This week’s question is from editor-in-chief Josh Modell: What was your favorite TV show when you were a kid? Sure, the answer was probably different at different ages, but what show do you remember loving above all others, whether you were 4 or 10?
At the risk of sounding like a grandpa, we didn’t have these newfangled DVRs when I was a boy, and finding a blank Beta tape and setting the VCR timer was always a challenge. But I do remember my first bouts of appointment TV were with The A-Team, that ridiculous (-ly awesome) NBC show about a crack commando unit who were imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit, promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade, and set about helping those who’d been wronged by The Man. I was pretty obsessed with the show, and I stuck with it right through the moved-to-Friday fifth season, even though some part of my childish brain knew that adding a “special-effects expert” to the Team and making them go legit was probably the wrong move.
When I turned 21, my mother gave me a framed 8-by-10 photo of Tom Wopat, John Schneider, and Catherine Bach leaning against the General Lee to remind me that, no matter how old or “sophisticated” I might become, deep down I was still a little boy who loved The Dukes Of Hazzard. Of course, I had plenty of TV obsessions as a kid. (Echoing Josh’s love of The A-Team, I have another picture of me at my fifth birthday, holding up a B.A. Baracus action figure in front of a cake shaped like Mr. T’s head.) But my earliest TV love was for watching them Duke boys get out of various freeze-framed jams. I’d like to say I appreciated the way the show treated everything with a slyly ironic narration that acted as meta-commentary on standard action tropes, making it a much smarter program than it’s usually given credit. But I was 4. I liked the car chases and I thought Rosco P. Coltrane was funny.
While I too was partial to the Duke boys (I called them the “wukes”), I never missed an episode of The Morning Exchange, a local Cleveland-based morning show that wasn’t in any way meant for kids. I have no idea why I was into it—maybe because my mom and maternal grandma liked it? The latter even got me an autographed picture that sits on my desk at home—but to this day I have strong nostalgic feelings for hosts Fred Griffith and Jan Jones, newscasters Jenny Crimm and Lou Maglio, and soap opera “columnist” Lydia Hirsch. I swear to God, when contributor Joel Rose died in 2000 (from suicide, even!), I shed a tear. Ditto Mr. Food. I can’t even imagine the deep depression I’ll inevitably sink into when Griffith departs this mortal coil.
Well, there were several, because I lived and breathed Nickelodeon as a child. But aside from Clarissa and Salute Your Shorts, I’d watch television along with my parents, and at some point, I developed an intense fondness for The Golden Girls. In part this was because my mom totally loved it. But I also grew up in a tiny town in Florida that was mostly a refuge for seniors from northern states, and The Golden Girls was the only show that presented palm trees, pastel sofas, and year-round summer—the realities of my life back then. Plus, Dorothy lived with her mom, and so did I. It was weirdly on-point for my life.
As a kid, I used to look forward to summer vacations and Christmas breaks because of the daytime TV I couldn’t take in year-round: The Price Is Right, Lost In Space repeats on the Syfy, or Bozo The Clown piped in on the WGN superstation. But what made those days off truly special was that I could watch SportsCenter from beginning to end, rather than trying to sneak 15 minutes of cleverly narrated sports highlights during breakfast. Between SportsCenter and Mystery Science Theater 3000, the ’90s were a golden era for smartasses talking over video footage, and before I devoted myself to the latter, I endlessly quoted and dreamed of hosting the former. This was the heyday of Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick welcoming viewers to “The Big Show” (also the title of Olbermann and Patrick’s SportsCenter book, a dog-eared copy of which still holds a place of pride in my mini books-on-TV library), when the ESPN anchors were as much a reason to tune in as the feats of athleticism they were hired to present. Sure, SportsCenter’s popularity turned sports commentating into a game of “Who can coin the next hot catchphrase,” and yes, Olbermann and Patrick’s popularity is to blame for the rise of Craig Kilborn. But SportsCenter was also the subject of the first piece of TV criticism I ever wrote, a hastily scribbled essay titled, “SportsCenter: The greatest TV show ever,” which, fortunately for me, never made its way to the pages of Geocities or Angelfire.
