This week in PopCulture25YL, we’re taking a look at the music and shows from the month that was September of 1994.
VHS In The VCR
Party of Five
by Jason Sheppard
Party Of Five wasn’t the typical early 90s Fox young adult drama. The characters in this show didn’t attend fancy upscale high schools, they didn’t drive their Porsches to school every morning, they didn’t count down the days until they could show off the results of the nose jobs they underwent during summer vacation. They didn’t spend lunch hour shopping for the latest fashions on Rodeo. The characters of Party Of Five didn’t live in Malibu—they lived in San Francisco. They worried about bills every month, they had to take the bus to school, they had to dig unwashed clothes out of the laundry basket. In essence they were an actual family.
Party Of Five which debuted in September, 1994 on FOX was a show about five siblings coping as best as they can after an accident claimed their parents lives six months earlier. By the time the show begins, the kids are managing to their new reality which forced them all to grow up way faster than any of them were counting on.
Created by Christopher Keyser and Amy Lippman, Party of Five was initially backed by the network as a Beverly Hills, 90210-ish show about teens left to go wild and party without any responsibility (think a version of Less Than Zero for TV), but Keyser and Lippman wanted to show to go deeper than that. It was a very smart call.
The characters are defined and given actual personalities and humanity and it didn’t hurt that the cast chosen for Party Of Five was one of the best casts ever assembled for a show. Before he was Jack Shepard and got Lost, Matthew Fox played 24-year-old Charlie Salinger, the oldest sibling of the Salinger kids, suddenly faced with more responsibility than he really wanted and was ready for. Charlie, a sometime carpenter/designer was content to work the occasional job while enjoying a string of flings with various women. With his parents death, and having been named legal guardian to his four younger siblings, Charlie had to grow up very fast. Much too fast for his liking.
Charlie is still Charlie though and that means that his younger brother, Bailey (Scott Wolf) is left to call out Charlie when he acts more like a frat boy than a grown up in charge of a family. Bailley, 16, runs the house as best as he can, pretty much forgoing any life of his own. He’s also the first to let Charlie know when he’s screwed up (such as when Charlie admits he lost $12,000 of the family’s yearly living cash). Charlie then decides to move back to help put things back on track. Bailey would rather see him stay away but since Charlie is the legal guardian, he moves back anyway.
Now a house of four is a house of five: Charlie, Bailey, 15-year-old Julia (a luminous Neve Campbell), eight-year-old Claudia (a superb Lacey Chabert) and one-year-old Owen. Even though they are young, like Charlie, the younger Salingers had to grow up very fast that year. Bailey has now had to become the driver of the family – a role usually associated with the dad of a family. Bailey is okay with taking on this responsibility but he’s going to do it in a vehicle of his choosing: a new 1994 black jeep instead of the station wagon they discussed. Bailey reasons that a jeep is better for getting around those steep San Francisco streets – and to impress the girls (his instincts prove right on both counts).
Bailey is on the football team and is a good athlete but later we learn he’s close to flunking out of school. At sixteen, his mind of course is on sex—as in, he’s very eager to have it—with somebody.
At first, that somebody (he hopes) is Owen’s new nanny, Kirsten (Paula Devicq) who turns out, is actually slightly older than Charile. This doesn’t work out well for Bailey who very much lacks Charlie’s confidence and swagger when it comes to the opposite sex. One day while Bailey is working his crummy job selling athletic shoes, in walks Kate (Jennifer Blanc), a girl (his own age) who he immediately falls hard for but Bailey learns there’s two things in the way there: she already has a boyfriend and she doesn’t want to have sex. The boyfriend is soon history but the sex issue isn’t. It’s something Bailey will never understand especially when he sees Charlie sleeping with pretty much anyone he wants without exerting much effort, whenever he wants, no matter who might get hurt.
