Michael Magnes: When Sarah Marshall first told me about her hobby of watching old TV show themes on YouTube, I probably made fun of her, and then immediately told her about this early 90s Fox show called "Woops!" The exclamation point is part of the title. It was about last six humans on earth, survivors of a nuclear holocaust. They all found a farm somewhere in America and did things like fight giant spiders, have their aging process reversed, start their own currency, and find hallucinogenic berries. Later I'd find myself at parties trying to explain the show and no one believed me. They suggested I'd made it up, and listening to myself it sounded like I had! Maybe I was wrong. Maybe this show never existed. Maybe it was all a dream. And then I found it on YouTube and showed it to Sarah. It's since disappeared again, but now at least one other person knows it was real. I was not crazy.
Sarah Marshall: He wasn’t crazy, but the Fox execs clearly were.
Michael: I'm ignoring that. Anyway, the 90s were a strange time for television. It started with Fox optioning pretty much anything they could: "Woops!," "Get a Life" (the beloved cult sitcom with Chris Elliott as a 30-year-old paperboy who travels back in time and then explodes… repeatedly), "Down the Shore" (starring a pre-"Breaking Bad" Anna Gunn and featuring one very special episode where a character waited on the results of an AIDS test), and "Babes" (Fox's show about how funny three fat ladies living together is—poor Wendy Jo Sperber. It's the kind of show Al Bundy would have made). So for every "Simpsons" on the air there were five "Woops!"—strange high-concept sitcoms that were just trying to do the same dumb "take my wife and kids" jokes that all sitcoms deal in, but, you know, set at the end of the world. And they all lasted for at least 20 episodes because well, what else were you going to do? Read? Talk to your family? No.
Sarah: Now, watching TV sometimes seems more like a job than a leisure activity. You can't just watch "Girls"; you have to download it, watch it, go back to your favorite (or most hated) moments, write an impassioned blog entry about it, then get in an even more impassioned argument in the comments section. We relate more intensely to TV shows than ever, in part because there is so much good TV right now. I might make fun of people for taking their TV watching so seriously, yet I think "Breaking Bad" gorgeously frazzling Greek tragedy of a show—and so who's the too-serious one? Still, I miss the throwaway shows. I miss the good throwaways, when you could turn the TV on and go where everybody knew your name, because, as Francesca Fiore once memorably said, "All over the world, people watch 'Cheers' because everybody need family, hein?" Here's what bothers me about TV today: everything is intended to torture you on some level or another. If you want to watch something good, its intelligence will verge on impenetrability and it will delight in killing the characters you love. If you want to watch something that won't have you on tenterhooks, you have to watch reality shows or the terrible, terrible scraps of sitcoms still on TV (why bother making a good sitcom when tortuous epics are what the people still paying attention really want?). And perhaps the thing about the terrible sitcoms of today is the fact that they know they don’t have to be good, or even watchable—they have, cumulatively, the energy of a python digesting an alligator. And sometimes, sure, they burst open astoundingly and gruesomely (to take that metaphor to its logical conclusion), but usually they slither along year by year, assuming that most of their viewers are in comas. Where is the misguided ambition? Where is the free-for-all of shows about puppets, shows about tiny, screaming comedians, shows about…fish police?
Police procedurals are no longer trying all that hard, either. "Law & Order," in its 90s heyday, was constantly, albeit sometimes clumsily, attempting storylines about affirmative action and malpractice and late-term abortion and thinly veiled political scandals of the day (remember the Clarence Thomas episode? I do, and not just because I watched it again two weeks ago). It managed to present thoughtful and often hardnosed discussions of the issues of the day, and by sticking to the procedural framework figured out how to let its viewers end each episode still thinking about the plot, rather than their anxieties about the characters' lives (how could we feel anxious about the characters if we didn't even know where they lived? Remember the time Sam Waterston and Jill Hennessy engaged in a hotly debated maybe-romance and then she died in a car accident at the end of season 5 and no one ever spoke of it again? I do, and not just because I watched the episode again last week).
Police procedurals now—the thousands of "Law & Order" spinoffs, "Bones," "NCIS," "CSI," etc.—have reached a point where they seem to think it's impossible to manufacture 45 minutes of plot without having a woman raped, or abducted to a basement and then raped, or raped via webcam, or raped on the set of a show very much like the primetime competitor of the show they're on. The middle ground for these shows apparently disappeared when Jerry Orbach, the last TV actor who could reasonably pull off a trench coat, died. It's been a difficult decade.
