Once Upon a Time in the 80s: Television (Part 11 of 17)

This is a recapitulation of a paper I did in college. This is part eleven in the series to read other parts go here.

As time has moved on the line between television and the movies has become blurred. In the 90s and continuing through until today no TV show is safe from becoming a feature film at some point and with Nick at Nite and TV Land there’s no longer a as much of a generation gap because these shows can be seen by all now. 

The landscape of television changed forever in the 1980s when the Fox Network, headed by Rupert Murdoch, was launched. For a few years they were the butt of jokes but they soon went on to challenge the major networks with shocking, biting, satirical programming such as Married…with Children, The Simpsons, Martin and In Living Color and later even had their own cult phenomenon, The X-Files. Fox busted the monopoly ABC, CBS and NBC had. In the mid-90s The WB, a network by Warner Brothers, and UPN, Paramount, were born, and the WB is currently a tenth of a point out of third in the Nielsen ratings (As of this writing. The WB and UPN have since merged to form the CW). 

Cable television along with MTV, previously discussed, became a reality and by the end of the decade was commonplace in American households. HBO (Home Box Office) along with Ted Turner’s stations TNT (Turner Network Television), TBS (Turner Broadcasting System) and CNN (Cable News Network) gave cable a great appeal, particularly with Turner’s purchase of the MGM film library. HBO’s selection in the beginning was small and obscure, but they slowly began to gain an audience.

Silver Spoons (CBS)

Network television at the beginning of the decade was very interested in affluence, not nocessarily middle class America. There was Dallas, Dynasty, Silver Spoons – then there was a slight change where the rich could help the poor in Diff’rent Strokes which actually did have a social agenda that was immediately copied in Webster. 

Family programming was very important, and was at the top of the ratings for much of the decade with The Cosby Show, ALF, The Facts of Life, a family of sorts, and Family Ties. While Dallas was rolling along in 1982 along came a cross-section of America called Cheers this program was nominated for 117 Emmys during its 11 year run. 

In the later 80s we had two strong-minded and independent women burst on to the small screen in a big way. The first was Candice Bergen playing Murphy Brown; this is one of my favorite shows because of what it could do by having the protagonist be a reporter; the show was always current and always very political. In the early 90s Candice/Murphy got into a public war of words with Dan Quayle who objected to Murphy Brown having a baby out of wedlock. It was a truly intelligent show and every episode worked beautifully and the cast knew how to work as an ensemble. There was also Roseanne, starring a former stand up who described herself as a “domestic goddess,” coupled with The Simpsons she lead the attack of the dysfunctional families. On Roseanne no matter how weird things got we saw they’re just a family like any other. They have different problems and manias but they do love each other.

Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer (1985, DiC)

In the 1980s animation was practically all TV the Looney Toons and Woody Woodpecker were all relegated to re-runs and the half-hour animated program was king and there were some good ones. The always hard to categorize Jim Henson had Fraggle Rock and Muppet Babies. Thames Productions brought us some of the most unique programming in this genre with Danger Mouse, a mouse who was a spy and Count Duckula, a vegetarian vampiric duck. There were, of course, mythic heroes like Thundercats, Transformers, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and his sister She-Ra. Most popular cartoon series of the 80s never made it to the big screen in the decade, He-Man did and that was miserable, there was also a Rainbow Brite film, but no Smurfs (yet) or Snorks, and most shockingly, no Thundercats, which was shot like a film with weird angles and was a precursor to the anime craze that was to follow in the 90s.

While television in the 80s catered much more to what mature audiences wanted to see, it also knew what kids wanted to see because many of these shows still air today. Television is always going to be television, you’ll get entertained here and there but you can’t watch too much without realizing it will almost always the same thing in a different package. Every few years something new will come along and really blow you away but that’s it, and sometimes it doesn’t last. TV in the 80s was better than in the 90s because there was something to reflect. There was a social point to make, and on occasion there were serious political happenings that deserved attention. The 90s were just something we made it through and the 80s were a decade people lived through. Needless, to say the best show of the 90s was Seinfeld a self-professed show about nothing a show that dabbled in the minutiae of everyday events, not that it’s not a brilliant show, but it’s also a tremendously apropos reflection of the decade.

