Upscale Toys and Escaped Mental Patients: ‘TV Guide’, December 12 – 18, 1987

Exhibit / December 12, 2017

Object NameTV Guide, December 12 – 18, 1987
Maker and Year: Triangle Publishing (publisher), 1987
Object Type: Periodical
Image Source: The author
Description: (Michael Grasso)

This issue of the Boston edition of TV Guide, released the week before Christmas 1987, presents a bunch of ads for Christmas television and Christmas gifts. Taken as a whole, the ads provide a window into Christmas traditions old and new near the end of the decade.

On the Christmas programming side, there are some big-name specials, which were already institutions by this point (1964’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, for example), but it’s the largely-forgotten Christmas TV specials from 1987 that offer a more intriguing glimpse at the culture of the time. Two separate TV movies, Ed Asner’s A Christmas Star and The Three Kings, feature unlikely Christmas saviors in the form of a con artist and escaped patients from a mental hospital, respectively. The plot point of mental patients loose on the streets was also used memorably in the 1989 film The Dream Team, reflecting a widespread social trend in the late ’80s: Ronald Reagan’s policy of budget cuts led to an epidemic of closed mental facilities, turning the mentally ill onto America’s streets, where they became a large, permanent homeless population.

CBS’s long-running Circus of the Stars (1977-1994) is in its heyday during this pre-Christmas week, along with a new Candid Camera Christmas special. Allen Funt‘s long-running radio and television institution (Candid Microphone first aired on radio in 1947) had been supplanted in the 1980s by cheaper, faster-produced “blooper” shows (such as NBC’s TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes and ABC’s Foul-Ups, Bleeps & Blunders), which often featured local TV outtakes along with the more established Candid Camera-style practical joke/hidden camera format pranks.

In holiday gift-giving, we can glean some important facts about 1987 from a few select advertisements. The Black & Decker pull-out featuring the “25 most talked about gifts of ’87” shows us an array of tastefully off-white kitchen and household appliances. This design aesthetic was widespread in the late ’80s; after a decade or more of bolder, more psychedelic colors throughout the ’70s and early ’80s, a “yuppie” palette of soft tones, gold/metallic accents, and muted colors with occasional bright accents had spread even to staid Black & Decker. The appliances themselves show off both the rewards and requirements of affluence in the late ’80s: portable blenders, choppers, and food processors to make healthy vegetable drinks and dishes, and single-cup coffee makers reminiscent of today’s wasteful K-cup machines.

At several places in the issue, the home video revolution stakes its claim in the marketplace. K-Mart advertises a series of VCR-related gifts, while deans of film reviews Siskel and Ebert take time out from their weekly syndicated movie review series to spend an episode reviewing home video offerings, instructional videos on VHS, and actual home video hardware. The entire experience of a 1987 Christmas is well summed-up by the advertisement for Boston’s Evening Magazine, which gives us a glimpse into what the children of yuppies are asking for: “upscale toys” like mini-Testarossas and mink coats. With the rise of upscale toyseller FAO Schwarz in the 1980s (and its memorable appearance in 1986’s Big), even children outside of Park Avenue had a chance at tasteful, elegant luxury toys, far removed from the plastic Transformers and He-Man toys available at the local plebeian Toys R Us.

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