Showing posts with label Favorites. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Favorites. Show all posts

Friday, January 8, 2010

Children of the 90s' Favorite Card Games

In an age before high stakes online Texas Hold 'Em and the Wii World Series of Poker, it didn't take such a steady stream of ceaseless technology to hold our attention. As kids, we didn't even need to have any cash at stake to enjoy some good old fashioned gaming. A deck of cards from the dollar store was usually more than enough to keep us going for hours at a time. Depending on how traumatizingly competitive your friends were, you could get locked in playing card rematches for days. After all, they called it War for a reason.

By no means did children in the 90s invent any of these card games--far from it. We were a generation still easily engaged and entertained by the same games that had kids for decades before us. Sure, we loved our Gameboys and Sega Geneses*with as much devotion as kids today value their Nintendo DSes or Wii consoles, but we were also pretty satisfied playing a simple card game. As long as it had all of the necessary prerequisite components--rapid hand movements, quick thinking, overarching competition, the potent power to shame one of our unsuspecting and easily agitated friends--we were captivated.

Our favorite games went by many names, but the rules were usually the same. I always marveled at the manner in which these rules were transmitted from generation to generation, kid to kid. Most of us couldn't remember ever learning the rules, but we usually excelled in the arts of slapping jacks and dumping our Speed stockpiles all the same.


If you've got exemplary fine motor skills, this is the game for you. Those kids that couldn't hold their scissors right (er, me) always lagged behind in this race against your card-letting opponent. In Spit, both players have five mini stockpiles of card with the top one face up and a hand of Spit cards. In preparation for many office-drone days spent mastering computer solitaire, each player would try to use their available cards to put down the next card in ascending or descending sequence to the card face-up in the middle pile. Sound complicated? It is. I'm still not sure I understand it after that mediocre description.

Once neither of you could play any cards, you could yell "Spit!" and turn over some new cards. It was usually a battle of who was quickest, which is why the other version is more aptly named Speed. What kind of a name is Spit, anyway? In Speed I actually had a prayer of winning because my far-faster opponent couldn't see my cards, but I usually still lost every round regardless.


Whoever dreamed this one up no doubt aimed to give it the most bad-ass name to belie its incredible simplicity. Two players have a pile, you each flip up your top card, the one with the higher card takes both, first with all the cards wins. Sounds simple, until you get into a war. That's right, a war. Sounds scary, right? Some hand-to-hand combat, perhaps, or maybe some friendly fire?

You think those things sound warlike, wait till you hear this: you put three cards facedown and one up. The one with the best top card wins it all. I know, I know. Heavy stuff. If you get lucky, you can keep warring until someone wins a massive pile of cards and their opponent pouts in shame. It's all pretty intense, so I'll give you some time to let it all sink in.

I once played this game with a kid who called it "Heart Attack", which I thought was kind of cute but mostly tragic. I prefer Slapjack, which is kind of violent but mostly tasty. Everyone goes around and puts a card on the pile and nothing happens. For many, many rotations. Fun, right? Then, a jack is played, and the fun begins! By fun I mean attempting to slap the deck while more likely inadvertently taking out one of your fellow players. The likelihood of this game to end in injury is extremely high, and chances are even higher that this injury will lead to both tears and tattling.

Go Fish
This one is an old standard, so I felt compelled to leave it in despite the fact that it's not the most exciting of cardgames. I used to like it because we had a special deck of cards with different kinds of fish on it, so instead of asking if you had any threes I could instead inquire as to your possessing any Terry Tunas. It was a fleeting thrill, though, because the game is pretty much only exciting if you're 8 years old or younger. It goes a little something like this: whoever ends up with the most pairs wins. Try to contain your excitement.

Egyptian Ratscrew
This image is from the iPhone version. I want this so badly, and I don't even have an iPhone

The name of the game never phased me as a kid, but really, what? I don't get it. After conducting some diligent research (read: Wikipedia. I do.) the origins of the name remain a mystery. No matter where it picked up the quirky moniker, this game defies categorization.

ERS is, in technical terms, an infinitely more awesome version of the game Slapjack. Don't believe me? Take a break from delighting in your daily dose of nostalgia and go play Slapjack. Now go play Egyptian Ratscrew. Consensus? The level of awesomeness doesn't even compare. It's like comparing Jacks to Aces, which if you play Egyptian Ratscrew you know to be impossible. Jacks are far superior. And so is Egyptian Ratscrew.

It's an indubitably complex games, but here's a subpar summary: everyone gets an equal portion of the fairly distributed deck. You go around in a circle putting a card each face-up on the center pile. Any face card or ace is something of a trump card, bringing you one step closer to ownership of that hefty middle pile. You've got an opportunity to present a trump card of your own, too: for an ace four chances, a king three, a queen two, and a jack one.

There's also many variations of pile-slapping involved, most commonly in the arena of double cards in the middle pile. Slapping can be assigned to other rarer and more delicious anomalies, like sandwiches. This tends to get pretty competitive, resulting in worst-case scenarios like broken fingers, ring-related maimings, and severed friendships. Don't worry, though. It's still awesome.


This is a game that teaches children two valuable skills for their future casino gambling experiences: bluffing and swearing. In brief, you go around in the circle and have to put down cards in sequence. You get to put them facedown, though, which means you can lie your head off. One time I got busted trying to put down five queens. Five queens. True story.

If you think someone is lying, you can typically yell "Bullshit!" or in more PG cases something like "Doubt!" or "Bluff!" Those don't really pack the same punch. You're trying to get rid of all of your cards, so you'd want to dump as many as possible on each turn. If you get caught BSing, you have to take the pile. If you wrongfully accuse someone of BSing, you take the pile. It generally leads to a lot of heated arguments, and, appropriately, swearing.


Above is the drinking version? Doesn't it look fun?

Speaking of swearing. This is apparently the Americanized version of the Japanese game Dai Hin Min. Really? Dai Hin Min** to Asshole? No wonder people scorn the Americanization of things. It's pretty brutal.

The game involves different rankings, usually called something like president, vice president, treasurer, and asshole. You might not know it, but that's the actual line of succession we use in this country for ascendance to leadership. You better hope nothing happens to that treasurer.

It's kind of complicated, but the gist of it is that you try to get rid of all your cards and, like in real life, holding a higher office affords you certain privileges. I recently discovered that this game is also commonly played as a drinking game, so I'm gonna get on that and let you know how it goes. It sounds pretty promising.


My boyfriend and I had a disagreement about whether or not this game existed, as he was about 87% positive I had just made it up. Luckily in this age of information technology, the internet confirmed what I often suspect to be the case: that I am right. He graciously conceded and I tried to explain the game to him but he still found it to be completely ridiculous, which is probably true. If any of you out there have played it, though, back me up on this one.

You start with four cards apiece and start passing cards around the circle with the goal of getting four of a kind. It sounds simple enough, but it gets incredibly frustrating, particularly after you let that queen go and then three more went by and you're collecting twos and you're almost positive that girl across the circle is too. Really, tempers are flaring here. Once one person has achieved four of a kind, they grab a spoon from the pile in the middle, or touch their nose, or stick out their tongue, or perform whatever pre-agreed upon notion signifies their achievement.

There's always one person who's too caught up making their four-set that they miss out on it entirely and are thus publicly shamed as the loser. I'm not sure if the bitterness translates that well over the internet, but suffice it to say I've been in that situation many, many times, and it's pretty embarrassing. It's like your ultimate fear: everyone is looking at you and mocking you and you have no idea. Scarring.