Hero Whipped: From Film to Comics (Part 2)

Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan in Tarzan and His Mate (MGM)

Think of my last few statements in cinematic terms. Something like Tarzan has been remade countless times and while rebooting clearly is a cinematic trend one never renumbers films without a purpose, without first having wiped the slate clean. Similarly, rarely is the question asked in film can I watch part 16 and get it. As I’ve stated prior if you can it’s probably a bad film.

There’s two ways it would seem to become a comics fan: one you’re born into it and are reading them from when you’re very young or two you find it later on in life and ask a butt-load of questions.

Cebolinha, Magali, Mônica and her rabbit Sansão, Cascão and Chico Bento (PMDS)

Now, in a way I could’ve been the former. As I mentioned I loved strips and still do. However, for all intents and purposes comics taught me to speak Portuguese. Now granted I always knew it considering my parents came to the US from Brazil, however, my mother would frequently read to me from Mauricio de Sousa’s Turma da Mônica books and it taught me to read in Portuguese and improved my vocabulary (and it does to this day). I also like many American “All Ages” titles. I grew up in an America that still had Harvey’s comics and one of the heartbreaks of my being “born again” was discovering they went under and that I’d only find those character in collections and sometimes costly back issues.

The revamped Gloria, Richie and Dollar (Ape Comics)

However, much to my delight less than a year later two of Harvey’s biggest starts, Richie Rich and Casper, have found a new home at Ape Comics and in my estimation they are thriving but I digress. The superhero realm was aside from being a majority always a daunting prospect and I never quite graduated there.

Growing up on Staten Island I took quite a few classes at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center as a kid and looking through the course offerings one day I decided I’d switch things up and I think the course was labeled Comic Book Drawing or something. I forget if there was a description but what I recall vividly was the course title was misleading. It seemed to be a lot freer than what we got. Essentially, it was a superhero drawing class. Now, I was inexperienced dealing with the human form as an artist in general at the time much less being asked to draw the overly-perfect, and let’s face it, exaggerated superhero bodies. It was a frustrating exercise in futility. While I can’t say I didn’t learn or get anything out of it (namely a character of my creation, a monster named Potroast, who was the hero fighting the evil Loumanna, based on the teacher) I did sense a bit of disdain and frustration from my instructor as well. It wasn’t my aesthetic, he knew it and resented me for it and it was a painful first encounter with comic book elitism.

Thankfully, in my sojourn as a born again thus far I have not met a Loumanna or Comic Book Guy. Allow me to state for the record: I am fine with nerdiness. I am a proud nerd on many subjects what I’m put off by is militant nerds who own the truth and can’t converse civilly or scoff at those who either don’t know or God forbid make a mistake.

So there was another comics trauma. Now one band-aid to the accessibility issue would be the return of some form of editor’s notes. Now I know what you’re thinking: they’re an eye-sore and they take you out of the moment of the story. However, much as the aesthetics of page layouts have changed so too can the dissemination of relevant back issues. It can be included on the front backstory page or at the end. Even with a simple URL. The fact of the matter is this is the Internet Age. I can look up a back issue and buy it off of New Kadia or some other site or go to Comixology or the publisher’s themselves for a digital copy. Specific back issues in most cases can be found if you want to find them.

ALF (Alien Productions)

A perfect example also comes from my journey from one who had disavowed comics to being a born again. When I was a kid, OK and to this day, I loved ALF to no end. I watched the show. I had the lunchbox (Plastic, this was the 80s after all) and I read the comics that Marvel published under its Star imprint (I’ve come to read many of these titles in my rebirth and have liked all of them- REBOOT it at least!). Anyway, whether it was me or my mother on one of her “Your closet’s too full” campaigns, I got rid of them. All of them. I regretted it many times. Suddenly, as I was getting back into comics this came back to me so I started searching the web. Sure enough they were mostly there but people were gouging you for single issues. However, that’s a common Amazon practice so I try E-Bay. Jackpot. A California comic book shop put up the whole series. Numbered and specials for what amounted to LESS than the cover price on each issue. Buy it now I said and that mistake was rectified and I am relishing the overly long re-read process.

So, yes, the internet can provide those valuable back issues. It’s the great equalizer. Similarly with films if you ask me, in college I learned that there was this 7-hour feature, Satantango, that has nothing but rave reviews from all who sat through it all. It had hit E-Bay and I saw it before it hit DVD and wouldn’t have known about it without the web. Granted this makes me sound like a geriatric fool who dances a jig at the marvel of the telephone but the fact remains it’s an incredible tool and one the film industry at the moment is utilizing to far greater effect.