Friday, August 23, 2013

Jenn's Pick: 10 Television Shows That Defined My Childhood

I was born in 1989 and therefore spent my childhood in the 90s. It was there that I was free to tote around my Cabbage Patch doll, try and keep my Tamagotchi alive for more than a few days, and then play Pretty Pretty Princess. The 90s were a great decade to grow up in, truthfully. School was enjoyable, ‘N Sync was on the radio, and there were so many wonderful and influential television shows on each week. I think one of the greatest things about life is that you’re often unable to fully appreciate the impact that your childhood has on you until you leave it behind. Gone are the days of playing in the backyard with neighbors until your mom called you in for dinner. It’s been years since I’ve been able to enjoy a complete day without any responsibilities.

Being an adult has its perks, of course, but there’s something to be said about taking time to reminisce on the “good old days” of our youth every now and then. I’ve mentioned this concept before in my Community reviews – it’s important for us to reflect on where we started our journey in order to appreciate where we are now and focus on where we want to go from there. I love being retrospective, I love being nostalgic, and I love the era that I grew up in. So many elements of my childhood shaped who I became as an adult, so it seems fitting to celebrate ten television shows that influenced me as a child.

Bear in mind, of course, that unless you grew up in the 90s like I did, these will probably differ from the shows that influenced YOUR childhood and stuck in your memory. And that’s okay – hit the comments below and let me know what specific shows had an impact on your life, too! So if you’re ready, grab those Lisa Frank pencil cases, your Power Ranger action figures, and put on those bell bottoms because we’re about to head back into the good ‘ol days of television!

10. Mad About You (1992 – 1999)

There are two things I remember quite clearly that my dad introduced me to as a child: classic soft rock ‘n’ roll music (Billy  Joel and Phil Collins) and Mad About You. There are certain things that make you feel more grown up than you are as a child, and nothing allows you to feel more like an adult than being allowed to watch the television shows your parents watched.

Mad About You was an early 90s sitcom that starred Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt as a young married couple living in New York City, dealing with the struggles that young newlyweds often face. What I remember clearly about the series was this: there was a dog. And I loved that dog.

In all seriousness though, Mad About You was a great and funny show that had a lot of witty dialogue, typical of 90s sitcoms and paving the way for shows that I currently watch today. The concept wasn’t particularly revolutionary, but it took an ordinary concept and made it extraordinary. Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt had wonderful chemistry together and there was a fantastic supporting cast. It was one of the lesser-known greats, and I’m definitely in need of a re-watch now that I’m older and can appreciate the humor more.

9. The Nanny (1993 – 1999)

There are few television series that I have literally seen every single episode of, but The Nanny ranks among one of these. My childhood was influenced by my family, of course, and this series was one of the ones that I often watched with my aunt (she was always a lot like Fran Fine with a colorful wardrobe and big hair). Much like Mad About You, I enjoyed watching a more “adult” sitcom as a child because it made me feel included with the grown-ups. The Nanny is still one of my favorite television shows to re-watch on Nick at Nite (and they air re-runs nearly every night during the week) because the humor never gets old to me. What’s wonderful about the show is that it included everything – a solidly hilarious lead female character, a snarky and witty butler, romantic tension, Charles Shaughnessy, a crazy and weird extended family, and just enough heart to ground the show. Fran’s escapades sometimes resembled that of Lucy Ricardo’s in I Love Lucy, which I think is what aided the series throughout its run.

Basically, I just love The Nanny and it will forever remain an influential piece of my pop culture childhood!

8. Who's the Boss? (1984 – 1992) 

Who’s the Boss? is actually the oldest on my list of influential television shows. The series starred Tony Danza, a very young Alyssa Milano, and Judith Light. This was an unconventional family-centric show in that it portrayed a family that was not really a complete family by blood or marriage, since Tony was merely Angela’s housekeeper. Tony, however, filled a fatherly role for Angela’s son, while Angela and Angela’s mother Mona (arguably the best part of this entire series) provided Tony’s daughter with womanly support and advice. There was a constant tension and back-and-forth that existed between Tony and Angela, where the two were clearly attracted to one another (which made living together complex). And, spoiler alert: before the end of the series, they FINALLY professed their love for one another, providing audiences with a solid six years’ worth of will-they-won’t-they tension (man, how did we manage THAT back in the day?)

