Featured: Top of Home Page

Part 4 - Feasts from the Fringe

Cable created supply where there was little or no demand. Out of the myriad of subject specific programming, a few gemstones managed to shine.

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.

TV Show: Picket Fences

US release date: 1992-09-18

Network: CBS

Cast: Tom Skerritt, Kathy Baker, Costas Mandylor, Lauren Holly, Holly Marie Combs, Justin Shenkarow, Adam Wylie, Fyvush Finkel, Ray Walston

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/p/picket-fences.jpg

MPAA rating: N/A

Display as: List

Picket Fences (1992-1996)

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.

-- Sarah Zupko

Picket Fences

TV Show: Futurama

US release date: 1999-03-28

Network: Fox

Cast: Billy West, Katey Sagal, John DiMaggio, Phil LaMarr, Lauren Tom, Maurice LaMarche, Tress MacNeille

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/f/futurama.jpg

Website: http://www.fox.co.uk/futurama/

MPAA rating: N/A

Display as: List

Futurama (1999-2003)

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!”.

-- Bill Gibron


TV Show: Mystery Science Theater 3000

US release date: 1988-11-24

Network: Comedy Central

Cast: Joel Hodgson, Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Jim Mallon, Mary Jo Pehl, Bill Corbett, Josh Weinstein

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/m/mystery-science-theater-300.jpg

Website: http://www.mst3kinfo.com/

MPAA rating: N/A

Display as: List

Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-1999)

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.

-- Evan SawdeyMystery Science Theater 3000

TV Show: Seinfeld

US release date: 1989-07-05

Network: NBC

Cast: Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Richards

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/s/seinfeld.jpg

Website: http://www.sonypictures.com/tv/shows/seinfeld/

MPAA rating: N/A

Display as: List

Seinfeld (1989-1998)

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.

-- Marco Lanzagorta

Next Page






Zadie Smith's 'Intimations' Essays Pandemic With Erudite Wit and Compassion

Zadie Smith's Intimations is an essay collection of gleaming, wry, and crisp prose that wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both everyday and lofty matters.


Phil Elverum Sings His Memoir on 'Microphones in 2020'

On his first studio album under the Microphones moniker since 2003, Phil Elverum shows he has been recording the same song since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s. Microphones in 2020 might be his apex as a songwriter.


Washed Out's 'Purple Noon' Supplies Reassurance and Comfort

Washed Out's Purple Noon makes an argument against cynicism simply by existing and sounding as good as it does.


'Eight Gates' Is Jason Molina's Stark, Haunting, Posthumous Artistic Statement

The ten songs on Eight Gates from the late Jason Molina are fascinating, despite – or perhaps because of – their raw, unfinished feel.


Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".


12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.


Blues Legend Bobby Rush Reinvigorates the Classic "Dust My Broom" (premiere)

Still going strong at 86, blues legend Bobby Rush presents "Dust My Broom" from an upcoming salute to Mississippi blues history, Rawer Than Raw, rendered in his inimitable style.


Folk Rock's the Brevet Give a Glimmer of Hope With "Blue Coast" (premiere)

Dreamy bits of sunshine find their way through the clouds of dreams dashed and lives on the brink of despair on "Blue Coast" from soulful rockers the Brevet.


Michael McArthur's "How to Fall in Love" Isn't a Roadmap (premiere)

In tune with classic 1970s folk, Michael McArthur weaves a spellbinding tale of personal growth and hope for the future with "How to Fall in Love".


Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.


The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.


Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.


Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.


Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.


The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.


Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.


Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.


Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.