Explore the TV of 1993 by watching 24 straight hours of it

Explore the TV of 1993 by watching 24 straight hours of it

Looking for a way to remember everything that was everything in 1993? You could do far worse than going back and looking at some of the most significant television of the era. The year proved to be oddly momentous for the medium, as the choices below indicate, and there are plenty of other shows we could have included—like NYPD Blue and Northern Exposure. For the full effect, we recommend finding some vintage ’93 commercials on YouTube and watching them between programs.

8 a.m.: Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, “Day Of The Dumpster”
Kick the morning off with the first episode of the deliberately mindless, ruthlessly synergistic toy advertisement that was Power Rangers, which began its storied run in August 1993. Splicing together footage of Japanese superhero television with new material involving stilted American actors palling around in high school, the show followed a strict formula that proved an instant hit with its young target audience. Action figures were sold, the Megazord was called on every week, and there was even some serialization featuring the initially evil, and then ultimately heroic, Green Ranger. But watch out for the putty patrol! 

8:30 a.m.: Rocko’s Modern Life, “Leapfrogs”/”Bedfellows”
It’s still early, so continue to ease yourself into the day with some cartoons. Rocko’s Modern Life is one of the earliest keepers from Nickelodeon’s Nicktoons block. The show’s humor is sometimes subversively adult enough to make it modestly controversial—the “suggestive” content in “Leapfrogs” was enough to get it removed from the rerun cycle for a while—but there’s a real sweetness at its core that keeps its gross-out jokes (dripping blood, flying mucus, dismembered body parts) from being abrasive. Just try to finish breakfast before it starts. 

9 a.m.: Beavis And Butt-head, Various episodes
Those ready to enjoy an hour of history’s dumbest, truth-tellingest cartoon teens this early in the morning might be partial to imbibing something that makes funny things even funnier. Not that they’d need it: Though frequently, woefully dismissed as mindless on its 1993 debut, Beavis And Butt-head remains hilariously resilient 20 years later. Because a good chunk of the show involved maniacal Beavis and dunder-headed Butt-head riffing on hard-to-clear music videos, the various DVD collections are woefully incomplete. But the lawless land of YouTube makes re-living history possible: Start with the two-parter “No Laughing,” in which the boys struggle to contain themselves when faced with the word “vagina” and also provide some of the most trenchant music criticisms ever uttered. Round out the hour with the unexpurgated “Sperm Bank” episode, in which the boys try to make some fast money, and “Tornado,” one of many sad episodes in which they’re sure they’re going to score—and then don’t. 

10 a.m.: Picket Fences, “Frog Man”
Though greeted with huge critical acclaim and many Emmys when it aired, David E. Kelley’s first “created by” credit has mostly been forgotten by history. That’s probably reasonable. The uneasy mix of small-town shenanigans with a hybrid cop/doctor/lawyer show was always a little ungainly, even at its best, and the series fell apart remarkably quickly and was canceled after four seasons. But in the early seasons seasons, the show was often a delight, as in this episode that features Michael Jeter as a burglar who leaves frogs at the scene of his crimes. It’s an always unusual yet always fascinating mix of quirky small-town humor and social-issues drama, and even if it doesn’t always work, it’s worth it for the strong performances from a solid ensemble cast. 

11 a.m.: The Larry Sanders Show, “Life Behind Larry”
The Larry Sanders Show began its second season in June of 1993, settling into a run that would make it one of the decade’s best comedies and providing a launching pad for a slew of talent. In its satire of late-night talk shows, it also offered a sort of history lesson—not that viewers needed to know the backstory to enjoy The Larry Sanders Show. Perhaps the best embodiment of this is “Life Behind Larry,” in which star Larry Sanders (Garry Shandling) is charged with finding a host for the late show that airs behind his at 12:30 a.m. The episode is full of references to the late-night world of the time, but it’s also a hilarious look at network politics, ego, and awards shows that’s executed flawlessly. 

11:30 a.m.: Roseanne, “A Stash From The Past”
Though Seinfeld, Larry Sanders, and The Simpsons were at the heights of their respective powers in 1993, Roseanne was also having the best calendar year of its run and stood as a worthy competitor for all of them, roping in recession-era blue-collar anxieties and social issues into a formula that got big laughs. For an example of this, check out this justly praised episode, in which Roseanne’s discovery of David’s pot stash underlines the hypocrisy of those who used to partake preaching “just say no”—as well as TV’s general hypocrisy about depictions of drugs. 