Enjoy your weekend, children of the 90s! I give you full license to practice any of these as weekend drinking games, feel free to report back on Monday on how that went. I think there's some serious potential here.

*I'm sorry, is that the plural of Genesis? Geneses? Genisises? Someone help me out here.

**Translation: Poor Man. I told you the Americanized version was worse, but I just thought I'd add a supplemental footnote in case any of you innocently pondered if Dai Hin Min translated literally to "asshole"

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

90s Internet Phenomenons

Here's a helpful hint in garnering attention for your silly, senseless ideas: simply jump on the bandwagon as early as possible in the technological timeline. If you can somehow finagle yourself a little corner of that virtual marketplace when the competition is light, people will probably find their way to your inane website. Nowadays the internet is over-saturated with all kinds of drivel but in the web's earlier days, these useless pages made up a far more significant proportions of websites. When you only have so many websites to visit, you're far more likely to check out a singing hamster or a dancing baby. That's just simple statistical analysis. So, sorry self, you've entered the world of novelty websites a decade too late. I'll give me some time to grieve.

We've all grown increasingly more difficult to entertain over the years. We have constant access to multiple forms of entertainment, many of which we choose to employ simultaneously. Have you ever noticed that you get bored just putzing around on the computer if there's no TV on in the background? This constant buzz of entertainment has dulled our reactions to internet stimuli. In the 90s, though, if a site offered us some sort of animation with accompanying irritating soundtrack, we were enthralled and immediately forwarded the link to all of our friends. While today when I get a forwarded email my major reaction is disdain to the sender for clogging my inbox, in the early internet days I would cross my fingers that my inbox contained a chain letter or a link to one of the following early meme gems:

Hampster Dance

In 1996, all it took was a couple of GIFs and some captivatingly irritating music playing on loop to lure us to a pointless website. The site featured four different types of hamsters arranged in rows, with each type feverishly perpetuating its signature dance move as a sped-up version of a song from Disney's Robin Hood played in the background. Hampsterdance exploded onto the meme scene overnight, jumping from just a couple of pageviews to a shocking 15,000 visits daily. It was sort of cute, yes, but not exactly the stuff groundbreaking internet phenomenons are made of.

Dancing Baby

This animated three dimensional rendering of a dancing babies made its rounds on the internet before ascending to television fame on Fox's Ally McBeal. It was, as the straightforwardness of the name suggests, a dancing baby. Really, that was it. A baby. Who danced. Like I said, it didn't take all that much to impress us in these early days of the internet; most of us were generally enthralled by the ever-growing capabilities of the internet. Sure, the dancing baby site probably froze every couple of minutes on your dial-up internet or shut down when someone picked up the modem's phone extension, but it amused us all the same.

Bill Gates Chain Letter and others

Over the years, we've become more and more accustomed to monitoring our emails for spam. I no longer jump for joy every time a Nigerian banker tries to share his lucrative fortune with me or when I'm notified of my winning $14 million in a foreign lottery I never entered. I used to experience a brief, gullible thrill at these messages, but they've since lost their luster.

In the 90s, however, we weren't quite so disillusioned with the notion of our inboxes bringing us great luck and free cash. Many chain letters were of the old-fashioned variety, warning that failure to forward it to 12 friends will leave you unlucky in love and life. Some, though, were a bit more enticing, notably the notification that an imminent merger of AOL and Microsoft meant Bill Gates wanted to send you a big fat check. Most of these fraudulent emails claimed the now-merged companies wanted so badly for Internet Explorer to remain the most popular browser that they were putting forth a little cash to cement its status. Who wouldn't press "forward" in hopes of receiving a check for somewhere between $200-$1000? As in most cases, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Bill Gates is a generous guy, but I think his money's a bit more useful in funding clean water supplies for impoverished African villages than ensuring I don't switch to Firefox.

Ate my Balls

Just as the name implies, the site depicted popular characters with thought-bubble overlays detailing their desire to eat balls. Sound stupid? It is.

Mahir Cagri: I Kiss You!!!

Who can deny the charm of a Turkish accordion aficionado with a standing offer for a kiss? Apparently none of us can, or so reveals the incredible amount of traffic to Mahir Cagri's personal web site in the late 90s. His site was full of little tidbits of broken-English self-proclamations, such as "I like music , I have many many music enstrumans my home I can play" and of course, "I Kiss You!!!" Cagri alleged that Sacha Baron Cohen's based the Borat character on his website. There are definitely an assortment of similarities, but Cagri's post-Borat movie lawsuit against Baron Cohen seemed more like a cry for lost attention than a legitimate legal claim.

Bert is Evil

Much to the chagrin of Susame Street producers, this website showed the puppet Bert consorting with all manners of unsavory characters such as Osama bin Laden. The idea was that Bert was actually some form of conniving evil genius and not just the disgruntled foil to the cheerier Ernie. The site's proprietor eventually took down the site, but not before Bert's image began cropping up on the posters of actual bin Laden supporters. Scary stuff. I thought it was bad when he was getting mad about cookies in the bed, but this is taking it to an entirely new level.

Bonsai Kitten

What does a group of rogue MIT students do when they get together to kick back and have some fun? Why, start an elaborate internet hoax, of course. The Bonsai Kitten website claimed that you could raise a Bonsai kitten in the same manner as you would grow a Bonsai tree, complete with photographs and descriptions of the process. Gullible animal lovers worldwide cried out in outrage, forwarding the site to all of their friends in hope of putting an end to this cruel, inhumane kitten-pruning practice. The joke may have been in poor taste, but it was just a joke nonetheless.

Rating Sites (Rate my Face, Hot or Not)

Have you ever wondered whether you were attractive? Do you have a camera and an elevated sense of physical self-esteem? Then we've got a whole slew of websites made just for your own mirror basking self-admiration. You simply uploaded a photo of yourself to the website and people would give you a numeric rating based on your looks. I'm not totally sure why we needed this type of validation from the general internet-roaming public, but the site was admittedly fun to browse. Now many of these sites have added a dating element, which I suppose hinges on the notion of matching individuals of equal attractiveness.

Peanut Butter Jelly Time

The meme featured just a dancing banana emoticon and the song "Peanut Butter Jelly Time" by the Buckwheat Boyz. The frantic banana has had many imitators including Family Guy's Brian, but none can compare to the simplicity of the original.

There's no means of predicting just which of these crazy little corners of the internet will skyrocket to disproportionate fame, but they do seem to have a common thread throughout: complete and total ridiculousness. The internet's bursting at the seams with heaps of viral memes and trends, but in the 90s the novelty was enough to draw us in to watch a dancing banana instruct us in the art of sandwich making.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Birdcage

America's occasionally lazy film industry has a dirty little secret. It's called the French film industry. Throughout the 80s and 90s in particular, American filmmakers seemingly mined the French cinema for well-received gems and hastily brought these movies stateside in American reproductions. It works in some cases better than others, but usually the strength of a Hollywood budget and blissfully ignorant American audiences pulls through and delivers a hit.

Anyway, 1978's Les Cage aux Foilles--the French movie upon which The Birdcage was based--was itself based on an eponymous play, so it's a bit of a strangled route to copycat-ism. Following the release of the French movie was an American musical, so it's safe to say the well-tread plot of The Birdcage was fair game by the time the American movie version came out in 1996. It was practically a cornerstone of the public domain.

