Part 2 – Outsider Influences

Almost two decades in, television was starting to get stale. It would milk a premise or already successful situation (countries rubes vs. city slickers, the golden oldie oater) until audiences grew tired and testy. Even more unsettling, an aesthetic malaise was settling in, a combination of the rowdy counterculture on the outside, and the changing needs of the medium within. Leave to elements outside the American business model to shed some necessary novelty. Via PBS, and the developing concept of syndications (selling network reruns to independent UHF channels), a whole new kind of cathode ray communication was unleashed. From unusual UK comedies to insightful British dramas, the invasion was just what the viewer wanted.

TV Show: The Monkees

US release date: 1966-09-12

Network: NBC

Cast: David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/m/monkees.jpg

Website: http://www.monkees.net/default.htm

MPAA rating: N/A

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The Monkees (1966-1968)

With three simple words, Here we come…, the faux-Beatles’ marketing juggernaut was launched into unsuspecting teeny-boppers’ homes each week. Sure, the Monkees were four regular guys masquerading as actors masquerading as legitimate musicians masquerading as cartoonish television characters, but the Fab Four More were huge business in the latter ’60s. Their somewhat short-lived program exploited the “group” for all its photogenic allure, in addition to introducing a trove of catchy songs to the record buying public. Each episode was harmless and contrived, focusing on the Monkees’ zany antics, and lip-synced performances, but every 30-minute segment solidified the mod quad’s divergent personas into the public’s (and consumer base’s) collective consciousness. There was the lead vocalist heartthrob (Davy), the wacky drummer (Micky), the standoffish guitarist (Mike), and the lovably dopey hippie (Peter), all coexisting in a world of make-believe, both musically and visually.

As a lighthearted weekly romp, the show was perfect for its pre-teen demographic, with its cornball comedy, and thinly veiled Marx Brothers inspiration. But as a vehicle for creating brand familiarity, The Monkees was a stroke of genius. Eventually however, the oh-so-Beatlish well-scrubbed innocence of the first season began to wane, and by the time the series was pulled from the airwaves, the Monkees’ massive appeal was quickly dwindling. As the years passed, The Monkees enjoyed degrees of resuscitative success via reruns, and gained new generations of fans, spurring reunion tours with various incarnations of the original foursome. Today, the show is viewed more as kitsch than legitimate comedy, but it was no worse than the majority of its peers from the same television era. And let’s be honest, Gilligan, Jeanie and Samantha Stevens never created a nation-wide frenzy as phenomenal as The Monkees did.

Rhino is currently the only source for DVD versions of this classic comic cavalcade. The discs are presented in faux record players, with slipcase sleeves containing artwork from the band’s albums and singles. While sparse in the way of bonus features, it’s significant in its sense of nostalgia.

— Adam Williams

TV Show: Fawlty Towers

US release date: 1975-09-19

Network: BBC

Cast: John Cleese, Prunella Scales, Andrew Sachs, Connie Booth

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/f/fawlty-towers1.jpg

Website: http://www.fawltysite.net/

MPAA rating: N/A

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Fawlty Towers (1975-1979)

The funniest show on television, ever.

Concise, mean-spirited, ribald and unswervingly British, John Clease and Connie Booth’s über-farce set an impossibly high standard for repartee and comedic plotting over two brief seasons in the mid-’70s. The premise (Basil Fawlty and his battleaxe wife Sybil run a mediocre provincial hotel filled with mediocre staff in the mediocre provincial town of Torquay) is simple. The character development is minimal. The sets are shaky and often clearly fake. The show’s politics are plainly conservative, and episodes often rely on racism, sexism and slapstick for laughs. But, the writing is sublime, the performances inspired, and the awkward, what-have-I-done situations so brilliantly devised as to have you watching, hands over nervous eyes, as you laugh hysterically.

