As cable’s coaxial connectivity merged with satellite’s infinite options, the Nielsen numbers split. Like a falling stock without a bottom to protect its position, free TV flailed. In its place, the burgeoning pay landscape began filling the gaps. At first, it was the proverbial needle in the hackwork haystack. For every success, there was a backlog of titanic corporate failures. But what emerged from this mess was twofold. On the one hand, the old guard felt the need to step up their game, and the ideas they approved would spark a renaissance. And among the upstarts, the cream rose and remained at the top, taking viewers to places only the fringe can foster.
Tom Skerritt, Kathy Baker, Costas Mandylor, Lauren Holly, Holly Marie Combs, Justin Shenkarow, Adam Wylie, Fyvush Finkel, Ray Walston
(CBS; US: 18 Sep 1992)
Before Ally McBeal, Boston Public and Boston Legal, David E. Kelley honed his talent for absurd humor and poignant social commentary with the small-town focused Picket Fences. Set in fictional Rome, Wisconsin, the four seasons of Kelley’s first produced and solely created TV drama, which ran from 1992-1996, used the small town palette to cast a wide lens on large range of issues.
Rome saw it all: AIDS, gay adoption, elephants and circus performers, bigotry, polygamy, all manner of fetishes, and any number of challenges to the constitution. Employing the twin pillars of police investigation and courtroom jurisprudence, Picket Fences may sound to the newbie like a Midwest version of Law and Order. It couldn’t be more different. Where Law and Order is all about the case and solving a crime, Picket Fences is all about its characters and the small and large problems they encounter in daily life. The show featured many quirky and enduring characters, such as Fyvush Finkel’s Douglas Wambaugh (a wacky, egotistical, but ultimately well-meaning lawyer), Ray Walston’s Judge Henry Bone (a delightful curmudgeon with a big heart), Tom Skerritt’s rock solid Sheriff Jimmy Brock, and Kathy Baker’s super smart Jill Brock.
Kelley began his career as an attorney and then honed his writing skills during his run as a writer and later executive producer on L.A. Law. That background in the law, plus his long writing experience using law as a springboard to address cultural and social issues on L.A. Law, led Kelley to create his finest work in Picket Fences. The award gods conferred Emmys on the show during its first and second seasons, but the series never faired particularly well with a mass audience on CBS. Perpetually suffering low ratings despite its critical acclaim, the show lasted a brief four years, but has found new life in syndication, particularly in Europe.
Billy West, Katey Sagal, John DiMaggio, Phil LaMarr, Lauren Tom, Maurice LaMarche, Tress MacNeille
(Fox; US: 28 Mar 1999)
Want to know the real reason why this amazing animated sci-fi satire was cancelled after only four short seasons? Believe it or not, it has nothing to do with quality and everything to do with quarterbacks. When Fox was flailing for content, hoping to produce an entire night of cartoons to support its stalwart Simpsons, Matt Groening was given a chance to develop his dream project: a speculative fiction take on the future and the feebs living in it. Using a contemporary character, Phillip J. Fry, as the audience’s ally, the narrative would take the delivery boy 1000 years forward to a NYC filled with robots, suicide booths, and a sickening soft drink named Slurm. There, he would meet Cyclops ship pilot Leila, angry automaton Bender, and his own elderly nephew (?), Professor Hubert T. Farnsworth. Learning the ropes of 3001 would be part of the series’ farce, as well as the individual interaction and development the creator of American’s favorite family was known for. Unfortunately, football stepped in and ruined everyone’s plans. With games regularly running late, Futurama’s 7:00PM start was constantly jeopardized. The series was bumped so often that episodes regularly scheduled for the Fall ran as late as the middle of May.