In the big picture, the actual plot of the movie is practically superfluous. The movie hinges on the strength of the hilarious performances, a credit to the great casting choices for the 1996 film. From the principals to the bit parts, it's no wonder the ensemble was awarded a Screen Actors' guild award for outstanding cast performance. It's totally and unself-consciously campy and over the top, but it's hard to imagine it any other way. I mean, what kind of drag queen is subdued and demure? They'd just be a drag commoner.

The movie, in all its incarnations, treads on delicate territory. In making a comedy that lampoons gay and drag culture, how can you still allow it some dignity and respect? It seems almost like an oxymoron (kind of like "subdued drag queen"). It's a careful balance between making the characters too cartoony or too spoon-gaggingly sentimental. On one hand, you want the audience to like them, but on the other, they need to make them laugh. Preferably with them rather than at them, but for the sake of comedy at times, either will do.

Luckily this movie pokes just as much fun at the straight man, but which I not only mean the heterosexual man but the FOX News-watching, Rush Limbaugh-consuming comedic foils who play a major role in setting up the plot. It's okay to laugh at people if you laugh at both sides. It says, see how both the campy drag-show director and right-wing politician can be ridiculous? And we say, Ah, yes. So we do.

The movie opens on gay cabaret owner Armand Goldman (Robin Williams) and his partner Albert (Nathan Lane). Albert is the club's star drag queen, performing as the diva-like Starina in the musical revues. Albert is something of a drama queen, and the littlest things put him to pieces. The two live with their flamboyant but domestically clueless houseboy Agador Spartacus (a brilliant Hank Azaria), who helps ease Albert's nerves with Pirin pills, which are really nothing more than aspirins with the "as" scratched off.

I love you, Hank Azaria. Especially since you admitted that accent is inspired by your Sephardic Jewish Grandmother

Armand's son Val returns from college with a major surprise: he is planning on getting married. At only 20, it would seem this would be the whole surprise, but Val's choice of mate throws even more of a wrench into the mix: his fiancee Barbara (Calista Flockhart) is the daughter of a prominent conservative senator who co-chairs the Coalition for the Moral Order. If that's not a great movie set-up, I don't know what is.

Barbara's parents are also less than thrilled with the news of their young daughter's impending nuptials, but are quickly swept into scandal when her senator father Kevin Keeley's (Gene Hackman) Coalition for Moral Order cohort is found dead in the bed of an underage black prostitute. This, you can imagine, was not exactly the image of moral order they were going for. "Your money's on the dresser, chocolate" aren't exactly the famous last words they might have hoped for. Kevin's wife Louis (Dianne Wiest) thinks a grand society wedding might be just the thing to put the whole debacle behind them and restore Senator Keeley's wholesome family image.

What the Keeleys may not have bargained for, though, was their daughter's marrying into an unconventional gay Jewish family residing in homosexual hotspot South Beach, which Barbara helpfully describes as "about two minutes from Fisher Island, where Jeb Bush lives". She also manages to slip in that Armand is a cultural attache to Greece, his mate a housewife, and that their last name is the more goyishly-neutral "Coleman". Quite a pickle, indeed.

Val pushes his father to play it straight, but the ever-hysterical Albert makes this a seeming impossibility. They consider having Albert play the role of a visiting uncle, but based on the clip below, his straight man act leaves just a little something to be desired:

The couple scraps their current interior design niche, trading their Florida-friendly pastels and leaf murals for more subtle giant crucifixes. Armand employs Val's real mother, whom Val has never met, to play the role of his wife at their little dinner party charade, but Albert's whining combined with horrible traffic foil the plan. Unaware of the traffic, the gang launches into an Albert-free dinner party complete with a shoe-wearing Agador Spartacus:

Val's mother Katherine still absent, Albert appears in an eerily Margaret Thatcher-esque full drag get-up, playing the role of doting WASPy housewife, much to the horror of all those in on it. Senator Keeley, however, is quite taken with who he believes to be Mrs. Coleman. When Katherine shows up, though, the jig is up, and Albert reveals himself as a man through the art of de-wigging. At this point Senator Keeley launches into some wigging of his own, lamenting the couple's Judaism as much as their same-sex partnership.

Determined to storm out of there, the Keeleys face a setback when they realize the dirty politics-hungry paparazzi has followed them to Armand and Albert's house. After a few touching moments of heartfelt apologies from the kids about launching this insane plot, Albert hatches a brilliant plan to get the Keeleys out of there without being discovered. The whole crew gets dolled up in drag makeup, wigs, and wardrobe and perform in the "Goldman Girls" number "We are Family". It might sound a little hokey, but it's pretty hilarious.

The movie is jam-packed with zingers and hilarious one-liners that you are pretty much contractually obligated to quote after watching. If you're not quoting inane lines like "You know what they say, where there's sand" and "Are you afraid of my Guuuatamalanness?" at least twenty times after a viewing, you're watching it wrong.

The whole thing pretty much makes you want to do an eclectic celebration of the dance. To do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! Followed by Martha Graham, Martha Graham! With a little Twyla, Twyla, Twyla! Or maybe a little Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd. And a little Madonna, Madonna! But you keep it all inside. Albert and Armond, though, they'll draw it out of you, and before you know it you'll be wanting to join the gang onstage for a little "We are Fa-mi-ly" action whether or not you've seen a drag act a day in your life.*

*By the way, if you have no idea what I'm talking about in this closing paragraph, I recommend you go watch the movie, stat. At least watch the above trailer. It'll do you good.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Misunderstood TV: Great (and Sort of Great) Shows that Lasted Only One Season

It's a tale as old as television time. Someone comes up with a fantastic idea for a show, it premieres to rave reviews and critical praise, it seems poised on the brink of success...and no one watches it. There's no real formula to these things. No matter how strong a show, there's no way of knowing whether it will become a runaway hit or fizzle out into obscurity. With all the terrible shows that have been on the air for ages, it's clear you just can't count on the viewing public.

Thankfully, the internet hosts more than its fair share of elitists and snobs who are more than willing to show us all the error of our television watching ways. Really, just look at anyone who comments on the Onion's AV club. These types quick to tell us all what heathens we are for holding mainstream television viewing habits. To these TV snobs, popularity amongst the masses is the kiss of death. Everyone knows the only way to determine quality is if everyone hates something. Aside from a select chosen few who have the unique wisdom and intelligence to understand it, of course.

Luckily for you, I'm only sort of like that. I wouldn't consider myself an elitist. I just think I'm smarter than everyone else. What? I'm kidding. Only most people.

Joking aside (and for the record, I am joking), it's not about snobbery. It's just pure luck, plain and simple. Some shows make it, and others fly under the radar and face cancellation. Thanks to the almighty power of DVD, though, not to mention all sorts of online clips, there's hope for you yet on some of these:

Freaks and Geeks

This is one of those classic examples, the show everyone brings up in praise of underrated media everywhere. While nowadays some people are sick of the ever-growing Judd Apatow empire and its monopoly on the comedy market, back then he was a fledgling producer pushing a little show about high school misfits. He assembled a team of talented young comic actors and gave them a great script, but audiences just weren't biting. Apatow was loyal to his cast picks, though, and featured them all heavily in future projects. It's safe to say that even if you never saw an episode of Freaks and Geeks a day in your life, you'd recognize most of the ensemble today.