You want comedic racism and xenophobia done right? Consider the scene when Basil, after being knocked on the head during a riotous fire drill, checks a group of Germans in to the hotel. After trying in vain to figure out what they are saying, he suddenly realizes that their language is not his and cries: “German! I’m sorry, I thought there was something wrong with you.” Or, how about the way Basil covers up for Manuel, his Spanish bellboy: “You’ll have to forgive him. He’s from Barcelona.” Or, in perhaps the most wonderful example, when Basil realizes that his new chef is gay and has been hitting on Manuel: “I knew it. I knew this would happen if we hired a Frenchman.” “He’s Greek, Mr. Fawlty.” “Well that’s worse, I mean they invented it.”

Or, perhaps we love Fawlty Towers so much because Basil tends to say just exactly the kind of brilliantly vicious thing when annoyed that we wish we were able to. There are immortal examples, such as when his wife alerts him to something in plain view (“Next contestant: Mrs. Sybil Fawlty from Torquay. Specialist subject: the bleeding obvious”); when a prissy child complains that his French fries are the wrong shape (“Oh, my… What shape do you prefer? Mickey Mouse shape? Smarties shape? Amphibious landing-craft shape? Poke-in-the-eye shape?”); or when he’s asked for special ingredients by a pushy guest (“Walnuts? That’s a laugh! Easier to find a packet of sliced hippopotamus in suitcase sauce than a walnut in this bloody kitchen!”).

I mean, how many of us have wished that we could dispatch an irritating person with a line like this: Guest: “When I pay for a view, I expect to see something more interesting than that.” Basil: “That is Torquay, madam.” Guest: “Well, that’s not good enough.” Basil: “Well, might I ask what you expected to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House, perhaps? The hanging gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically…”

But wait a minute? Is Fawlty Towers perhaps the ultimate rumination on the existential crisis of life in a meaningless universe? Is it really about the ways the average man is beaten down, repressed, scandalized and alienated by the structures surrounding him? Let’s let Basil explain his philosophy to us, his guests. “Look what I have to put up with from you people. You ponce in here expecting to be waited on hand and foot, while I’m trying to run a hotel here. Have you any idea of how much there is to do? Do you ever think of that? Of course not, you’re all too busy sticking your noses into every corner, poking around for things to complain about, aren’t you? Well let me tell you something — this is exactly how Nazi Germany started. A lot of layabouts with nothing better to do than to cause trouble. Well I’ve had 15 years of pandering to the likes of you, and I’ve had enough. I’ve had it. Come on, pack your bags and get out.” Essential.

— Stuart Henderson

TV Show: Monty Python’s Flying Circus

US release date: 1969-10-05

Network: BBC

Cast: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/m/monty-pythons-flying-circus.jpg

Website: http://www.pythonline.com/

MPAA rating: N/A

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Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974)

In the heavenly hierarchy of humor, Monty Python’s Flying Circus is God. Its four-year run on the BBC resulted in 45 stellar examples of superior sketch comedy. Others have challenged Python’s mantle, and a few have lapped at their beatified boots, but when it comes to wit omnipotence, they’re Valhalla’s vaunted rulers.

Some may think the show a work of genius sprung forth unsullied, but a lot of hard work and many tough roads were hoed to get the state of Python perfection. The six core members — John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Terry Gilliam — all had histories in broadcasting (several started as writers for David Frost). Encouraged by British Broadcasting’s head of comedy, Michael Mills (along with a script editor friend, Barry Took), the boys came together to emulate their favorite performers (including the laughter Lord they dethroned, Spike Milligan) and conjure a new form of sketch comedy. Cambridge-based Cleese and Chapman had been experimenting with “formless” bits on At Last, The 1948 Show, while Jones, Palin, and Idle (the Oxford gang) had worked out a kind of stream-of-consciousness conceit for Do Not Adjust Your Set. Along with Gilliam’s absurd animation, the troupe prepared their unpredictable foray into funny.