12 p.m.: Seinfeld, “The Pilot”
Finish out two hours of classic comedy—and, appropriate for a show obsessed with food, have some lunch—with the finale to one of the best comedy seasons of all time. Seinfeld’s genre-defining fourth season used the story arc of George and Jerry trying to sell a sitcom pilot to NBC as the glue that held everything together and provided some of the most audacious meta-comedy TV had seen up to that point. “The Pilot” is nothing less than a sitcom version of the creation of the very show viewers are watching, and the more you contemplate that ouroboros, the funnier the episode becomes. Any number of season-four half-hours could make for a solid hour here, but stick with this for one big reason: It aired the same night as the Cheers series finale—which you’ll be viewing later—and acted as a sort of comedic passing of the torch.  

1 p.m.: Homicide: Life On The Street, “Three Men And Adena”
After a morning of comedies, families, and beating the bad guys, we’re probably due a police interrogation. Homicide had followed the Adena Watson case since its pilot (and would continue to revisit this never-solved murder throughout its run), but by the fifth episode, pressure was on to increase viewership. Instead, “Three Men And Adena” was a leap of faith in its audience and a middle finger to the Nielsen ratings. Pembleton and Bayliss spend the full hour in the box with suspect Tucker (Moses Gunn), an interrogation so relentless Tucker ends up wondering if he killed Adena after all. It wasn’t the ratings hook NBC wanted, but it made a compelling case for the show: Visual dynamics somewhere between stage play and fever dream, sharp dialogue, and an unsatisfactory resolution all became Homicide hallmarks. “Three Men And Adena” is still among the most recognizable installments of the series and remains a stellar hour of TV. 

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2 p.m.: The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr., “The Orb Scholar” 
The afternoon is the perfect time for The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr., as creators Jeffrey Boam and Carlton Cuse were tasked with replicating the Indiana Jones Saturday matinee formula as a loony-yet-reverent mix of Old West serials and Wild Wild West steampunk. Anchored with effortless leading-man charisma by Bruce Campbell, the second episode sees Harvard-educated lawyer-turned-bounty hunter Brisco (alongside Julius Carry’s hilariously antagonistic rival/buddy Lord Bowler and improbably intelligent Comet The Wonder Horse) using his big brain and matchless cowboy skills to battle the desperadoes who killed his lawman father. As with Indy, Brisco’s adventures carry a vein of irony, but simultaneously pay affectionate respect to the genre, especially when Campbell—gamely taking Evil Dead levels of punishment—faces off against series Big Bad John Bly, played with mesmerizingly campy “evil Jack Sparrow” mannerisms by Billy Drago (the greatest forgotten TV villain of the decade). 

3 p.m.: Cracker, “The Mad Woman In The Attic, Part 1”
Considering the time difference, mid-afternoon in the U.S. is primetime in the United Kingdom, which makes this an oddly perfect time to watch the first episode of ITV’s crime drama Cracker. Robbie Coltrane—best known these days as Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies—stars as Dr. Edward “Fitz” Fitzgerald, a brilliant psychologist addicted to gambling, drinking, smoking, and just generally being a complete asshole to everyone he meets. When one of his former students is brutally murdered, Fitz offers his services to the Manchester police—led by future Doctor Who star Christopher Eccleston in his first major role—in interrogating the prime suspect, who insists he has amnesia. This first half of the show’s debut mystery shows the first attempt to break the man, as Fitz launches into a thundering, disturbing monologue about how murder and rape are simply human nature and then reconstructs in graphic detail the suspect’s mindset just before the murder. The audience is left to guess where the genius psychologist ends and the self-destructive monster begins, assuming there’s any difference. 