The show was set in the 1980s in small-town Michigan and focused on the daily lives of two groups of social outcasts: the "freaks" and the "geeks". It's a winding story of adolescent self-discovery and tribulations, and the show treated its characters with respect. Despite its disparaging title, the show's characters were more than the stereotypical nerds. They were multifaceted enough that we could relate to them in a distinctly human way. It's no wonder the show's become a cult classic: with the extensively detailed and commentated DVD release, it's every elitist nerd's dream.

Unfortunately, audiences responded similarly tepidly to Apatow's sophomore sitcom effort, college comedy Undeclared which lasted a single season from 2001-2002. You've got to admire his stick-to-it-ness though. He certainly got his due.

The Ben Stiller Show

Creating a sketch comedy show requires a delicate balance. Over the years, the marketplace has been flooded with them, some funny and some falling flat. It's always something of a crapshoot. This Ben Stiller's foray into sketch comedy came early in his career, preceding his ascendancy into movie stardom. And, surprise, surprise, Judd Apatow wrote for this one too. Was there any TV pot in which he had no hand? Any unpopular ones, I mean.

This show was 90s incarnate. With supporting stars like the then-unknown Janeane Garafalo and Andy Dick, this show oozed Gen X-iness from every frame. It began with a short run on MTV and was later picked up by FOX, impressed with the debut. The show mainly parodied popular media, but it was just a tad too witty and wicked for its own good. It overstepped that boundary of middle America by giving us multi-layered creative jokes that don't test well with wide audiences. TV snobs, yes, but regular people, no. That equation, however, usually equals good DVD sales over a decade later from die-hard fans, so it wasn't a total loss.

The Critic

Okay, okay, you got me. There were technically two seasons of The Critic, though each had a very limited number of episodes and showed on two different networks. In The Critic, Jon Lovitz stars as Jay Sherman, "New York's third-most popular early-morning cable TV-film critic". The show parodied popular movies and Jay offered his critiques, set against the backdrop of plots based on Jay's everyday life. In an ironic twist of fat, the Jay character has an aversion to popular taste and is generally contemptuous of well-liked media. No wonder elitists like this show so much. Jay is them. He is the epitome of the snobby intellectual New Yorker on which all intellectual poseurs base their TV show preferences. A near-perfect fit.

A full season of the show was produced, but ABC canceled The Critic after thirteen episodes. As other episodes were already moving through production, FOX jumped on the bandwagon and picked up the rest of the season, only to drop it once the remaining ten had aired. The now-defunct UPN was in talks to air some more episodes, but the deal fell through. Webisodes premiered in 2000, but it just wasn't the same. You'd think a show with Simpsons crossovers would be able to garner some interest, but it just never took off.

My So-Called Life

No, your eyes do not deceive you. I posted the entire first episode above, in hopes that you'll watch it and be pulled into the angsty goodness that was the underrated My So-Called Life. This is one of those other quintessential examples of a show that died too young. I may never recover from the shock of learning I'd never find out the answer to the season finale's cliffhanger. It plagues me still. Brian or Jordan? If you have any insights, do share. I'm still considering the possibilities.

On the other hand, this show was pretty heavy-handed with the issue-tackling. It squeezed so much into its 19 hour-long episodes, it's almost hard to imagine a continuation. In one episode, Angela muses, "When someone dies young, it's like they stay that way forever, like a vampire." Such is the case of My So-Called Life. In its existing canon, it's nearly perfect. It never took that ratings-seeking risk that could have tainted its goodness. It gets to stay that way forever, as it should. Like a vampire, only with less bloodsucking and sparkling in the sunshine.

The Dana Carvey Show

Like I said, sketch comedy shows are shaky ground, creatively speaking. Not everything that succeeds as a smaller part of a larger show will fare well when released into the wild unshielded by the popularity of its parent show. Dana Carvey was very popular on Saturday Night Live, and had a loyal following ABC hoped to to bring on board to his self-titled debut. The show was a little risque, especially considering it aired right after the family comedy Home Improvement. The sponsors were none too pleased with the iffy content, which combined with the plummeting ratings spelled imminent early cancellation.

We did get one good thing out of it: The Ambiguously Gay Duo, which later re-premiered on SNL. Thanks, Stephen Colbert and Robert Smigel. You guys did us proud.

Of course, there were many other shows that didn't get their due, but that's all we've got time for today, folks. Now they really didn't get their due, considering I wouldn't even pay tribute to them here. So, I'm sorry, Eerie, Indiana, Twin Peaks, and all you others. You've been doubly screwed. Luckily, there will always be a vocal contingency of TV elitists to keep singing your praises, canceled TV shows. There's hope for you yet. You know, on DVD--the TV snob's medium of choice.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Golden Girls

It might be hard to fathom that a show detailing the daily lives of the elderly could be racy and envelope pushing. When we think of older people, many of us are apt to imagine hearty, wholesome, grandparent-like characters. We don't, generally speaking, think of promiscuous 50-something Southern belles and wisecracking Sicilian grannies. It's just not in the repertoire.

When it premiered in the mid-80s, The Golden Girls was like of the Sex and the City of senior citizenry. Granted, it was preachier than SATC, particularly in later seasons, but they always padded those movie-of-the-week themed episodes with enough good laughs to keep us watching. It was edgy and controversial, portraying older women in a light not usually cast on them by popular media. They were the ultimate hip grannies. They were up on all the issues, the popular crazes, fashion--well, 80s and early 90s fashion. You have to give them a pass on that one, it was a dark time for the fashion industry, a desolate landscape littered with shoulder pads and oversized sweaters.

While this would be pretty tame for SATC, this type of thing was all but unheard of in the 80s and early 90s

This is probably as good a point as any to offer a caveat to my readers: I am something of a Golden Girls fanatic. I mean, I wrote an angry letter to Lifetime after they sold the syndicated reruns to WE and Oxygen, asking why they couldn't keep my favorite show on a channel I get on the TV in my bedroom? That's borderline cat-lady behavior, I know, but I just need to get my fix. I've seen every episode dozens of times, I could probably recite the jokes right along with Dorothy, Blanche, Sophia, and Rose. There's a sort of timeless quality about the humor that can draw you in again and again, even if it may not be enough to impel you to write an angry letter to the proprietors of a popular women's TV network. That's reserved for the loyalest of us Goldies.

That's not to say the show wasn't without its pitfalls. Golden Girls, throughout its 7-year run, was chock-full of cheap tricks. I've never seen a program with more clip shows. It's almost as if at the laziest point of a season, the writers would spin the giant wheel o' arbitrary themes, dig up archive footage, and throw together a half-assed episode with all of seven minutes of new material. There were even two-part clip shows, which really was pushing it. How long can Blanche deliberate over selling her house to a Japanese businessman before they run out of wistful household memories to reminisce over? Apparently an entire hour, which in TV time is equivalent to something like a month.

Really, the light premises of these clip shows are borderline absurd

And like any good comic writers, Golden Girls' staff never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Continuity was at best an afterthought and at worst completely abandoned. The principals all had pretty shaky backstories subject to change for the sake of a particularly potent joke. Their children, ex-husbands, and current beaus were generally interchangeable. The major components of their life stories usually remained intact, but these secondary characters were often portrayed by different actors in different episodes.

Worse yet was the recycling of the same actors to play two completely different roles, as was the case with Harold Gould, who played both an early-season date to Rose named Arnie and her later long-term boyfriend Miles. We can only assume there are only so many old people with a sense of humor out there, we had to keep cycling the same ones through to get a laugh.

