Let’s get one thing straight: I know that not all TV writers from the ’80s and ’90s were on psychedelic drugs. It’s just not logical, nor is it physically possible (I don’t think). But I can’t ignore the fact that many of the popular shows from these wondrous decades seem like they were written by people on drugs. You know what I’m talking about. Preposterous premises, surreal plot twists, swirling colors, and an overall how-on-earth-did-this-get-made kind of a vibe. Here are some of my favorites:
This rarely-remembered but much-loved gem ran for three seasons in the early 1990s. The premise, so aptly illustrated in the promo image above, featured a man working as a fact checker at a major magazine, living his successful-single-man life. Except, of course, his personality was always battling with itself (huh?) as demonstrated by the FOUR PEOPLE REPRESENTING HIS PSYCHE who were constantly squabbling and causing disasters… inside his head. This is such a bizarre and unlikely premise for a show, but for whatever reason, it worked. Angel, Animal, Wimp, and Genius were shown to live in an attic-like space inside Herman’s brain filled with old toys and filing cabinets, and they duked it out over every decision in Herman’s life. I kind of love the idea of there being actual people in my brain telling me what to do and how to do it, until I realize that’s pretty much the definition of schizophrenia.
The premise for this one is not entirely drug-fueled: an alien crash-lands in the suburban garage of a normal, American family and they take him in as a kind of pet. Sure, it’s weird, but typical sitcom territory. What makes this show extra trippy is the character of Alf himself. The details of his personality are, quite simply, bizarre: he’s strangely sexual, likes to eat cats, struggles with an addiction to cotton (and occasionally alcohol), and relies on sarcasm and cynicism as opposed to the more commonly expected extraterrestrial naivete and wonder. I’m a huge fan of Alf, but in case you were wondering about the people writing for him, see the movie Permanent Midnight and all will be answered.
Get a Life
A sitcom vehicle for comedian Chris Elliott, Get a Life was an unconventional show about a 30-year old paperboy who still lives with his parents. What puts this show firmly in the trippy category were the surreal elements at play in every episode. For instance, Chris Elliott’s character dies (yes, dies) in twelve different episodes, by means such as tonsilitis, stab wounds, falling out of an airplane, being strangled, choking on cereal, and just exploding. Of course, he’d be back next week as if nothing had happened. Interestingly, Elliott’s character is one of the original man-children (made famous in recent years in films by the likes of Judd Apatow), a grown-up who refuses to actually grow up.
Out of this World
I swear, this isn’t part of some anti-alien campaign whereby I convince you guys that anyone who writes about aliens must be using illegal drugs. But much like Alf, Out of this World is about an alien living among us. In this case, it’s Evie, a girl who finds out on her 13th birthday that she is half alien and has superpowers. Specifically, she can freeze time by touching her index fingers together, as shown above. But this alien element on its own is definitely not what makes this show trippy! No, that would be the way Evie communicates with her alien father – through a glowing device called only “The Cube”. Basically a glorified Earth-to-space telephone line, the cube is a ridiculously 80s-looking geometrical thing that pulses magenta light and allows Evie to “talk” to her father, whose booming voice (Burt Reynolds!) reverberates through The Cube and makes all the lights in the house dim. It’s just a super weird idea that seems like someone’s first spit-balled suggestion and was never really revisited again by the writers. Or they’re all doing drugs.
I’ve already waxed poetic ad nauseum on trippy television shows made for children (Under the Umbrella Tree, anyone?), but I had to mention Pee-Wee’s Playhouse once more. By far the most blatantly psychedelic show I’ve ever seen, our titular character lives in his titular playhouse surrounded by talking furniture, toys, gadgets, and puppets. He’s another bizarre man-child, and the colors and noises emanating from his house of fun are enough to make anyone feel like they’re about to overdose. Seriously, is it any wonder that my entire generation has one giant case of Attention Deficit Disorder?
Trippy-swirly-magical-bizarro-psychedelic television shows are fun because they take the already transportive experience of watching television and somehow make it all even dreamier. It’s amazing to me that any of these were made, but I’m definitely not complaining. Nor would I complain if anyone wanted to buy me a life-size Alf doll for my next birthday.