Julia doesn’t have any of these issues. Julia, who is strikingly beautiful doesn’t see herself that way at all. She lacks the self-confidence Charlie puts forth at pretty much everything in life (especially in “relationships”) and the confidence that Bailey exhibits at sports. Julia is a very talented and creative writer however, but writing doesn’t impress the cute guys. At least not the cute guys she’s into.
In the first episode, Julia buys a brand new black leather jacket for herself – a jacket which becomes her armor. She wears it all the time as if she believes it will help protect her from getting hurt in life. When a guy she winds up liking makes a date with her but just winds up brushing her off, she learns even her jacket (her armor) won’t shield her from heartbreak. When Julia gets roped into hosting raging parties at home, she’s conflicted about pleasing her family and kicking everybody out or letting the party go on in order to risk being shunned by the popular crowd in school. Maybe that pain causes her to grow into a mature young woman perhaps slightly faster than she’d like to. Because she carries herself in a mature manner, she manages to score a late-night job as a waitress in a bar even though she’s six years from legal age. It’s a perfect job for her as she then gets to hang out with guys her type; the troubled, rocker bad boy. Of course, her school work suffers as a result. Julia is someone who wants to feel valued and to believe she’s beautiful. It’s at work in the bar she receives that whereas at home she gets shouted at for spending $800 on modeling photos which everyone feels is a waste and well lead nowhere. Julia likes the bad boys because inside, her self-esteem is at a place where she feels that’s the only kind of guy who will like her back. With her parents gone and her brothers the only males around her who always complain over something she did, it’s little wonder.
Claudia, the most sensitive Salinger, is an extremely gifted child prodigy violinist. She is also the character most likely to break the viewers heart (such as the moment in the pilot when she has to sell her instrument in a pawn shop and removes her mother’s photo from inside the case). When Charlie moves back in, Claudia sets up a tent in the living room which acts as her bedroom (complete with items she “borrows” from Julia’s room.) Claudia who is often bugged by her older siblings is also the one most afraid of them having to be split up. When Claudia isn’t home she usually at practice, overseen by her instructor Ross (Mitchell Anderson). Like the other Salingers who dream big (Charlie scoring that one big carpentry gig, Julia making a splash as a model and Bailey who dreams of well, having sex with Kate), Claudia dreams of becoming a famous violinist. A dream we learn is because her mother was a violinist as well.
When Party Of Five premiered in September of 1994 it was heavily overshadowed by that season’s heavyweights (Friends and E.R.) and the show did poorly in the ratings. Even though the Salingers possessed exceptional genes and looks so good that it would have made the cast of Melrose Place take a second glance at, it was not that kind of tawdry, bed-hopping kind of show. Party of Five ran much deeper. It was even something most TV shows at the time weren’t – it was moving. It didn’t make you laugh a whole lot but it would make you cry. It’s hard to say if this was what TV audiences wanted —even though E.R. had plenty of serious cry-worthy moments as well. Whatever the reason, it was not a hit and faced the possibility of cancellation the next winter, even as TV Guide called it “The Best Show You’re Not Watching.”
After another low-rated season, a minor miracle happened: Party Of Five won the Golden Globe for Best Drama in January, 1996 beating out NYPD Blue, The X-Files and yes, even E.R. The season which was currently in production at the time, Season Three, was the series most dramatic and emotional as Bailey developed a crippling alcohol addiction. This tied into the whole initial story of the show as it was a drunk driver, who claimed the lives of the Salinger’s parents before the series began. Many of these later Party Of Five episodes were written by future Sopranos writers Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess so that should tell you the level of dramatic quality we’re talking about.
With new support and acclaim (Rosie O’Donnell who had a popular daytime talk show during the ’90s was a huge fan and supporter of Party Of Five), FOX kept the series on the air. Magazines like Entertainment Weekly would often champion the show and there was even a music video released of the show’s catchy theme song song “Closer To Free” by the BoDeans which featured the cast members. Until eventually, its cancellation in 2001 after co-star Neve Campbell decided it was time for her to leave (Campbell was riding high on the success of the Scream franchise during this period). An ill-advised spin-off (Time of Your Life) in 1999 featuring Jennifer Love Hewitt who played Bailey’s girlfriend in later seasons was a major bomb and didn’t help the longevity of the series.