The characters were simultaneously multifaceted and cartoony. Each with their specific stereotyped character traits and everyone played the butt of a joke as a one-note player, but each got a fair amount of additional development that still allowed us to feel empathy for them. Yes, we had the dumb blonde, the smart sarcastic one, the maneater, and the wise old firecracker, yet we often got to see other sides of each character. For the most part, though, they were at their funniest when they played it straight in their preassigned roles. Our major players are:

Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur), a divorced substitute teacher with a biting wit and penchant for sarcastic humor. Growing up, she was my humor icon. She's quick-witted, sharp, and has impeccable timing. Even with all this stacked in her favor, she doesn't quite have it all together. She got pregnant out of wedlock after her prom and married the guy, Stan, who her mother Sophia appropriately dubbed a yutz. He cheated on her, they got divorced, and she works as a substitute teacher. It's not exactly the stuff childhood dreams are made of. You have to admit though, she has the best one liners:

Rose Nylund (Betty White), a proud St. Olaf native and recent widow. She's the epitome of the dumb blonde, with charming naivete and gullibility. Rose is the queen of long-winded, non-sensical stories brimming with Nordic charm, or as it's known to all you non-Minnesotans out there, craziness. She's good-hearted and relentlessly upbeat, which is almost enough to make you forgive her for the god-awful stories. Almost.

Blanche Devereux (Rue McClanahan), an Atlanta transplant who, ahem, enjoys the company of men. Or, as Sophia might say, she's a total slut. Blanche is the original Samantha. She's a sex-crazed older woman generally uninterested in being tied down. Well, not in that way. In one episode, I heard she's got handcuffs. By the way, if you've never read McLanahan's My First Five Husbands and the One That Got Away, I highly recommend it. You can borrow my copy.

Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty), Dorothy's elderly mother who previously suffered a stroke and managed to escape her "imprisonment" in the Shady Pines retirement home to come and live with her daughter and friends. Sophia is full of old-world charm, a Sicilian with all sorts of cockamamie stories that begin with, "Picture it: Sicily." Her Italian language skills are pretty suspect for someone who allegedly grew up in the old country, but it all boils down the tried-and-true Hollywood formula of treating real-life Jews and Italians as interchangeable casting-wise.

The show initially blamed her lack of filter to her stroke, but it was obviously just an excuse to let an 80-year old get away with absolute ridiculousness. Granted, Getty was actually younger than Arthur, who played her daughter on the show, but they made her up fairly convincingly. In the later seasons, at least.

The show had scandalousness and hilarious wit, so its no surprise two of its writers went on to create Desperate Housewives (Marc Cherry) and Arrested Development (Mitchell Hurwitz). More than that, though, it wasn't afraid to tackle issues. Golden Girls took on HIV, the importance of safe sex, sexual harassment, drug abuse, homelessness, teenage pregnancy, and when they ran out of high-caliber issues, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

It all sounds pretty heavy for a comedy, and it was. The show hit that unique balance of humorous irreverence and substantive issue exploration that made it a pioneering comedy for its time. I can almost guarantee that if you saw it as a child, most of the jokes went totally over your head. Lucky for you, it remains on constant rerun. Or, you could come over and watch the episodes my DVR is currently 74% full of. Take your pick.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Don't forget to enter all and any personal or family Glamour Shots in the Glamour Shots Challenge! Send your undoubtedly embarrassing photos to!

Speaking of things parents weren't all that fond of in the 90s, I'm pretty sure bone-chillingly terrifying children's television programming ranked pretty high up on their lists. It's almost shocking what kid's TV networks were able to get away with back in the 90s. Nowadays you're lucky if you can so much as say "boo" to impressionable and innocent young children without raising angry red flags amongst hovering parent watchdog groups.

In our day, however, things were a little different. Children's shows weren't afraid to be a little edgy, and by that I mean they put kids on edge. For life. No, really. I still have nightmares about that stupid clown Zeebo.

Are You Afraid of the Dark? was a show responsible for scaring the living daylights out of us while inevitably necessitating nightlights. The correct answer to the show's title question was yes, yes we are, and we may never sleep again. Thank you, Nickelodeon, for affording us a chance at nightmare-induced juvenile insomnia. As if our parents didn't have enough legitimate safety concerns for us, they were now forced to spend valuable worrying time reassuring us against the existence of mute child ghosts and evil spirit-filled magic wands. Time well spent.

There were a few episodes in particular that have stuck with me. As in they are forever stuck in my brain, briefly terrorizing me whenever they bob to the cerebral surface. Just for you, though, I'm willing to temporarily forget how pants-peeingly scary these episodes were and share them with you for the greater good of horror-themed nostalgia.

Submitted for the approval of the Children of the 90s Society, I call this story *tosses handful of potassium nitrate into imaginary roaring campfire* The Tale of the Scariest Episodes:

Tale of Laughing in the Dark

I'm with the Rachel Blanchard character on this one. I too suffer from what Kiki describes as "Bozophobia". Really, who isn't afraid of clowns these days? It's all just a little too John Wayne Gacy for me to handle.

Anyway, Cher sucks it up and we return to the ill-fated Playland, an amusement park home to the "spookhouse" called Laughing in the Dark. Catchy name, huh? I get the feeling that's going to play into things later somehow. Our story's stars are generally too chicken to enter, but like any normal kids they decided to do some good old fashioned academic research on the alleged clown haunting.

Apparently there was this clown Zeebo who was an all around bad guy, stealing money from the circus and eventually getting his comeuppance as he burned alive in the Laughing in the Dark spookhouse after an incident with his cigar. Tragic.

One kid dares another to steel Zeebo's clown nose, and the dare-ee agrees so long as the darer will wear the clown nose to school. What could be funnier, really?

Our pal Josh (the aforemention dare-ee) goes into LitD, and it's so-so scary rather than so so scary. At first, that is. Unsurprisingly, Josh is plagued by the clown's ghost, who does weird stuff like write his initials in pudding and sends threatening balloon messages. Josh obliges, returning the nose but leaving us to wonder what exactly we just saw. It may not sound all that scary, but we're talking clowns here. Clowns.

Tale of the Pinball Wizard

If we've learned nothing from these tales of terror, it's that when someone tells you not to touch something, for the love of God do not touch it! Is it really that tough a concept? Once you've erred the first ten or so times, you think that you'd realize they were probably warning you for your own horror story character good, but these fictional kids just never learn.

This episode isn't quite as scary as the others, but it definitely drew kids in with its enthralling premise. If you get locked in the mall late at night playing a forbidden pinball machine, you will inevitably end up in a life-size human version of the game. There's pretty much no other possible route from there. You're going to be in a living pinball game, and you're going to like it, dammit.

Tale of the Hatching

I used to think boarding school might be a fun option until I saw The Tale of the Hatching. It wasn't until Harry Potter that I could even think of entertaining romantic notions of boarding school. We're talking years of trauma to my prep school fantasy. Years.

Jazz and Augie are siblings sent to a mysterious boarding school. The school has all sorts of wacky (read: suspicious and inevitably terrifying) rules about being calm and quiet on the grounds. Plus, every meal consists of a substance called "spunge". If that's not a warning sign, I don't know what is. I mean, really. Spunge?

Turns out the headmasters are evil aliens (surprise!) and the spunge contains a trance-inducing mind control agent. Yikes. The kids are hypnotized into incubating the unhatched eggs. Once these mini reptillian cuties hatch, they feast on students for sustenance. I don't like where this is headed.

