“After a couple of years no one will even remember”: 16 pop-culture windows into the world of 1993

“After a couple of years no one will even remember”: 16 pop-culture windows into the world of 1993

1. The Fugitive finds the sweet spot between box office and critical acclaim
Blockbusters haven’t always been anathema to the Oscars, though it’s increasingly seemed that way in the past few decades. Yet for most of the Academy Awards’ existence, the Hollywood community was usually happy to toss a Best Picture nomination to a well-made movie that also made a lot of money. That movie rarely won, but it was the ultimate “nice to be nominated” prize. Yet the Oscars struggled as the movies making the big bucks increasingly were in less Academy-friendly genres like action movies and remakes of TV shows. One of the increasingly few exceptions to this rule? Andrew Davis’ relentlessly entertaining adaptation of the TV show The Fugitive. Positioning its big action sequences for maximum impact and telling a surprisingly involving story in between, the film cemented Harrison Ford’s star cachet for another decade and won Tommy Lee Jones an Oscar for playing the man chasing Ford. It was the only Oscar the film won, but the fact that it was nominated for seven—including Best Picture—showed how thoroughly it had found the rare Venn diagram intersection of being mindless enough for a mass audience, thoughtful enough for critics, and middlebrow enough for the Academy.

2. The Firm movie marks the arrival of “peak Grisham”
The summer movie season of 1993 was a good one for the blockbuster novelists of the ’90s. In addition to Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and Rising Sun, the first-ever film adapted from a John Grisham novel, The Firm, was released to theaters; the Tom Cruise vehicle knocked Crichton’s dinosaur clones from the top of the weekly box-office rankings. Grisham’s legal thrillers were the biggest books of the early ’90s, built around peculiar facets of the law by the attorney-turned-author. (One of the major plot points in The Firm involves the hero trying to thwart the mob without violating attorney-client confidentiality.) The public’s demand for such courtroom minutiae hit a fever pitch in ’93, with The Firm grossing more than $270 million on its way to two Oscar nominations. And for much of the summer, Grisham would split the top six spots on the New York Times bestseller list with—who else?—Michael Crichton.

3. Four dumb farces denote the movie-going public’s lust for laughs
With notable exceptions like Manhattan Murder Mystery and Groundhog Day, big-screen comedies released in 1993 were far from highbrow. The year saw the release of four slapstick spoofs, proving that audiences in 1993 just wanted to laugh at something they had maybe already laughed at before. Hot Shots! Part Deux is the hokier, gorier sequel to 1991’s Hot Shots!, an Airplane!-style take on Top Gun. National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1 (because they knew there’d be sequels) made the increasingly silly Lethal Weapon movies look even sillier as Emilio Estevez and Samuel L. Jackson went after William Shatner’s evil General Mortars. Fatal Instinct starred Sean Young as not-Sharon Stone in a send-up of erotic thrillers. Finally, with Robin Hood: Men In Tights, Mel Brooks took on the Robin Hood legend in general and Kevin Costner’s laughable Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves in specific. Cary Elwes is almost decent as the arrow-slinging renegade, but his supporting cast of characters—Richard Lewis as Prince John, Roger Rees as the Sheriff of Rottingham, and Dave Chappelle and Isaac Hayes as Ahchoo and Asneeze, respectively—just make the whole thing too, too ridiculous.

4. Joel Hodgson leaves Mystery Science Theater 3000—and TV fandom screams its way into the Internet age
After approximately 160 hours of hurling jokes at the worst films ever made, Joel Robinson escaped the Satellite Of Love on October 23, 1993—taking his off-screen alter ego, Mystery Science Theater 3000 host and creator Joel Hodgson, with him. One week later, his seat was occupied by towheaded MST3K head writer Michael J. Nelson, and the movie-riffing series began its sometimes rocky—but ultimately successful—transition into a new era. On the burgeoning Information Superhighway, however, it was an entirely different story: The show’s online fandom fell into the so-called Great Joel vs. Mike Flame War, a battle of opinion that grew so heated, merely posing the question “Who’s the better host?” was a major faux pas in the MSTie community for years. Although not uncommon at the time—the emotional arguments and personal attacks that occasionally stemmed from them recalled similar “Kirk versus Picard” debates among the Star Trek faithful—it was the first experience many participants had with a testy type of discourse that became more prevalent alongside the proliferation of Internet access.