Their joint effort is the very definition of comedy. And A&E’s epic 16-disc set (a reissue of the entire series, with two new bonus DVDs) provides insight into Python’s approach. For the group, no form of humor was off limits. You could use silent film slapstick (“Fish Slapping Dance”) to highly specialized verbal humor (“Whizzo Chocolate Factory”). Puns lay next to pantomime (either horse, or Queen Victoria), satire sat side by side with the sophomoric (“Dung of the Month Club”). And, of course, there is Gilliam’s dada-esque animation. The only yank of the bunch, Gilliam was, and remains, a true visionary, able to make rip-roaring hilarity out of an old cheesecake photo and a couple of animated eyes. His Victorian vice on crack cartoon capers (who else would turn Rodin’s statue The Kiss into a musical instrument?) are uncompromised and challenging, as well as the glue that holds the rest together. And what an amazing amalgamation it was.

— Bill Gibron

Creator: Bud Yorkin

DVD: All in the Family

TV Show: All in the Family

Network: Columbia TriStar

Cast: Carroll O’Connor, Jean Stapleton, Rob Reiner, Sally Struthers

MPAA rating: N/A

First date: 1971

US Release Date: 2003-02-04

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/a/all-in-the-family.jpg

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All in the Family (1971-1979)

Initially, it seemed like the same old sitcom fodder: disgruntled, hard working dad; slightly ditzy yet supportive wife; defiant daughter who still needs her parents; slacking son-in-law tied to the culture of the day. All the cogs were in place for a typical romp through the nuclear family landscape. And then Archie Bunker opened his mouth and spoke. For Norman Lear, former filmmaker turned TV producer, the British series Til Death Us Do Part seemed perfect for America’s post-’60s hangover. By contrasting the bigoted, inflammatory Archie with the equally extreme (though couched in social consciousness) views of his daughter’s hippy husband, Mike “Meathead” Stivic, a balance of viewpoints could be given a weekly workout.

More importantly, the writers surrounded the family with supporting players who effortlessly reflected the changing times, from the affluent African Americans next door (The Jeffersons), to a far out liberal feminist cousin (Maude Findlay). In between, politics, religion, war, peace, job security, and sex all became part of the humor’s framework. Yet what audiences responded to — at least at first — was Archie’s epithet-laced putdowns of everything and everyone. Such crude, culturally insensitive words would never pass today’s standards and practices, but at the time, they stood as a cutting edge reflection of the way most of society really spoke — and felt.

Sadly, such anti-PC pronouncements have probably marginalized the series’ enduring legacy. Even worse, the DVD packages that have been produced equally undermine the show’s importance. These bare bones, technically shoddy showcases offer absolutely no context — no participation from the cast, no interviews or observations from Lear, not even a discussion about the series’ stunning success (it was the number one rated show from 1971 to 1976). Something this important to the growth and development of TV as a medium should not be devalued so. Yet considering its content, we can thank our lucky stars that it made it to the digital domain intact. All in the Family was always a lightning rod of controversy, subversion, and cultural commentary. And it still is today.

Bill Gibron

Kolchak: The Night Stalker and more…

TV Show: The Muppet Show

US release date: 1976-09-27

Network: ITV

Cast: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Louise Gold, Kathy Mullen, Eren Ozker, John Lovelady

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/t/the-muppet-show.jpg

Website: http://muppets.go.com/

MPAA rating: N/A

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The Muppet Show (1976-1981)

It’s fair to say that The Muppet Show is my all-time favorite television program. When it debuted in 1976, I was in fifth grade, which is the right age for non sequiturs and bizarre throwaway gags, and I had never seen a children’s program that was so relentlessly hilarious before. It got kind of intense — my friends and I all memorized every routine, perfected our impressions of Statler and Waldorf, and answered the phone “Bork Bork Bork!” like the Swedish Chef. (My hand to God.) But when the box sets of the first two seasons arrived at my house, I was a little nervous that the humor wouldn’t translate to my own children. After all, a LOT of kids’ shows now think of themselves as wacky and surreal and self-referential; how would Jim Henson’s old-school yippie vision translate into their modern world? Turns out I had nothing to fear — by the middle of disc 1 they were full-fledged addicts, howling with laughter at the exploits of Crazy Harry and asking me, “Dad, what’s a running gag?” So there is hope for the future yet.

