This 1989 experiment tried to marry the light and dark sides of Jim Henson’s work into one weekly television event. It didn’t really take.
Henson himself hosted the weekly hourlong anthology series, setting up the episode’s lineup and theme. The first thirty minutes were called “MuppeTelevision”, hosted by Kermit and structured like a modern-day Muppet Show. A muppet named Digit served the Scooter role in coordinating the production, and the tradition of a weekly special guest was still intact.
The second half hour was, for the most part, a more serious offering. This segment was typically one story told over thirty minutes exploring the more poignant, emotional, story-led side of puppetry. The short film Lighthouse Island aired here, as did several episodes of The Storyteller, starring John Hurt.
The series was a ratings flop, and only 9 of the 12 episodes produced ever made it to air before NBC cancelled the show. A shame, as there’s something special here. Here’s the first episode.
Cathy Ads for McDonald’s Salads
It was an odd-yet-very-eighties move for McDonalds to offer a line of salads as a standard menu item. I’ll ignore the fact that they chose to put them into cups so that you could shake them to toss and mix the dressing, which added the frustrating experience of eating a salad from a cup. Ok, I guess I won’t ignore it. Still, an even odder decision was to use comic strip character Cathy to sell the McDonalds Salad idea. Here are a few commercials with her as the pitch-person.
It’s 1981! Candy can be cereal! Anything can be cereal! Everyone’s making cereal!
ALF (SEGA Master System)
It’s no surprise, given the TV show ALF‘s wide success, that a video game would release featuring the Melmac-ian jester. It should also be no surprise that it was awful.
It’s a pretty simple premise: ALF’s scouring the town looking for tools to repair his spaceship, evading men-in-black and other, more pedestrian perils. These men-in-black are pretty awful at disguise, their characters eternally hunched over with comically ‘grabby’ hands.
Still, the music’s charming and although the premise sounds A LOT like E.T., at least this game adaptation isn’t total garbage. Here’s a playthrough.
Baby Ruth Ad
And a beautiful, beautiful early-20th-century ad for Baby Ruth. The original driving stimulant. Except for, you know, drugs.
This 1986 VHS game envisioned a murder mystery set in the universe of Isaac Asimov’s Robot books. Loosely based on the book Caves of Steel, it’s an ambitious effort and carries a high production value – particularly for the mid-1980s, when so many were getting away with so much less.
Robots follows Detective Elijah Bailey, an Earthling, as he is assigned to the murder of a member of a rival faction, the Spacers. Was an Earthling behind the killing? A Spacer? A (gasp) robot? The Earthlings have their own robots, but they’re pretty crude. Sorry, really crude.
Bailey’s got 24 hours to solve the case before the Spacers destroy the Earth. Ok. He’s sent to “Old New Jersey”, a city that’s been modernized as a Spacer embassy on Earth, and is paired up with one of the Spacer robots, a much higher grade of production.
The sets of “Old New Jersey” are pretty impressive, for a mid-80’s production. They look positively ’90s!
Unlike some VHS games, there’s no fast-forwarding or rewinding around to different points of the tape to play the game. The story plays out pretty linearly, with prompts to pull clue cards at significant plot points throughout.
Depending on the clues selected, and your keen eye at noticing details during the episode, you either convict a legit criminal or an innocent person. There’s no video payoff, though – it’s all up to the cards at that point. The game box boasts 256 possible storylines, but that’s a stretch. There are really only a few outcomes, and the general consensus seems to be that there’s no replay value to this game. A shame, given the clear effort to make this a big production. Here’s the VHS:
And here’s an ad for the game:
Call me when there’s a Foundation VHS game.
(Seriously. Call me.)
The Prom: It’s A Pleasure (1961)
Coca-Cola sponsors this short film filled with instruction on how to properly prepare for and attend the high school prom. Who knew etiquette was so by-the-numbers? I have the feeling that any attempt to turn a high school prom into a formal cotillion generally ends in disappointment. Still, the film gives good general advice, like don’t give a flower corsage to a girl who’s got a dress with daisies on it. Tips that anybody can use.
