James Contrino explains why now is the perfect time to take risks and try out some TV shows you may have overlooked.
Once the excitement of the holiday season subsides, there’s still one thing to look forward to: your holiday loot.
Especially as we grow older, it’s easier for those around us to buy gift cards instead of specific presents. However, receiving gift cards or cash for the holidays is a double-edged sword; while we feel lucky to get these gifts, it can be equally overwhelming. Many gift cards provide limitless possibilities for what to buy. I would encourage you to use this time of year to take some risks with your newfound holiday loot. If you’ve already exhausted every available season of your favorite TV shows, maybe it’s time to try something new.
In recent years I’ve started to use occasions like this as opportunities to explore the bizarre and forgotten corners of the television universe. With the popularity of once obscure shows like Arrested Development and Firefly growing exponentially, lets take a moment to delve a little deeper through TV history to uncover some hidden relics. Below is a small list of superb TV shows on DVD that are bound to interest fans of every genre:
For fans of action dramas (24, The Shield, Dexter, Lost)
Most UK television aficionados are well aware of this 1960s science fiction programme, but unfortunately The Prisoner never made an impact in the United States, despite a 2009 reboot mini-series.
The Prisoner is one of those shows that builds in such a deceptively simple manner that you know things are bound to get crazy fast. Patrick McGoohan starred as a secret agent who abruptly resigns from his job only to wake up in a bizarre village on an island filled with smiling people who all refuse to tell him where he is or why he got there. Furthermore, nobody in the village has a name and instead refer to one another by a number. For 17 episodes, McGoohan tries desperately to evade his evil captors and make sense of his arrival on this strange island. How did he get there? What happened to his former identity? What does this have to do with his espionage past? These things might seem like typical TV tropes nowadays, but they’re done so brilliantly in The Prisoner that everything feels fresh.
Perhaps the most stunning feature of The Prisoner is its setting. The Prisoner was shot on location at Hotel Portmeirion in North Wales with a backdrop that seemed like an ungodly mixture of a kid’s theme park and 1960s Mediterranean resort. The bright colours and happy townspeople in the village were a sharp contrast to the dark mysteries McGoohan explored in each episode.
Beyond the suspense of watching him try to escape, The Prisoner portrayed characters under constant surveillance, which added a sense of unease to every scene. Even the simplest of conversations took on great importance given who or what may be watching. The Prisoner kept audiences engaged because many times they felt just as confused as McGoohan. Details came slowly from the people in the village, which only enhanced the island’s mystique, not unlike Lost today.
The Prisoner would be the perfect gift for any fan of action-dramas (24, The Shield, Dexter, Lost) or classic science fiction (Doctor Who, The Twilight Zone).
For fans of off-beat comedies (The Simpsons, King of the Hill)
Parker Lewis Can’t Lose
Parker Lewis Can’t Lose is one of the most unique shows of the 1990s. It is also a show that nobody seems to remember. However, it’s worth your time because when you’re not smirking at the subtle 1990s allusions, you’ll witness an endearing family programme that tested the limits of how to portray adolescents in television.
If you’ve seen other 1990s teen comedies like Saved by the Bell, then you’ve practically already seen Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. Much like Saved by the Bell, Parker Lewis and his friends spent each day trying to carry out elaborate schemes and plots to become kings of their high school. The school combined all the classic teen TV show clichés: there was an evil principal who did things no administrator could possible conceive; there was a behemoth of a bully who was clearly thirty years old; and Parker Lewis always seemed to be scheming in ways that would leave most students expelled.
What set it apart from all the other teen comedies at the time was its devotion to absurdity. Parker Lewis’s zany scenarios were almost vaudevillian in their attempt to bring slapstick comedy and sound effects back to 1990s television. Each character was like a parody of the archetypal high school student: nerds were incredibly geeky, jocks were knuckle-dragging Neanderthals, and the popular kids were basically celebrities.
While shows like Saved by the Bell were obnoxious in their attempt to portray a realistic experience of high school, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose exaggerated everything and created a high school environment the way an outcast might view the bizarre teenage world. Of course the popular kids seemed like celebrities to a nerdy adolescent boy or girl, just as bullies might seem ten feet tall and five hundred pounds. The show capitalised on this unique perspective and provided a truly unique teen sitcom.
While most argue that the show was too silly for its own good or overly cartoonish, I’d suggest that it reminded me more of a video game than anything else. The bright colours, constantly changing backgrounds and absurdly unique characters remind me of a classic platform game where the player must weave through obstacles to make it out alive. Few people even remember the show since it has remained absent from surveys of great television in the last two decades. The most glaring reason for this oversight is that it is so grounded in 1990s pop culture that it alienates droves of contemporary viewers. Everyone’s outfits are so incredibly 1990s that it seems laughable today: loud fluorescent neon colours and lots of denim. Likewise, frequent allusions to early 1990s politics and pop culture icons might confuse some viewers today.