It’s unlikely we’ll see another show like Party Of Five on network TV again although the current NBC series This Is Us is similar in tone and drama to POF. Netflix’s wonderful One Day at a Time also balances the same level of humour and heartbreak as POF but that show is more of a sitcom. A reboot of sorts was recently announced —helmed by Keyser and Lippman and focusing on a new family of Latin American siblings facing deportation— but none of the original cast members of the 90’s series is said to be taking part and that is actually, a very good thing.
In one emotionally wrought 1994 episode, the Salinger’s come face-to-face with the drunk driver who caused their parents death. When Julia sits down across from the man who took their parents away from her and her family, she tells him that despite the pain he’s caused them all, they will be fine going forward.
I have no doubt that Julia Salinger was absolutely right.
ReBoot by Simon McDermott
I have so many fond memories of ReBoot because it was so ahead of its time in both craft and narrative. First of all, it was the first cartoon In the world that was fully computer-animated and surprisingly, in retrospect, the graphics don’t look as dated as you would expect for being 25 years old.
Conceived by the British creative collective The Hub, the animation style they chose was a very colourful, sleek and shiny one that didn’t overreach in detail. I’m not sure whether this was on purpose or a happy accident because they were limited by the technology of the time but it worked really well and still does. I do know that the setting was chosen because of these limits, a great way to work around restrictions.
The animation style was so effective that when a new version of the show was released last year, it was kept very much the same, albeit with a tad more detail and texture. The new show is a mixture of live-action and animation and used the Powers Rangers blueprint by using teens who enter cyberspace and become avatars whilst in there that reflect their personalities. It’s more like Tron for the Apple generation, very bright and clean to the point of being almost clinical and sterile. I had no choice but to watch it and its sole focus on an audience of young children, making the saccharine live-action almost unbearable. The half of the show that plays out in cyberspace is still entertaining though, which shows why this ReBoot reboot —sorry, not sorry— failed so miserably.
The magic of the original show came from the fact that everything took place in cyberspace and it created this vast, infinite universe of possibilities. The premise was that our main character Bob is a Guardian, whose duty is to take on The User (namely us) in whatever game they’re playing. He does this to protect his home, a computer system called Mainframe. This was great writing because it was a clever way of introducing new, varied challenges every episode that required no explanation. There were internal villains too, the great virus Megabyte being the main one. There were other aptly named antagonists such as his sister Hexadecimal and their lackeys Hack and Slash.
This initial setup was great for a time and very innocent compared to what followed in later series. The show didn’t rest on its laurels, and made the right move to kick things up a gear. Enzo, who was initially a kid who looked up to Bob and yearned to be a Guardian, takes the lead in the later series as an adult, renamed Matrix. After certain events, he finds himself lost in The World Wide Web, where he is a traveler who has more mature adventures whilst trying to find his way home.
There were many great cartoons in this period of the early ’90s and most of them were based on comic books and video games. What made ReBoot stand out was that it looked so innovative with its use of computer graphics, that they were perfect for the story it was telling and it was an original show. The initial concept was conceived in 1980 but the show’s creators had to wait for technology to catch up to their ambitions and the first tests weren’t carried out until 1990. It then took a further four years of painstaking work on new software to produce enough episodes to start airing. No one had undertaken such a huge 3D project of this scale up to this point. The hard work and creativity paid off though, as the show went on to win multiple, well-deserved awards and they created
something unique that stands the test of time.
The Tick by Brien Allen
To explain The Tick, it might be best to start out with his own words:
“I am mighty! I have a glow you cannot see. I have a heart as big as the moon. As warm as bathwater. We are superheroes, men, we don’t have time to be charming. The boots of evil were made for walkin’. We’re watching the big picture, friend. We know the score. We are a public service, not glamour boys. Not captains of industry. Keep your vulgar moneys. We are a justice sandwich. No toppings necessary. Living rooms of America, do you catch my drift? Do… you… dig?”