Do NOT forget to say goodnight to the chaperones!
Polaris Nuclear Submarine
I’m fairly certain that this “Nuclear Sub” was little more than a pointed cardboard box, but I’d probably have fallen for this ad. “Controls That Work” is a particularly bold feature.
Evel Knievel Commercial
From the motorcycle to the drag racer to the skycycle, this is a pretty impressive array of Evel Knievel toys.
Batman & Superman Sesame Street Ad
On the surface, it’s interesting that Batman and Superman are promoting the premiere of Sesame Street. It’s charming – they hold up the CTW letters, they refer to themselves as stars. But, really, what are they watching? Themselves, promoting Sesame Street?
A guy in space, all by himself, broadcasting his thoughts on society to the people below. This thoughtful 1989 public television show celebrated nerd-dom long before it became cool to do so.
Prisoners of Gravity was hosted by comedian Rick Green. As the title sequence tells you, his character was sick of all of the bad news on Earth and launches himself into space. From his satellite he sends out a weekly transmission exploring all sorts of subjects in the science/technology/comic/fantasy realm.
Most episodes featured several interviews; they occupy the bulk of the show. Novelists, actors, comic book writers and illustrators were all given lengthy interviews conducted via satellite link from space. Thoughtful questions were raised and, particularly in Harlan Ellison’s case below, both sides of the coin were presented. Topics like first contact with aliens, the good and bad side of fandom, and questions like “Do you have to like science to like science fiction” are treated as actual discussion topics, not fluff, and Prisoners of Gravity deserves credit for creating a forum to discuss them pre-internet.
I can’t help but get an MST3k vibe from the ‘guy alone in space on TV’ premise, but the similarities end there. It’s its own thing and it’s clear in every aspect of the show that it was a labor of love. The show ran from 1989 to 1994, for five seasons, extending out into the US from season two onward. Then, for some reason, it was cancelled.
Here’s an episode. Harlan Ellison’s so salty in his segment! The sting of The Starlost probably never went away.
Virtual Boy Commercials
There’s one common thread in all of these commercials for Nintendo’s Virtual Boy: the fact that this console came from and transports people to an alien wasteland devoid of life or enjoyment, fraught with conflict. Why would we bring this thing to Earth?
1980s General Foods International Coffee Magazine Ad
I love the horizontal placement of the different flavors along the bottom. See? Earth’s doing just fine without the Virtual Boy.
Star Phone 10,000
This plays like a parody commercial from Saturday Night Live. The guy even looks a little like Phil Hartman. The “features” that this phone has!
Now I miss Phil Hartman.
Phil Harman Bloopers
Now I miss him even more. The one with Phil and Jan in the bar. Oof.
On one sunny afternoon in 1986 Vincent Price, dressed as a mailman, delivers a VHS tape to a kid named Matthew. The tape, Escapes, is a horror anthology hosted by Vincent Price. He starts watching it, and so do we. I’m not sure which level of inception we’re at at this point.
It’s really just five short horror stories wrapped by Vincent Price and given a strange intro and outro to make it make sense.
There are five stories here: Something’s Fishy, Coffee Break, Who’s There, Jonah’s Dream, and Think Twice. None of them are particularly scary in the execution, and some are downright stupid, but they’re all good snapshots of ’80s cable video production. Coffee Break is probably my favorite of the batch; it feels like an early Stephen King short story minus the actual scary ending he probably would have written.
What strikes me about the ending (spoilers) is that characters from each of the stories come together in a “shocking” final scene, proving that this isn’t just some acquisition effort at getting a bunch of unrelated stories and running them side-by-side. As an MST3k fan this video conjures up memories of Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders, which is actually slightly more involved in stitching the standalone stories together than this piece is but actually has a bunch of acquired, unrelated pieces in it – from different decades even. Still, same idea. It’s worth a watch, there’s something warm and familiar about it all.