But ultimately this show was all about love, support, and becoming a family even when that doesn’t look the same as everyone else.

7. Growing Pains (1985 – 1992)

Continuing the trend of family-centered sitcoms (remember when those were actually a thing?), another show that significantly influenced my childhood was Growing Pains. This series starred Alan Thicke, Kirk Cameron, Joanna Kerns, Jeremy Miller, and Tracey Gold as a family living in New York, dealing with the same issues that normal families did. However, this series was quite inventive when it came to gender roles – in it, the father stayed home with the children while the mother returned to work full-time.

I loved this series growing up and watched it in re-runs, obviously, since I wasn’t even born yet (yeah, I’m a baby) when the series premiered. Nevertheless, Growing Pains was a staple in my household because it taught us good morals while still remaining funny and interesting. It showed us growth, too, in its characters as Mike went from a slacker student to a motivated, put-together teacher. And the final season introduced us to a character named Luke which was just some young actor named Leonardo DiCaprio.

… Yeah, I don’t think you guys have heard about him.

6. Lizzie McGuire (2001 – 2004)

Lizzie McGuire is a series that is significantly more recent on my list, but a show that influenced my childhood no less. As a middle school student, I found myself identifying with and admiring Lizzie. She had the life, after all: an awesome set of best friends, a cool wardrobe, and a cartoon version of herself that narrated her thoughts. Lizzie McGuire is one of the last “great” Disney Channel shows, in my opinion, because it wasn’t afraid to tackle subjects that pre-teen girls were experiencing on a daily basis. And while Lizzie didn’t always make the right decisions, she did always learn from those experiences and grow as a character because of them. She wasn’t the “popular girl” in her class, but she was liked by others because of her personality and I think that message always resonated with me as a kid: you don’t have to be a cheerleader to be liked by others.

Lizzie was an inspiration to a 12-year old girl like me, and the Disney Channel series definitely influenced me as a child (and gave me my first ever self-identified ship – Gordo/Lizzie!).

5. Family Matters (1989 – 1998)

Family Matters was a part of a block that ABC used to air on Fridays called “TGIF.” I remember it airing alongside Dinosaurs (does anyone else remember that show like I do?), and I vividly remember watching it as a child. Seemingly, I had nothing in common with the Winslow family, and that might have been pretty accurate. But I think that what Family Matters as a series taught me was exactly that notion – it doesn’t matter if you are the same race, religion, or family structure as the characters on a television series. The Winslows were humans and they had the same experiences, went through the same struggles, and enjoyed the same triumphs that I did.

Additionally, since Family Matters was about an African-American family, I was able to understand (as a child who grew up in a nearly all-Caucasian small town) the struggles that were unique to the Winslow family because of their race. Laura was a role model to me because she was smart, confident, and fun. And I loved Rachel as a character.

(But of course, Steve Urkel was the breakout of the series and made me laugh consistently on a weekly basis.) Overall, Family Matters was a solid series that made me laugh, made me think, and gave pop culture an iconic television character.

4. Boy Meets World (1993 – 2000)

Boy Meets World is a series that every 90s child (or at least all of the ones that I have known) grew up on. We followed Cory, Shawn, Eric, and Topanga from the time they were children until they went to college, married, and began lives of their own. One of the key elements that the vast majority of 90s sitcoms had that made them influential was the ability to tackle difficult but relevant subject matter. We saw Cory struggle through his childhood and watched him and his friends tackle the exact same issues we were encountering in the hallways at school. We learned about true love from Cory and Topanga’s relationship, and saw what friendship looked like in Cory and Shawn.

But there is one aspect of Boy Meets World that made this series such a stand-out, and before you even finish reading this sentence, you know what I will say: Mr. Feeny. This character is perhaps one of the greatest, if not the greatest, teachers to ever exist on television. Mr. Feeny taught Cory, Topanga, Shawn, and Eric lessons in school, but everything about life itself. He was their mentor, their constant and their friend.

Boy Meets World was one of those shows that was never afraid to make you cry, to make you think, and to make you learn and grow because of that. It’s honestly one of the most influential series of my childhood, and I wish there were shows on television today that made the same impact on children now as this one did on me back then.

3. 7th Heaven (1996 – 2007)

I clearly remember my mom watching 7th Heaven in her room when I ventured inside and asked if I could watch it with her. After a moment of hesitation, she conceded and allowed me to watch the series with her. 7th Heaven was a series that was more of a family dramedy than anything else, but was extremely influential in my life. It was a series that focused on faith, family, and love – three elements that were important to my own life, growing up.