The Tick is big, blue, and nigh invulnerable. He is the brawn and his sidekick, Arthur, is the brains. He’s not stupid, mind you. He’s more like a child trapped in a superhero’s body, complete with his child-like enthusiasm for justice and fighting evil.
The Tick began as a mascot for the newsletter of a small independent comic store chain in 1986. He was drawn and written by then high schooler Ben Edlund. From those humble beginnings, The Tick was upgraded to a black-and-white comic, and eventually a full-color comic. In the early 1990s, Edlund was approached by a toy company to produce an animated version of The Tick, which was picked up by Fox Kids for their Saturday morning cartoon schedule in 1994. Edlund has maintained creative control over The Tick throughout all of its incarnations, including all three seasons (36 episodes total) of the cartoon series, and the two live-action versions of The Tick, on Fox (one season, 2001-2002) and Amazon (two seasons, 2016-2019).
The first episode of the cartoon begins with an interview segment, in which the Tick recounts his origin story, such as it is. “It all started in Reno,” he begins. The Tick just shows up out of the blue at the National Super Institute to participate in an annual competition for assignment to the best cities to defend. He proves his mightiness by accidentally destroying the Institute, and is assigned to defend The City. Yes, that’s right, it’s called “The City”. Did I forget to mention that this a parody? In the comic book, the Tick just shows up having escaped from a mental institution to embrace his destiny, so maybe this origin story is a slight upgrade.
On his first patrol of The City, the Tick runs into hero-wannabe Arthur, who was just fired from his job as an accountant for constantly wearing his superhero outfit to work. The costume is of a white moth, complete with wings that he is not very good at using initially. One of the many running gags on the show is that because of the floppy white antenna on the costume, it is constantly being mistaken for a bunny outfit. Arthur is an extremely ordinary guy, a little out of shape even, who desperately wants to be a superhero—except for all of his fears and general anxiety. The Tick however sees Arthur’s destiny and drags him along to save The City. Thereafter, they become a crime fighting duo, and Arthur’s apartment becomes their secret superhero headquarters.
The City is actually already populated by a host of superheroes and supervillains. Some of these are parodies of “real” comic book characters, such as Die Fledermaus (Batman), Big Shot (The Punisher), Dinosaur Neil (The Lizard) and Omnipotus (Galacticus). Others are just silly gimmick characters, like Sewer Urchin (a hero whose main power is his constant stench) and Chairface Chippendale (a villain who has a chair for a head). A lot of the humor of the show comes in the mundane day-to-day stuff of being roommates, going shopping, overcoming a cold, and hanging out with the other heroes.
Each episode is a standalone story, but there is a loose continuity throughout the series. For example, in the first episode, The Tick tells Big Shot to seek therapy, and then a few episodes later, Big Shot is at a superhero club trying to apply what he’s learned in therapy to diffuse an argument. Damage to the moon continues to be visible in the background throughout the series. Several of the supervillains make return appearances in later episodes. There is also a running plot line with Arthur, where he meets and falls in love with Carmelita, daughter of the man who invented his suit.
All of the episodes of The Tick are currently available on YouTube.
CDs On Rotation In Our Six-Disk
Various- If I Were A Carpenter by John Bernardy
The only reason why you’ll remember this album is for the somewhat off-putting Sonic Youth cover of “Superstar” that was later used in Juno. But much like DGC Rarities, I was pleasantly surprised by the rest of the tracks on this compilation.
The album is the brainchild of producer Matt Wallace (who had produced the Replacements, and was currently producing bands like Faith No More) and David Konjoyan, and it really seems odd to me, even today. If you were going to combine the adult contemporary-leaning ’70s pop of the Carpenters with piano-based bands like Keane would be one thing, but to make this album in the mid-’90s with grunge bands when the Carpenters were firmly considered “my parents music”? I would’ve never come up with this.