What really stands out on these DVDs is the show’s sheer disregard for any boundaries whatsoever. Some of this is occasioned by the variety show format, with old moldy vaudeville gags sitting right alongside clever parodies of more “current” shows and events. But an even larger part of it all is the fact that The Muppet Show is actually ABOUT anarchy. Kermit’s running around trying to keep everything running smoothly, but “smoothly” in this case means that Rita Moreno is doing a dance routine in which she beats the hell out of a life-size dancing Muppet, or that Dr. Bunsen Honeydew has shrunk Beaker’s head down to a little teensy nubbins…again. World-class weirdos like Gonzo, Sweetums, and Animal roam the premises, mating with chickens and eating other characters live and breaking Jim Nabors’ leg with a hammer. Both sets have great extras, but Season Two contains the completely incomprehensible “Valentine’s Day” special, as well as interview segments in which the characters all sound like they’re in a Christopher Guest movie. It’s a monumental achievement — our young people deserve more true freakiness.

— Matt Cibula

TV Show: Monkey!

US release date: 1978-10-01

Network: Channel 4

Cast: Various

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/m/monkey1.jpg

Website: http://www.monkeyheaven.com/

MPAA rating: N/A

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Monkey (1978-1980)

“In the worlds before Monkey, primal chaos reigned. Heavens sought order. But the phoenix can fly only when its feathers are grown …”

Cheap as chips and camp as Christmas, Monkey was a multi-national masterpiece. Featuring Buddhist philosophy, cloud-flying comedy, gods, dragons, and demons, and some of the most ridiculous dialogue you could ever hope to hear, the show’s provenance was remarkable. A Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk made a pilgrimage from China to India in the seventh century in search of lost religious texts. Almost a millennium later, an unknown writer (now assumed to be the 16th century scholar Wz Ching’en) wrote Journey to the West, a celebrated classical Chinese novel inspired by the monk’s travels. During the Second World War, the English sinologist Arthur Waley abridged and translated Journey to the West. An alliance of Japanese TV companies produced an all-expense-spared 1970s television show based on the Waley version. And then the BBC paid a scriptwriter who spoke no Japanese whatsoever to create a new script for British actors to deliver in their best cod Oriental accents!

Deliberately and hilariously awful, the nature of Monkey is as irrepressible today as it was when it debuted in 1979. Characters include Monkey himself, the Great Sage, Equal of Heaven, who stole both the peaches of immortality and a certain magic elixir; Pigsy, the former Marshall of the Heavenly Host, who was punished for lust, and cast out into the mortal world; and Tripitaka, a serene Tang monk played by a Japanese cover girl who made no attempt to disguise her femininity. But the narrator gets all the best lines: “Defeated, the God of Fertility turned over a new leaf. This is why, today, very few men have babies.”

The Japanese made 52 episodes of Monkey. The BBC originally reworked just 39. The remaining 13 episodes were dubbed into English in 2004, using the original voice actors. The distribution of the DVD versions of Monkey is a little flaky and confusing today — especially in the USA, but if you can lay your hands on any of them you’re in for a treat.

— Roger Holland

TV Show: Boys from the Blackstuff

US release date: 1980

Network: BBC2

Cast: Bernard Hill, Michael Angelis, Peter Kerrigan, Tom Georgeson

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/b/boys-from-the-blackstuff.jpg

Website: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/730110/index.html

MPAA rating: N/A

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Boys from the Blackstuff (1982)

It’s not funny. It’s not friggin’ funny. I’ve had enough of that — if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry — I’ve heard it for years — this stupid soddin’ city’s full of it — well, why don’t you cry — why don’t you scream – why don’t you fight back you bastard? Fight back. They’re knockin’ the shite and stuffin’ out of you, Chrissie Todd, and if you haven’t had enough, I have.

— Angie Todd (Julie Walters) “Shop Thy Neighbour”

In 1980, the BBC’s celebrated Play For Today series aired a 90-minute play called “The Blackstuff” that told a largely comic story about a group of Liverpudlian tarmac-layers working away from home and losing their jobs when a scam goes badly wrong. “The Blackstuff” was written in 1978 by a teacher and playwright from Liverpool called Alan Bleasdale, and had been rejected for two seasons running by the BBC’s controller before it was finally broadcast. However, when his play was warmly received by critics and viewers alike, Bleasdale was primed and waiting with a sequel series. Transmitted for the first time in 1982, the five-part Boys from the Blackstuff was the most gripping and powerful drama ever shown on television.

