Back in junior high, I spent a lot of my free time alone. I don’t mean that to sound maudlin; I had friends, and we’d hang out often enough. Thing was, we had few common interests, and whenever they ran off to do whatever normal boys did, I hid at home.
This was during the early ‘90s, and I can’t sugarcoat it: Those were pretty lonely times. My experiences certainly weren’t unique, as I’m sure a lot of you were also victims of demographics, living in neighborhoods where, God dammit, not one other person was anything like you.
I made plenty of friends in high school — many of whom drove — and suddenly those years spent bored and bewildered were just a part of my past. I didn’t miss them then, but the weird thing is how much I miss them now.
A quiet freedom (literal and figurative) comes with solitude, and I can’t help but idealize those long ago weekends, when I threw myself into hobbies and discovered everything that made me tick. I’ve spent my whole life dabbling in obsessions, but most of my truest passions were defined in that era. (And I know that they’re the truest, because I had no audience.)
The bulk of those weekends were spent in my bedroom, which was less a “bedroom” and more my own personalized ecosphere. It wasn’t just a place to sleep — it was a place to live. In there was access to everything that kept me sane, from toys to videos to Nintendos to back issues of Starlog. The walls were covered with pleasant sights, the shelves topped with plastic joy. There you’d find me filling out order slips for vintage Star Wars collectibles, reading books about sharks, and drawing bad ripoffs of The Infinity Gauntlet. I didn’t know it, but I was happy.
I watched a lot of TV on those weekends, on a half-fritzed hand-me-down with perpetual fuzz and three of the buttons missing. Nothing makes me remember that time of my life quite like those old shows.
In a sense, those weekend programs were my friends, dropping by to provide me with much-needed distractions. I counted on them, big time. I’m not talking about Saturday morning cartoons, either — I was already a little old for those, and besides, it’s okay if Saturday mornings are boring. It wasn’t until late afternoon that joining the Little League started to seem like a good idea.
In the early ‘90s, weekend programming on network television was… interesting. There you’d find made-for-syndication sitcoms that never played on weekdays, stuck in horrible Saturday timeslots that guaranteed audiences no larger than two dozen. By late afternoon, the more popular syndicated shows would get their first-runs. Finally, in the dark of night, there was my beloved parade of eerier entries that made going to sleep with the lights off tough.
Below are six examples. At the time, none of these shows were anything approaching my “favorites.” I started watching them simply because they were the best case scenarios. Every single one of them reminds of those lost ‘90s weekends, when I was stuck in my bedroom to stew-or-swim. Seeing a mere snippet of any of them makes me feel simultaneously depressed and inspired, as impossible as that sounds.
Star Trek: The Next Generation!
I’ve never once considered myself a “Trekkie,” or even a casual Star Trek fan. This despite having seen nearly every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which debuted in 1987 and remained one of the absolute rulers of weekend television during the early ‘90s.
It was one of the few weekend shows that truly “belonged” there. Whenever a new episode was scheduled to air, the promos treated it like a Very Big Deal. I eventually bit the hook, and it was the one weekend series that I watched as an event.
Harry and the Hendersons!
It’s safe to assume that most of you have seen the movie, and just as safe to assume that most of you never even knew that Harry and the Hendersons became a TV series. Yep, it’s true!
Incredibly, it lasted for three seasons, even if the producers only had enough sasquatch-focused stories to cover one. By the end of the show, the fact that this family lived with goddamned Bigfoot was only occasionally a major plot point. I remember several episodes that had absolutely nothing to do with Harry, treating the character no differently than another TV family might treat their well-trained German Shepherd. It was bizarre.
Xena: Warrior Princess!
I wasn’t heavily into Xena, but like Star Trek, it was one of the few weekend shows that was given any promotional respect. I started watching it mostly out of some misguided sense of camaraderie. No, really. I’ll explain.
You could only watch Xena on weekends (the new episodes, at least) and I knew it was popular, so joining in was like being part of some club that never congregated and didn’t actually exist. It’s like how we’ll watch movies that we already own on DVD when they’re on television. There’s a certain joy in knowing that others are doing the exact same thing at the exact same time.
WCW Saturday Night!
I didn’t have cable in my bedroom, so watching WCW Saturday Night involved bogarting the “family” TV set. At the time, I was a huge WWF fan and not at all a WCW fan, but hey, wrestling was wrestling.
Actually, the neatest thing for me was catching glimpses of former WWF stars. WCW had a habit of picking up every WWF castoff, so watching WCW in the early ‘90s was like watching WWF in the mid ‘80s. “Hey look, it’s Paul Orndorff! Paul Orndorff and a… magic mirror? What the hell happened to Paul Orndorff?!”
(Of course, my favorite thing about WCW Saturday Night was its ‘90s revamp to include the opening sequence linked above, which was probably inspired by Terminator 2.)
What a Dummy!
Oh God, this show. In all my years spent peddling nostalgia, I’ve yet to find even one other person who remembers What a Dummy. Here, a regular TV family is joined by a sentient ventriloquist’s dummy, who wisecracks through 24 episodes of 100% “I can’t believe I’m watching this” lunacy.
It was basically ALF with a dummy, but “Buzz” always reminded me more of Chucky. (I was a huge fan of Child’s Play 2, which debuted only a month after What a Dummy did.) With the same stringy red hair and turn-on-a-dime eyes, Buzz never did anything especially evil… but I just knew that he could and would, if the opportunity presented itself.
What a Dummy also holds the distinction of being the first show I ever hate-watched. Even in 1991, I knew that this dopey series was steaming bullshit. Of course, it was steaming bullshit that I went out of my way to watch, every Saturday afternoon, and steaming bullshit that I would’ve been irrationally upset to miss.
…and steaming bullshit that I still pray gets a DVD release, someday. So maybe it wasn’t so much “steaming bullshit” as a show I didn’t want to own up to enjoying.
Tales from the Darkside!
By far the most important entry on this list. Tales from the Darkside remains my all-time favorite “scary show,” thanks in no small part to its chilling intro.
In the early ‘90s, Tales from the Darkside was the last “good thing” on Saturday TV, airing super late and being followed by absolutely nothing that would get my mind off of whatever horrors I’d just witnessed. For as long as I remained awake, I’d be stuck with those visions, paralyzed by the notion that monsters and murderers were just outside my bedroom window. (I believed this despite being on the second floor, mind you.)
Only in retrospect do I see that this terror was exhilarating, and that without it, my Saturday nights would’ve been even more boring. Even today, I keep my DVR stuffed with Tales from the Darkside reruns, and I’m always waiting for the right mix of darkness and thunderstorms to have my happy/sad marathons.
I cannot exaggerate how important these silly shows were to me. With few friends and no internet, they absolutely shaped my weekends, and kept 48 hours from feeling like 500. Today, they’re triggers for so many other memories, too. If I catch a clip of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I suddenly remember that I used to collect buffalo nickels. If someone brings up Xena: Warrior Princess, all I wanna do is draw bad comics that have zero to do with her.
Subconscious as it may have been, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that my home office looks so much like my childhood bedroom. It even has a similarly ratty television. And yep, I love watching Tales from the Darkside on it.