TGIF Revisited: Conclusion (America In The 1990s)

Well that was…something. Having watched 12 different episodes from the TGIF lineup that spanned both the beginning and end of my childhood (1988-1996, or from 6 to 14 years old in my life), I can honestly say that I miss the concept of TGIF programming as a cultural institution and wish that something like it was still on for younger generations (and their families) today.

As I waxed philosophical in my last entry, and have remarked upon in previous ones, the idea of TGIF was a novel one: in an age where television was becoming more adult and censorship standards were becoming more relaxed (the 1980s to 1990s), there weren’t many sitcoms on television that could be considered “family-friendly”: Cheers took place in a bar, Murphy Brown was a strictly adult show, Family Ties tackled a lot of “serious” issues, Designing Women was also rather adult, Dear John was close to a suicide note per episode, Empty Nest and The Golden Girls were literally about seniors, Night Court was rather racy, and the list could go on from there.

Meanwhile, family-friendly shows that were on in that era, such as AlfThe Cosby ShowThe Facts of LifeMajor DadSilver SpoonsGrowing Pains, etc., were spread out all over on different nights and often following or proceeded more adult sitcoms. There wasn’t a single dedicated block of television on a weekday night that was dedicated solely to sitcoms the whole family could enjoy together without an adult joke or questionable content that would make the parents (and often their kids) cringe while watching together.

TGIF was a brilliant stroke of programming genius for this very reason: Friday nights–normally the lowest-rated night of the week for any sitcom on a major broadcast station–turned into an evening of television for people going nowhere on that night (parents and their children) that would tune in to watch some silly sitcoms focusing on either families or wacky neighbors or both and the domestic farces they fell into. Sure, it was often very cheesy, but kids didn’t mind how cheesy it was, and the adults were probably just glad that sex and violence were off the table for a few hours.

It was also a product of its time and place in history: before the internet took eyes away from the television set, and cable channels exploded into the hundreds, and DVR and On Demand options made obsolete the need to watch live TV ever again, there was only what you could watch at that particular moment in time or (if you could figure it out) the option of taping it on VHS. So people still watched a lot of live TV. Within the first few years of TGIF being established, other networks realized how insanely high the viewership was for this block of family-friendly shows and began to imitate the blocking of TV-G programs (although this was before such a ratings system existed) to get more of the family audience. But nobody could beat TGIF in its prime: it had the most popular family-friendly shows on TV (Full House was the gold standard, while Family Matters literally set off “Urkelmania” in this country, a phenomenon that arrived on the same faddish tide as MC Hammer and Milli Vanilli). And for the grown-ups that wanted to enjoy something a little more adult (but still clean enough for the kids), there was Perfect StrangersMr. Belvedere, and the (in hindsight) utterly bizarre Dinosaurs.

And the TGIF block tried to age up with its audience: when its primary audience (i.e. people of my generation) began to move into their early teens, they began producing more shows marketed towards those interests (to mixed results: I really stomped on Step By Step and gave a particularly brutal beating to Boy Meets World in these recaps; however, I also enjoyed Sister, Sister,Sabrina The Teenage Witch, and the short-lived Camp Wilder).

Gen Y: The Last Great Gasp of The 20th Century

But not only was its original demographics aging out of watching family-oriented programming, by the mid-90s, the culture had shifted away from the rather squeaky-clean 1980s zeitgeist of putting up a moral front and keeping things safe from kids, but cable television exploded and began to push boundaries that were explicitly marketed to my generation: cable TV began to put on actual decent original programming (and also rather stupid programming, to be fair); my eyes were drawn away from cartoons in favor of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Comedy Central, Daria on MTV, and Space Ghost: Coast to Coast on TBS (all of which were far more sarcastic and ironic in tone than TV shows from earlier decades were) and as a whole my generation was swayed away from TGIF to engage in a more liberal culture that flooded America by the mid-90’s (case-in-point: I saw Pulp Fiction with my father in the movie theaters in 1994 when I was 12 years old). It seemed standards were being relaxed and it was assumed (if not fought by certain sectors of society) that kids of this generation, the ones that were immediately following the “slacker” Gen X (who dominated the culture at the time) were going to be hip enough to watch and engage in slightly more mature themes than our parents’ generation did.

