Saturday, February 21, 2009

Growing Up With 90s TV (Sort Of)...

If you’ve ever heard the term “heard around the water cooler” you know a few things. One, it’s dated! and two, you can automatically remember the things that were popular enough to be discussed in such a place. Melrose Place, The Simpsons, Dallas, 30 Something, Married With Children…shows that spoke to generations of people. Shows that had the potential to become classics-- and some that actually made it to that status-- because they stirred something within their audiences. They were relatable, but most importantly, they were often controversial; they got people talking, and in turn, that got even more people interested in them. These shows were chock full of new spins on old ideas-- witty, clever, creative, and unique. You don’t see much programming like that nowadays. And unfortunately for me, I didn't get to see much of that programming when it was on the air either.

Now, don’t worry: I’m not about to break into a rant about what makes a classic and why some of today’s biggest hits will be tomorrow’s pile of trash. This isn’t a blog of critical essays about production value or the quality or content of writing, after all: this is about my life. And in my life, sadly, a lot of things were verboten.

Even in elementary school, we had a water cooler of sorts: it was called the schoolyard. Every morning my group of friends and I would gather and talk about the coolest music (New Kids on the Block), cutest boys (Mark-Paul Gosselaar and J.T.T.), and what we watched on television the night before. And that’s where we all varied. Though I was allowed to buy the NKOTB cassettes with all of my other little girlfriends—hell, I even had the complete set of trading cards and some buttons to match!—for some reason, my mother drew the line at owning the Jordan doll that would have gone so nicely with my fashionista Barbie. I mean, who better to date a singer than a model, right? But no. To this day, I don’t know if my mother nixed the doll idea because she feared they might be anatomically correct or what-- she claims now she doesn’t even remember saying no when I asked for one for Christmas or my birthday—but it was just one more thing in the long line of fads in which I was not allowed to partake. Super ironically now, television just held the majority of those examples.

I must have had a bedtime, but I don’t remember what it was. It was during primetime, at some point, but even then it was a tentative plan at best. More often than not, even if I made it into my bed at the appropriate time, I could still hear the television through my bedroom wall-- which was simply a louver door (the kind that slides open and has slots in it so sight and sound carry in long thin slits), and I would lie awake longer than I should have, straining to make out the dialogue in shows that were strictly off-limits. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what my parents were so worried about me picking up from television: when I was three years old and riding in my car seat in the back of my father's old Buick, my mother tells me a car cut us off, and I yelled out “@$$hole!” as we swerved around the guy. Apparently I had already been learning enough from my father. How badly could television screw me up???

For my friends, the current obsession at one point was a combination of The Simpsons and Married With Children (later they got into 90210, too, but I never cared enough about that one to fight for viewing rights). Kids would come into school bursting to talk about the latest funny thing Kelly Bundy said, or what Bart Simpson referenced that they didn’t quite understand but maybe one of the rest of us did. The thing about that kind of humor is that most of it goes over the heads of little kids anyway (like with the episode of Friends "Where Ross and Rachel...You Know:" they're kissing on the museum floor, and she stops him abruptly and says: "Oh, honey, that's okay," and he tells her that he just rolled over the juice box-- well, I was ten when that first aired, and without sex education in my New York City public elementary school, I had never heard the term "premature ejaculation" before, so I just assumed she thought he had accidentally peed on her). Yet my father still feared it, and thus it was banished from me. So he would sit in the living room alone, cackling heartily, as I feigned sleep, attempting to imagine the faces that went along with the few words I could make out. When one of my good friends went as Peg Bundy for Halloween when we were ten years old, I even had to pretend not to know who she was so my parents wouldn’t get suspicious! So perhaps it's ironic now, then, that I am trying to make my living writing about and for television when I wasn't allowed to partake in so many culturally defining programs...

Image courtesy of Charles Fazzino (original sketch of custom "Growing Up With 90s TV" piece)

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