World War III, Part Two
The thrilling followup to last week’s 1950s scare comic about World War III. This installment features battles in the air, on land, and under the sea… and doesn’t really resolve much. It actually makes the story much more confusing as to what the makers of the comic’s real agenda was. I’ve also never seen it spelled “Commy” before reading this comic.
Nintendo Interactive Retail Store Displays
This 1992 training video about maintaining Nintendo console in-store play units goes further than it needs to in the effort to entertain. Probably as far as it can. It’s hard to believe that this is this guy’s real voice – it sounds like the voice someone would use to make fun of this guy’s real voice. That’s a compliment, though, I think!
19th Century Obesity Ad
There’s very little to appreciate about this fat-shaming newspaper ad from the 19th century, but the aesthetic appeal of the images and the wall of text do catch my eye.
Current obsession: This 1970s Japanese Bluegrass band.
My love for science fiction can probably be traced back to the time I saw Total Recall when I was eleven years old. I somehow convinced my parents to buy me a VHS copy from Sam’s Club and I think I spent the next two or three days watching it over and over. I liked space stuff before then – I was a huge Star Wars fan – but Total Recall was the first time I remember falling in love with a science fiction idea. I even bought (convinced my parents to buy) the Piers Anthony novelization, a Piers Anthony novelization of a film adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story, and read it to tatters. It actually holds up, if you’re the forgiving type of person.
Anyway, Total Recall is probably my favorite movie of all time. It’s not the best movie of all time, of course, not by a long shot, but there’s so much there that works. So why nine years later someone thought it would be a good idea to use the franchise to make an episodic series that’s more Blade Runner than Total Recall is completely beyond me.
Total Recall 2070 aired in 1999 on Canadian channel CHCH-TV and on Showtime in the US. It’s a sequel of sorts to the film, at least in the timeline. The fact that I had to look that up should tell you how thin the connection is between the film and the series; beyond the presence of the Rekall company (who I couldn’t imagine would still be in business after the Quaid debacle), the concept of memory-implant excursions, and the existence of the planet Mars with people on it, there are really no similarities between the two. Oh, it re-uses some spacecraft shots from the movie. But that’s it.
It really has more in line with Blade Runner – instead of the mutants in Total Recall there are androids, and some of those androids are up to things that shouldn’t be possible given their programming. Programming supplied by Rekall, because they do apparently do that sort of thing. Detective David Hume’s partner is gunned down by a gang of these rogue androids, and his investigation into the case partners him up with a rookie (who, spoiler alert, is secretly an android created by an unknown-to-the-rest-of-the-world manufacturer) and takes him to Mars. What time the series doesn’t spend exploring the nature of android psychology and paying marginal lip service to the world that Total Recall built is spent on flashy gun battles, awkwardly placed cursing and similarly awkardly-placed gratuitous sex scenes.
So not so unlike Total Recall on that last part.
It baffles me that they had a series that really fit so well in the Blade Runner universe but chose instead to shoehorn the idea into Total Recall. The series has a few things going for it – the sets are pretty good, the action’s fine, the effects are decent and the ideas are interesting – but the acting and writing are terrible and the episodes themselves are overlong and dull. It’s not hard to see why it was cancelled after one season, leaving several plot points unresolved.
Here’s an episode. It’s hard to recommend spending the time on it. You’d be better off reading the novelization of the movie. Also, NSFW warning: there’s nudity in this link.
World War III Comic, Part One
This 1950s nuclear-scare comic book really dials up the enthusiasm for atomic weapons of all shapes and sizes (atomic bazooka?), frequently at the expense of common sense or complete sentences!
With such memorable lines as “I’m on fire! Being burned alive! Eeeeeahhh!”, it’s hard to believe this comic didn’t make it into our public school curriculum. Did the US’ Super Atomic Guided Rocket make it to Moscow? Find out next time!
