Oh, 1996: The time in which my eighth year of life on this Earth came to an end and my ninth began. I had begun to take school seriously (#honorrollgoals), spent most of my time in dance class and didn’t care about too much more than my coke bottle glasses and whatever new sneakers were coming out for the week that I could sport on casual Fridays (the perks of being a private school girl.)
The year was also a pretty fantastic time for television. I still frequently hear that television kills brain cells and that it’s an idiot box, but I have always begged to differ. Like any kind of media you consume, it can be either imbecilic or informative and, though a balance is best, there’s absolutely no reason why you cannot take any major keys from the telly. I’m still gleaning some epic lessons from television and fondly remember the messages I received from the good old year of 1996. Here are a few from some of the legendary (well, in my mind at least) series that debuted that year:
Lesson #1: Feelings are strange, but they’re some of the best parts of being a human.
How many shows have there been about aliens? I don’t have enough digits to count them all. Humans have been fascinated with extraterrestrials since we figured out that we were just one of many planets in the universe. We very clearly have no idea what these space-residing beings think of us, where they currently live, nor their ways of life, but 3rd Rock From the Sun attempted to showcase the humor of just how preposterous humankind looks from their perspective. There is undoubtedly nothing as strange and (at times) confusing as feelings: the kind that start coursing through every fiber of your being at nine years old and only continue to escalate for the next decade and beyond. The series taught me that emotion is peculiar and often doesn’t make a bit of sense (3rd Rock’s pentad struggle with the overwhelming onslaught of emotion they experience on Earth compared with their stoic existence on their own planet), but it’s one of the best parts of humankind. Though bad sensations can seem to suffocate you in their grasp — like the nasty divorce my parents had gone through not long before — emotions like excitement, enjoyment and affection have the power to imbue a kind of happiness into your life that erases all of that, even just temporarily.
Lesson #2: Superpowers seem really cool, but there aren’t really any shortcuts to making good things happen for you in your life.
Confession: I’m still very obsessed with witches. There’s just something about the connection to nature, sisterhood and that everlasting struggle between good and evil that moves me. Though I had seen countless films about the conjurers, Sabrina the Teenage Witch made it all very real and mundane for me — she was just a girl trying to get through high school, shake off the haters, like a cute boy (and have him like her back) and navigate her wacky but loving family. Sounds very much like my life then…and now. Sabrina got in the habit of trying to right her wrongs and speed up the living process by using magic, but with almost every spell she found that there are disastrous results when you try to shortcut your way through existence — sometimes immediately and sometimes when it came back to bite her months later. Though getting to the good stuff is a long journey and dwelling on your mistakes seems to last a lifetime, there are no bypasses or timesavers when it comes to what’s meant for you. You just have to keep your head down and do the work.
Lesson #3: Having siblings doesn’t make you a better or more considerate person.
I went through bouts of wanting a younger sister or brother throughout my childhood mostly because people touted it as this amazing opportunity to always have someone to play with. I was at the age where the pressure to conform is pulsing through your brain constantly, so I was feeling a serious case of FOMO about not having a sibling around. Well, that was until I saw 7th Heaven. For one, that house was busy as hell! It did seem fun to always have something going on and someone on whom you could cast the blame, but you also had no semblance of privacy, an added layer of complication and opinion and someone always in your business. Being met with the “only child” trope whenever I discussed my family gave me a bit of a complex, but it didn’t take me long to realize that that syndrome was only a cop-out for those who would grow up to be selfish and inconsiderate, no matter how many siblings they had or didn’t have. All of your interpersonal relationships shape who you are, related or not.
Lesson #4: Family will drive you nuts, but they do indeed have your back through the world’s incessant crap.
I’ll never grow tired of shows that showcase life at its realest points, from those who work in service positions to series that simply depict the inner workings of families. No, the picture isn’t always pretty, but there’s always something to take away from it all because, let’s be honest, anything comprised of people will always change and remain somewhat elusive. I’ll also never be exhausted by black families onscreen, especially those that most closely resemble my upbringing and can help me unpack what that meant then and continues to mean now. The Jamie Foxx Show injected humor into the everyday. Jamie was insufferable and sometimes delusional in his pursuits, but his aunt and uncle were always there for him and he was just as supportive in return. There’s more comfort in that than any other feeling.
