90’s TV: The End of a Terrible Era

Okay, so, what happened is that I wanted to write about remaking a 90’s show (spoiler alert: It was Sliders), but as I was writing it I realized I should explain how 90’s television functioned to people who don’t remember, and then that segment got way too long so here we are.

Basically, 90’s television is completely different from today’s television in every single way. It barely resembles what you think of as television. And I’m talking to anyone who’s young enough to not remember Netflix showing up, especially if you’re so young you don’t remember when it was primarily done by mail. Like, I’m talking to all those people who thought WandaVision was ‘too slow.’ You know how, when you said that, a bunch of older people rolled their eyes? Maybe played a tiny violin, or made the jerk-off motion? Yeah, there’s a whole fistful of reasons for that.

There Was No Such Thing as Creative Control

You know how Netflix will get pitched a show, and if Netflix likes it they’ll heave sacks of gold at the creator and scream, ‘Get us a finished product in eighteen months! Now get out, we’ve got thirty-six more pitches to approve before lunch, and they’re all anime.’ That’s all new. There’s a reason why I keep insisting a show needs to be remade off the networks, and it’s because they used to fuck with the shows all the time. For all kinds of reasons. Mostly it was to keep the advertisers happy, but sometimes it could be because some producer woke up one morning with a creative hair aaaallll the way up his asshole and decided he knew better about the show he had hired people to create, and he’d drive into the studio and call the writers into his corner office and tell them that, starting with the next episode, the series lead would drive a 1978 Pontiac Trans Am everywhere, because they were ‘fresh to the max’ or whatever the fuck douchebags in 1990’s LA were saying at the time. And the writers would be like, ‘But the show takes place in the 1920s?’ And the producer would shotgun a can of Crystal Pepsi and tell them to fucking figure it out because he’d already bought six identical 1978 Pontiac Trans Ams and he wanted them all crashed on camera by the end of the year.

And the writers would do it, because it was either listen to Tyler ‘My Father is Mr. Peeler (and also head of the studio), call me the Fud Spucker’ Peeler or get fired. This shit happened so much there’s a TV Trope page dedicated to it. If you watched enough television you could feel it happening. Three seasons in and your favorite character would suddenly walk into the room and utter what is obviously supposed to be his new catch phrase in a show that previously didn’t have catchphrases and you just knew the network was up to its fuckery again.

Networks Were Obsessed with Being Able to Air Things Out of Order

This actually comes down to technology. TiVo didn’t become popular until 1999 and while VCRs were relatively cheap by the 90’s, trying to program one was a nonintuitive clusterfuck that could lead to a mental breakdown if there were other stressors going on in your life.

An episode aired, and if you missed it, too bad, so sad. I think some stations used to do replays of their more popular shows later in the night, but usually there was no other way to watch it until the show became syndicated. Oh, shit. Shit, hold on.

Networks Were Also Obsessed with Syndication

Syndication meant the original network that had created the show could lease the show out to other stations, usually cable. A show usually had to make it to somewhere between eighty and one hundred episodes before this could happen. I know this sounds like a lot, but it was easy as fuck back then, because network seasons were long. Okay, wait…

Television Seasons Were Literally That

Television season in the nineties ran from September to about May, with very few exceptions. If you pitched your show and it got bought, you didn’t get to stipulate how many episodes it took to tell your story. You got told by the network how many episodes to make, usually between twenty and thirty, and by God, you made that many episodes. If you’ve ever heard the term ‘filler episode’ and wondered what the fuck that was about, this is what the fuck that was about. So while it took Game of Thrones eight seasons to reach seventy-three episodes (just shy of syndication numbers, by the way) your typical 90’s show could make a hundred episodes in about half that. Even if a show was only reasonably successful a network, if it was close enough to the magic number, might keep pushing it along because…

Networks Were Also Obsessed with Syndication

Syndication meant cheap money. Money off a product you already had. If you don’t remember the 90’s you might remember the 2000’s, when it seemed every single cable channel was playing reruns of Friends and Seinfeld. Turn on TBS, oh, I don’t like this episode, switch over to USA or something. Also, syndicated shows rarely aired in order, which is another reason…

Networks Were Obsessed with Being Able to Air Episodes Out of Order

It’s sort of impossible to even believe, what with shows these days all playing out like extra long movies. But if a 90’s producer was pitched something like Stranger Things or Game of Thrones back in the day they would have shit their pants and screamed you out of their office. They were terrified that if a viewer happened to miss a single episode, they’d get lost in the story and never come back. Some shows, like The X Files, did have overarching plots, but those specific episodes still stood alone between handfuls of ‘monster of the week’ episodes. Soap operas got around it by airing every day and moving the plot so slowly you could miss a few days and not miss much (I once had a boss who watched all her soaps on Wednesdays only, because ‘you can watch every fifth episode and still keep up).