5. Invasion of the sci-fi TV shows
At the start of the ’90s, two types of science fiction succeeded on TV: anthologies series in The Twilight Zone vein, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. That all changed in 1993, with several series premieres kicking off a decade-long golden age of spaceships on the small screen. The Star Trek franchise made its most daring move, leaving the Enterprise behind for the stationary Deep Space 9. Another series set on a space station, Babylon 5, also came to air, with a dismal pilot movie that nonetheless showed flashes of the great show it would become. Even the major networks got in on the act: NBC debuted seaQuest DSV, an underwater Star Trek at its best (and a godawful Star Trek underwater at its worst). The biggest cultural phenomenon of the lot, The X-Files, started that year as well. This wasn’t just a great time for science-fiction fans; it was also fruitful for television overall: The experiments in serialized storytelling and characterization in sci-fi TV of the ’90s eventually laid the groundwork for the great dramas of the 2000s.

6. The Fox ascends
At the start of 1993, the Fox Broadcasting Company was still considered an irreverent upstart—but that impression was changing. Married… With Children and The Simpsons were hitting their peaks, Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place offered appealing, trashy fun, and The X-Files’ premiere would give it a major drama series. But the network’s challenge to the Big Three reached a new height when Fox outbid CBS for NFL broadcast rights. From that moment on, it was no longer a pretender—it was a fourth monarch. Saturday Night Live, that comedic representative of the mainstream media’s id, thought to parody the acquisition by doing an NFL promo in the style of 90210’s credits. Twenty years later, the NFL On Fox is an institution—although those 90210 credits have aged better than the “Extreme!” robots used in Fox’s telecasts.

6. Unplug everything!
MTV Unplugged was at its height as a critically acclaimed hitmaker in 1993. First, Eric Clapton’s Unplugged set dominated that year’s Grammys on the backs of its ubiquitous hits, “Tears From Heaven” (originally recorded for the soundtrack of 1992’s Rush) and a reworked version of Derek And The Dominos’ “Layla.” The concerts recorded and aired in 1993 were strong enough on their own, boasting appearances from Duran Duran, Bruce Springsteen, and 10,000 Maniacs (shortly before frontwoman Natalie Merchant departed for a solo career). But the feather in the series’ cap was the set recorded by Nirvana on November 18, 1993, a sloppy, powerful, and legitimately authentic exploration of the band’s B-sides and influences. Less than six months later, Kurt Cobain was dead and Nirvana was finished, leaving 1994’s Unplugged In New York as its final major album release. Unplugged has continued on and off since 1993, but thanks to Nirvana and Clapton, “Unplugged” will always at least partially mean “1993.”

7. Star Fox warps video games into the 3-D age, one polygon at a time
Star Fox was the Super Nintendo game that finally—finally—provided the layman with plentiful impressive-sounding technical jargon. “Revolutionary Super FX Micro Chip Creates Special Effects Like Never Before!” screamed the game’s box, and players found something neat inside as well: a space-fighting game that used lots and lots of polygons to construct ships and enemies, giving the appearance of three-dimensional space. Unfortunately, praising Star Fox for its graphics is a lot like praising Polar Express for its horrifying realism. The technology, while forward-thinking, wasn’t managed smoothly by the mere 16-bit processing power of the Super Nintendo, and the soaring of the game’s central spacecraft came off as chunky and often pixilated. Critics praised Star Fox for its bold advances, which paved the way for today’s polygon-centric games, but it wasn’t until Star Fox 64 that the power of a system caught up with the required technology. Still, Star Fox was the bellwether of a technology arms race among games manufacturers that continues to this day, and provided a bit of a glossary to kick-start the process. [SH]

8. Magic: The Gathering debuts, nearly destroys itself
The United States’ first collectible card game was originally bound by the so-called Alpha release, a set of 295 cards designed by college professor Richard Garfield. Little did he know that 20 years later, the universe of Magic would expand considerably, with new cards introduced and ever-changing rules. Nor could Garfield foresee how skilled some players would become—and so Alpha included some insanely powerful cards that, by today’s standards, can essentially break games. As Magic evolved, Garfield’s company, Wizards Of The Coast, wised up, banning many of those early juggernauts and introducing cards that could act as their direct foil. That did little to stop the demand from curious players, however, and the prices for those early cards are mind-twistingly high. The most expensive sells for no less than 7 grand, with others like an Alpha Ancestral Recall ($2,500) not far behind. Garfield didn’t predict the ways players could abuse a little extra black mana, but in inadvertently destroying his own game, he created a sort of lore surrounding those Alpha cards—and allowed for the game’s first few players to make bank. [SH]

