‘Must Saw TV’

The brutally sad and tragic death news of writer and extremely talented actor Matthew Perry this weekend brought to mind happier times when reality, an acquired taste for sure, was moved to the back burner every Thursday night for “Must See TV.”

In the post-Cheers, post-The Cosby Show landscape of NBC Thursday night programming, Perry and the gang took over the TV comedy series world with Friends, and the addition of Seinfeld made it a one-two punch lethal for other networks. Icing on the cake was ER, a drama like spicey forerunners Falcon Crest or Dynasty or Dallas, only set in an emergency room where George Clooney was breaking hearts and mending wounds, all at the same time. (Mostly everyone on ER wore scrubs: what a break for Wardrobe.)

Hard to believe it’s been — 30 years ago? Seinfeld moved to Thursdays in the fall of 1993-94, then Friends came along to join it and ER. An NBC TV exec dubbed it “Must See TV,” and for millions, it was.

My spousal unit, a Friends disciple, says she never missed it. I will never forget getting the cold vocal cord shoulder in a late-’90s Thursday night call to Ramz, as close to a brother as anyone I have. The chillingly brief conversation went something like, “Must See TV night. Thursday. Call you tomorrow.”

Long distance and everything. And not a big TV watcher, I had no idea. Completely out of touch with TV-watching America, was I.

I love Seinfeld, but I’ve caught them all on reruns. Any Friends or ER episode I’ve seen has been by accident. (Chandler was Matthew Perry and Joey was that other guy and Ross was The Guy Who Was Briefly In Band of Brothers and one of the girls was Monica and I don’t know the other two. Blissfully ignorant.)

I was way in the minority because America was NBC’s best friend on Thursday nights in the 1990s. Friends at 7. Then something to get you to Seinfeld at 8—might be The Single Guy or Boston Common or Suddenly Susan, just some sort of half-hour bridge—then something else to get you from 8:30 to 9 when ER aired.

Remember: not everyone had a VCR then. Most did, but many didn’t, and if you had one it was expensive and the size of an ice chest. And often didn’t work well.

No one had a DVR.

(I knew the 1980s monster hit L.A. Law was in trouble when David Spade, during a Saturday Night Live! skit (back when SNL was must-see TV), said, “L.A. Law. Didn’t watch it. Didn’t tape it.” Tons and tons of water cooler talk involved whether or not you “saw” a show or at least “taped” it. “You mean you forgot to TAPE it?!”)  

No one under 35 or so will grasp this, but if you didn’t see or tape a show in the fall, it was gone until spring reruns. So, you HAD to see it. Must See TV.

Those days are gone forever, of course. No comedy shows anymore, much less comedy nights. No variety shows. Those days gave way to the DVD and to the glorious option of streaming (which I’ve fully embraced) and to what is falsely billed as “reality TV.” The only real reality TV is sports, and I’m not so sure even THAT’S true when it comes to the NBA playoffs — but that’s another story. And definitely not Must See TV.

Contact Teddy at teddy@latech.edu