Luckily, our heroes are smart and realize that loud noises and certain frequencies are the auditory nemeses of these slimy overlords. They blast loud music from their walkmans and save the day...or do they? Like all good AYAOTD episodes, it's a sort of unsettling cliffhanger. In the last scene, we see a single ominous surviving egg. Does it go on to start a new boarding school? Will it inevitably eat Jazz and Augie? Will killing them off stop parents from giving their kids stupid names like Jazz and Augie? We may never know.

Tale of the Thirteenth Floor

We all know the thirteenth floor is reputably spooky, but we didn't know exactly why until we were scared witless (I'm going to say 'witless" and not a more appropriate alternative because this is a family blog) until we saw this episode.

Billy and Karin live on the twelfth floor of a creepy-ish apartment building. The kids like to go play up on the thirteenth floor because, you know, it's abandoned and spooky. Then, dream of dreams come true and a toy company moves in to the thirteenth floor. A toy company! Is there anything better?

Well yeah, if those toy company employees are secretly faceless space aliens. Just a teeny little hitch in the whole playing-with-toys scenario. They draw in our innocent little children and bam! they reveal they're really building a spaceship to take Karin back to their home planet. Billy's a wimp and can't take the atmospheric changes and almost dies, but Karin in an uncharacteristic show of heroism saves him. It's at this point we find out that (gasp!) Karin is actually one of them, a faceless alien. Ahhhh!!!!

Tale of the Dead Man's Float

As a swimmer, this episode really spoke to me. In my sleep. Through undead pool monsters.

I always thought this was one of the scariest episodes, if nothing else because the zombie thing is just so retina-scarring. Kids everywhere boycotted swimming lessons and refused to don those floaty-arm things for years after watching this episode. It's a true testament to how scary this show could actually be. I mean, even looking now at the picture of that pool thing makes me want to go hide in my office cabinets and arm myself with staple removers and letter openers.

Zeke's a nerd eager to win over his crush Clorice. They find an abandoned swimming pool at their school and think it's an excellent idea to campaign to have it reopened. Clorice is a swim team star and Zeke is working overtime to get into her good graces. Everything's going, er, swimmingly until they begin to suspect the pool is haunted, a notion later confirmed by a loner janitor type. Apparently the pool was built on an old cemetary and one body was left behind. I think we all know what's coming up next.

Because Zeke's a geek, he knows that the ghost's sulfuric smell means its acidic makeup could be detected will some good ol' methyl orange. Sweet chemistry lesson, AYAOFD. It's almost enough to lull me into a false calm until OH MY GOD THAT RED ZOMBIE THING IS THE SCARIEST THING I HAVE EVER SEEN! I'm not even going to post the pictures here because I won't be able to look at my own blog if it's up here, haunting me. Just watch the video. But don't say I didn't warn you.

The show was great because it was not gimmicky. Sure, it sometimes relied on guest stars like Tia and Tamara Mowry as creepy chameleon girls or hunky Boy Meets World star Will Friedle as a guy thrown back in time by a locket, but the underlying value was in the show's uncompromising dedication to being truly scary. It haunts me still. I'm starting to wish I'd never Google Imaged "The Tale of the Dead Man's Float". Who knew such scary stuff could come out of Canada, of all places?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Glamour Shots

Note: I don't actually know any of the lucky stars of these Glamour Shots portraits, we were simply introduced through our mutual friend Google Images. If any of them are of you, well, then...I'm sorry. On so many levels.

It's always been a dream of mine to shell out fifty bucks for some underpaid mall clerk with three weeks beauty school experience to JonBenet Ramsey-ify me for photographic posterity. Call me sentimental, but I just can't think of any way I'd rather be remembered than wearing a feather boa, my wash-out perm blowing in the wind machine-generated breeze. In soft focus, of course.

In the 80s and 90s, Glamour Shots photography studio franchises were cropping up at malls across the country. Glamour Shots studios convinced us that all we needed to infuse a little glamor into our lives was a string of fake pearls, a cowboy hat, and a blurred camera lens, prompting women everywhere to whip out their faux leather checkbook wallets for a piece of the action. There was just something inexplicably irresistible about the opportunity to appear back-lit in an off the shoulder sequined gown.

The Glamour Shots experience was intended to make everyday average women feel like models at a photo shoot. For some clients this was more of a stretch than others, but our chipper mall stylists were more than up for the challenge. After a few hours in hair and makeup, anyone could look fabulous. Or at least that was the idea.

Unfortunately, this notion worked far better in theory than in practice. The studio's main clientele was made up of middle aged women, most of whom sought to take some non-racy but nevertheless boudoir-esque photos for their husbands. Glamour Shots took a distinctly one-size-fits-all approach to their model-style photo shoots, meaning their stylists were probably only trained in a single technique.

That must have been the case, as I'm not quite sure how else you could account for the sweeping uniformity of looks for Glamour Shots clients* nationwide. There were a few not-so-secret ingredients that formed the underpinnings of every Glamour Shots session throughout the decade, the most obvious of which was the enormous mall hair. It shouldn't have come as such a surprise considering the shoots did indeed take place within the confines of a mall environment, but I doubt any of these housewives went in asking for the Tiffany.

The next ingredient in our Glamour Shots recipe for alleged success was the ubiquitous presence of all things sparkly. Be it enormous earrings, a sequined jacket, or a bedazzled headpiece, each Glamour Shots studio followed the mantra of shiny equals universally flattering. It's a well known fact that not every woman is meant to wear a gold lame gown. When paired with oversized glasses and a portly figure, these dress-up implements could be more of a curse than the gift they'd claimed to be on the certificate in your Mother's Day card.

The final and most critical element of any Glamour Shot worth its weight in retouching equipment was the almighty signature pose. Aside from the usual hand-shelf-chin-support pose we saw at photography studios everywhere, we had some distinct poses that were pure GS through and through.

There were a few poses in particular that these studios were especially partial to, most often the over the shoulder smoldering gaze. Again, while this may have been a prime way to showcase the aesthetically pleasing attributes of an actual fashion model, it had a uniquely comical effect when applied to your grandmother.

The over-the-shoulder smolder

The head tilt was another popular choice, giving the subject a look somewhere between deep thought and mild confusion:

The Head Tilt

And of course, our classic "grab-part-of-your-shirt/feather boa" pose:

The Jacket Nabber

In the luckiest of client cases, you may have been subjected to all three, also known as the Triple Crown. Okay, I just made that up, but it would have been a totally apt descriptor in its time. I'm standing behind it. Actually, I'm crouching behind it in a three-quarter profile with a half head tilt, but same difference.

The holy grail of Glamour Shots posing: with our pose powers combined, who knows what we might unleash in this smirking housewife

As children, many of us begged tirelessly for our own opportunity at being shot glamorously, and many of our parents were wise enough to deny us this fleeting pleasure. The desire for these photos peaked right about at the same pubescent time as the height of adolescent awkwardness, meaning these photos would be a testament to our largest glasses and most prominent acne.

Especially in the midst of the JonBenet Ramsey murder case, it was considered less than good form to doll up your daughter in all the finery mall photography studios could muster, particularly if they involved a sparkly cowboy hat of any kind. Pageant moms may have embraced the opportunity with open arms, but these over done-up preteens were at best unsettling to the general public.

Cute kid, or future Enquirer cover? You decide.

