The Late ’80s: Unheralded Golden Age of Something Or Other

I don’t have much to say about last night’s shows (Scrubs finale which may or may not have been a finale, good episode; American Idol, the last woman gets voted off and Paula gets to lip-synch), but I do have something to say about shows from 20 years ago. Which kind of sums up my whole worldview, but anyway: After the news broke that Thirtysomething was to be released on DVD, I remembered something that Marshall Herskovitz wrote a couple of years ago. He wrote that when he and Edward Zwick did that show, ABC hardly ever gave them notes. Now, his main point — that he was going to produce awesome shows for the web, thereby bypassing network interference — turned out to be very wrong. But his other point was that network shows in the late ’80s often received fewer notes than they do now, and that seems to be true. You don’t often hear the late ’80s discussed as a golden age of television, and I’m not sure that I would call it that. But the period from approximately 1986 to 1990 does seem to have been a time of surprising freedom in U.S. television, particularly for showrunners.

There are a lot of shows that originated in that period where the creators received a huge amount of freedom. The most famous example is The Simpsons (1989, spun off from a 1987 show), where Jim Brooks received a guarantee of absolute creative autonomy from the network, which promised to give no notes not just then but for all time. There are lots of other shows that were quirky, unclassifiable and the product of a unique approach. The Wonder Years. Frank’s Place. The first season of Crime Story (the second, not so much). Wiseguy.  Sledge Hammer! (which I don’t even like, but it was certainly different).  The Days And Nights of Molly Dodd. And of course, the show that may have brought the era to an end by giving a creator so much power that it basically brought the show down when he lost interest: Twin Peaks. The fact that NBC developed Seinfeld in 1989-90 and gave tremendous freedom to a weird guy with no sitcom experience, Larry David, makes sense in the context of that era: everybody was doing weird shows where the creator was given absolute power. A few years earlier, that was strange; a few years later, it would be even stranger, but it was normal in 1989.

Even standard shows that didn’t break the mold often had a surprising amount of power for their creators. I don’t like Designing Women much, but the creator, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, writes in her booklet for the new DVD release that CBS let her do pretty much what she wanted without interference. A CBS procedural about a lawyer helping people with the aid of a mysterious beast-man who lives underground (Beauty and the Beast) could only have come from the wacky world of 1987, and only in the late ’80s could Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley have sold a major network on a dramedy about a kid doctor, and Roseanne started in 1988.  Shows from this era also seemed to have bumped-up production values compared to earlier network dramas, with higher budgets for things like set design and music. (One reason many of these shows aren’t seen much is that so many of them made free use of expensive music; cf. The Wonder Years, Tour of Duty.)

There are a bunch of reasons why TV product was so free and quirky at that time: the rise of cable and the Fox network as competition, creating an incentive for networks to produce more unusual and distinctive programs; the success of Moonlighting in the 1985-6 season, which temporarily sold networks (particularly ABC) on the virtues of giving creators a free hand; some executives who were looking for new things; some older creators looking to experiment and some new creators, like David Lynch, who wanted to get into the TV business but only on their own terms. What it adds up to is that network TV product from the late ’80s may be some of the quirkiest in the history of U.S. network television.