Nuts for Nintendo
This 1988 segment of “20/20” is pretty charming, not because it characterizes the Nintendo craze as a phenomenon – it was – but in the way it illustrates it as something adults just can’t understand, like the children are possessed and speaking a different language.
Freemans Egg Powder
This poor girl’s left arm needs a little help.
Vanguard Atari Commercial
This spot for the Atari game “Vanguard” illustrates the camaraderie of a group of high school boys generated from the game. And their inclusion of poor Luther.
1. It’s a Totally Happening Life – We’re pretty big Beverly Hills, 90210 fans in the Timid Futures household. Really big fans. I watched the show religiously while it was in premieres, and we bust out the re-runs whenever we get a chance. We catch ourselves having long conversations between each other about characters and their motivations. Most characters; we don’t typically explore Andrea.
Every holiday season we make sure to watch all of the Christmas episodes; there are good ones (Season 7’s Secret Santa and Cindy’s marital strife stands out) and not so good ones (Season 4’s lame clip show and airplane’s-gonna-crash “drama”), but there’s one that’s a clear head and shoulders above the rest. I’m talking about“It’s a Totally Happening Life”.
By season 3, 90210 was pretty smug about its status as a tastemaker among teens. Each episode had the hottest music of the day, the fashions were (sometimes laughably) on point, and the show frequently took it upon itself to try and introduce new fashions like a radish boutineer for a school dance or his-and-hers diamond earrings as wedding gifts. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that they were confident enough to take on a classic movie, It’s a Wonderful Life for their 1992 Christmas episode.
The backbone of the episode features two angels in heaven, Clarence and Miriam. Fun Fact: The actor doing Clarence is Quaid’s work-buddy-turned-attempted-killer in Total Recall. Miriam gets Clarence’s attention because there’s a disaster about to happen to a bunch of rich kids in Beverly Hills and it needs celestial intervention.
Miriam introduces each member of the gang to Clarence, and the audience, as if we were meeting them for the first time. She goes over their current place in the series’ soap-ish story arc so that everyone’s up to speed: Brenda and Kelly are fighting over Dylan, Steve’s on suspension for breaking into school and trying to change his grades, Andrea’s boring and in love with Brandon, Brandon’s awful, and Donna is organizing a charity event for less-fortunate children. And David’s just recording it all on a video camera.
The camera angles in this episode are completely off the rails.
In the midst of their besmirchment of It’s a Wonderful Life, Brandon and Andrea also take on Twas the Night Before Christmas with a modern, hip, pointless version that begins with ” Twas the Day Before Midterms, all through the school/ the teachers were jammin’, the students were cool.”
The first half of the episode, outside of the angels’ commentaries of how cool and beautiful the gang is (seriously), consists of the soap-opera storylines being lit on fire: the love triangle heats up, Brandon breaks up with his girlfriend and kisses Andrea and that somehow goes poorly, and David’s got some hangup about not being a senior like the rest of them. It all results in the gang bailing on Donna for the charity thing she’s organizing. She’s screwed for about 5 minutes and then the gang is forced to go to the event anyway.
All of this leads up to the event that’s what gets the angels involved: there’s a drunk driver on a semi about to smash into the school bus and kill everyone on board. Just like It’s a Wonderful Life, right? Seriously, the only parallel here is that there are angels.
Clarence confidently reveals that he already diverted the drunk driver, but it turns out that he diverted the wrong guy and he only gets one use of that special power because of angel rules. The angels stress over this for a few seconds and then God Himself intervenes on the behalf of a bunch of rich kids in a school bus. Sorry, starving kids around the world, the BH gang needs God’s attention!
The gang safely arrives at the charity event and Steve’s there dressed as Santa to join them. There’s a little Christmas warmth and then we’re out. This whole thing is just a weird episode, just a really weird episode, and I can’t figure out the decision-making process that led to where this whole thing ended up. At the end of the day, though, it’s very Christmas-y so mission accomplished.
