I’ve written before about how my junior high school years were incredibly awkward and not the fondest when it comes to my social life, but when I think about it, my choices in after-school entertainment were just as awkward. I was in on the verge of being a teenager, but I was still coming home to watch cartoons on television or playing NES; conversely, I was also watching sitcom reruns and Degrassi High. Which is how, in March of 1990, I discovered Tribes.
To be honest, this wasn’t a huge moment in my life because the show is a footnote of a blip in popular culture and the only reason I watched it was because my local Fox affiliate had decided to drop reruns of The Facts of Life and start airing the teen soap opera after the daily rerun of Diff’rent Strokes was over. In fact, I don’t think I even remember it being advertised. One day, it was simply on and my sister and I were too lazy to look for the remote, so we watched it.
If you’re unfamiliar with the show, Tribes was a daily soap that focused on several teenagers in Southern California who wind up in precarious situations ranging from storylines I was familiar with from Degrassi to what you might see on The Young and the Restless. In fact, the creator of the show, Leah Laiman, was a veteran soap-opera writer and the show was produced by longtime producers of shows like Y&R and The Bold and the Beautiful.
Airing from March 5, 1990 until July 13, 1990, Tribes failed to make much of a mark or at least have as many before-they-were-stars names as Swans Crossing, the teen soap that would run in syndication on WPIX in the summer of 1992 (and even had its own line of action figures), but whereas Swans Crossing seemed (at least to me) to be a more soapy version of Saved By the Bell, Tribes was more like a harder-edged Degrassi. Each episode followed the classic soap opera plot design of following multiple that were ongoing and got increasingly complicated as the series went on.
Thankfully, someone has uploaded most of the episodes of the show to YouTube, so you can see how it kicks off here:
To be honest, when I watched the show back in 1990, I didn’t really get beyond a week or two’s worth of shows and the only episode I remember was one where two characters, Melinda and Matt, got stuck in the school’s boiler room for an extended amount of time, which seeds a future romance for the two of them. But one thing I will say is that I wanted to take some time to go through the first episode because it is so 1990 in a way that few things are.
Okay, so the opening shot of the high school is unremarkable, but I just wanted to say that seeing “In Stereo Where Available” was a nostalgia trip in itself, especially the way Fox shows would have the words “In Stereo” be written onto the screen in script. I think that by the end of the decade, this was unnecessary, but seeing that reminds me of years of watching 21 Jump Street or Married … With Children.
So I deliberately didn’t crop this screencap because I wanted to show off the timestamp at the bottom of the YouTube clip. This shot, with a guy looking way too psyched to be walking through a doorway, follows fourteen seconds of silent exterior shots of the building, and the action kicks off with a school bell that tells us the day is over and class is dismissed. Plus, the guy on the right is clearly rocking a Members Only jacket.
They’re hanging up some banner of some sort that says something about an upcoming dance where “Victory” is crossed out and “Losers” is written over it. Their basketball team sucks and they’re having a dance to “celebrate” being in 10th place. The dance will be important later, but for now, let’s see one of the main characters take a very long trip home.
That’s Matt. The Bad Boy. Because he’s riding a motorcycle. He’s Motorcycle Matt. I honestly thought for a moment that this was the actor who was the lead singer of the band in the first couple of seasons of California Dreams, but that actor’s name is Brent Gore and the character was Matt Garrison, so that’s where I’m confused. Scott Garrison, who plays Motorcycle Matt, might be recognizable if you watched the Swamp Thing series that ran on USA in the early 1990s, where he played Will Kipp, or as Perdicus on two episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess.
And by the way, the sequence of him riding down the street on his motorcycle while generic guitar music plays on the soundtrack goes on for an inordinately long time. Like seriously, there are multiple shots of him pulling into his driveway and parking his bike and we see him stop the bike, kick the kickstand, get off the bike, take his helmet off, and then walk into the house only to see his mother, who, by the looks of it, is not someone who he’s very happy to see.
Then it’s time for the opening credits, which are an early Nineties synth-drum and keyboard-fueled montage of scenes from various episodes. Much like your typical daytime soap, the credits are just comprised of the title card and the theme music, as opposed to listing the cast.
And can we talk for a moment about the lipstick-on-the-mirror font used for the title card? It reads like something a middle-aged television producer believed teenagers would find “cool,” in the same way that the original 21 Jump Street title card with the spray paint would have seemed “cool.” I’d make more fun of it, but let’s be honest: if you watch newer versions of Degrassi and some of the current shows geared towards teens on cable, the title sequences are very much the same, just with updated “cool” styles.
We get back to Matt and his mother, who is back from 36 months on a cruise ship as a beautician or something. She’s got this irritating Betty Boop-ish voice that annoys the audience as much as it seems to annoy him.
And by the way, the way in which this whole scene is blocked, she is standing incredibly too close to Matt, as if their relationship is a little more than mother and son. In fact, she’s very handsy through the entire scene, which is mostly exposition for the character. She’s got some plan for the two of them and he’s not exactly receptive, especially since that her brother is his current legal guardian and they don’t get along. She says she’s going to “take him back” and then puts her hands on his face before Anny–his cousin–interrupts him. He tells her that he’s taking her to the dance and mom (whose name is “Bobbi,” because of course it is) parks herself on the couch and says that she’ll be there when he gets back.
