PopCulture25YL looks back at the music and shows from the month that was December of 1994 to explore why they’re still relevant to us 25 years later. This week brings us ER’s “The Gift”, Friends’ “The One With The Monkey”, WCW’s Starcade ’94, and The X-Files’ “Excelsis Dei”.
VHS In The VCR
ER- S1E11 “The Gift” by John Bernardy
ER’s first time through the holidays is a big win. The relentless momentum of the emergency room bounces us from one storyline to another as always, but this time it’s December in Chicago and all the patients are holiday themed. We get to see a wide variety of positive and negative effects of the holiday season, and we even get a good helping of Christmas Spirit thanks to Jerry’s lights, and Rosemary Clooney and a patient wandering the halls singing carols at story-appropriate moments.
This week a father brings in his boy, who’d fallen into the lake while ice fishing and we don’t know if he’ll warm up enough to live—what a tearjerker way to go into the opening credits—or if he’ll have proper brain function when he wakes up. Dr. Mark Green (Anthony Edwards) had that one, and Dr. Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle) got the other big patient: a man who became braindead from a snowmobile accident, and Benton okays the donation of his organs before he gets permission from the man’s wife. The other two recurring storylines are Dr. Susan Lewis’ (Sherry Stringfield) sort-of boyfriend moves out of town without telling her, and Dr. Doug Ross (George Clooney) figures out he has to act on his feelings for Nurse Carol Hathaway (Julliana Margoulis) at her engagement party. Great timing, Doug.
There’s a great running gag that Green doesn’t know what to get his wife (to follow up the vacuum from last year that went over oh so well), and every time he tries to leave to find a present, he’s roped into another urgent situation. He eventually takes up Ross’ new girlfriend Linda on her offer to shop for him, and he ends up with some fancy negligee. And of course Nurse Lidia had to tell Mark how lucky she was: “my ex just bought me a vaccuum cleaner.”
Benton gets to feel like he screwed up by calling in thankful teams taking the organs back to thankful recipients before he knew that the man’s wife wasn’t ready to let him go. He (of course, it’s Benton) knew he was right to focus on those organs, but he was finally willing to acquiesce to her wishes to keep her husband alive just in case. Benton’s expression at the end of the episode was definitely processing everything he went through to earn that ending. It was the proper kind of mood to go along with the Christmas-y piano music going into the credits.
Dr. Lewis had the fortune of hearing about two pregnancies; one from a patient who says that was supposed to be impossible, and one from her wacky sister Chloe. This was right after she had a chance to take Carter inside for some consolation-level company after she discovered her main romantic relationship, Dr. Svetic, quit without telling her and also moved his furniture out of his apartment. Total dick move, and I don’t remember where this story-line is going but I sure didn’t remember that almost-kiss with Carter. It was surprising knowing where the show will eventually go…but in the short term she sure liked Carter’s secret Santa gift of a music box.
While Lewis and Carter are toying with us as the beginning of something new, the main event for that area is Ross and Hathaway. They work well together in the episode helping Green with getting that boy warm enough to not die. They both shared playful warnings to Carter before a kid throws up on him. They even share some subtle-but-heated words as Ross is getting ready to meet Linda at a party. He tells Green how he can’t stop thinking about Hathaway even though it’s too late. Green answers with “she’s not married yet.” This, after all day one of Ross’ elderly patients was telling him about the “old mistakes that weigh on” her. Mistakes about a man she said no to. The kicker? She tried to reconnect with him finally but he’d been dead for three years.
All this leads to Doug walking up to Linda’s party, then turning around and walking all the way to Carol’s party. And this is when we get one of the coolest shots I’ve seen on a TV show in quite some time.
He walks into the restaurant while the camera stats outside on the street, watching but not listening. We see him walk through the crowd, and then Carol’s in frame. He shares a handful of words, and then she storms out, pulling him by the arm. The first words we hear are “Go home, Doug.” It’s a gorgeous way to make a mess of things and I’m dumbfounded the use of environment like that was in a drama 25 years ago. So classy, for such a stupid macho move.
Doug earned getting decked, but he went in there with no regrets. He learned a thing from his patient, and now we’ll just have to watch for a while to see how it might just work out in the long game.