A ferocious and unsparing exploration of the effect of the UK’s economic depression on the city and people of Liverpool, Boys from the Blackstuff was wonderfully written and marvellous performed. Rich with stunning dialogue, overflowing with wit and black humour, this landmark series carried a tremendous emotional power that touched viewers in the UK like little else. Indeed Alan Bleasdale’s bleak, harrowing, and frequently poetic dramas didn’t merely reflect the pain and anger of the victims of the times, they also helped to change things, politicising many and exposing the plight of a British working class that had been abandoned by the times. It’s also clear that Boys from the Blackstuff laid the foundation both for future TV series such as Auf Wiedersehen Pet and indeed for much of the UK’s movie industry since. There’s a very clear line, for example, between Boys from the Blackstuff and The Full Monty.

Bleasdale’s most memorable character was Yosser Hughes, a working class King Lear driven to madness and beyond by the loss of his job, his wife, and, finally, his children. Yosser was played by an all but unknown Bernard Hill (Titanic, Lord of the Rings), but although his demented catchphrases became part of the popular consciousness, Yosser was clearly the symptom of the age. The solution came from characters like Angie Todd (Julie Walters in her first serious acting role) and from George Malone (Peter Kerrigan), the dying trade-unionist father-figure whose final speech provides a muted catharsis for all involved.

Forty-seven years ago. I stood here, a young bull, and watched my first ship come in… They say that memories live longer than dreams… But my dreams, those dreams, those dreams of long ago, they still give me some kinds of hope and faith in my class… I can’t believe there is no hope. I can’t.

— George Malone (Peter Kerrigan) “George’s Last Ride”

The DVD boxset of Boys from the Blackstuff includes all five plays and the original 90-minute “The Blackstuff”. Unfortunately and unaccountably, it’s not available in the USA.

— Roger Holland

TV Show: Kolchak

Subtitle: The Night Stalker

US release date: 1974-09-13

Network: ABC

Cast: Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland, Jack Grinnage, Ruth McDevitt

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/k/kolchak-the-night-stalker1.jpg

Website: http://www.darrenmcgavin.net/night_stalker1.htm

MPAA rating: N/A

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Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975)

This is the show that I used to sneak out past my bedtime to watch way back when in the 1970s. I was enthralled from the very opening: Kolchak wandering into the newsroom long after hours, the typewriter keys beneath his fingers warning of murder and supernatural dread, the clock snapping to midnight.

Investigative reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) was far from the common television hero stock, closer in kin to Columbo; rumpled and shabby but consistently seeing clearer than others what was actually happening.

The concept for the show was a set of made-for-television movies, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, which introduced him as a bumbling journalist and surprisingly effective monster hunter.

The series itself ran for 20 episodes and placed him square in the path of vampires, warlocks, and zombies. Not only did Kolchak have to gather the facts and try to convince his harried editor, Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), that he wasn’t just cooking the monsters up to make killer copy, but he ultimately was left with the task of destroying each creature of the night once his pleas to authorities were laughed off.

Re-watching the series as an adult does take a bit of the shine off this diamond in the rough. The lighting was, on occasion, terrible and a few of the episodes were simply awful all around. But the sheer Halloween carnival-style fun of the series is the main attraction. You buy the ticket to play along with the rubber masks and pay less attention to the scenes that flop. You’re there for the sheer thrill of screaming, laughing, and having a bit of scary fun.

Some of the best scenes are dark comedy bits: Kolchak henpecked by co-workers and boss alike in the newsroom or his few and far-between scruffy attempts at establishing a romantic interest.

The adornment for the DVD collection is minimal — pan & scan presentation and a slip sleeve — but, then, how do you adorn Carl Kolchak? Have Vincenzo present him with a gold watch? Nah, Kolchak is more accustomed to getting leather goods (as in a boot in the butt and a belt in the mouth) from life — and he ends up sewing the zombie shut in the end anyway.

