I have recently had reason to be up later than normal some nights. Rocking and shushing a wide-awake newborn as the hours crawl toward midnight and beyond was, at first, kind of a lonely thing—you think you are the only person in the world up so late, and for such reasons—but you very quickly get used to it. Older parents, eager to impart some kind of gnomic prudence on the younger generation, love to tell new parents that they’re going to be stressed out and sleepless and frustrated after the baby arrives, but this really isn’t as inevitable as it’s made out to be. Our rather dramatic and histrionic culture of parenthood mandates that parents describe the whole thing in the worst terms possible, which is silly and counterproductive and usually just flat-out inaccurate.
In any event, we have discovered something interesting as the long nights have worn on: when you are attempting to quiet a fussy baby late at night, you are not really interested in any kind of high-thought stimulation. You kind of just want to watch garbage. So we have turned to the dredges of Netflix to keep us awake and entertain us, and we have invested more than a little time in the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the hit Saban classic emblematic of 1990s children’s television.
There is something almost shockingly bad about this television show. I don’t mean jaw-dropping gasp-out-loud shocking, but rather a more subtle, all-encompasing disquiet, a sort of unbelief that such a show could ever get made, let alone broadcast, let alone for several seasons. Even by the low standards of children’s television, it is a miserable enterprise, so bad it’s almost genuinely depressing.
There is the flat-out dismal quality of it all, for one: the cheapness of the production value, the sets rendered so shoddy and so obviously transient that you feel like you’re watching an action show set in a gypsy village. Some television sets are built to appear both authentic and long-lasting. Think Seinfeld’s apartment, say, or the workspace in The Office, or the meth superlab in Breaking Bad: these are settings you can imagine remaining in place after you leave. Power Rangers accomplishes no such thing: one gets the opinion that, the minute the cameras stop rolling, the gypsies move in to hastily deconstruct the walls and tables and lockers and build them back up into rickety caravans to move on to the next circus town. Everything feels cheap and useless, something made out of lowbrow necessity rather than genuine artistic desire.
Well, so sue them: it’s a 90s kid’s television show, a cobbled-together Japanese knockoff starring a gay robot and a gnarled raisin-man. I don’t suppose we should expect too much of a television show that asked us to accept the premise that the most evil being in the galaxy couldn’t outwit a group of slow-witted teenage goobers. Just the same, there is a deep and abiding emptiness to Power Rangers, a kind of profoundly heartbreaking nothingness that sets it apart from other 90s kid’s shows, even when you adjust for watching it at 12:45 AM with baby spit-up on your shoulder.
It is hard to quantify why this is the case, other than that it seems like everyone involved in the show, from the producers on down to the gay robot, is really not all that interested in being there. When I was quite young, Power Rangers seemed like serious business, the real deal: these guys were fighting to protect the world from the heinous Rita Repulsa and her army of anthropomorphic garbage pails and armadillos, the stakes couldn’t be higher, the action more intense and heart-stopping. The flirtatious relationship between Kimberly the Pink Ranger and Tommy the Green Ranger seemed like one of the great love affairs of modern fiction to my very young eyes. Zordon, meanwhile, seemed like the wisest of the sages, a timeless father figure who watched over the Rangers with a stern yet competent eye
All of that was false. The idea that the galactic forces of evil would select Angel Grove as the strategic nexus of world domination beggars belief: the city was barely large enough to have its own public transportation system. The romance between Kimberly and Tommy is very possibly the least-inspiring liaison in television history; Archie Bunker and Meathead had more sparks between them. And Zordon is more or less a useless and stupid old man, a floating balloon that babbles at the Rangers every now and then without really doing anything productive.
All of this might still result in some honest, if stupid, entertainment—but for the fact that, as I said, nobody seems to really want to be there. The performances—all of them—are listless, depressed and unenthusiastic. Even the mischievous pranksters Bulk and Skull, whose main narrative functions seem to be starting food fights and throwing banana cream pies at the high school principal, add no levity to the mix. If the sets of Power Rangers feel temporary and makeshift, so to do the characters, none of in whom one feels any desire to invest emotionally. Picture one of those little office water cooler paper cup cones. Now picture hiring several of those to act in your children’s television show. Congratulations, you have cracked the Power Rangers formula of success.
Children have much lower standards of quality, to be sure—which explains why Power Rangers was such a smashing success (and why my brother and I forced our kind and patient father to take us to see the equally-terrible major motion picture). I suppose new parents on a late-night fussy baby binge have still even lower standards, which explains, too, why we even bothered to watch the show in the first place. Still, it is something of a marvel to watch this show and realize that more than a few people probably made quite a bit of money off of it. The world is an unfair place, an injustice even the Power Rangers are powerless to thwart.