This may not be a Christmas special in the classic sense, but it felt like the holidays all the same. And it continues my streak of awe over ER’s quality. All the acting, short-term and long-game storytelling, pacing, cinematography, really everything, is such a treat. This one’s a giant recommend from me.
Friends- S1E10 “The One With The Monkey” by Abbie Sears
Hey, that monkey’s got a Ross on its ass!
Yes that’s right, it’s been 25 years since Ross’s new pet capuchin monkey Marcel stole our hearts. “The One With The Monkey” aired December 15th 1994 and is a New Year’s special. This brings about a reunion of some of our favourite characters and introduces us to two who will soon be added to that list.
Ross seems to be battling loneliness in this episode. He tackles living alone by bringing home Marcel, an adorable playful monkey who his friend rescued from a lab. It’s a common occurrence for someone who’s heartbroken to acquire a pet to try and fill the void and I think Ross does it in the quirkiest fashion. But I do love Marcel. I think he’s a wonderful addition to the household despite driving Monica crazy!
I have to confess that this is one of my favourite episodes of all time and that’s because I am the smitten kitten when it comes to David the Scientist Guy. This episode brings David into the picture and tears him away from us in an instant. During Phoebe’s performance of a disturbing snowman song he and his friend Max are speaking loudly and Phoebe asks them if they’d like to share it with the entire group. He says “I was just saying to my friend that I thought you were the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my life” and the relationship begins there. David is a sweetheart, and he is caring and nerdy, and honestly the man I still feel that Phoebe should have ended up with. But he gets the opportunity to go to Minsk for work, the opportunity of a life time, and you can see where it is headed.
Anyway, Monica throws a New Year’s party and the gang make a pact to not bring a date, however now that Phoebe has David, the pact is broken. Turns out everybody except Ross and Rachel end up with a date. Monica asked fun Bobby, Joey met a single mom while dressed as an elf (what’s an elf to do?), and Chandler… Chandler asked Janice. You remember Janice, right?
Paolo missed his flight in from Rome, leaving Rachel alone and with a busted lip after getting to an overly dramatic airport fight. When first seeing this episode I thought “hey, Ross and Rachel end up alone—here’s the chance for them to kiss when the ball drops!” Alas no, nothing of the kind happened.
In actual fact, the New Years’ party is a bit of a disaster, and it reminds me of a lot of television shows where New Year’s is represented as an evening that never goes to plan, particularly in How I Met Your Mother. But it comes down to the company that you keep, doesn’t it!
Chandler ends up having to end things with Janice—again—at this party. But what did he expect her to think when he invited her?! Phoebe has an emotional heart to heart with David about Minsk and tells him to go and follow his dream. Of course, it’s the right thing to do. But I love David and he should come back immediately!
So in the end nobody gets that midnight kiss other than Chandler and Joey and I must say that their spontaneous kiss was pretty magical.
Starcade ’94 by Andrew Grevas
WCW always wanted Starcade to be their WrestleMania. Some years, they were really successful in creating a mega card where multiple stories paid off in one night. Other years, they widely missed the mark, much the same as WrestleMania itself. Starcade 94 was not only a swing and
a miss, it was undoubtedly one of the lowest moments in the company’s entire history.
One year prior, WCW had hit gold with Starcade 93. Ric Flair and Vader achieved a level of artistic greatness the company badly needed and the undercard was filled with trademark WCW high level work rate. It was in so many ways a perfect WCW show. The company’s identity was built around realistic stories and credible, hard hitting in ring action. Starcade 93 delivered that and then some. Starcade 94 was the exact opposite.
Hulk Hogan had arrived on the scene and brought his friends with him. Gone were the 4 and 5 star matches and in their place, really over the top gimmicks. Hogan and his real life best friend Ed “Brutus Beefcake” Leslie would main event Starcade 94 in a match that had no business happening. Leslie was out of shape and never a main event caliber worker. Just by placing him in the main event of the biggest show of the year, the locker room was being told that a new regime was in charge and things were going to be different.
Vader, who had worked a match of the year candidate the year before, was relegated to opening the show, defeating “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan for the United States Championship. Duggan, another friend of Hogan’s, had just defeated “Stunning” Steve Austin a few months prior for the championship, setting the ball in motion for Austin, the defining wrestler of his generation, to leave the company.
