been scarred for life from the programming of our youth. The unique combination of quirky characters, surreal settings, and monstrous plot holes has affected us irreversibly. Maybe it won’t be apparent today, this year or this decade…but one day you’ll be standing on an elevator, going into the office like you have everyday, and you’ll completely freak out. You’ll break down crying, you’ll kick a fake plant, you’ll put a brick through a window… it’ll get ugly. And what’s more, you’ll have no idea why it happened. 90’s television.

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