overthinking the idiot box

September 19, 2005

"Can't Sleep. Cable Will Eat Me."
Television, After Dark
by Mike Olson

You wouldn't believe what gets relegated to late-night cable programming. That is, not if you're blessed with normal circadian rhythms and a day job. If not, you may be familiar with the chaotic, Dada-esque landscape of cable TV's wee hours, so late that ratings don't matter and even the Nielsens have gone to bed. So what's on when nobody's watching?

[Note: All times are PST. Your mileage may vary.]

1:00 AM
Here, true late-night TV begins. If Family Guy had you at 11:00, this is your chance to catch The Daily Show; if it's Friday night and you were out having a life at 10:00, the new Battlestar Galactica reruns now too. But real late-night programming is more (and less) than last night's hit shows.

Or even "hits" at all, in the strictest sense. Long before Conan O'Brien mined Walker, Texas Ranger for its inadvertent comedy, Chuck Norris fans were tuning in with religious and irony-free devotion. Who else but The Hallmark Channel could possibly rerun it with a straight face? CBS kept Walker on the air for no fewer than eight seasons. Why? They had their reasons. See if you can guess what they were.

However, if Walker's relative scarcity of photon torpedoes always bugged you, be advised that Spike feels your pain. "The First Network for Men" brings you Star Trek: The Next Generation at the one o'clock hour. It's not all fast cars, dubbed Japanese game shows, and heaving breasts on Spike, although to be honest, Star Trek: TNG is in many ways a bizarre combination of all three. If you're married, it's on late enough for your wife to have gone to bed. If you're not, well, this is some prime World of Warcraft time. Make it so.

It may not be Saturday, and it may be on decade-old tape, but for those who don't care for spaceships, political humor, or cowboy boots to the face, there's Saturday Night Live on E! . They're keeping the Silver Age (the Phil Hartman/Chris Farley cast) and the Bronze Age (the Will Ferrell/Molly Shannon cast) of Lorne Michaels' teflon sketch-comedy monster alive in their late-night block. Whether you prefer Hartman's Clinton or Ferrell's Bush, you stand a good chance of seeing Chris Walken.

2:00 AM
This is when Comedy Central turns into a two-hour crap shoot. What'll it be? Four too-short episodes of Upright Citizens' Brigade or TV Funhouse? Or 120 toxic minutes of Kid Notorious? Proceeding on two key precepts ("No one's watching anyway" and "Infomercials are bad"), Comedy Central takes this opportunity to plug the 2:00 slot with whatever's next on the pile. Take your chances. Likewise, Cartoon Network's wildly popular Adult Swim starts anew at this hour, with a frequently-changing lineup. If you consider yourself truly pop cultural, it's a necessity.

Is SCTV the greatest, smartest, most daring sketch-comedy in history? I'm going to say yes, yes it is. Even split into 30 minute chunks, the original 90-minute episodes would stand as glittering jewels of comic splendor in prime time, but at 2:00 on TV Land they shine out like a shaft of gold when all around is dark. Think I'm being hyperbolic? Watch the show.

Speaking of SCTV, if "Krazy Krafts with Molly Earl" were hosted by Chairman Kaga, the result would likely be Craft Corner Deathmatch, on Style. In a Battlebots-style arena, contestants face off against each other in a fierce, ruthless battle of... crafts. After two rounds of this, the "celebrity" judging panel selects a victor to challenge the Craft Lady of Steel, aka Jocelyn Worrall, the unholy product of a collaboration between Martha Stewart and Magneto. She's a nigh-unstoppable juggernaut of crafting might, if there is such a thing. All this may sound pretty lame, but if the show's tongue were any more firmly in cheek it'd need oral surgery.

Sometimes you stumble upon a show at 2:00 that's so deserving of prime-time attention that it boggles the mind that it's no longer getting it. My So-Called Life, airing on Noggin at this time, is one of those shows. Like Freaks and Geeks, it was a brilliant, dead-on portrait of the trials and tribulations of the teenage experience ‹ and like Freaks and Geeks, it was tragically axed all too soon. If you still have enough wits about you to appreciate its charms at this late hour, don't miss it.

And then there's Quantum Leap over on Sci-Fi. It makes a nice follow-up to ST:TNG, especially if you're still mourning the loss of Enterprise and/or the '80s. Dr. Sam Beckett wasn't quite the one-fisted adventurer Captain Archer was, but then again, let's see Archer pull off a proper "Oh boy." Just watch out for that final season, when the writers introduced an evil time-traveling antagonist. Yeah.

Take it from me, Eternal Word Television Network's series Super Saints has nothing to do with the time that radioactive spider bit Mother Teresa.
Sometimes you can pick an unknown show based solely on its title and discover a hidden jewel. But not always. Take it from me, Eternal Word Television Network's series Super Saints has nothing to do with the time that radioactive spider bit Mother Teresa.

