It’s time to take a break from the cinema of 1992, at least one week before we reach the finish line of the Summer of ’92 series (just three more episodes!). What am I doing this week instead? Well, if there is an artform that rivals (and maybe even surpasses) cinema in the influence it had on me, it’s definitely television. As a child, I loved television, and felt incredibly protective of it. This was mostly because, back in the early nineties, there very few, if any, people that considered television to be a legitimate artform. Ok, I actually don’t know if that is true, but it was definitely my impression at the time. All I heard about was how you shouldn’t watch television, how it was the “idiot box”, and how everything showing on television was crap.
As a matter of fact, I remember the day the theater director at my school introduced a play with a speech in which she said that “television is garbage”. The whole auditorium, which must have been holding around 700 people, started clapping as soon as that phrase was said (and it wasn’t the end of the speech). People certainly had a bad perception of television’s worth as a cultural medium.Well, guess what? They were absolutely wrong. These people were probably forgetting that such masterpieces of world cinema such as Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and Kieslowski’s Dekalog were produced for television. I guess those programs didn’t air in my home country of Peru, but hey, you would have to be a very stupid person to not recognize the genius of a program like The Simpsons. Television is the perfect medium if you want to look at a snapshot of what the culture looked like in a particular year. So, without further ado, and in no particular order, here are…
11 Essential Television Programs to Understanding 1992
The way Seinfeld influenced and shaped the culture of the 1990s is, without a doubt, one of the best arguments you can make for television being one of the most influential art-forms in the world. 1992 was especially important for Seinfeld, since it saw the premiere of its fourth season, widely regarded as one of its best, and definitely the most important one in turning the show from small critical hit into a ratings and cultural juggernaut. Seinfeld‘s undoubted dominance of the mid-to-late nineties just couldn’t have been possible without the hype around such episodes as “The Pitch” and “The Ticket”, the two-part episode that focused on Jerry and George’s semi-autobiographical pitch to make a show about nothing, and definitely not without “The Contest”, which aired on November 18 1992, and is, without a doubt, one of the most talked-about episodes of television. If you’re familiar with the show, then you’ll surely remember this episode, in which the four leads take part in a bet to see who can last the longest time being “the master of hi/her domain”. Season four of Seinfeld is magnificent, and it rightfully kickstarted the show’s popularity by being the big winner at the 1993 Emmys, winning Best Comedy Series and Best Writing for “The Contest”.
If Seinfeld is the most influential show of the nineties, then The Simpsons is the most influential show of human existence. The Simpsons was, of course, a great show from the start (season two is particularly important in the show’s development), but most fans would agree that the show didn’t quite reach the pinnacle of brilliance until its fourth season, which premiered in September 1992. This is particularly noticeable in the third episode of the season, “Homer the Heretic”, in which Homer skips church on a snowy day and decides to start his own religion. Like I said before, The Simpsons was an incredibly well-written and smart show from the start, but season four brought for a philosophical point of view that wasn’t afraid of taking on deeper aspects of life and mixing them up with some of the most hilarious jokes ever written. At the end of “Homer the Heretic”, Homer asks God for the meaning of life, and just like that The Simpsons had established itself as one of the greatest -if not the very best- show in television history.
The Television Critics Association, whose job you can probably easily decipher out of their title, started giving out awards for the best of television in 1985, and in 1992, they awarded their Program of the Year award to a CBS dramedy called Northern Exposure. I don’t know how many people are familiar with the show nowadays, since it was produced way before The Sopranos kickstarted the critical wave of television dramas, but it is a pretty good show. I haven’t seen it a while, but I remember catching it on reruns on some cable channel back when I was young. It’s very quirky show about a New York City doctor who moves to the small town of Cicely, Alaska. You may or may not be totally in sync with the show’s tone and sense of humor, but if you are a fan of such places as Pawnee, Indiana and Stars Hollow, Connecticut, then I think you’ll enjoy this show. What’s more, the show does have a connection to The Sopranos, since it’s one of the shows Sopranos creator David Chase worked for before creating his mob-and-psychiatry drama for HBO.
The Cosby Show
Now, I must admit that I haven’t seen a lot of The Cosby Show. Just a couple of episodes here and there, but enough to get a pretty good sense of the show was like back when it was at the height of its popularity. 1992 was actually when the show aired its last episode, “And So We Commence”, on April 30. Thus, the fact that The Cosby Show ended its run just when The Simpsons and Seinfeld were rising in influence debuting what would be retroactively recognized as their most important seasons, makes it clear that, in many ways, 1992 was the end of an era. One that foreshadowed the changes that were going to come to the television comedy. Families that were happy and loved each other weren’t going to be enough. A satyrical, or ironic spin was what audiences of the nineties were clamoring for, and something that the urban sitcoms of NBC, and the adult-oriented animated comedies of later in the decade would deliver in spades.
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
Since we’re on the topic of shows that went off the air in 1992, I couldn’t possibly go on without talking about The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. After thirty years on the air, Johnny Carson aired his final show on May 22, 1992. Since I was born in ’92, and not in America, I never got to watch a single episode of Carson’s Tonight Show live, but I am pretty much aware of his influence on comedy, television, and American culture. Again, the end of this show is another sign of the end of an era of television that was slowly transitioning from a traditional past into an edgier future. Whether or not that’s a good thing is up to debate, but there is no denying that something changed when America went from watching The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson to the days of the late night war between Jay Leno and David Letterman.