Naturally, audiences couldn’t keep up with the sudden shifts, and after numerous attempts at bolstering its profile, Fox pulled the plug. Luckily, they also learned a lesson from Family Guy and got DVDs of the dying show out before public interest had fully faded. In typical Groening fashion, these discs are a delight. Fully loaded with commentaries and other supplemental context, fans were favored with insightful, instructive behind the scenes glimpses at how a major network series is created, and eventually compromised. Funny thing, though, some in the industry obviously learned from the success of Seth McFarlane’s lame cartoon cavalcade. Since its demise, Futurama has grown in popularity –- so much so that Comedy Central recently commissioned four made-for-TV “movies”. Once shown, each film will be divided in four. Viola! Sixteen more episodes of an unfairly stopped series -– and not a single steroided football player around to keep it from airing. As the professor would say, that is “good news, everybody!”.
Mystery Science Theater 3000
Joel Hodgson, Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Jim Mallon, Mary Jo Pehl, Bill Corbett, Josh Weinstein
(Comedy Central; US: 24 Nov 1988)
What Mystery Science Theater 3000 did was so painfully simple: it was three guys making fun of the worst cinematic offerings in existence. Well, to be fair, it was usually one guy (creator Joel Hodgson or head writer Mike Nelson) accompanied by two wisecracking robots: the literate, lovable Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy) and the prank-loving Crow T. Robot (Trace Beaulieu). With their silhouettes in plain view, the trio wisecracked their way through B-movie offerings from Joe Don Baker (Mitchell) and Beverly Garland (Gunslinger), and the results were convulsively hilarious. Yet, what’s most remarkable about MST3K‘s place in television history was the sheer quality that it maintained throughout its ten seasons. Each 90-minute episode was jam-packed with everything from highbrow literary allusions to commonplace juvenilia and everything in-between. MST3K was one of those rare shows that was truly for everyone.
Yet, MST3K did more than provide a solid hour-and-a-half of laughter. It offered a second-life to films that—quality aside—were filled with top-notch ambitions but only D-list talent. Volume Nine of the MST3K box set series is just about the only place you can ever see The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, a movie that famed rock critic Lester Bangs once devoted a whole essay to (which is almost as entertaining as the ‘bots version). Bangs made fun of the musical numbers, Servo questions why “zombie-country music” never caught on. Yet no moment shall ever surpass Manos: The Hands of Fate (available on MST3K: The Essentials), often regarded as the worst movie ever made. Filmed by a fertilizer salesman who lost a bet, Manos is one average American’s idea of what a horror movie was, and there’s a certain DIY charm to the whole affair: Hollywood’s stuffiest concepts as filtered through the American middle class. But still, when a shot of a passing field transitions into another passing field montage, Joel cracks “I bet they just dissolved into the same shot.” We laugh, we laugh again, and we stare in awe at how these films were even made in the first place. Consider MST3K the Criterion Collection for B-movies. Or just consider it one of the funniest television shows ever filmed.
Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Richards
(NBC; US: 5 Jul 1989)
It is perhaps ironic that Seinfeld, the quintessential show about nothing, actually presents in a funny, intelligent, and sarcastic way a variety of complex situations that tend to haunt our early adult years. From the modern rituals of dating and the painful patience needed while waiting for service at a restaurant, to the boring routine of our daily jobs, Seinfeld always had something clever and amusing to say about these everyday issues. It is undeniable that this comedy series were firmly grounded on real life situations. The fact that nearly everybody in his 20s or 30s could sincerely identify with Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), George (Jason Alexander), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) or Kramer (Michael Richards) is perhaps the reason why Seinfeld became such a popular show during the 1990s.
The unique sense of humor of the series comes when the characters, confronted with a difficult conundrum, take a wacky and eccentric decision which only worsens their problem. The funny part being, of course, that there has been a time in all our lives when we have actually thought of such an outlandish solution, but we never dared to actually implement it for fear of breaking the norm. In a sense, several of the bizarre situations found in Seinfeld bring to mind the outstanding surrealist works of Luis Bunuel. As such, Seinfeld presents an incisive criticism of the authority institutions that rule our life, making the series stand out as a rather unique allegory for social and moral freedom.