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.

61 Days of Halloween- Tremors

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment so I will try and suggest something worth while as well.


Michael Gross and Robert Jayne in Tremors (Universal)

Tremors is without a doubt a very surprising and very fun film that is likely to be enjoyed by a wide variety of filmgoers. It’s an hour-and-a-half of escapist cinema that is both funny and engrossing at the same time. Upon first glance this might seem like the kind of film you’ve seen a thousand times before but it is definitely worth a closer look.

The first few minutes of the film seem to set a tone of a schlocky take off comedy that isn’t going to offer much in the way of content. However, the groundwork for the forthcoming events are laid very well during the comedy-dominant portion of the film. The rest of the film is an intricate balance between humor and science fiction elements. When the inciting incident occurs the old man is found perched high about the desert on power lines the movie starts to move quicker. The pace of this film from there on out is fantastic and then the beginning no longer feels out of place.

A great asset to this tale is the ensemble cast which is often preferable in such a tale as this but rarely well utilized. In this group of characters we definitely have our central characters defined and in the forefront. While the secondary characters are sketched in broad strokes they are each individuals and do not seem like stereotypes. However, an ensemble of unique quirky characters would be nothing without a good cast and Tremors boasts that as well.

Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward play best friends who appear to be quite similar and therein lie their conflicts. These two carry the film throughout but whereas with many films the two lead actors wandering through the plot complications may get bothersome they get help along the way. Michael Gross formerly of Family Ties is great and absolutely hysterical in a supporting role and Reba McEntire always seems to be a service in a small and over-the-top part not to mention that she adds quite a catchy tune to the closing credits.

This film draws upon a few cinematic techniques to make it effective. Firstly, the use of the subjective camera along the ground to represent the “snakeoids” worked very well to create suspense and tension. For quite some time the filmmakers also decided not to reveal the creature knowing that the fear (if it in fact caused fear) of the unknown was the greatest fear of all. Those involved in making Tremors made the unusual decision to have most of their action take place during the day time in which it is very difficult to create an effective horror film but the way in which they used the ingeniously simple concept of being trapped makes all the suspense elements work.

Aside from being tremendously funny and having an amazing score at the climax along with an equally interesting climax Tremors succeeds in two very interesting methods both illustrated by the way these creatures attack. First, in a very unique way I felt this film took the fear of being buried alive and elevated it to new heights by blending it with ghoulishness and at the same time without being grotesque allowing the thought to stay in the imagination. It’s a very interesting concept which I would like to see a straightforward horror film take on sometime. Aside from dealing greatly with the concept of being trapped which is always a great premise to go with in the horror/sci-fi genre. Tremors also deals with a seemingly insurmountable opponent which has an unstoppable method of attack, the snakeoids being sensitive to seismic vibrations would obviously eventually kill these people it seems.

It is a perfect setup for A Nightmare on Elm Street-type ending but the original filmmakers didn’t go for the sequel (at least an obvious one, as there have been sequels) and truly came up with an ingenious way for out heroes to be victorious which is sure to please.

While Tremors is undoubtedly based and inspired on the science fiction films of the 1950s I think it’s no accident that it was produced and came out towards the end of the Cold War. It is never affirmed what makes these creatures the way they are but the idea of residual radiation at the end of the arms race is something that may also have been an implied message from this film.

Tremors is, however, a film you take away whatever you brought to it there is no heavy-handed attempt at a message and if you just want to have fun you most definitely will, although considering that the sci-fi films of the 50s always had some sort of message it’s something to consider.

One notable deviation I noticed from the 1950s Sci-Fi formula is that although Tremors is a film about fun but it did seem that Bert (Michael Gross) and Heather Gummer (Reba McEntire) were exaggerated to fit the liberal interpretation of countryside conservatives as card-carrying NRA members with an artillery in their basement. Any commentary in this regard and/or rebuttal against it is veiled in humor and is used to serve the plot and doesn’t seem to be an unnecessary catechism about socio-political norms. This film never takes itself that seriously and it’s all the better for it. Whether it’s a spoof or an updating, thriller or comedy you can’t help but love Tremors. Whatever it takes its inspiration from it manages to be a film that stands alone and is unique in its own way. It’s definitely worth seeing.