That’s why we love him.

— Jason Zwiker

The X-Files and more…

TV Show: The Sweeney

US release date: 1975

Network: ITV

Cast: John Thaw, Dennis Waterman

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/t/the-sweeney.jpg

Website: http://www.thesweeney.info/

MPAA rating: N/A

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The Sweeney (1975-1978)

In the ‘70s, cop shows ruled — both in the United States and abroad. No matter the location, however, the police were viewed in a singular, stereotypical light. They were social safeguards, the thin blue line between the community and the criminal. They were not fallible. They were never depressed or driven by demons. Instead, they were metaphysical knights, serving a kingdom incapable of appreciating their inherent resolve and nobility. But in 1975, British television tried to change all that. Using a bit of cockney slang that described the UK elite crime fighting unit the Flying Squad, The Sweeney (for “Sweeney Todd”) was born, and it was unlike any show on the air. Instead of portraying its main characters as stoic, steadfast icons, unprecedented dimensions were brought to these clearly imperfect and flawed individuals. Detective Inspector Jack Regan and Sergeant George Carter were the main narrative focus, each one hampered by their own personal problems. Regan, divorced with a child, was a heavy smoker and non-social drinker, angry at the bureaucracy he feels holds the police back. Carter, on the other hand, is a womanizing widower who lost his wife in a violent crime. Younger than his partner, he’s a cheeky lad who tends to act first and think later.

As with any genre bending offering, audiences were baffled at first. Law enforcement was usually viewed as by the book blokes who felt the system secured their ability to do the job. But the men of The Sweeney were prone to ignoring the rules and making up regulations as long as it solved the case. They were dissatisfied and depressed, and this kind of heretofore unheard of humanity struck a chord. The show lasted three years, four series, and 53 episodes. The premise even made the leap to the silver screen in 1977 (Sweeney! ) and 1978 (Sweeney 2). As for a DVD release, Region 2 was, up until recently, the only place to find this stellar show, with complete sets of all installments now available. This past June, Region 1 saw the arrival of the first series only. Like all benchmark productions, some of the components can feel a bit dated. But when viewed alongside American gung-ho goofiness like SWAT and Adam-12, the differences are dynamic.

— Bill Gibron

TV Show: Cracker

US release date: 1993

Network: ITV

Cast: Robbie Coltrane, Christopher Eccleston, Geraldine Somerville, Lorcan Cranitch

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/c/cracker.jpg

Website: http://www.itv.com/drama/copsandcrime/cracker/

MPAA rating: N/A

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Cracker (1993-1996)

Cracker is a classic, the kind of show you find yourself instantly getting lost in with characters you want to meet and spend time with. Lots of time. Indeed, like a good novel or a fine bottle of wine, Cracker is something to be savored, not rushed through so as to move on to the next bit of mindless fun. It’s complex and controlled, telling its story in carefully measured couplets of amusement and expertly honed steps. It breaks convention as it lifts the formula cop show into the region of high art. It’s the kind of entertainment experience that will have you thinking about it days later, wanting to go back and revisit the characters, picking up on little nuances, and reliving riveting moments of beautifully executed storyline all over again. Make no mistake about it: this is material that could go horribly askew in the wrong hands. The characters are all flawed and in denial. The crimes depicted are brutal and unrelenting and the entire tone of the show is one of defeated realism. But like a magnificent statue that comes crashing out of a bit of beat-up granite, Cracker smashes everything you think you know about television drama, police stories, and human vulnerability and reinvents the language for each, right before your delighted eyes. This is not crime noir or pastel flash and video game cops and robbers. This is pure human theater superbly produced.