Oh, and Miriam got her wings.
Here’s the episode. While I have my gripes, I can’t turn away. That’s kind of the thing about this series, and why I love it. I have bigger gripes about the series, ones that will never be resolved. I wish John Sears had been an ongoing nemesis for Steve, like that he had bought a rival magazine company after college. I wish the New Evolution cult had continued to haunt Kelly for the rest of the series, trying to throw wrinkles in her life for walking out. I wish David had continued trying to make his music career take off. Oh, wait.
Here you go. Poor Donna.
*And if way-too-deep discussions about 90210 are as much your thing as they are mine, check out The Blaze wiith Lizzie and Kat podcast. I seriously can’t stop listening.
2. Visiona 1 – Here’s Italian designer Joe Colombo’s take on the living space of the future, presented as the Visiona 1 exposition sponsored by Bayer in 1969. Beautiful stuff.
And here’s some video of the exposition itself, where people can actually get in and fiddle with the space. It’s oddly comforting to me that the bathroom is still cluttered.
3. Japanese Twin Peaks Coffee Commercial – At some point this week I got impatient for the Twin Peaks revival on Showtime and started clicking around. I came across this 1993 Japanese coffee commercial. Amazing!
4. Peter Pain Spooks Christmas Spirit – Peter Pain was a Ben-Gay anti-mascot. Kind of like the Noid, but for Ben-Gay. That gives me just enough information to barely understand this comic.
5. Thine Own Wish Wish I Thee – Oddly worded, but beautiful.
Alice in Wonderland/Alice Through The Looking Glass – This 1985 TV Movie adaptation of Lewis Carrol’s classic novel is as notable for its star-studded lineup as it is for how weird it gets with its star-studded lineup.
Broadcast on CBS as a two-night event in December 1985, the story pretty closely follows the novel’s story beats. There’s a way in which one could view the special as Alice travelling through Wonderland meeting al sorts of fantastic characters. There’s also a way one could view it as Alice travelling through Wonderland meeting one fading Hollywood legend after another.
Seriously, the roster is insane. It includes Red Buttons, Sherman Hemsley, Shelley Winters, Scott Baio, Sammy Davis Jr., Imogene Coca, Telly Savalas, Anthony Newley, Roddy McDowall, Sid Caesar, Ringo Starr, Carol Channing, Sally Struthers, Harvey Korman, Merv Griffin, Patrick Duffey, Steve Allen, Eydie Gorme, Steve Lawrence, Jonathan Winters, Ernest Borgnine, John Stamos, Beau Bridges, Lloyd Bridges, and Red Buttons. Among others!
The big departure from the book is the obscene amount of musical numbers – the first hour of the special has nine (!) songs and the second hour has ten. The songs are where the oddness of the whole thing really shines the brightest. Here’s Sherman Hemsley singing about how he hates dogs and cats…
…Sammy Davis, Jr. transforming from the caterpillar to a human to perform a funky version of “You Are Old, Father William”…
…and on the top of the pile, Carol Channing singing “Jam Tomorrow”. This performance has stuck with me for thirty years, and the ending is pretty great nightmare fodder.
It’s not a bad special, really; it’s just weird. Really weird. See for yourself.
2. The Crystal Maze – The early 1990s saw this beautifully bizarre British game show, a sort of Legends of the Hidden Temple for grown-ups that embraced teamwork, sci-fi and fantasy, and mad scrambles to catch flying cash in a wind chamber.
The Crystal Maze was made up of four zones, each representing a different slice of space and time: Aztec, Futuristic, Industrial, and Medieval. Each zone had its own set of challenges appropriate to the setting, and each challenge had the chance to grant the players crystals that could later be exchanged for time in the wind chamber.
The neat thing about The Crystal Maze was that it was completely co-operative. There’s one team in each episode and the team either wins or loses as a whole. There are circumstances under which one team member drops out of the game, but they’re few and far between.
