Friends, ER, Party of Five and More: How September 1994 Changed TV
Do you remember what you were doing in Sept. 1994? Probably watching one of these TV shows
Do you remember what you were doing in September 1994? Spending an inordinate amount of time in coffee houses, perhaps? Or were you getting some extra mileage out of your Green Day cassette?
In any case, one stereotypically ’90s thing you probably weren’t doing at the time was sporting “The Rachel,” because at the time, not even Rachel had it. Friends debuted on Sept. 22, 1994.
But what’s remarkable about that month in TV history is that it didn’t just mark the beginning of Friends; it also gave pop culture other long-running shows, including ER, Chicago Hope, Party of Five and Touched by an Angel.
Twenty years later, we’re looking back at when these shows premiered – back before anyone knew we’d still be watching a few weeks, let alone a few decades, down the line.
Debuted: Sept. 22, 1994
As strange as it can be to see the show’s cast before the actors gelled into the characters we know and love, it’s even stranger to see old promos that aired on NBC before the show premiered. The show was a success right from the get-go, so there was only a brief window of time for the network to explain which one was Monica, which was Joey and so forth.
There’s also a bit of trivia that’s specific to the opening credits in the pilot. They’re different from those that then aired in every subsequent episode. Check around the 29-second in this mark, and you see Jennifer Aniston mouthing the lyrics to the theme song.
It’s fascinating for two reasons: According to IMDb, the song wasn’t playing in the background when the cast was dancing in the fountain, because The Rembrandts hadn’t recorded it yet. The cast was simply given the lyrics, with only Aniston ever seen singing along. Furthermore, you only see it in this episode: The shot was excised from all episodes aside from the pilot.
Debuted: Sept. 19, 1994
Again, it’s way strange to see NBC trying to sell audiences on the show. Right from the start, people loved it to the point that it was the second-most watched show in 1994, according to Nielsen ratings.
In case you’re wondering about the relative lack of series star Julianna Margulies in those promos, remember that Carol Hathaway wasn’t always intended to be an ER regular. In the original script, her attempted suicide succeeded. And even in the revised script, with Margulies’s character surviving, she wasn’t initially part of the show’s main cast; Sherry Stringfield’s Dr. Susan Lewis was originally the show’s only female starring presence. And that’s strange, considering how many strong female characters would eventually appear on the show.
Another weird bit to wrap your head around? Although everyone remembers ER as the sobering drama that capped off NBC’s successful Must See TV Thursdays, it actually debuted on a Monday.
Debuted: Sept. 18, 1994
Have you heard of this new, fresh-faced actor named Mandy Patinkin? This 1994 bit of Chicago Hope promotion was betting that you hadn’t, even if you had seen the movies Yentl or The Princess Bride.
Two decades later, Patinkin has Dead Like Me, Criminal Minds and Homeland under his belt, in addition to Chicago Hope, and, therefore, might be just a bit more familiar to TV audiences.
In case you forgot, Chicago Hope was the other hour-long hospital drama of the ’90s. It technically squeaked in a day ahead of ER, perhaps in a bid to steal its thunder. Clearly, it didn’t work. Chicago Hope and ER subsequently went head-to-head in that 10 p.m. Thursday timeslot, in which the latter routinely emerged victorious in the ratings. Still, Hope turned out six solid seasons.
The fact that the Chicago Hope crew would slap ER-style credits onto their show as a joke meant that they at least had a sense of humor about the rivalry.
Party of Five
Debuted: Sept. 12, 1994
It wasn’t a ratings hit, even by Fox standards, but there’s something about Party of Five that captures a mid-’90s vibe perfectly. In fact, that’s probably why it set the tone for so many hour-long dramas about angsty, lovelorn young people on The WB and the like. Heck, even the previews may tug at your heartstrings.
That is, of course, as opposed to 1994’s “Fox Is Kickin’ It” programming campaign, which includes Party of Five but which captures a wholly different ’90s spirit.
It’s worth noting that the show’s first season was its least watched. It did worse than fellow teen angst-fest My So-Called Life, which premiered that August and was canceled by ABC after its first season. Party of Five did, however, win the Golden Globe for best drama, prompting Fox to renew it and allowing for five subsequent, better-watched seasons.
Somewhere, there’s a parallel dimension where Party of Five didn’t make the cut and is heralded as a perfect, one-season wonder. And maybe in the same dimension, Bailey, the teenaged Salinger sibling, wasn’t played by Scott Wolf but by the actor initially cast in the role, Jerry O’Connell, who eventually quit Party of Five to star in the Fox 1995 series Sliders, which, you’ll remember, was about parallel dimensions. Hmm.
Touched By an Angel
Debuted: Sept. 21, 1994
It’s tough finding much media coverage about this CBS spiritual drama’s first season on air, but it makes sense when you check how it fared in the ratings: 78th place its first season. Virtues aside, no one was watching.
As is often the case, however, faith persevered, and by the 1997-98 seasons, Touched By an Angel was the fifth-most watched show on TV. In the end, it ran for nine seasons, which is a better comeback story than either Chicago Hope or Party of Five can boast.
Be grateful, then, that the version of Touched that made it to air featured a reworked script. The original pitch to the show allegedly skimped on the hope and featured a very different version of Della Reese’s character, Tess: a tough chain-smoker who was less of the benevolent grandmother type that audiences came to love.
Now, never think about mean, chain-smoking Della Reese again and enjoy the Touched By an Angel pilot, presented in full.
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