Disclaimer: This is probably applicable only if you’re aged 23-28. So, small audience.
“Who shot JR?” That question glued a nation of privileged, middle-class Americans around a single campfire in the seminal soap-opera Dallas. It was one of the biggest demonstrations on the power of fictional storytelling via television sets.
That was my mom’s generation. We had our own questions.
Power Rangers was (and still is) a silly show. A diabetic mix of kung-fu, fantasy, sci-fi, and teen drama all rolled in a corporate toy package, no one expected the show to become a hit in the early 90’s, not even its producers. It was the right place at the right time, in the early 90’s zeitgeist of renewed innocence post-Cold War. Hollow and cheesy, it was an echo of Batman with Adam West for a new generation. Stacked against other children’s programming at its time, it stood above head and shoulders in its sheer spectacle. Live-action, attractive people, martial arts, it was all a kid on a sugar rush could want. But it was one week in its original run that changed the game and defined the coming generation’s habit of TV viewing.
Although Power Rangers was an overnight sensation, several weeks into its run it kicked-off a week-long, five-part epic episode that made one color-coded superhero into a retro icon: “Green With Evil,” introducing the evil Green Ranger. When fans today complain a character is overrated, you know how far that character has come into mainstream consciousness.
“Green With Evil” was the introduction of Tommy (portrayed by the polarizing Jason David Frank), who was given the Green Ranger powers by Rita Repulsa to kill — I mean, beat up really badly — the Power Rangers. Every episode ended with high stakes (or so we thought, watching it now is something laughable), and it all culminated with a badass fight between the Green Ranger and Jason, the Red Ranger in a balls-to-the-wall fight that just kind of… ends. Tommy’s evil spell is broken, and he joins the Power Rangers to sell more toys.
What changed the game was not the invention of the Sixth Ranger trope in fiction: It was its programming, and how its audiences behaved. The playground gathered kids to freak out and talk and even reenact the adventures of the afternoon before. A five-part mini-series brought the already intense program to mythical levels, demanding kids sit in front of the TV after-school for a whole week. It wasn’t just addictive programming, like a cartoon: It continually asked, “What next?” Modern weekend binge-watching has numbed this ritual, hearing friends binge-watch Lost is as common to hear as ordering fries. But for a particular generation in 1993, it was an epic saga. You couldn’t binge watch it. You couldn’t read spoilers. No kid was on the internet, because no child had the internet. They let their imaginations run wild. Cartoons and other kids’ programming lacked this scope; I reiterate, a five, part, EPISODE.
Back when Nielsen ratings actually meant something, Power Rangers committed absolute murder in its demographics. (Uh, sorry). In this article from the Baltimore Sun that is so old it could have graduated college by now,
Now the “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” is the highest-rated kids’ show on broadcast television. It airs in Baltimore and in most markets at 7:30 a.m. weekdays and 11:30 a.m. Saturday on WBFF-TV, Channel 45. The Saturday show has a 12.5 rating with children between the ages of 2 and 11. The next highest-rated Saturday show is Fox’s “X-Men” with 10.1. The next highest, non-Fox show is ABC’s “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” with 7.5.
The weekday “Rangers” does similarly well with a rating of 7.2. Fox’s “Animaniacs” is next highest, with 5.6, and the syndicated “Bonkers” is the highest non-Fox show, with a 4.5 rating.
Years later these kids grew up, and so did television. The playground became homeroom. Homeroom became dorm rooms. Dorm rooms became office water-coolers. It was Bill Clinton’s carefree 90’s when MTV rose to dominance. Among this era, Dawson’s Creek asked teens, “Dawson and Joey: Will they?!” Buffy asked, “Will Angel get his soul back?” Lost asked, no one still knows.
And today, shows like Game of Thrones gather hundreds in crowded pubs and millions at home around a single campfire. These gatherers today saw Oberyn go against the Mountain, but a little over twenty years ago, some of these people were kids who saw Jason vs. Tommy. It is admittedly absurd to lay the blame and sole responsibility on one stretch of episodes of a kids’ TV show twenty years ago, so I won’t. I’m just saying, it must have had something to do with it.
For millions of today’s millennials, it was their introduction to an epic kind of television tune-in-next-times.