9. Radiohead scores a fluke hit with “Creep”
In early 1993, a band from Oxford, England, released its debut full-length, Pablo Honey. The record occupied a nondescript space shared by proto-Britpop, grunge, and shoegaze, but one song—the self-loathing, tense rocker titled “Creep”— distinguished itself from the rest. The song was an alternative radio hit, broke into the Billboard Top 40, and ended up in MTV rotation (which is probably how this group of pasty, skinny, moody Brits ended up performing at the MTV Beach House that summer). “Creep” was the only song from Pablo Honey that got significant traction, leading many to consider Radiohead a one-hit wonder. However, the band’s desire to shake that tag—and its belief it had something deeper to offer—kick-started its creativity. The squelching, shimmering guitar rock of 1995’s The Bends gave way to the social alienation and sardonic sloganeering of 1997’s OK Computer—and Radiohead was well on its way to a fruitful, imaginative career. 

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10. The Mickey Mouse Club gathers the teen idols of tomorrow 
The first version of the Mickey Mouse Club was a petri dish for teen idols (Annette!), but the late-’80s/early-’90s reboot of the series ran circles around the original in terms of influence. In particular, season six of The-All New Mickey Mouse Club (MMC to those in the know) introduced a murderers’ row of future pop stars to the cast: Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera. Soon-to-be heartthrob Ryan Gosling also signed on to the show in 1993, joining the ranks of such Mouseketeers as JC Chasez, Keri Russell, and Tony Lucca. Taking a cue from Kids Incorporated, the tween idols spent the show acting in contrived skits, gamely attempting choreographed dances, and singing contemporary hits. While the audience naturally screamed in Disney-fied delight at every move, MMC was a rather low-pressure way for the talented crew to ease into the limelight. But it still prepped them for the rigors of performing, which came in soon after the show was canceled in 1995: Chasez and Timberlake dove right into mega-boy band ’N Sync, while Spears and Aguilera regrouped and started thinking about solo careers.

11. Dazed and Confused flops, but its cast (and reputation) flourishes
It’s hard to believe now that it’s a beloved favorite and member in good standing of the Criterion Collection, but upon its release in September 1993, Dazed And Confused was largely ignored. Richard Linklater’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut Slacker earned less than a million dollars in its opening weekend, en route to a $7.9 million gross that barely covered its production budget. In spite of its commercial failure, no other 1993 film proved as influential in the long run. Its ensemble cast of youthful no-names blossomed into an entire generation of reliable Hollywood talent, including Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck, Adam Goldberg, Rory Cochrane, Joey Lauren Adams, Milla Jovovich, and (in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her appearance) Renée Zellweger. Its Bicentennial setting was Ground Zero for the Me Decade nostalgia craze that would culminate five years later with the launch of That ’70s Show, promos for which all but promised Dazed And Confused: The Series. And hey, that Linklater fellow didn’t do too badly for himself either. Dazed may have been outgrossed by the likes of Cop And A Half and Another Stakeout, but where 1993 culture icons are concerned, its legacy is secure.

12. Howard Stern exposes an entire population to the joys of reading, cements his place as a cultural force
Howard Stern is still doing fine—he just bought a house in Palm Beach, Florida, for the princely sum of $52 million—but he’s not the cultural juggernaut of 20 years ago. In 1993, the self-proclaimed “King Of All Media” (which, it’s rarely noted, was a tongue-in-cheek reaction to Michael Jackson declaring himself the “King Of Pop”) really broke into the mainstream: His autobiography, Private Parts, was a monster hit that Simon & Schuster couldn’t even keep in stock—it remains the fastest-selling book in the company’s history. Stern didn’t come out of nowhere, of course—he had been building a reputation among radio listeners who liked to discuss the finer points of lesbian-focused pornography—but in 1993 he was inescapable. He tried to capitalize on the buzz the following year by running for governor of New York, but balked when he realized he’d have to disclose his finances, which were clearly bulging by then. 