There was also the internet: I personally feel that the introduction of the internet and its exponential rise in popularity (statistics time: in 1994, only 11 million households in America had the internet; by 1996, 21 million did; by 2000, it was up to 44 million; by 2007, 246,000,000 households were online) accelerated the entry into a more mature culture for my generation. This dissemination of culture on this new medium, along with the profound shift away from conservatism in America between 1990 and 1996 created a shift in youth culture (Gen Y, roughly those born between 1980 to 1992, also known as “echo boomers” since most of our parents were part of the Baby Boomer generation) that largely reflected the cultural shift America experienced in the 1960s, and as profound a difference between what America’s cultural landscape and mores from 1960 to 1969 could be reflected between 1990 and 1999–only without a large-scale war or youth revolt. Instead, it was a time of peace and prosperity in America, and Gen Y grew up rebelling in a well-controlled environment. Instead of taking to the streets and protesting against a war, we watched MTV, bought music that we played loudly in our well-decorated suburban bedrooms, and went to college to continue our snarky but otherwise pacified existences.

In many ways, TGIF was the last trolley stop on the carefully shaped cultural experience that our parents’ generation had created for us since our births: we would start with Sesame Street, move on to Nickelodeon, watch Saturday morning cartoons, and then it was TGIF; a short stop at Snick and then it was MTV, Comedy Central, access to every movie and all of the music we wanted, and by the time we went to college we would have experienced the gamut of all cultural facets without having to get our hands dirty. Our parents were very good caretakers of their children in this way.

Then 9/11 happened and all of that careful planning and controlled destiny into a bright, shiny, prosperous future went completely to hell and all of those decades the Baby Boomers so lovingly crafted this nice new prosperous–but still liberal–America was scattered to the winds. I don’t think my generation ever recovered in a lot of ways from being brought up to be the new Masters of the Universe, only to watch in horror as our country sunk into a seemingly endless war, the economy crashing just as we were trying to get our own careers started, and now this new chaotic decade where–instead of already having settled down, bought houses, and started families–many of us are still trying to get a grip on trying to keep a job for more than a few years and hold onto an apartment. It’s grim, when you put it that way, but any paragraph that starts with “Then 9/11 happened” is bound to be grim.

Are we the last generation to have experienced a truly prosperous, opulent time? Are we a little soft because of it? Or has now the culture changed so radically in the intervening 17 years that we’re a new Silent Generation, becoming too old to fight a war but still young enough to have to struggle and strive in turbulent times? I can’t answer any of these questions: only time will.

But I do know that we were the last generation to taste the sweetness that was 20th Century America; to grow up with tube televisions and simple video games and a whole 30 channels on cable; still had telephones that were on the table or wall of a house instead of our pockets; that had video rental stores and VHS players. We had the best and last great blast of the past before the new century came and swallowed us whole. And maybe that’s why our nostalgia lays so heavily for that particular past.

When talking about the 20th century with my father, he just says, “They’ll never believe that’s how it ever was,” and as I get older I’m inclined to agree with him. The future afforded us a lot of things, but there was a quality to that analog past–of broadcast TV shows and clunky tapes you rented from a store and the telephone ringing and never knowing who was going to be on the other end–that made life exciting and present. If you missed it, it was gone; unlike a TV show, the experience of the actual past has no reruns to catch up on. There was no way to capture the immediacy and the novelty of everything: in contrast, life in the 21st century just feels like an endless rerun, only the quality’s getting worse with each airing.

There was something about being alive and awake and being there, in the 1990s, and it was the feeling of standing at the top of the 20th century, looking down at all of the horrors and incredible things that happened and were produced and created within it, and being able to enjoy all of it without having to have been a part of that struggle. When my generation approached the new millennium, there was a great sense that peace would finally be achieved and we would all move into the future together, and it would somehow be even greater than it was at that moment. Looking back at my younger self, I still want to feel how he did, even though my bitter older self won’t allow me that kind of naive hope. I’ve been to the future, and I don’t have the heart to tell him how it turns out.

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