If they did agree to a two-parter, you can bet your ass it was either the last two episodes of the season or a cliffhanger between seasons, and they advertised the absolute shit out of it. Otherwise, every episode had to be self-contained so as not to scare off the idio-I mean, viewers. The viewers.

Timeslots Mattered

Like, a lot. Primetime was essentially three hours a night, six nights a week (more like five nights, really, but we’ll get to that). Not only did that limit the amount of shows networks could greenlight from sheer lack of time space, but it also meant the networks would engage in some Tetris-level geometry trying to get the shows to fit together in a way that would make them the absolute most money. Not only would they worry about what every other network was airing at the same time and try to compete, they were also concerned with viewer retention from one show to the next. If they felt your show didn’t jive well with the one before it and was causing a bunch of sixty-year-olds to change the channel to ABC or whatever they’d boot you to another timeslot. And if your show wasn’t living up to the network’s expectations in other ways, that timeslot was Friday.

The general idea in the 90s was that no one in the key demographic was staying home to watch television on Fridays, so Fridays were where shows went to die. It stopped mattering as much once DVR became a thing, and apparently doesn’t matter at all now, as shown by Disney releasing its new shows on Friday right up until Loki. But way back in the last millennium, if you found out your favorite show was being moved to the Friday Night Death Slot, you knew it was all over.

Television Budgets Were Barely There

It’s like that part in Galaxy Quest (do you kids know that movie?) where Jason Nesmith finally explains to Mathesar that the ship in their show was inches long and the transporter was made of Christmas lights. Except apply that to every show ever. Have you noticed how cheap the carpets on the Enterprise-D look? I mean, okay, first off, why the hell are there carpets? This is a heavily trafficked area, and these jabronis are constantly coming back from planets covered in space-mud and their own blood mixed with some bright-blue alien blood and then going directly to the bridge to do important maneuvers, or whatever, and all that time they’re just grinding all this gross shit into cheap carpet. Whoever staffs housekeeping on that ship is not getting paid enough for having to deal with that alone. Put in space-hardwood, you cowards.

Anyway, the bulk of the money went to the actors, and then the crew, and then whatever they had leftover they took down to the dollar store to get enough papier-mâché and duct tape to make this week’s monster. Props were reused by various shows all the time, and sometimes even entire sets. If you’ve ever wondered why, according to network television, most of the world and also most of the planets in the universe look like the same swath of southern California, would you be surprised if I told you it’s because it’s cheaper?

Computer Graphics Still Sucked, But Everyone Was Too Excited to Notice

After Toy Story, it was like everyone had the same notion all at once, that finally special effects were good enough that they could do whatever they wanted!

I mean, you’ve seen the prequels, right? And George had money. Imagine the kind of shit that gone thrown up on screen in shows with shoestring budgets. I know I’ve harped on The Langoliers before, but…

And this was the decade where Fox tried to sell us on found footage of an actual alien autopsy.

90’s Commercial Jingles Slapped, Actually

My husband and I tried to watch one episode of Castle Rock on Hulu with the base subscription before I shelled out the money to get rid of the commercials because damn it all to hell, I’ll put up with a lot nowadays but I’m not going back to three to five minutes of commercials every eight to ten minutes (also, don’t watch Castle Rock unless you’re interested in ‘what if Stephen King but all of it mashed together by a four-year-old on a sugar high?). The only good thing about commercials back in the 90’s was the people writing those jingles actually put fucking effort in. Look at this shit:

That shit has guitar licks, a chorus, and two verses. Who the fuck told Jimmy Pizzabagel he had to go that hard?

So, yeah. Television in the 90’s. Fucking weird and I mostly don’t miss it. Tune in next time when we’ll talk about the show that should be pulled out of the still-smoldering wreckage and get a Six Million Dollar Man remake (as in, it should be built better than it was before, not that it should be turned into the Six Million Dollar Man, although if they wanted to take that one sound effect they could).

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