But you know what? It’s really good. It was really fun to hear a lot of the lead singers hit proper notes instead of growling. You can tell a lot of these folks have better singing chops than the grunge lifestyle allows them to show off.
The best blends of grunge plus Carpenters came in the tracks by Dishwalla (“It’s Going to Take Sometime), Shonen Knife (“Top of the World”) and Johnette Napolitano with Mark Moreland (“Hurting Each Other”). Cracker went minimalist on “Rainy Days and Mondays,” Sheryl Crow went dramatic and appropriately stark on “Solitaire,” and Matthew Sweet went country slide guitar and clean precise vocals on “Let Me Be the One.” 4 Non Blondes put their sound all over “Bless the Beasts and Children,” and Grant Lee Buffalo went really close to the original on “We’ve Only Just Begun.”
The Cranberries went incredibly endearing and sweet on “(They Long to Be) Close To You,” which was a favorite highlight of mine, as was the inclusion of Bettie Serveert (“For All We Know”). I didn’t find Bettie Serveert until their album Log 22, so hearing them pop up ten years earlier with their signature sound was a real treat.
Come for Sonic Youth, but make sure you check out the rest.
Blues Traveler- Four by Cat Smith
On This You Can Rely.
I was in college when this album dropped. And it dropped big – the catchy songs got a lot of radio play, and nothing thrives in a college atmosphere like that to which you can sing along. Driving down Long Island’s Hempstead Turnpike at 2 A.M., blasting this out the windows of your car while you and your friends sang along to the popular tracks, hoarse by time we arrived at the North Shore Diner for our gravy fries…those were some good times.
Blues Traveler had certainly been around for a while before four happened. I hadn’t known them, but I backtracked and bought their previous three. four was, in my opinion, the first album where they really got it right all the way through.
It was a different kind of sound than anything else that had been on the mainstream radio. Before John Popper came on the scene, most peoples idea of a harmonica solo consisted of Bob Dylan droning into one of those hands-free neck rigged ones. Who would have even considered the idea of a harmonica virtuoso? And Popper sang like he played. His vocals moved like water, the lyrics were fast and clever. The first track that grabbed everyone’s attention was “Runaround”, and between the glib lyrics and the lilting harmonica, even if you noticed that it consisted of only four chords, you didn’t care.
The other big single from this album was “Hook”, and I’ll get to that in a second. But my favourite track off the album was a definite “B” side. “The Mountains Win Again” is a mellow blues type riff, penned by Bobby Sheehan. Your typical breakup song, certainly. But Popper’s vocals and Sheehan’s lyrics give it both poignancy and some teeth. And – gasp – an actual guitar solo, once the harmonica bit is done. The electric guitar added to the teeth of the song, and helped it to sound bitter and pleading at the same time. We’ve all felt that way, I’m sure, but Blues Traveler did a terribly good job articulating it.
“Hook” was the big thing from that album, and the one that affected my college days. Nothing promotes bonding like a good patter song. You know all that time you spent in cars with your friends, doing the obligatory sing-a longs to things like “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” and the like, til it almost became mandatory fun? Because sometimes it felt kind of forced? Maybe that was just my crowd. But when “Hook” came on the radio, everything became easy. Not only was it a fun challenge to see if you could remember all the words in front of your friends (and this song has all the words), but it was catchy AF. And because it was college, sometimes people would get possessive over a song, because you sing it with them, and no way should you ever sing it with anyone else. Remember how we used to get silly over dumb things like that? And then there was the time I was told that my then-boyfriend was given grief by his ex over the time he sang the song with me at the bar instead of her. That particular Blues Traveler drama was settled when the fraternity I had pledged (yes, I said frat. It was a local, so they occasionally took women, and I fit in with them way more than I did with the sorority girls) inducted me, and bestowed upon me the name and title “Brother Hook”. I win.
Ah, college. I don’t think you could have possibly had a better soundtrack than this one. Thanks, Blues Traveler.