Thankfully, this scene is over (five minutes into a 22-minute episode) and we head back to the school for the dance.
And we also head into our second story. These two guys are going to hack into the school’s computer to steal a trigonometry test. The guy on the right is the hacker, the guy on the left is the slick money man behind the scheme to hack in and sell the tests, and Chess King is where they get their clothes. I mean, the rolled up sleeves on that extra-long blazer with the poofy hair are just amazing. The guy on the left has a plan to get some romance with Stacy, which is apparently some sort of huge feat.
The girl on the left is Stacy; the girl on the right with the eyebrows is Melinda. The mall hair is so high I couldn’t crop the video title off of the screencap. Apparently, Stacy is so popular that she never goes to events like dances (or something) and Melinda has a boyfriend named Billy–who, by the way, is involved with this cheating scam. Kim Valentine was an actress who would show up on the occasional sitcom, most notably Parker Lewis Can’t Lose and various episodes of Family Matters and based on what I watched, seemed poised to actually have a chance of breaking out of the soap and moving up to a show like Beverly Hills, 90210, which would premiere in the fall of 1990. Lisa Lawrence would be in Son-in-Law.
They overact on some girl talk and then the doorbell rings while Stacy tries to figure out what to wear. Billy’s at the door with his brother, who is a bit of a wallflower and whom Billy is pushing to be more social.
You can kind of almost see the 1980s morphing into the 1990s in this shot, especially with the floppy hair on the guys. And I’m pretty sure that those are pleated khakis on Billy, which begs the question: why do pleated khakis even exist? They are not flattering in any way, shape, or form.
Back at Motorcycle Matt’s place, Anny and Matt get ready to head out but not until Matt’s uncle spots his sister and is all, “What the hell is she doing here?” Matt tells him to cool off because it’s between him and her, while the music in the background suggests that this is going to take a turn toward a slasher film, which honestly would have been better because we spent way too much time on all of this already.
The two guys from the cheating scheme talk about how Pete (the white guy) is going to try and hook up with Stacy, and Pete’s this slick douche who thinks he’s Ferris Bueller or something. She rightfully blows him off and goes into the dance.
Where, by the way, apparently nobody told this guy that Born in the U.S.A. came out in 1984. Wow, that’s atrocious. Then again, he is a deejay at a high school dance. They can’t all be Richie Belding. And he leads them in a “We’re Number 10” chant that I guess is supposed to be a running joke throughout the school, but … A) there are about 30 people at this dance, and B) they’re so unenthusiastic when they’re chanting. Way to make it look real, producers.
And then he tells the crowd, “We all know what counts, which is not who wins, but who … ROCKS!!!!”
Yes. He says that. Moving on.
By the way, if it hasn’t been clear enough, Motorcycle Matt is basically The Fonz. He lives in an apartment over the garage of his uncle’s place and is all slick and cool, although I don’t know who decided that a whorehouse lamp, neon music notes, and an old-timey gas pump said, “Cool guy in the Nineties.”
The whole mommy drama thing continues, which zzzzz …
And back at the dance, while the guys are off breaking into the principal’s office, the girls–Anny, Stacy, and Melinda–decide to dance with some guys and the first person to ask is this one, who has magnificent curly 1980s hair and is wearing a blazer/T-shirt combo that’s the perfect blend of “I break the rules” and “I’m dressed for the occasion.” Anny winds up dancing with him.
Then, after more arguing between Matt, his mom, his uncle, and some sleazy guy who was the manager of the show she was singing at in Vegas (the cruise ship thing was either a lie or lasted for way less than 36 months), we head back to the dance where …
… Anny faints! It sets up a storyline wherein Anny is pregnant and goes to an abortion clinic (which is a storyline that I’d seen on the season premiere of Degrassi High earlier in the school year). As for the other stories, the guys stealing the test wind up possibly getting caught, and there’s the ongoing conflict with Matt and his mother. I made it through about two episodes before skipping to episode 90, which was the final episode to see how it ended and by then Stacy had skipped town with a boyfriend who wasn’t Matt and Melinda had taken to wearing gargantuan scrunchies because … it was 1990.
It’s not a particularly good show; heck, it’s not a particularly good soap. But what it lacks in quality it makes up for in nostalgia factor. Much like the Fox show Yearbook was a literal time capsule of a high school in the early 1990s, Tribes is also a time capsule, mostly of a moment in the late 1980s/early 1990s where the teen entertainment genre was limping along at the box office (honestly, the most significant teen flick of 1990 is Pump Up the Volume) and the teen television genre was just getting its start (as mentioned, Beverly Hills, 90210 would debut that fall). 1990 was like a bad hangover for the Eighties, a year of transition where the prior decade hung around a little too much despite people’s efforts to prove that the next decade was going to be something special. What we call “The Nineties” would take at least another year to arrive, and that’s why it’s pretty cool to have mementos like Tribes.