All of this, a circuitous way of saying that we miss the 90s, and so should you. Last time we explored 80s TV through its opening themes, now we move on to the early 90s. Here's a grab bag of 19 odd, unnecessary, and sometimes wonderful throwaway shows that couldn't quite make it out of the decade (or the year they aired) alive. There will not be blood, but there will be bike shorts.
1. "Civil Wars" (1991-1993): "Famously Misanthropic"
Michael:Oh my god. "Civil Wars"? Did Ken Burns make a lawyer show? Why is Mariel Hemingway bringing me through the horrors of divorce? Oh god. William M. Finkelstein did not have a happy divorce. Complete with Ken Burns-esque music, along with mock family video footage, bitter exes talk about how much they ruined each other's lives and trained dogs to eat each other's clothes. And Mariel Hemingway is a lawyer along with some other guy who cross-examines them. God. I need a drink. Heh. Finkelstein is a funny name. I feel better. Go into the abyss of the soul with "Civil Wars"! The show about families hating each other, in court.
Sarah: Any show about divorce lawyers that features Debi Mazar is doomed from the start. THERE IS A WHORE IN YOUR BUILDING.
Also, this show inspired one of my new favorite pieces of Wikipedia prose, describing its "famously misanthropic opening credits sequence." And of course it links "misanthropic" to the Wikipedia page for misanthropy, just so anyone who doesn't know what it means has the tools to fully understand what "Civil Wars" is all about.
2. "On Our Own" (1994-1995): We're Going To Need A Bigger 'J'
Sarah: Once upon a time, a man and a woman met in a bar. They talked about music and movies they liked, their shared preference for pistachios over cashews, and—finally—the big stuff.
"How many children do you want?" the man asked.
"Six," the woman replied decisively.
"So do I!" the man exclaimed. "But only—"
"If their names can all begin with the letter J?"
"Yes!" the man gasped. "And—"
"We'll teach them to rollerblade—"
"—and shunt them onto a gimmicky TV show!"
The man and the woman embraced. Each had found their other half: the one person in the world who would share in their joys, their sorrows, and their terrible parenting ideas. Jo Jo Smollett was conceived that very night.
3. "Charlie Hoover" (1991): The Terrifying Sam Kinison
Sarah: May I humbly suggest that Charlie Hoover is a victim of US Army LSD experiments? What else could produce such a specter?
Michael: Oh my god. It's a troll! Kill it! Ki… oh.. it's Sam Kinison. Cover your ears lest the devil control you! Remember in the 90s when people liked it when comedians just sort of shouted stuff at you? Well. Sam, as Hugh, is shouting at a sad sack named Charlie. Charlie looks like he's going to kill himself but a little man who was once inside of him (who has escaped and is now outside of him) will give him some valuable life advice. Also dance and perform lewd gestures. And yell. Lots of yelling. Sam died before this sitcom could be embraced by all Americans, thus making him the new Seinfeld. Fun fact: they didn't actually need to use special effects to make Sam twelve inches tall because he actually was twelve inches tall. God. "Wherever I go you go!" I'm going to have nightmares about a twelve-inch-tall Sam Kinison following me around.
Sarah: You don't already?
4. "The Hat Squad" (1992-1993): Whoa, Dusters
Michael: The Hat Squad. Hey! It's the principal from Back to the Future! And he's telling his sons that they have to honor this legendary squadron of cops from their neighborhood called the Hat Squad. Wonder why they were called the Hat Squad? Because they wore hats and dusters as a symbol of their brand of fiery justice and so no criminal would miss them. Apparently, in the 90s criminals shit their pants at the sight of guys wearing dusters and hats. And now this guy's sons have to wear dusters and hats… and walk through lots of smoke in a studio back lot. Did Mac from "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" write this? Did I mention that the wandering through the fog on the studio back lot goes on for a full minute?
Sarah: Say what you will about this one, but you can't go wrong with a theme by Mike Post.
5. "Hot Country Nights" (1991-1992): Hot & Foggy Country Nights
Sarah: Remember 1991, when it made sense to have a country music variety show in which the set was COVERED in fog? Was this show about an alternate reality in which Jeff Dunham and Walter controlled a country underworld and forced dead musicians to perform for them as punishment? I hope so.