What I truly loved about 7th Heaven was that it was never afraid to be bold, and that was rare in a series during the time it aired, especially for a show to focus on a minister and his churchgoing – and very large – family.  This was a series that was daring and unapologetic in what it stood for and preached (no pun intended) and was, in fact, the longest running family drama in television history which speaks volumes about the quality of the show. Lucy Camden was always my favorite character on the series because I could relate to her so completely. She was a good girl, model student, and devoted sister and daughter and was, consequently, a television role model for me growing up. 7th Heaven was a series that thrived on the “very special episode” concept but managed to never make whatever moral lesson it was teaching feel contrived. And, throughout the entire run of the series, the Camdens faced topics such as bullying, school violence, abuse, alcoholism, racism, and doubting your faith.

I understand, in retrospect, why my mom was initially hesitant to allow me to watch a series with heavy subject matter at such a young age. I am, however, glad that she was able to include me in her television-viewing habits because watching 7th Heaven truly opened my eyes to the reality of what I could face in high school and beyond. By my mom watching the series with me, it opened the lines of communication between us, which is something I feel rarely exists in television these days. And I’m truly thankful that 7th Heaven existed when I was a child, because it shaped my life.

2. Home Improvement (1991 – 1999)

Home Improvement was another one of my dad’s influences in my life. The series was a favorite of his, and therefore was often playing in our house. It starred Tim Allen, the host of his own television series called “Tool Time,” where he gets to discuss tools, cars, and equipment with his audience (and often uses that as a platform to additionally discuss personal and family issues with his assistant Al). The series focused on Tim, his wife Jill, and their three sons as they navigated their daily life and struggles (notice the theme of 90s family sitcoms?)

Tim Allen was hilarious as Tim Taylor – he always had a wonderful knack for physical comedy and for delivering lines, and the series was heavily focused on creating scenarios where the characters shone. Since Tim is (ironically) an accident-prone handyman, this became a running joke throughout the series, and characters would attempt to prevent Tim from potentially ruining a project by getting his hands on or in it. But every comedy needs a bit of grounding in order to be successful and not delve into absurdity. For Home Improvement, that came in the form of the Taylor’s next-door neighbor, Wilson.

Wilson was a constant in Tim’s life and was always his confidante and mentor. The neighbor provided Tim with advice on life, family, and difficult decisions that needed to be made. Comedically, Tim would often misconstrue the famous quotes that Wilson would provide him with in order to make his decision. Nevertheless, Wilson was the character that truly grounded this series and provided it with those “resolution music” moments that made 90s sitcoms so brilliant.

1. Full House (1987 – 1995)

I can think of no show that defined my childhood quite like Full House did, which is why it is ranked as my #1 influence. This series was a great source of inspiration for every other sitcom that would follow, because it was unafraid to be a family-centered comedy that still managed to tackle difficult issues every week. We watched as D.J., Stephanie, and Michelle grew up. We saw them struggle with boys, friendships, self-image, and family issues. It was a comfort, then, to grow up in the 90s and see these characters deal with the same things that I dealt with on a daily basis.

What I admire so much about this series particularly is that it ALWAYS ended with a lesson being taught and learned by the Tanner family. My sister and I like to joke that there’s “resolution music” (because the show did play the same music every time the plot would wrap up with a learned lesson), but when I really think about it, apart from the cheesiness of it all, Full House’s formula was quite refreshing. There are very few shows on television these days – and even fewer that are family-friendly – that manage to accomplish all that Full House did in its eight-year run by providing growth and real-life lessons for audiences.

I think there is something to be said about all the shows that defined my childhood: the vast majority of these were airing in the 90s which, as I have said before, was the prime decade for pop culture and television. Each of the series I noted provided me with real, brilliant characters, hilarious stories, and memorable life lessons that I have carried with me to this very day. How many series today can say the same?

So now that I have listed the top ten shows that influenced my life as I grew up, hit the comments below and let me know which series influenced YOUR childhood! And as always, thank you for reading. :)

1 comment:

  1. Great list of shows! I was born in 1989 too, so my list is pretty much the same as yours. Though I think I'd replace Full House with 3rd Rock From The Sun for my #1 spot. :)