Although I loved a lot of television growing up, this is an easy answer for me: Are You Afraid Of The Dark? I’m not entirely sure how old I was at the time I was watching, but remembering the bedroom I had, which was the smallest in the house—meaning the others were taken up by my much older sisters and my parents—and included a twin bed and a very small, very old television, I couldn’t have been more than 6 years old, placing the show in the last two seasons of its original run. Being as young as I was, it was a struggle to stay up long enough to see the scary stories I craved, and I often woke up hours after it had aired crying because I had missed it. My mother, bless her heart, would come in into my room to console me and remind me I could try again next week. A few years later, when the show was resurrected, I was finally able to defeat my heavy lids and watch in terrified amazement as The Midnight Society shared its tales.
As a little kid living in the ass-crack of Florida—the Charlotte Harbor area, nestled between Tampa and Fort Myers—in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I wasn’t exposed to much of what you might call “culture.” But one shining beacon of transcendent weirdness was my favorite show: WTOG’s Creature Feature. Part of an entire movement of similarly named programs across the country at the time that were dedicated to showing old B-movies in the age before they were readily available on video, Creature Feature wasn’t a showcase for original programming—yet it was. Before and after each commercial were sequences that starred the program’s host, a ghoul-faced, castle-dwelling lunatic named Dr. Paul Bearer (get it?) who peddled horrid puns and gross-out gags. I loved the movies that were screened on Creature Feature every Saturday after the morning cartoons had run their course, but mostly I tuned in to see Dr. Paul Bearer camp it up like a big, weird creep. Florida: It’ll melt your fucking mind.
It seems like a cop-out to say Super Friends—even though I watched the hell out of some Super Friends when I was a kid—so I’m going with the first prime-time show I remember making an impact on me, both because I thought it was funny and because it was the first time I had to deal with the heartbreak of cancellation: Quark, the 1977 sci-fi sitcom created by Buck Henry. For over 35 years, I’d reasonably presumed that Quark came about as a result of the success of Star Wars, but while that’s almost certainly why it ended up going to series, the pilot actually aired two and a half weeks before Star Wars premiered. Having revisited that pilot and the series’ subsequent seven episodes on DVD as an adult, I’m kind of amused that 7-year-old me was so taken by it that I remember actually going out on the playground at recess and asking my classmates, “Does anyone want to play Quark?” (No one ever did.) But I’m not surprised that I dug it as much as I did. It may not hold up as well as I’d always hoped it would when I finally saw it again, but it still has merit as a parody of ’60s and ’70s sci-fi tropes, and I can certainly see why Quark hit my sweet spot as a 7-year-old: It’s very, very silly.
Before Buffy The Vampire Slayer prompted me to seek out spoilers in the dark waters of the Internet (a new phenomenon to me, if not Fritz from “I, Robot… You, Jane”) and before various TGIF offerings became appointment viewing (especially Sabrina, The Teenage Witch), there was PBS’ Mystery! I would watch every week, developing a love of the genre and acquainting myself with Rumpole, Hercule Poirot, and Sherlock Holmes (the Jeremy Brett version, of course), among others. It certainly helped that my mom made an exception to my strict 8 p.m. bedtime on these occasions, letting my sister and me stay up until the TV movies ended at 9 p.m., but I would have enjoyed them nonetheless. This Thursday-night tradition gave me an affinity for drawing room reveals, obscure poisons, and of course, then-presenter Diana Rigg. To this day, I smile every time I see the series’ iconic (to me, at least) opening.
There’s lots of pop culture I love, but I’ll never love any of it half as much as my 7-year-old self loved The Muppet Show. Plenty of the jokes sailed over my head, and at that age I barely knew who big name hosts like Steve Martin or Elton John were, let alone high-culture guests like Rudolf Nureyev or Charles Aznavour. It didn’t matter. At a time, kids’ TV meant either earnest educational programming or poorly-written made-for-cheap cartoons, but the Muppets inhabited a vibrant, welcoming world of creative types and zany misfits who had no higher aspiration than to put on a show. It was a world I wanted to live in (and still do, if we’re being honest). I’ll echo what Josh said about The A-Team: Back in the pre-VCR days, if a show you wanted to watch was on, you dropped everything. As such, my day more or less revolved around 7:30, when the Muppets came on. I remember running into the house still dirty from the sandbox; blowing off friends and sprinting down the block towards the TV, just to be sure I didn’t miss whatever exploded out of Gonzo’s trumpet at the end of the introduction. I even had 4-inch-high plastic figures of the main Muppets, and my dad ingeniously turned a refrigerator box into a stage, so whenever I wanted to, I too could put on a show, with my best 7-year-old approximations of the stale jokes and goofball songs that Jim Henson had such affection for.