4 p.m.: Beverly Hills, 90210, “Something In The Air”
Kick off your after-school marathon viewing with three words that perfectly sum up 1993: “Donna Martin graduates!” As the original 90210 faced high-school graduation, it reached its peak in soapy teen storylines: The all-time greatest teen love triangle of Dylan, Kelly, and Brenda has dragged on for nearly an entire school year; college plans remain uncertain—the show’s creators hadn’t decided whether to fire troublemaker Shannen Doherty (she lasted another season); and a no-alcohol rule at prom has been broken by a drunk Donna Martin, of all people, getting her kicked out of graduation festivities. In “Something In The Air,” Brandon heads a protest of nearly the entire student body and testifies before the school council just so Miss Martin can matriculate, leading to the show’s greatest catchphrase. Even though she clearly did break the rule in question, consequences were eventually waived for Donna, to which Tori Spelling probably replied, “But of course.” The young cast ventured off to adulthood, but the show lost something once it left West Beverly High. 

5 p.m.: The X-Files, “Ice”
By now, you’re probably starting to get a little tired of sitting in front of the TV, so why not wake yourself up with a blast of overwhelmingly tense cold air? The X-Files made its debut in the fall of 1993, and while many of its early episodes show promise, this was the first to become an outright classic example of the show at its best. Stranding Mulder and Scully at an Arctic research facility that’s been overrun by an alien worm that ramps up the aggressiveness of whatever creature is hosting it, “Ice” gleefully rips off the “Who can be trusted?” paranoia of The Thing, and it does so in service of a story that tests the then-fragile partnership between the two FBI agents. The episode finally cements them as the medium-defining duo they would become, and it wins bonus points for being shot largely on one set and featuring a young Felicity Huffman. 

6 p.m.: The Simpsons, “Marge Vs. The Monorail”/“Last Exit To Springfield”
There are people who argue that The Simpsons was better before or after the show’s fourth season. These people are—contrary to the opinion of one season-four episode—history’s greatest monster. As evidence, The A.V. Club submits this bloc as the show’s finest hour: the Conan O’Brien-penned Music Man homage “Marge Vs. The Monorail” and the alternately gorgeous and uproarious “Last Exit To Springfield.” In ’93, The Simpsons was at the height of its powers, especially where the use of its main setting is concerned. In “Marge,” Springfield kills as a collective of easily duped rubes; in “Last Exit,” the city warms with its commitment to its fellow (working) man. Further proof for the doubters: Just say the words “dental plan” without immediately thinking, “Lisa needs braces!” 

7 p.m.: The State, “Episode 101”
From there it’s a smooth transition into sketch comedy, starting with the new kid on the block, MTV’s The State. The first episode is a model of the show’s style, with a runner uniting the episode and single-camera sketches that could just as well take place on a stage. The highlight, though, is a warhorse the group had been performing since meeting at NYU where a couple’s volatile hormones dance around them on their date. The end credits read, “Created, written, and produced by The State,” followed by directing credits for two members, a testament to The State’s creative control. 

7:30 p.m.: In Living Color, “Season Five, Episode One”
Next, watch the sun set on In Living Color. In season four, creator Keenen Ivory Wayans left after Fox made certain decisions without consulting him, and the rest of his family followed. Season five was the first season of the show without its founders, and it would be the last. Still, the season begins with a doozy, “Ike Turner Strikes Back,” in which David Alan Grier sings a parody of “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” that imagines the ridiculousness of Turner’s defense of his abuse. And for a time-capsule bonus, Jim Carrey delivers “Seinfeld In The Ghetto.” 

8 p.m.: Barbarians At The Gate
Heading into prime time, this TV movie, based on a non-fiction bestseller about corporate warfare for control of RJR Nabisco, was written by Larry Gelbart and stars James Garner, who both have movie careers but also deep roots in TV. It represents something of a breakthrough for HBO’s original films division, which had just begun to acquire properties that feature-film producers were interested in, and demonstrate what TV can do with them that movies can’t. Gelbart, using the medium’s ability to more quickly tap into changes in societal trends, turns this story into a time-capsule satire of the corporate culture and economic insanity of the ’80s, even though less than five years had passed since the actual events depicted. But the dialogue is so sharp and the acting (by a cast that also includes Peter Riegert, Jonathan Pryce, Joanna Cassidy, and David Rasche) is so crisp that the only thing about it that now feels dated is the cheesy score—and, of course, cell phones the size of cinder blocks. 