The Crystal Dome is the final portion of the game, where the team trades their crystals for time spent catching gold and silver banknotes that are blowing around. The amount of banknotes caught affects the prizes the team gets at the end.
Between the elaborate set design, the enthusiastic “Dungeon Master”, and the all around friendliness of the game itself, this might be the best game show that I’ve ever seen. Where was I between 1990 and 1995? Oh, that’s right. In America.
Here’s the first episode. It’s a little weird that there’s no music in it, but otherwise solid stuff.
3. Archie Gets All The Brakes – I love old comic book ads like this that masquerade as actual stories. Archie had a ton of them.
4. Batman Forever VHS Commercial – This five-minute video was produced to appeal to retailers in the hopes they’d carry VHS copies of Batman Forever in their stores. It’s beautifully cringe-worthy, especially when it gets down to about two straight minutes of marketing-speak in the middle.
5. Awful Coffee Ad – Just terrible. Harvey doesn’t deserve her!
1. Is This Tomorrow? – This comic book from 1947 seems almost like a parody of the anti-Communist paranoia of the day. But it’s not.
As the sticker indicates (why would you use a red sticker for an anti-Communist pamphlet?), this is the doing of the Catechetical Guild Educational Society, You can see from the first page that the fear is laid on pretty thick. It’s all about how the Communists will infiltrate our government, labor unions, schools, and Hollywood to make us all hate each other and bring us to a tipping point…and then cause a crisis that will naturally put them in charge. Once in charge, they’ll obviously burn all of the food and then go for the Catholics… which is what I think the Catechetical Guild might have been afraid of the whole time.
The whole thing’s over at archive.org, but here are some of my favorite panels. It’s all just so absurd.
Just like that, government overthrown.
Those soldiers have….machine guns!
As you do.
Actually hard to argue with most of these. Be American first is kind of an odd one.
1. Howard Johnson’s 2001 Children’s Menu – A lot of words come to mind when I think about 2001: A Space Odyssey, but “child-friendly” isn’t one of them. It’s not like it’s filled with questionable or mature content or anything, I just have a hard time believing that kids could sit through a movie like that and be able to digest it. Howard Johnson’s – who had a presence in the film – thought otherwise, and maybe it’s a good thing they did – I would have killed to be one of the kids featured in this “shut up and sit quietly” restaurant comic book. Courtesy of Dreams of Space – below are some of my favorite pages but be sure to head there for the rest:
That’s an odd thing for the cover to feature, that aspect of the movie. It’s not like the movie’s about that. The copy is a little odd, too but as you’ll see in subsequent panels they really go out of their way to explain the movie and the science to kids.
Here’s where I start taking issue. These kids are at a fancy movie premiere and they’re discussing/summarizing what’s happening on screen! I would not be smiling like those people are if I were the one seated behind them. I do love that they call it the “atom-powered spaceship”, though. Also their “here’s the part” summary covers like 30 minutes of the film!
“I can hardly wait for the year 2001 so I can be a space stewardess!” Yeah, that’s a cringer.
A great story about a great story. Actually the illustrations of movie scenes are pretty gorgeous, so there is that. Also, the comic ends with this kid’s menu:
1. Journeys From Beyond Earth – Before Ancient Aliens and the occasional lucky week on Unsolved Mysteries, there wasn’t really much regular attention given to UFOs and Extraterrestrial investigation on television. The channel spectrum was so slim and the market for stuff like that had yet to really reveal itself. There were more popular, remembered ones like Chariot of the Gods, but here’s a lesser-known program, Journeys From Beyond Earth, that filled that niche in a late-night/early morning/other “not-valuable” slot and actually has a lot of unique charm to it.
The dramatically voiced-over intro almost makes this seem like a sci-fi movie instead of a documentary, but the whole thing’s pretty rich with accounts and theories. It’s got a look and feel that hits right in my sweet spot, and you can tell it’s a labor of love.