Not to try and boost my SNL reviewer cred, but one of my most formative TV memories was of staying up super late to watch the original Not Ready For Prime Time Players. (My mom and dad were good parents in other ways.) Even with my age in the single digits for the first four years—and fully 80 percent of the jokes sailing over my head—I was that annoying kid who memorized catchphrases from Roseanne Rosannadanna and the Coneheads. (I do recall my mom giving me the evil eye when I called my sister “you ignorant slut” without knowing what it meant. See—parenting.) In fact, I remember (with the help of the Internet) the exact time I first made excuses for the show: November 10, 1979. That’s when I urged some of my parents’ cocktail party guests to watch with me, only to sit embarrassed at the sight of Garrett Morris (alongside forgotten bit player Yvonne Hudson) interviewing Gilda Radner’s Lucille Ball in the infamous “Bad Clams” sketch. (They made her eat bad clams. Gilda made her “Wahhhhh” sound. The end.) Everyone was aghast but polite and I explained that my favorite show was usually funnier that that. It’s a tradition that continues to this day.
I was very, very easy to scare as a child; a vivid imagination combined with a seemingly inexhaustible capacity for concern left me at the mercy of any horror movie trailer, scary TV show, or mean-spirited best friend with a ghost story. So I tended to gravitate toward shows that had just enough spookiness in them to make me feel safe. Scooby-Doo was well and good, but the lack of actual spirits always seemed like a cheat to me—if I was going to watch a cartoon about ghost-hunters, I wanted something with actual ghosts. So for years, my favorite show was The Real Ghostbusters, the Saturday morning spin-off of the live-action big-screen classic. I loved the original movie (although the demon dogs freaked me out), but as a kid, the cartoon was the bee’s knees; clever, impressively inventive, and with some absolutely fantastic creature designs. Best of all, it suggested that even a world full of ghouls and goblins and Elder Gods might not be so bad. A little luck, some good friends, and an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on your back, and you’ll be just fine.
Like Mike, my earliest television fixations were Muppet-related: Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and Fraggle Rock. I’m still a big Muppet fan, but the first show I really got obsessed with on my own (I presume my mom first turned on Sesame Street for me) was probably DuckTales, which premiered when I was about 7, and which I continued to watch as it receded further into the Disney Afternoon syndicated block it helped to establish—I remember my consternation when it began airing too early for me to watch after school, especially when a final handful of new episodes aired in this slot. I consumed plenty of Saturday morning cartoons during this period, but DuckTales loomed larger, I think because its epic scope—with flights of adventure, fantasy, and time-travel, in addition to the explicitly promised race cars, lasers, and airplanes—made it feel bigger and better than the likes of Muppet Babies or Garfield And Friends. Plus, I didn’t have to wait a week to watch it, even if 100 episodes airing in a daily loop over the course of three years now seems mind-numbingly repetitive to me. DuckTales also got me interested in the original Carl Barks comic books, which probably helped me get interested in comics in general, and in a weird way, it was the first “serious” television show to capture my interest, unless you count the “Mathnet” portions of Square One. Obviously it’s only a serious show if you’re under 10 (and even then, not so much; it still has jokes and gags, after all), but even watching it now, when it seems a lot slower and less well-animated than I remember, its ambition and imagination is pretty impressive.
According to my mother, the first TV show that caught the eye of infant Matt was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. She likes to tell a story about putting it on for my older brother, only to find me staring at the screen with my tiny toothless mouth agape. But the first thing I have actual memories of loving as a real conscious human being was Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. I was only 3 when it first started airing, and I can still remember hurrying home from preschool to watch it on a tiny TV in my grandparents’ bedroom. Like many kids my age, I was obsessed with its awful combination of martial arts, giant robots, terrible acting, and retrospectively obvious racism. I dressed as a Power Ranger for multiple Halloweens (the Red Ranger at age 4 and the White Ranger at age 5), and my poor mother fought tooth and nail to get me the action figures. (True story: She and another mom grabbed the last of the Caldor’s White Ranger Zord toys, the potential birthday present I was pining over hardest, at the same time. My mom literally had to look her rival in the eye and plead, “Please, it’s my son’s birthday,” to get it. Bless her.) And while my Power Ranger love died with the fad, it was a precursor of TV obsessions to come, like pro wrestling and Dragonball Z.