10 p.m.: Saved By The Bell, “Graduation” 
This beloved sitcom finally bowed out in 1993 with the graduation of its heroes. Before the college years, the new class, and the Hawaiian wedding special, Saved By The Bell said goodbye with 22 minutes of Zack trying to make up his one last class credit in a ballet production, while Screech gives up his valedictorian spot so Jessie can have it. Everything turns out fine in the end, and Zack retains his acceptance to attend Yale, so you know, maybe 1993 wasn’t so bad after all. (Just kidding, because, wow, the clothes. “What is Lisa Turtle wearing?” is a valid question at any given time in the show’s run.) 

10:30 p.m.: Batman: The Animated Series, “Almost Got ’Im”
Attention span fried yet? The short stories of this half-hour should hit the spot for easy-to-digest entertainment, spotlighting Batman’s rogues gallery as they gather to share tales of the times they nearly offed the Dark Knight. Taking the standard trapped Batman plot and multiplying it, this episode is a beautifully animated, surprisingly hilarious exploration of supervillain expectations and frustration. Poison Ivy, Two-Face, Killer Croc, Penguin, and the Joker all get their moments in the spotlight, giving the show’s phenomenal voice cast the opportunity to show off its talent and establishing why these actors have become synonymous with these characters. 

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11 p.m.: The Chevy Chase Show, “Corbin Bernsen”
It’s talk show time, and for six weeks in the fall, this was the show of choice for train-wreck aficionados. Chase seems to have agreed to do it after watching Jay and Dave a couple of times and thinking, “How hard can it be?” A rapidly diminishing national audience had been watching him grow more openly hostile as he found out that it’s harder than it looks. This episode opens with the host “jokingly” telling the studio audience that they’re the first crowd he’s had since the series started that didn’t stand up when he emerged from the wings. He then moves to the desk, to welcome Corbin Bernsen—whose name Chase repeatedly mispronounces—as Bernsen “jokingly” points out that the other talk shows give their guests much better swag. Chase, meanwhile, is trying to fit in his umpteenth reminder that he has a movie career that he put on hold for this. Fox had been trying to do its own late-night weekday programming since 1987, but after Chase, they just gave up. 

12 a.m.: Cheers, “One For The Road”
You’re entering the final third, so start with a bit of TV history and a very funny episode all rolled into one. One of the most perfect television shows ever created ended its run in 1993 with a series finale that was similarly pitch perfect, always pushing against the edges of being too maudlin but pulling back at the last minute every time. Sam Malone (Ted Danson) finds himself contemplating leaving Boston and Cheers forever when his former love Diane Chambers (Shelley Long) returns after six years away from the bar and the show, but as the two first try to fool each other into thinking they’re happy, then finally succumb to the passion they’ve always felt, the show strikes just the right note of tension—not between the will-they/won’t-they of the Sam and Diane relationship, but between the question of if Sam can ever leave behind the bar and friends that have defined his life. The closing moments are sublime (and you have just enough time left to watch some of the Bob Costas-hosted clip show that accompanied the finale’s original broadcast). 

1:30 a.m.: Frasier, “The Good Son”
Yet not everyone from the Cheers gang would leave television behind. Kelsey Grammer took Dr. Frasier Crane from supporting character on that show to lead character on his own, and the first episode of that series is one of the most elegantly constructed sitcom pilots ever, nicely setting up a whole new world, set of characters, and series of conflicts for a character who might have seemed limited as a series lead back in Boston. Frasier wins bonus points for introducing the world to the amazingly talented David Hyde Pierce as Frasier’s brother, Niles. 

2 a.m.: Deep Space Nine, “Duet”
It’s getting late, but the end is still some hours away; what better way to get a second wind than by watching a tense science-fiction drama about the psychological trauma of genocide and war? “Duet,” a standout hour in Deep Space Nine’s decent but largely unremarkable first season, focuses its attention on the fallout from the Cardassian occupation of Bajor. Major Kira Nerys, a former resistance fighter, catches what appears to be a Cardassian war criminal and has him arrested, but the more she looks into the case, the more complicated the situation becomes. The story’s twists and turns remain effective, but what gives the episode its power is its stubborn refusal to give any character exactly what he or she wants, acknowledging that some wounds are too deep to ever fully heal. 