For most people, high school is a strange period. It’s a time when people carve out an identity for themselves that’s different from their friends, family, or communities. Television tries to reflect this by showing kids who shun the world and don’t understand where they belong. Unlike most TV shows about adolescents (see below), Parker Lewis Can’t Lose focuses on the parts of high school you want to remember: spending time with friends and doing crazy things that you’d be embarrassed to do as an adult.
Freaks and Geeks
If Parker Lewis Can’t Lose was a show that highlighted everything you’d want to remember in high school, Freaks and Geeks made everyone glad they left. No show seems to have gone from forgotten to beloved so quickly as this programme. It transformed from an oddball drama that was cancelled after its first season in 2000, to one of the most beloved cult TV shows of all time. It seems like every year new generations of TV enthusiasts discover this lost gem. However, that being said, there are still some unfortunate souls who have not seen it. There’s little to dislike about a show this endearing and free of pretension which delivers such an accurate portrayal of high school that it captures the awkwardness of being a teenager in ways never seen before.
During the late 90s/early 2000s, when most shows portrayed teenagers as wholesome miniature adults, Freaks and Geeks portrayed teenagers for who they are: weirdos. The show followed two groups of friends (one a group of nerds, and the other stoner hipsters) in 1980s Michigan as they navigated their way through high school, family tensions and friendship. What made it interesting was the fact that none of these topics existed separately. Instead, as one group of friends begins to experiment with drugs, the other seems to be simultaneously dealing with their own teenage dilemmas. As a result, nearly every viewer can relate to some small aspect of each episode.
Each group of friends on the show seemed to appeal to diverse viewers. Sam and his nerdy friends were a perfect snapshot of 14-year-old loners: they played with chemistry sets, enjoyed Dungeons and Dragons, and were petrified of girls. It was fun to hang with Sam and his friends; it felt safe for most audience members. However, when viewers wanted less comedic relief, Sam’s older sister Lindsay and her stoner friends (most of whom are now staples in Judd Apatow movies) provided ample material. Lindsay and her pals dealt with the trials of sex, drugs and relationships during the tumultuous high school years.
Freaks and Geeks openly acknowledged that teenagers make mistakes. They showed that adolescents experiment with drugs and sex, which is still uncommon across teen programming in the United States. Combined, each group of friends was able to connect with a diverse audience even more than a decade after its cancellation.
For fans of unique kids programmes (Peewee’s Playhouse, Ren and Stimpy) and monster shows (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel)
They don’t make children’s TV like they used to. In the past, creators of kids programmes weren’t afraid to get weird. Children’s programming in the past could be daring, subversive and still appeal to the entire family. Eerie, Indiana is a shining example of this artistic approach since it’s exceptionally strange. A teenager named Marshall Teller moves to a rural town with his family and soon begins seeing strange things. His world is turned upside down when he realises that the town is a hotbed for paranormal activity.
Together with his nerdy best friend Simon, Marshall spent each episode investigating mystical occurrences in his neighbourhood. One particular episode featured Marshall and Simon snooping around a neighbour’s house before discovering giant food-storage bins that the whole family has been sleeping in since the 1950s to stay young. Other episodes weren’t as frightening. Much like The Goonies, this show redefined the classic adventure motif of children’s programming. It was just strange enough to appeal to older audiences, while still providing the right amount of sleuth-like mysteries to engage younger kids.
Much like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, each episode featured a monster of the week, where the main character had to battle a new paranormal entity to save humanity. However, unlike other sci-fi teen programs, there was a fairly mature tone to the whole series. Underneath all of the strange adventures that these kids went on, there was a not-so-subtle suggestion that nobody is perfect and everyone has secrets. Throughout the short series, there’s an obvious undertone that everyone in suburbia harbours dark secrets.
The peculiar stories might have confused youngsters, which is why the programme only lasted one season. While it is cliché, it truly was a show that was too smart for its own good. Audiences at the time weren’t ready to switch over from the Mickey Mouse Club reboot to a strange show about a kid monster hunter. The show appealed to a certain audience, which was unfortunately too small to sustain the show for long.
Despite its cancellation, Eerie, Indiana received a lot of attention upon its DVD release from adults who remembered the weird show from their childhood and decided to give it a second chance. Fans of camp sci-fi and thriller programmes like Buffy the Vampire Slayer are sure to enjoy this forgotten 1990s kids TV gem. Likewise, fans of absurd kids programmes like Peewee’s Playhouse and the brilliant Adventures of Pete and Pete are sure to be delighted by its strangeness.