How HBO’s R-Rated “Seinfeld” Predicted Meme Culture in 1990

It was all right there, in “Dream On”

When I was in my tweens, my parents made a terrible decision that has informed a lot about who I am today: They let me have a tiny television in my room, with cable.

Sleep was apparently optional now, and the movie posters taped all over my walls — ripped out of the pages of Premiere magazines — were good indications that that cable box was going to be “callin’ me, man” like crack did to Pookie in New Jack City. I watched everything. I learned bad words from bad guys, and even more from late night showings of Lady Chatterly’s Lover.

Years later, when I was forging a small career as an entertainment journalist, I had the pleasure of sitting down and interviewing Edgar Wright. Normally, once these interview are over, the talent is whisked away by their PR team, but for whatever reason (I credit this to his being incredibly down-to-earth, and the two martinis), Edgar wasn’t in a huge rush and actually stuck around and chatted while we broke down the lights and cameras. Realizing we’re the same age, we started to talk about how we were the Cable Generation. The first kids raised on cable TV, and how it not only informed his tastes as a filmmaker, but our collective taste as a generation.

Not to be all “kids today,” but kids today can watch whatever they want, when they want to. It’s all available, all the time, and you no longer flip aimlessly through TV menus looking for something to watch. You turn on TV with intention — “I feel like watching this.” And there it is. Because cable was so new, those early networks had to fill the air with something. They now had 24 hours to fill, and they reached for whatever they could. There’s a reason the first year of MTV featured bands like The Buggles and DEVO and Tenpole Tudor — the big acts of the day weren’t making music videos. What were those? Videos were something made by fringe bands desperate for attention. But MTV had no choice. They had to put on what they could get. It would be a while before the bigger names would catch on.

HBO was similar. Studios didn’t have sophisticated multi-platform roll out plans for movies, and cable was a very low priority. Theatrical was still king, and in the early 80s they started to have to concern themselves with something called “VHS.” Cable? Ah, just give ’em some of the back catalogue. So we had to watch whatever they put on. And it forced us to look at movies differently. Because cable was more accessible and somewhat more disposable than the act of going to the movies, you didn’t mind half-watching a movie or skipping around. But it forced us to find the “buts” in even the worst schlock. The good in the bad. “This movie is terrible, but there’s a great car chase.” “This movie is awful, but there’s this awesome line of dialogue…” We became connoisseurs of bad cinema, and it fueled a lot of that generation’s filmmakers going forward.

But even in its earliest days, HBO had the seed of something Netflix would exploit in the early 2000s. They were becoming less concerned with being a movie aggregate as they were producing their own series and films. They had things like First and 10 (starring OJ Simpson!), The Larry Sanders Show, Tales from the Crypt, and a forgotten gem called Dream On.

Running from 1990 until 1996, Dream On was created by Marta Kauffman and David Crane, a duo who would go on to create arguably the defining show of the 90s, Friends. But Dream On had more in common with the other defining 90s sitcom, Seinfeld (created a year earlier). Like Seinfeld, Dream On followed a single guy (in this case, divorced) living in the big city who inexplicably has nightly dalliances with insanely attractive women despite, you know, not being exceptionally attractive or successful himself. I watched it religiously. It may have taught me more about sex and relationships than I care to admit. Again, I blame my parents.

Dream On’s central conceit, however, was what makes it surprisingly prescient, and the fact that it’s nearly been lost to the annuls of TV history is equally surprising. The lead character, Martin Tupper (played by likable everyman Brian Benben), was a latchkey kid essentially raised by television. He is so “TV damaged” — much like Edgar Wright and I were “movie damaged” — that he has no emotional or psychologically touchstones beyond reruns. The show illustrates this by having random snippets of old TV shows pop in to show what Martin is really thinking, his emotional reactions, and his general psychological state. Clips are hard to come by, but you can get a sense here:

In short, he thinks in memes.

Rather than engaging with human beings, he responds in primitive animated gifs. He’s incapable of actual, heartfelt communication, so he relies on quick jokes and easily identifiable pop culture to say what he can’t say himself. Spend half a second on Twitter and you are in the mind of Martin Tupper. It’s even weirder when you consider that, according to HBO executive Michael Fuchs, the show was created clips-first. The whole show was just an excuse to recycle old clips.

If this show were to be rebooted, the adult Martin Tupper wouldn’t be a kid plopped in front of the TV, raised on classic sitcoms, he’d be a kid raised on memes. He’d say one thing to someone, and the screen would flash to a condescending Wonka that reveals what he really thinks. It’s one of those rare shows that can actually be make relevant today if there were any interest in doing so.

But it’ll likely continue to fade into obscurity. Which is a shame, because HBO inadvertently predicted social media, and the infantilization of human interaction. We are incapable of actually saying anything of substance or, if we do, we have to immediately duck under a barrage of “Y tho” memes or confused Nick Youngs. Back in 1990, though, this was all played for laughs.

But as someone who can relate a little too much to constant unsupervised pop culture exposure, the reliance on quoted dialogue in place of real conversation, and a general surrender to social media, Dream on just hits different now.