6. "Davis Rules" (1991-1992): Where's Stephen Baldwin?
Sarah: I know pretty much everything was alleged to "rule" in the early 90s, but did we really have to extend that judgment to Randy Quaid.
Michael: Look! Poor Bonnie Hunt. And Vonni Ribisi?
Sarah: Either Vonni Ribisi is the same person as Giovanni Ribisi, or (and I like this version better), he is the long-lost Ribisi brother who left acting behind to become a humble woodcutter.
Michael: Maybe he couldn't afford the rest of the letters in his name. On average a vowel will set you back a cool grand. Or maybe he's Giovanni Ribisi from a mirror universe. Or maybe he's Stephen Baldwin.
Sarah: Was everyone in 1991 actually Stephen Baldwin? That would explain a lot.
7. "A League of Their Own" (1993): Once More, With No Feeling
Executive: I've been thinking about it all night, and I think we should go through with this TV version of A League of Their Own.
Executive's Long-Suffering Assistant: Sir, isn't that awfully risky? People love that movie. How could a show ever live up to it?
Executive: Easy! All we need are some leggy babes and a lot of soft focus. Also, I'm sure Tracy Reiner won't have anything better to do.
ELSA: But surely Tom Hanks won't reprise his role as Jimmy Dugan—and how will you ever find another actor who can match his everyman appeal, his intrinsic 1993-ness?
Executive: Of course we can never find another actor so charming—so filled with the spirit of 1993—but Los Angeles is full of charming men! The only way this show would run aground is if, for some reason, we could not find a single actor possessing even the smallest grain of charisma, or even vague likability—if we were forced to cast, say, Sam McMurray.
ELSA: Very well, sir.
Ext.—The sky begins to darken ominously. OS, Sam McMurray's laugher is heard.
8. "Capital Critters" (1992): They're Critters In The Capital!
Michael: "Capital Critters"! I was really excited for this one back then. After "The Simpsons" became a hit everyone needed a primetime animated sitcom. There was "Capital Critters." "Fish Police." "Family Dog"…
Sarah: And so on, until the fad for incredibly unimaginatively named animal shows reached its apex with "Anthropomorphic Mouse Hour."
Michael: "Capital Critters" was about a family of rodents living in the White House. "Fish Police" was, uh, about a bunch of fish… who were police… fish…. "Family Dog" was about a family dog and the ever suffering family who, uh, familied him. I guess the question is, how do these relate to "The Simpsons"? Who cares! Cartoons! Even if it is way dumber than "Tiny Toons"! Watching "Capital Critters," I feel like someone missed a prime opportunity to do some salient political satire about cheese or something. I also enjoy lazy saxophone solos.
Sarah: Lazy saxophone solos explain much of the appeal of about a third of the themes we're watching. Poorly animated squiggles and underpaid, frenetically dancing child actors pretty much do the rest.
9. "Tequila and Bonetti" (1992): For Fans Of The Long Island Lolita Story
Sarah: "Tequila and Bonetti" truly has something for everyone, and I know becaue I actually watched it when every single episode of it mysteriously appeared on Hulu last summer, only to disappear as suddenly as it had arrived. In case you're wondering—and I'm sure you were—Bonetti is played by Jack Scalia, whose career high point arguably came with his starring role in Casualties of Love: The Long Island Lolita Story. As you may have guessed from the title, of the three Amy Fisher TV movies quickly aired in the scandal’s aftermath, this is the one that takes Joey Buttafuoco's side, with somewhat tragically hilarious results.
It would take a great actor to make an audience sympathize with one of the sleaziest—and most unfortunately named—men of the early 90s. Jack Scalia isn't that actor, but he does have all the skills—four facial expressions, a cleft chin, a vaguely Brooklyn accent, and a tendency to go "'Ey!"—necessary for a lazy buddy cop show. Because this is 1993, and the kids seem to like Turner & Hooch, the partner is a dog. However, this time the dog actually narrates the action, and sounds, mysteriously, a little like Keith David. I don't know if I think it would be better or worse if Bonetti could actually hear him.
(Note: We've broken this story into two pages to keep from breaking anyone's browser.)