3:00 AM
So you're still up. NBC has noticed, and rewards your tenacity with reruns of Conan O'Brien. In a world of late-night talk shows so depressingly stuffy there isn't even any use in asking "Who farted?" anymore, Conan's a refreshing breath of nitrous oxide, especially at three in the morning (and if that's not funny enough for you, I feel compelled to point out that SCTV's still going strong on TV Land).

It may be an insta-rerun from the night before, but the punchier you get, the better Iron Chef becomes (on Food Network, of course). The clear-thinking part of your brain that lets you differentiate between what's edible and what's not passed out an hour ago, leaving you to seriously consider what desserts could be made out of a sea urchin. Note: confuse this with Iron Chef America at your own risk.

The good people at TheSmokingGun.com looked at Crank Yankers and asked, "Hey, why don't we do that?" Court TV obligingly replied, "I don't know ‹ why don't you?" And thus Smoking Gun TV was born. The show recreates outrageous, bizarre, and just plain juicy incidents (generally involving celebrities) described in court transcripts and police reports, using only puppets and Playmobil toys to dramatize the action. And damn, does it ever work. We all know Winona Ryder was caught shoplifting, but you can't really appreciate the absurdity of the situation until you see her portrayed by a yarn-haired puppet.

There's something comforting about a no-gimmicks-required nature documentary narrated by a person of the British persuasion. It's like a bowl of chicken soup. Champions of the Wild, on Animal Planet, is just that sort of late-night comfort food. Each episode focuses on a particular species of animal, from gorillas to wild dogs to whooping cranes, as the titular "champion," but it quickly becomes clear that as far as nature's concerned, being the champion means little more than finding food for the day. Should make the luxury of being able to watch TV at 3:00 AM feel like a real accomplishment.

4:00 AM
This is where we separate the men from the boys. If you enjoy half-hour commercials‹and if you're still awake at four o'clock, you just might‹this is a great time to check out all the paid programming on cable TV. Infomercials are definitely the majority rule at this hour. Turn over enough rocks, though, and you'll find more reasons to stay up for another hour.

VH1 sets the tone here with their block of '80s videos entitled, appropriately enough, "We Are The '80s". And hey, I like the '80s as much as the next guy, but I'm convinced that VH1 thinks that if they don't keep devoting airtime to that particular decade, we'd all forget it existed.

But how could we possibly forget when at this very hour TJ Hooker is on A&E? DeForest "Bones" Kelley once called this show "Captain Kirk in a uniform," but TJ Hooker doesn't resemble the svelte Kirk so much as a pork sausage. Gone was the hunk who could put the moves on a blue alien woman. Hooker wasn't the first guy you'd pick to chase down a fleeing crook or leap onto the hood of a moving car, but that didn't stop the writers from cramming as much chasing and leaping into every episode as they could. Check out Heather Locklear as Stacy Sheridan, and if you're very, very lucky, you'll get to see Leonard Nimoy guesting as Hooker's old partner.

The '80s fest continues over on Sci-Fi with another classic, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, starring Gil Gerard and Erin Gray, which is sure to inspire more than a few reactions of "Holy crap!" Holier crap, though, is the non-stop parade of notable guest stars. TJ Hooker may have settled for Jim Brown and Vic Tayback, but Buck drew the likes of Jerry Orbach, Gary Coleman, Jamie Lee Curtis, Buster Crabbe, Frank Gorshin, Jack Palance, Ceasar Romero, Ray Walston, Julie Newmar ‹ you can't swing a dead space cat on this show without hitting at least three character actors‹not to mention none other than Mel Blanc voicing Twiki the robot, whose "Bee-dee-bee-dee-bee" catchphrase was... well... recognizable, anyway. Buck Rogers offered a chilling vision of a future in which people routinely wear white spandex.

If all this nostalgia is a little too impractical for you tastes, you might want to check out BBC World News on BBC America. The BBC doesn't have news anchors, it has news readers. That alone should tell you a little about how it differs from American cable news stations like Fox News Channel or CNN, but feel free to flip between the three to see for yourself. The BBC doesn't need to tout how "fair and balanced" it is; its focus on international news, sans sensationalism, sets it apart. And everything sounds more authoritative when spoken with a British accent. Plus, where else are you going to get your cricket updates?

5:00 AM
Alright, seriously. That's it. It's officially morning. Sleep time is now.

Using these basic building-blocks of late-night programming, any number of viewing experiences is possible. You can go the drama route, starting with Walker, Texas Ranger, then My So-Called Life, Champions of the Wild, and landing on TJ Hooker. Or take the comedy path, bouncing from SNL, whatever Comedy Central has to offer, and finishing inexplicably with TJ Hooker again. And have you noticed the eerie vein of Star Trek that runs through these four hours? Between ST:TNG, Quantum Leap, TJ Hooker (is there anything this show can't do?), and a possible guest appearance by Mark Lenard on Buck Rogers, the tentacles of Trek reach far indeed.

For the real experience, though, don't plan a thing. Channel surf until you wipe out in a sleep-deprived delirium.

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