Saturday Night Live
I’ve been talking about the early nineties as some sort of transitional phase for television, but it’s not true that the comedic sensibilities of the nineties sparked out of nowhere. Saturday Night Live had been on since 1975, and being the jumping ground for the likes of Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Eddie Murphy surely proved to be one of the most important shows when it comes to having an influence on American comedy. The early nineties were a pretty good time for SNL. These were the days when Dana Carvey dominated a show that included future movie stars Mike Meyers and Adam Sandler in its cast. Back when they weren’t synonymous with horrible, unfunny, comedies that is. Also important to SNL in 1992 was the episode in which Irish singer Sinead O’Connor decided to rip a picture of Pope John Paul II on live tv during her musical performance. O’Connor was banned from the show, and her career never fully recovered from the backlash. I wonder if the same thing would’ve happened had she ripped a picture of Benedict XVI.
Batman: The Animated Series
And while we’re talking about influential tv shows… definitely one of the most influential shows of the nineties, and one of the best animated television shows ever made was Batman: The Animated Series, which debuted in 1992. What was so special about this show? Well, just like The Simpsons was taking animated comedy to a more mature and intelligent audience, Batman was doing the same for saturday morning-style action shows. Instead of being a toy-commercial-turned-tv-show like G.I. Joe or Trasnformers, Batman: TAS had a particular vision, starting from its stylized, art-deco inspired visual style, and its complex characters. A perfect example is the episode “Heart of Ice”, which took Mr. Freeze, one of the silliest Batman villains, and turned him into a tragic figure who wishes to save his wife. It’s not exactly Chekhov, but it’s incredibly poignant for being a children television show of the early nineties.
Here is when I want to point out that this is not necessarily a list of the best television shows that were on in 1992, but the shows that make for a better overall picture of what television looked like back in that year. That is why such classic sitcoms as Cheers or Roseanne are not on the list, and why Murphy Brown is. If you’ve seen Murphy Brown in recent years, as I have, you probably noticed that it’s a show that hasn’t aged particularly well. Most of its comedy seems to be very much rooted in the late-eighties-early-nineties period in which it was produced. There are a lot of topical jokes, and quite frankly, despite Candice Bergen’s pretty great performance, none of the characters are all that interesting as to make the show completely watchable all these years later. Why is it important to 1992, then? Well, it won a spot on this list thanks to Presidential candidate Dan Quayle, who criticized the show for its portrayal of Murphy Brown as a single mother, thus undermining the role of fathers in a child’s upbringing. This ridiculous claim was addressed in the season premiere “You Say Potatoe, I Say Potato” in which the character of Murphy herself raises her voice against the real-life politician. Pretty unique as far as television plots go, and the reason why Bill Clinton playing the sax on The Arsenio Hall Show didn’t make the list.
The Real World
I don’t know if I have ever watched a single episode of The Real World, but I’m told that it is a very important show historical speaking. First, for starting MTV’s discovery that being the producer of cheap unscripted programming might be a better financial prospect than airing music videos. Second, because it was a pretty huge hit, and it was pretty clearly the forefather to the reality-show-infused age of television we live in. And if we’re being honest, it’s pretty hard to imagine The Real Housewives, Honey Boo-Boo, Duck Dynasty, or Kim Kardashian being a thing without this show paving the way. So… love it or hate it, those are just the facts, and at this point, it might not even be worth complaining.
The Ben Stiller Show
Surely you know about comedic actor-turned director-turned bad actor Ben Stiller. But did you know he had his own television show? That’s right, back in the early nineties, a sketch-show named The Ben Stiller Show premiered on FOX, and featured some of the best comedy you’ve ever seen. Which is not all that surprising when you consider the show’s core cast consisted of Stiller, Jeanine Garofalo, Andy Dick and none other than Mr. Show creator Bob Odenkirk. At this point the legend of The Ben Stiller Show, which was cancelled after just one season due to low ratings is pretty well known, but if you have only heard and never seen it, then I recommend you head over to Youtube, search for some videos, and make this into one of the funniest days of your week.
El Chavo del Ocho
“What the hell is this?” You might be saying. Well, you wouldn’t be asking that if you had been born in a Spanish-speaking country. The popularity of El Chavo del Ocho along the Spanish-speaking world might be hard to grasp, but he is basically as famous as Mickey Mouse or Superman. “But what is it?” Well, El Chavo, as it is usually called, is a sitcom created by Mexican comedian Roberto Gomez Bolaños aka Chespirito, who stars as the titular Chavo, an orphan boy who practically lives in a barrel in a small Mexican housing complex populated by a series of quirky characters. The characters first appeared in a sketch in 1971, but El Chavo became its own show in 1973. It aired up to 1980, with sketches being produced all the way until 1992, when at the age of 63, Bolaños decided that he was finally too old to keep playing a young orphan boy. For the Spanish-speaking world, the end of El Chavo definitely signaled the end of an era on par, if not bigger, than the end of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson or The Cosby Show.