Part of me wanted to respond to this question by saying The Simpsons—since it’s been on the air for all but a year or so of my life and I started watching it at an irresponsibly young age—but picking that feels like cheating. Besides, there was another show I loved even more when I was a kid: The Transformers. Now, the original cartoon ended before I was born, so the Transformers show I grew up with was actually the Generation 2 re-release—a chopped-up version of the old series with an awful new computer-generated intro and more room for commercials. Thankfully, what remained of the real cartoon was still good enough to fascinate my stupid little brain, so I didn’t realize I was getting an inferior product. Maybe that’s why the Michael Bay movies don’t bother me? The thing I’m nostalgic for was already terrible.
Those still debating the importance of mainstream female superheroes need only take a look at 7-year-old Caroline, who was totally mesmerized by X-Men: The Animated Series. I have no strong memories of the male characters (except Gambit, who I was obviously in love with), but Storm, Mystique and the rest of female ensemble remain crystal clear in my mind. When playing imaginary games, I always adopted the awesome powers of Jean Grey or Rogue while my little sister happily took on Jubilee (she was 4 and didn’t know any better). X-Men kicked off my love of genre-fare, and I don’t think that would have happened had it not featured such a diverse cast of awesome lady heroes. And lest we think little girls need to be confined to either superheroes or princesses, my second favorite show was the Little Mermaid animated series.
As a technically English kid—my family immigrated when I was 3 years old, meaning I retained plenty of cultural baggage but no actual memories of my homeland—growing up in the Chicago suburbs, I didn’t initially watch a ton of American television, subsisting instead on a steady diet of imported videos from the U.K. And while I’m still nostalgic for a bunch of British kids’ shows—Fireman Sam, Postman Pat, Tugs—the slightly more mature show that I loved most was Thunderbirds. Made by the great Gerry Anderson, this ’60s action adventure show boldly announced in its absolutely incredible opening credits that it was made in Videcolor and Supermarionation, all of which meant that it was in color and featured puppets. But what technically sophisticated puppets these were! (As long as you never showed them walking.) I could probably make some deep psychological argument about how this show—a British production in which all the heroes were Americans—reflected my own struggles to find a cultural identity in a strange new land. But nah: It was totally about the awesome-looking vehicles and their ridiculously elaborate launch sequences. (Also, I realize every show I listed featured puppets or some manner of animation. I’m not even sure I was aware you could make TV shows with people until I hit adolescence.)
I grew up in one of those households where TV was carefully doled out; an hour a day, usually under parental guidance (which led to a lot of, say, Faerie Tale Theatre). But I still remember, when I was mumblemumble years old, the first TV show I ever chose for myself. The hopelessly cheeseball The Young Riders might not have been timeless television, but it sure imprinted on me when it premiered. The collection of YA protagonists who filled the bunks of the Pony Express boardinghouse meant there was no shortage of angsty loners to over-identify with, and clunky though it often was, it was also one of the first Westerns I had seen that attempted to address some of the messy politics of the American West. Today, I consider it good ensemble-TV practice for the show that next became my favorite: Homicide. And who knows, maybe little me recognized a proving ground: Acclaimed actors Josh Brolin and Melissa Leo both did their time at Sweetwater Station.
To this day, my parents take great pride in how strict they were with my childhood television-watching. “Not even PBS!” my mother will exclaim. However, somehow a show slipped through the cracks that featured old men making inappropriate jokes, scantily clad women, and… dueling banjos. Yes, the first show I ever loved was Hee Haw. I grew up in Texas listening to country music, and whether that’s a sufficient excuse or explanation, Hee Haw is the only show I clearly remember my parents making a point to sit down and watch. I loved the “Gloom, Despair, And Agony On Me” song; Grandpa Jones’ bad jokes about supper; and I once found a hat in my grandma’s attic, added the tag from a tea bag, and called myself Minnie Pearl. Hee Haw ran, inexplicably, until 1997, and though I probably stopped watching by the late ’80s, I still get nostalgic watching old Reba McEntire guest spots on YouTube.