Lesson #5: Cherish your BFFs with all you have, but do try to prevent them from doing stupid sh*t.
I’ve gone through a few best friends in my life — I think everyone has right? It’s not something I pride myself on or that I wish to do anymore, but people change and your relationships do as well. Almost all the shows on Nickelodeon centered on friendship, which was pretty pivotal for a girl who valued her close companions as much as I did. Few were closer than Kenan & Kel, to the point that you could hardly say one’s name without immediately uttering the other’s. They got themselves into some pretty zany situations, as you do when you’re living on burgers and orange soda. Some were simply hilarious and others gave me pause and made me wonder why Kenan (the markedly more reasonable one) would let Kel do such wild and crazy things. We cannot control our friends — they’re people who need to live and learn as we do — but we can do our duty and warn them about harm. (Though I limit my warnings to two.) It’s something I still do today in my personal life, and hopefully my favorite girls and guys love me for it.
Lesson #6: Move far enough away from your parents that you can dictate how often you see them.
I’m not sure what the average age most people move out on their own is, but I moved out when I was 25. When I was a kid, I thought I’d be married by 23…so clearly reality didn’t live up to my initial expectations. Even from a young age, I knew there was something special about striking out on your own. I figured I’d stay in NYC (it’s truly one of the best, and I’ve been everywhere), but wasn’t certain I’d move into the actual city — the boroughs still hold my heart. I am blessed to not have an overbearing parent who breathes down my neck at every turn or is unsupportive or cynical in the face of my ambitions like Raymond Barone. I thank every single God and the entirety of the universe for that daily. Nevertheless, Everybody Loves Raymond taught me that distance does indeed make the heart grow fonder, so I learned to put a sizable amount of space between my mother and I despite all her goodness. Now, I’m just a 40-minute Lyft ride away.
Lesson #7: No matter what, always be a Patty Mayonnaise.
As a journalist, the number of fictive heroines I’ve drawn inspiration from in my life is vast and constantly growing. One who I always come back around to is that of the inimitable Patty Mayonaise from Doug. I mean, how many girls are you going to find who are smart, spunky, good at sports, have great hair, an amazing wardrobe and leave boys quivering in their wake? I still resolve to channel my inner Patty and keep her outward-facing as much as I can. I’m also still in search of a Doug Funnie, but that’s another discussion for another day.
Lesson #8: It’s ok to be superficial…for, like, 30 minutes a day.
Clueless is iconic. I watched the film as often as I could and thanked both the sartorial and television gods when it was turned into a show. It was an escape from reality for me: Homework was clearly not a focus, nor were sports, dancing or extracurriculars. Well, unless you count shopping and rolling with the homies as real activities. I became quite focused on my path in school early on, thus Cher and Dionne’s quests let me detach and just have fun for a second. Yes, books are fun, but clothes and boys are equally as enjoyable. It’s okay to indulge and keep things on the surface just a little bit each day. Pretty things make me smile and, though they’re not the only things in the world, they’re definitely worth noticing.
Lesson #9: Women have the best senses of humor.
I’m still quite in awe of Tracey Ullman. She’s a sketch comedian, super cool, has aged in a way that’s unfair, has impossibly great skin and hair (you’re seeing a pattern here), is super smart and can literally make you fall out of your seat with laughter. We won’t even get into her music career, her co-writing of a knitting book, her being the second richest British actress or her other myriad accomplishments. And though my HBO watching was limited as a child — it got kind of crazy depending on the time of night — my mom did let me watch Tracey Takes On. And, naturally, I sat enraptured on a weekly basis. “You run like a girl” and “girls aren’t funny” are things we begin hearing as soon as we hit the playground. I still see that crap spewed now. But Tracey showed that we’re actually funny as hell. We’re dynamic, witty, absurd, entertaining and anything else we simply wished to be.