For those parents who gave in to their teenage children's whinings for Glamour Shots, congratulations. Your scrapbook contains the ultimate blackmail tool against your child. Daughter forget your birthday? Time to take out that scanner and release these bejeweled cowboy hat-tipping beauties into the Facebook wild. There is probably nothing in the world more certain to humiliate them than an unwelcome trip down a softly focused memory lane paved with sequins and hot rollers.

To my loyal readers, I pose to you** the following challenge. If any of you (or your briefly glamorous family members) ever had Glamour Shots taken, I implore you to email them to Please, sacrifice yourself on the altar of shame and allow others to join in your humorous commiseration. I promise to give them the ultimate Children of the 90s mocking treatment and to open it up to reader votes for the best Glamor Shot. I might even throw in a prize. So get to it, children of the 90s. Track down those embarrassing mall studio photographs, throw 'em on the scanner, and let the fun begin.

*Now known as "victims"
**Get it? Pose?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Saved by the Bell

If we've learned anything from being raised by TV, it should be that continuity errors are a basic part of life. Whenever a location, plot point, or character gets tiresome, simply replace them without explanation or any nod to their past existence. Whether or not these things actually happened is unimportant. The important thing is to never mention them. Ever.

Saved by the Bell was famous for its arrant disregard for continuity, changing settings and weaving in new characters whenever convenient. They simply made them disappear, never to be mentioned again. Bored with your show's bland suburban Indianapolis backdrop? Move to Palisades! Tired of your show's major characters? Replace them with newer, more attractive actors! Two cast members want to leave the show before it runs its course? Replace them and later reintegrate them, never mentioning either their absence or the new best friend you briefly had during their leave. It's pretty much a perfect system.

While other shows may have prided themselves on meticulous attention to detail, Saved by the Bell got away with changing the rules over and over again. It didn't seem to matter much to its frenetic young fan base. For one, the show was marketed toward children, allowing producers to operate under the assumption that kids don't notice when their beloved favorite character is mysteriously sliced out of the picture. More importantly, though, the show was a fantasy. It wasn't meant to be reality. It was meant to entertain and allegedly educate on the importance of partaking in good clean fun, and those aims took precedence over any semblance of sense.

The original incarnation Good Morning Miss Bliss premiered in 1988. Watching this horribly cheesy introduction, it's amazing this even got picked up for one season. The opening is seemingly more focused on the adult characters than our lovable middle school miscreants, and that music is truly terrible in a late 80s slow melodic jams sort of way. It had potential, sure, but it didn't exactly seem poised for great success.

It's also entirely possible there were just too many quirky curly-haired players in the original; we wanted to see some beautiful people, dammit.

So what's a network to do? If your response is to completely change the premise, back stories, location, and characters, then congratulations. You're on your way up on the ruthless cheap-ploy television executive track. Kudos to you. You'll receive your certificate of achievement in 3-5 business days.

NBC repackaged the original show into a new Saturday morning series they called Saved by the Bell. They brought in Tiffani Amber Theissen, Elizabeth Berkley, and Mario Lopez to round out their all-American crew, switched the setting to Palisades, California, and pretended that most of them had been friends since birth.

The show became wildly popular, quickly developing a substantial young following. It didn't seem to matter that critics tore the show apart. Entertainment Weekly described it as "featur[ing] stiff acting, cheap sets, and plots that seem lifted from Happy Days reruns." It didn't seem to help that the show was both morally conscious and outstandingly superficial at the same time. Despite the poor critical receptions, kids ate this up. They adored it. They couldn't get enough.

The show also frequently broke the Fourth Wall, with Zach talking directly into the camera and occasionally and inexplicably relying on the power to freeze the surrounding action. It was cheesy, sure, but Zach was admittedly charming. It's tough to find a girl who grew up in the 90s that never had a flicker of a Zach Morris crush. It was pretty much inevitable.

Our show featured an assortment of two-dimensional characters:

Zach Morris (Mark Paul Gosselaar) is an endearing slacker, a twinkling-eyed schemer always seeking to cheat the system. He's a good kid overall, following the TV trope of lovable mischief maker. He gets himself into his fair share of jams, sure, but he never stretches his rule-breaking so far so as to constitute actual trouble-making. Plus, he had that hair. Have you seen that hair? Sigh.

Lisa Turtle (Lark Voorhies) is a gossip queen and shopping addict extraordinaire. She comes from a wealthy family (both her parents are doctors) and is constantly getting herself into shopping related jams in between dodging unwanted advances from Screech.

Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley) is a feminist overachiever who is borderline obsessive about her grades. She's somewhat of a do-gooder, but more often she's a prima donna perfectionist with a penchant for caffeine pills. Okay, so that only happened in one episode, but I still see it as major character development. I mean, she was so excited. She was so excited. She was so scared.

Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani-Amber Theissen) Kelly was the All-American good girl, a cheerleader whose good looks win her an outpouring of male attention. She wasn't the smartest girl in the bunch, but she was sweet and we were supposed to feel sorry for her because she was sort of poor.

Albert Clifford "AC" Slater (Mario Lopez) is a tough-talking jock who disparagingly refers to Zach as "Preppy". The two are often rivals but eventually form a solid friendship. Slater is a wrestler and a pretty impressive dancer, though I wouldn't comment on it while he's looking all bad-ass in that bomber jacket. Though Mario Lopez is obviously Mexican, his family is mysteriously not and it's left pretty much unexplained until we get to the college years and they give us some halfhearted explanation for it. Thanks, guys.

Samuel "Screech" Powers (Dustin Diamond) is our well-meaning nerd, a geek who somehow managed to kick it with the cool kids. He has an intense unrequited love for Lisa, feelings that are for obvious reasons not reciprocated. He's generally smart but quirky. It's tough to watch him now and separate Diamond from the tool he's become, but back in the day he used to be pretty endearing.

Mr. Belding (Dennis Haskins) was an oddly meddling principal who played a major role in the daily lives of our main characters. He never seemed to interact with any other students because they were all pretty much part of the scenery, so I'll assume he took a special interest in our heroes and focused his entire career on dealing with their antics and encouraging their potential.

The show played stereotypes way over the top, with dumb rocks-for-brains jocks and pocket-protector sporting nerds at every turn. They also threw in a "message" or two for good measure, reminding us that it's not good to drink and drive or that setting up a secret video-dating service using the school's virtual yearbook equipment is wrong. I know I learned a valuable lesson from that last one. I started all my video dating services out in the open, thank you very much.

Chuck Klosterman describes the last season's odd character swap best when he examines what he calls the "Tori Paradox". All of a sudden Kelly and Jessie have disappeared and no one says a word about their absence. Instead, we get the tomboy, leather jacket-wearing Tori character who mysteriously swoops in and immediately becomes a part of the gang. Just as quickly as she'd appeared, she was gone without a trace and Jessie and Kelly were back as if nothing had happened. No one said anything about it, so we were just supposed to assume everything was fine and we shouldn't question it.

There were later more continuity errors to be had when we rejoined part of the gang for Saved by the Bell: The College Years, but that's a post for another time. NBC further milked the franchise by creating a spin-off Saved by the Bell: The New Class. There was no integrity to it, just pure money making. I mean, honestly, I owned Saved by the Bell Zackberry scented shampoo. Zackberry! You try to tell me that's not squeezing the franchise for all it's worth.

Of course, the big news today is of the purported SBtB reunion, reported in People magazine.