Looking at the card from top to bottom, you can see exactly how poorly WCW was being run. Not only was Austin gone but Sting was wrestling Avalanche (formerly Earthquake), another Hogan buddy who didn’t need to be in a prime spot. The future Triple H, then known as Jean Paul Levesque, lost an undercard match up to Alex Wright and would also soon leave WCW in favor of WWF. Mr. T, more than 10 years after his social relevance, was also on the card in perhaps the most desperate part of the whole show. Hogan, calling all of the shots behind the scenes, phoned a friend to someone who had been a big part of the wrestling boom in 1985 but had nothing to offer in 1994.
To put a positive spin on what has been a largely negative look back, this show is an origin point of sorts for all of the problems to come throughout 1995 in WCW, which lead to the creative rebirth of WCW in 1996. We were a long way from rock bottom at Starcade 94 but the wheels were in motion for a bad year ahead, brother.
The X-Files – S2E11 “Excelsis Dei” by John Bernardy
“Excelsis Dei” takes place in a nursing home of the same name. An orderly, Michelle Charters (Teryl Rothery), is assaulted by a non-corporeal attacker, and Mulder and Scully are brought in to investigate. I was not overly interested in this one at first because I only remembered the assault and the ghost angle not amounting to much plot-wise. What we got instead was a pot luck of social issues that don’t necessarily cohere.
The first issue entails Scully believing a woman’s story thanks to looking at Charters’ injuries, while Mulder called it an improbable waste of time—not your best moment, Fox. I really like the beginning of this episode for how Scully advocates for the orderly in a fairly #MeToo way—as far as 1994 goes it was borderline revolutionary—but then the tone shifts when the plot moves into a story about how we treat our elderly in America. This is an important social issue worth focusing on, but what ends up happening is Charters becomes a bit character after the halfway point and no one is concerned about her original allegation anymore, not even seemingly her.
The focus moves to the elderly residents—who include Frances Bay (Twin Peaks’ Mrs. Tremond) playing Dorothy—as they get better from their Alzheimer’s disease and become fully functioning. How are they doing this? Another orderly, Gung Bituen (Sab Shimono), is supplying the patients with a mushroom powder grown in the basement—thanks in part to buried bodies providing the proper fertilizer. Dead bodies aside, the idea is that the mushrooms are a medicine his culture had given to their elderly for centuries. His culture respects the elderly and wants to give them comfort. Using those techniques here allow the patients of Excelsis Dei to bloom as easily as when they were their younger selves.
The “respect” angle works up to a point, but again I’ll bring up Gung’s shady use of corpses, not to mention the pills also turn everyone into addicts for the pills. Stan Phillips (Eric Christmas), one of the most vociferous patients, seems to be at the root of the ghost problem though. It appears that when he was subdued after overdosing on the pills (his daughter was trying to take him home and he wanted to make sure he got enough pills for lucidity as long as he could have it) that all the anger stopped and so did the ghosts. Was he the reason for the ghosts then?
If so, it undercuts Gung’s previous argument that the pills were a way to connect with ancestors’ spirits, and that the spirits from the nursing home were angry at their treatment and are taking revenge.
The only reason why the ghosts stop—and when Mulder and Charters were able to escape the overflowing bathroom—is when Stan is subdued. Was he telekinetic? Was he the only one linked to ghosts? Dorothy was as well, and she just knows “they’re gone” when Stan is subdued. It’s hard to connect the dots here, but really the whole episode is a hodgepodge of things so I shouldn’t be too surprised.
In this episode, we get A) no one believes a woman in an assault, B) the elderly are treated like crap in our culture, C) other cultures’ medicine may help but it sure can hurt too, and D) a man’s anger becomes telekinetically active and has probably raped someone. We won’t know what’s supposed to be the most important issue because after the ghosts leave, the state takes over operation and the magic mushrooms are out of the patients’ regimens. What is the result? No more angry ghosts, but a whole bunch of elderly folks who sit there unable to talk thanks to returned standard Alzheimer’s symptoms. Out with the bad but also out with the good.
It’s a tricky episode when you’re thinking about social ramifications, though as far as 1994 goes it was a good exploration of all sides. But to be sandwiched into a monster-of-the-week formula buries all those issues just outside the realm of contemplating after the show that would have happened if it were an episode of the Twilight Zone.