13. Homicide and NYPD Blue rewrite the rules for TV cop shows
Homicide: Life On The Street, an ensemble police drama based on a nonfiction book by journalist David Simon, premiered on NBC in a plum post-Super Bowl XXVII slot. With its jittery camerawork and gritty, documentary-style surface, the show never became the commercial hit the network had hoped for. Having more or less nested at the bottom of the Nielsen ratings, its status as a critics’ darling helped it stay on the air for seven seasons and a wrap-up TV-movie. Nine months after Homicide’s first bow, a new series created by former Hill Street Blues cohorts Steven Bochco and David Milch premiered on ABC, amid a swirl of controversy over Bochco’s promises to push the envelope in terms of sexual content and the anti-heroic behavior by the protagonists. Subsequently, NYPD Blue became one of the major hits of the new season. Cable TV hadn’t yet become the challenger to the commercial networks’ hegemony that it would be, but the smarter people at the networks were already learning to compete—in some cases, for a smaller but more demographically desirable percentage of the viewership—by offering a measure of the kind of creative freedom that cable could offer. Even so, when Simon and Milch wanted to raise the stakes higher—with The Wire and Deadwood, respectively—they went to HBO to do it.

14. Letterman, Leno, and Conan form the new late-night paradigm 
NBC kicked over a hornet’s nest by announcing that Jay Leno would replace Johnny Carson when he retired as host of The Tonight Show in the spring of 1992. But 1993 was the year that the hornets stopped buzzing and the late-night chat circuit settled into a groove that would hold tight for more than 15 years. Late Night’s David Letterman, affronted at having been passed over for Carson’s seat, left for CBS, where he set about redefining himself, contradicting the NBC suits who didn’t think he could play to an older audience in an earlier time slot. Conan O’Brien, a 30-year-old Harvard grad best known as a writer and producer for The Simpsons, stepped into Letterman’s old slot. Meanwhile, Arsenio Hall, who had announced plans to “kick Leno’s ass” and knock over the Tonight Show throne, saw his vogue dry up and was gone from the air by the spring of 1994. Jon Stewart was content to play to a small, hip crowd on MTV, while Chevy Chase, Fox’s notion of a challenger to Leno and Letterman, didn’t last two months. By the time the smoke cleared, Letterman was established as the smart grown-up among late-night hosts, with Conan as the funny oddball for the college kids, leaving Leno to be the top-rated network fixture beloved by people’s parents.

15. DC Comics acknowledges comics fans outside its target audience, launches Vertigo and Milestone
From the ’60s to ’80s, Marvel clung to its image as the place for mainstream comics, while DC, the home of Superman and Batman, was saddled with a reputation as the old superheroes’ home. Things became more complicated as attitudes in comics-readers’ circles began to shift  toward the importance of creators. Suddenly, DC was the place that brought Alan Moore to the States, and where he and writer-artists like Frank Miller and John Byrne were invited to re-imagine the company’s most valuable properties. In 1993, DC—which had been trying for years to court the alternative-comics market with such imprints as Piranha Press—swept all its edgier, more unusual titles (Sandman, Hellblazer, Shade The Changing Man) together with new work in the same vein; under the care of editor Karen Berger, the company christened its new venture Vertigo. Never before had one of the majors gone so far in reaching out to the weirdoes—or done it as successfully. That same year, DC joined forces with Milestone Media to publish superhero comics from black creators, featuring black heroes (Static, Blood Syndicate). Milestone shut down in 1997, but Vertigo remains in place, overseen by Berger for a run that didn’t end until 2013

16. Gene Siskel spoils The Crying Game
Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game went into limited release in the U.S. in December 1992 (opening wide in February of ’93), riding a cunningly conceived ad campaign that urged critics and civilian audiences alike not to reveal the big twist involving the gender of the (straight, male) hero’s romantic counterpart. Somehow, in that more innocent, pre-Internet age, the instruction took; for months, reviewers talked the movie to death, while somehow managing to talk around the fact that, well before the film’s climax, the hero discovers that the beautiful woman with whom he’s fallen in love is a pre-op transsexual. That all ended during Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel’s pre-Oscars show, when Siskel, insisting on his right to discuss the key details of a big movie that had been in theaters for months, broke the news to any late arrivers who’d tuned in. He was immediately denounced by Ebert and caught hell from the media for it, despite the fact that the Academy had sort of gotten there first by nominating Jaye Davidson, who played the trans woman, for an Oscar in the Best Supporting Actor category. Not long after, Siskel made fun of the controversy in an appearance of the smartest live-action TV comedy of its day, The Larry Sanders Show.

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