3 a.m: The Real World: “Is David Going Home?”/“No Apologies Necessary”
MTV’s contribution to the birth of modern reality TV was in its second season in 1993, and still trying to pass itself off as a serious “social experiment.” In its clumsy way, The Real World could actually blunder into situations that illuminate hot-button issues of race and gender. The season’s big water-cooler moment begins when David, a black, aspiring comedian, tries to pull the bedclothes off his housemate Tami and the scene escalates as he drags her down the hall, while the perky “drama queen” Beth helps her stay covered. Tami seems to be laughing, and Beth is clearly having a good time even when Tami’s mood turns angry and avenging. After it does, it’s Beth who informs David that what he’s done is tantamount to rape. David, confused and hurt, sarcastically quotes Rodney King, and suggests that he’s being lynched. In the end, he’s evicted from the house, after the rhetoric has gotten so overheated that there’s no way for him to stay without everyone being uncomfortable. 

4 a.m.: Wild Palms, “Hello, I Must Be Going”
Anyone still watching TV at this hour might be afraid of their own dreams, and nobody who’s asleep is having a worse dream than the concluding episode of Wild Palms. This five-episode miniseries (adapted by Bruce Wagner from a comic strip he wrote for Details magazine) was ABC’s entry in 1993’s Weird TV sweepstakes. The raft of directors hired to work on the series (including Kathryn Bigelow and, for the finale, Phil Joanou) were unable to the achieve a consistent visual style that would bring Wagner’s fantasy of virtual reality and political terrorism in a futuristic L.A. to imaginative life, so each violent outburst and bit of freakishness just sits on the screen by itself, disconnected and inert. The series is interesting not as a harbinger of the more-adventurous TV of today, but as a fossilized relic of the kind of misguided, half-hearted “experimentation” with which networks hoped to create another Twin Peaks. 

5 a.m.: Legends Of The Hidden Temple, “The Golden Cricket Cage Of Khan”
It’s late. Like, really late. You might not be feeling like you can do anything well right now. So go ahead and indulge in 1993’s greatest game show, a game that was so impossibly difficult that it stymied about 75 percent of the 8- to 12-year-olds trying to get that goddamn Silver Monkey statue. This episode features the worst Temple Run in history, where the two contestants only manage to make to three of the 12 rooms. (They get stuck, understandably, in the pit of despair.) Let Kirk Fogg take you away to an exotic paradise where everyone loses and nothing hurts. 

5:30 a.m.: The Adventures Of Pete & Pete, “King Of The Road”
Prior to 1993, Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi delved into the weird world of Wellsville in a handful of Pete & Pete shorts and one-off specials. So it’s no wonder that the series’ first weekly installment arrives with such a strong declaration of purpose and personality. McRobb and Viscardi have described the aim of their show as restoring the wonder and mystery to childhood, and there’s no better starting point for that quest than the tedium of a family road trip. On Pete & Pete, an ordinary drive to the Hoover Dam is actually an opportunity to reinforce family pride, as the shabby Wrigleys compete with an all-American wonder family to secure the throne (and vanity license plate) of highway monarchy.  

6 a.m.: MTV video block 
In 1993, a random chunk of MTV videos can still be an insomniac’s best friend. R.E.M. may gently lull you to sleep, or MC Lyte may get you energized and ready to face the day; Nirvana may scare the shit out of you, or Blind Melon may solicit your tear ducts on behalf of misunderstood little girls in bee costumes. (If that kid has any luck, she’ll wash the jam band out of her ears, embrace her weirdness, and grow up to be Björk.) But this year, this channel, it all comes down to B. & B. 

6:30 a.m.: Mystery Science Theater 3000, “Manos: The Hands Of Fate
If there’s any TV show that rewards endurance, it’s MST3K. The movie-riffing show had a watershed year in 1993, hitting new creative heights in its fourth season and weathering the departure of creator and host Joel Hodgson in its fifth. Manos: The Hands Of Fate wasn’t the most punishing cinematic gauntlet Joel and The Bots faced in ’93—for all its “worst movie ever” failings, it’s no Monster A Go-Go—but the view from New Mexico’s most cult-friendly motor lodge makes fitting accompaniment for the delirium brought on by a full day in front of the tube. And there’s no better swan song for the TV of 1993 than “the haunting ‘Torgo’s Theme.’”