Over the summer, Zach--er, excuse me, Mark Paul, appeared in full Zach Morris garb and gave an in-character interview with Jimmy Fallon, complete with giant cell phone and fourth wall breakage:

Of course, don't expect to see Dustin Diamond in any reunion hype. He recently released a tell-all book alleging the gang was not quite as squeaky-clean as their on-air image. I resent that, of course. I'm almost certain they scrubbed diligently with Zackberry-scented toiletry products.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Don't Tell Them It's Educational....

With the rapid rise in household personal computer ownership throughout the 80s and 90s, children faced an entirely new arena of play to conquer. While kids may have viewed computers as a new uncharted frontier of free play, our parents and teachers were somewhat the wiser in regulating our zeal. Computers, they realized, were a perfect tool for tricking kids into learning material that would only otherwise be absorbed against their will. This backhanded approach to learning may not have been a perfect system, but dammit we would learn our multiplication tables and enjoy it.

Computer game manufacturers released heaps of educational titles cleverly disguised as amusing games. Bright colors and flashy animations effectively distracted children from the realization that they were indeed learning, and in their spare time to boot. Sure, we had an inkling deep down that these games were more substantial than our usual trivial fare, but throw enough Troggles or buffalo hunting into the mix and we were putty in your education-molding hands.

Whether in old-school Macintosh computer labs at school or on our crappy primitive homebound PCs, we collectively spent countless hours playing educational computer games. Parents and educators were usually pretty adept at remaining tight-lipped over the educational nature of the game, leaving us to our delusions of frivolous game play. As far as adults were concerned, what we didn't know couldn't hurt us...and it may just help us pass a geography test along the way.

Oregon Trail

Oregon Trail was the classic 80s and 90s educational computer game. It was a pioneer (this pun may be too horrible even for me) in its field, teaching children everywhere about the Westward bound wagon trains during our love affair with manifest destiny. The game was chock full of kid-friendly elements that easily outweighed our distaste for all things educational. For one, we got to name the characters after ourselves, meaning when our friends died of dysentery along the way we could write mean things on their editable tombstones. We got to pick our professions, make little computer-based lives for ourselves, the whole shebang.

The real appeal though was in the hunting portion of the game. If you weren't naturally sadistic in your youth, Oregon Trail was enough to bring out your inner puppy kicker. Whether you were into the challenge of shooting down a skittering squirrel or you preferred the Native American-decimating cultural significance of killing the snail-paced, monolithic buffalo, the hunting segment had something for everyone. Yes, our wagon could only hold 100 measly pounds of meat and we'd killed a whopping 1430, but we could always hope for one of our wagon-mates to get the measles and clear the space for more sweet, sweet buffalo.

To read the full Oregon Trail post, click here

Math Blaster

The game's producers had actually the audacity to put the word "math" in the title. The jig was up, we knew this was arithmetical. They did, at least, have the minor courtesy to include a video game word like "blaster". Do I get to kill math? Explode times tables in a fiery haze of unbridled and highly potent explosives? I guess I'd just have to play and find out.

It didn't turn out exactly as I hoped, but I did get to be a Blastronaut, which at least won major points in creative wordsmithery. The game itself was a essentially a school math worksheet cleverly disguised as a fast-paced game. Solving math problems earned you valuable ammo in your space blasting quests, which certainly came in handy when firing the lasers.

Storybook Weaver

I should have seen through this one, but I was totally fooled by its veneer of fun and whimsy. Storybook Weaver was not really a game at all, but a means of encouraging children to write and illustrate their own stories on the computer. In short, was an imaginative kid's dream. The possibilities were endless--well, almost endless, as we were limited by the available illustration graphics to augment our woven stories.

The best means of circumventing the educational aspect, of course, was to focus mainly on the illustrating process. With scores of backgrounds, characters, and design elements to choose from, it was like the world's most exciting and interactive sticker book. Even just reminiscing about it makes me yearn to drag and drop some princess images.

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

Broderbund released the first Carmen Sandiego games in the mid-80s, launching a vast and imposing educational game franchise. The creators' original aim was to get kids pumped about using the almanac; the first version was even released with a companion almanac included in the sale. How this premise managed to grab the attention of young people is a true testament to the entertaining nature of the game because let's be real here. Almanacs? Really?

The game featured elusive jewel thief Carmen Sandiego, who we were meant to capture and arrest in her globetrotting travels. We could interview bystanders and call CrimeNet, collecting clues and traveling from Kiev to Carolina in hot pursuit of our scarlet-hatted target while avoiding her VILE henchmen. The mystery element was more than enough to make us forget that this was essentially a map study session.

Reader Rabbit

Again, the titular focus on reading was enough to make us suspicious of this one, but it was admittedly pretty fun. The initial version was very simple, focusing on simple letter recognition and sounds, but they quickly released more advanced versions for a wider range of ages. We played some little games to form words, we got to watch some cute little animations with a little song and dance thrown in, everyone won. Unless you couldn't spell. Then you were pretty much screwed.

The Incredible Machine

Puzzle and strategy games were also pretty effective educational tools, particularly if they came in such a kick-ass cool form as The Incredible Machine. Each phase of the game gave us a delightfully eclectic assortment of random objects and charged us with completing a simple task using the implements at hand. I'm telling you, I could spend hours figuring out how to light a candle using a bowling ball and a medium-sized pulley. This game could seriously pull you in, especially when it teased you with the many near-miss solutions where you almost get the water in the bucket but then it spills all over the floor and ignites your electrical cord. Damn.

Living Books

Exactly what it sounds like. These would probably not hold the attention of today's technology-hungry overstimulated children, but they were quite a revelation to those of us who knew books only as a collection of paper pages bound with a spine. I am pretty sure that watching the Living Book version of Stellaluna would still amuse me equally as much as back in my third grade computer lab days.

Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing

Believe it or not, once upon a time typing was not an innate inborn skill we possessed from the tender age of three. While today's kids' fingers may fly over a keyboard, we needed a little guidance in the right direction. I'm not sure who Mavis Beacon is, but she has truly had a profound impact on my life. Are you out there, Mavis? I want to thank you.

Mavis Beacon was not all fun and games, though it was part of it. We had to complete a series of tasks and tedious drills before we got to move on to any of the fun stuff. By fun stuff I mean typing sentences to make a car race or typing number values to represent a grocery store checkout. Come to think of it, that doesn't sound that fun at all. Regardless, it seemed like a pretty worthy endeavor at the time. I even printed out the certificate displayed onscreen when I reached 30 WPM. Now that would be a great display piece for my office.

Number Munchers

Mmmm, numbers. Delicious. Well, at least they were to our Muncher pals, who greedily gobbled them up just as quickly as our nimble little fingers could identify multiples of nine. We did have to contend with those pesky Troggles, the imaginatively designed monsters who stalked the board in hopes of digesting our little green arithmetic-solving agent. If you aptly outsmarted the Troggles and managed to maneuver your way to the next level, you got to watch a little animation depicting your inevitable triumph over the evil Troggle. Good times.

To read the full Number Munchers post, click here

Some people criticize the "make it fun" approach, dismissing it as an ineffective means of teaching. I resent that assertion, though. Sure, while researching Number Munchers for this post I briefly played the free version online and found I don't know what a prime number is, but that's not the point. The point is that I played these games day in and day out without parental intervention. I actually wanted to learn. These games were no substitute for actual classroom-style education, but they were a nice change of pace from drill-and-test. At the end of the day, if we were motivated to begin some supplemental learning unprovoked, everyone was pretty happy.

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