Like all British television, Cracker is presented in series form, not actual seasons. This means that creator and head writer Jimmy McGovern could indulge his desire to expand story arcs over several episodes, underlying single installment storylines with that necessary twinge of thematic importance. Even better, it gave actors like Robbie Coltrane (who offers the single best performance by anyone in a television series, period) parts they could really sink their teeth into. Of course, with every ray of sunshine comes the possibility of rain, and in the case of Cracker, the dark clouds on the horizon are the later in life mini-series version of the show (more jingoism than jaded in dealing with the War on Terror) and the lackluster DVD releases from HBO. Sloppy in their conversion from European PAL transfers to NTSC, and missing anything significant in the way of added content, this is a clear case of a show standing without a selection of supplements to support it. Cracker is just that good. Case closed.

— Bill Gibron

TV Show: Degrassi Junior High

US release date: 1987-01-18

Network: CBC

Cast: Cathy Keenan, Dayo Ade, Amanda Stepto, Pat Mastroianni, Stacie Mistysyn, Stefan Brogren, Siluck Saysanasy, Duncan Waugh

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/d/degrassi-junior-high.jpg

Website: http://news.degrassi.ca/

MPAA rating: N/A

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Degrassi: The Next Generation (2001-present)

A teen drama show that “goes there,” Degrassi: The Next Generation invests the naïveté of youth with the constant, sinister lurking of violence and sexual disaster. Computers and the Internet are a focal point of the show’s plotlines and it seems appropriate. Degrassi perfectly depicts the loss of innocence that comes in the age of technology that makes anything knowable. Darcy posts racy pictures of herself online to make money while Emma, in the very first episode of the series, is stalked by an internet predator who traps her in a hotel room (check out the “Issues addressed in Degrassi” entry on Wikipedia for a more detailed list of grievances). There is a sense of a connection to the dangerous, the dark and adult, as inherent in every innocent action, and the internet is frequently the bridge between the two.

Every episode reads like a public service announcement but never feels preachy or insincere. Poor acting and awkward dialogue miraculously make the show seem more genuine and truthful, as if it were written by the characters it depicts. What makes Degrassi special is that it runs through the list of typical teen grievances not as subjects that must be dealt with but as gleeful new enterprises to be explored. In a single episode, Craig stalks his half-sister while at home being beaten by his dad; later in the same episode, he nearly kidnaps his sister, stands in front of a train, and jumps out of the window of his room while his dad beats down the door with a golf club. Degrassi doesn’t dance around issues because it’s too busy dancing with them.

— Brian Bethel

TV Show: The X-Files

US release date: 1993-09-10

Network: Fox

Cast: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Mitch Pileggi, Robert Patrick, Annabeth Gish

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/x/x-files.jpg

Website: http://www.foxhome.com/xfiles8/

MPAA rating: N/A

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The X-Files (1993-2002)

My favorite show this summer was Californication, in which David Duchovny gets drunk, high and naked almost every episode. Ironically, only a decade ago, both Duchovny and I were far more innocent. He was searching for his missing (abducted) sister, and I was a 13-year-old watching him every Sunday night on The X-Files. Now that we’ve been subsumed by television decadence, those episodes seem so far away. Luckily, now that the complete season is on DVD, that pre- sin period can be evoked once more.

Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were Mulder and Scully, the FBI X-Files duo who researched the paranormal every week. X-Files was a bit of Twin Peaks (the glimpses behind the veneer of life) and a bit of Outer Limits (the what-the-hell crazy paranoia). It was a horror show (that opening theme songs chilled me for years) and a science-fiction boutique. Week to week it could either be a oneshot or a part of an ongoing drama involving Scully’s pregnancy and abduction, Duchovny’s missing sister, and the Cigarette Smoking Man.

In retrospect, despite its flirtations with cults and murders, The X- Files was really a show about innocence. The two leads, despite begging from the audience, were chaste. The mysteries didn’t seem to reflect an undertow of American paranoia. They were more about discovering what lay at the edge of our reality. In other words, they were more Woodstock than Watergate. If The X-Files was an attempt to look beyond, than David Duchovny’s Mulder was a proxy for the audience — excited, fervent, eyes-wide-open. One of the greatest lines of The X-Files run was when Scully asks Mulder: “Whatever happened to trust no one?” “Oh, I changed it to ‘Trust Everyone’.”

Mulder replied sardonically. “Didn’t I tell you?”

— Mordechi Shinefield

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