The 25 Most Powerful TV Shows of the Last 25 Years

TV doesn’t get much respect. It rots your brain and grows couch potatoes. But the so-called idiot box also swings elections, rewires brains, snares criminals, and even sways the Supreme Court. The following may not be the best shows of the last 25 years—in fact, some are among the worst—but their impact reaches far beyond the living room.

1. Tropikanka: The Show That Won a Presidential Election

As Russians were gearing up to go to the polls in July 1996, Boris Yeltsin was nervous about his job. The weather gave him additional reason to panic. With the sun shining and the temperatures pleasant, Yeltsin fretted that his city-dwelling supporters would decamp to their dachas, or country cottages, instead of staying home and voting. Russia’s president needed a way to keep his base from traveling.

His solution: a cunning use of soap opera. No show was more popular in Russia than the Brazilian morality soap Tropikanka, which regularly drew 25 million viewers to the state-owned network ORT. With the election looming, ORT made a surprise announcement: The show’s finale would air as a special triple episode on election day between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m.

More amazing was the fact that the scheme actually worked. Because most dachas didn’t have televisions, viewers stayed in the city, glued to their sets. When the episode ended, it was too late to trek out of town, but voters still had time to get to the polling station. Yeltsin’s soap opera strategy helped him prevail by more than 10 million votes. Meanwhile, The Young and the Restless can’t even sway a lousy Senate race.

2. Melrose Place: The Show That Turned Prime Time Into an Art Gallery

You probably remember Melrose Place as a vapid, if enjoyable, look at a Los Angeles apartment complex. But the show had more depth than anyone realized. Starting in 1996, the program served as a highly visible billboard for up-and-coming artists.

Melrose’s foray into the art world was masterminded by conceptual artist Mel Chin. As Chin told the Los Angeles Times in 1997, “Everyone criticizes television, but nobody tries to intervene to give it the meaning it lacks.” Chin founded the GALA Committee to do just that.

When Chin approached Melrose set decorator Deborah Siegel with the idea of dressing the show in avant-garde works, she immediately approved. Together the GALA Committee and Siegel collected pieces from artists around the country and worked them into the show. Each time viewers tuned in for a little trashy fun, they got a hidden dose of culture.

Some of the art was surprisingly subversive. Most famously, when Courtney Thorne-Smith’s character was struggling with an unplanned pregnancy, she spent two episodes hunkered down in a comfy quilt. A closer look revealed it wasn’t just a pretty pattern—it was also the molecular structure of the abortion drug RU-486.

The art world, for its part, embraced the exposure, and in 1997, the Melrose Place pieces were displayed in their own show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

3. The Simpsons: The Show That Changed How We Talk

You don’t need to turn on the TV to hear The Simpsons. Just chat with pretty much anyone. As University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman wrote in 2005, “The Simpsons has apparently taken over from Shakespeare and the Bible as our culture’s greatest source of idioms, catchphrases, and sundry other textual allusions.”

Liberman’s assertion sounds crazy—at least until you remember there’s a Milhouse quote for every occasion. Even the hulking gatekeeper of the language, the Oxford English Dictionary, has found a spot for Homer Simpson’s trademark “D’oh!” Mmmm … linguistic acceptance.

4. America’s Most Wanted: The Show That Cleaned Up America’s Streets

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America's Most Wanted has helped capture over 1,100 fugitives since its debut in 1988.

5. The Theorists: The Show That Made Us Respect Belarus’s Actors

It’s no secret that television hits get licensed and remade around the globe. So when audiences in Belarus got their own knockoff of The Big Bang Theory in 2010, nothing seemed out of place. Like its American counterpart, The Theorists depicted the adventures of four lovably geeky scientists living next door to a beautiful waitress.

There was just one problem. Although the show was basically a shot-for-shot remake of the American original, Belarus’s version was unlicensed. When Big Bang Theory co-creator Chuck Lorre discovered the theft, he learned he couldn’t sue because Belarus’s government owned the production company. With no other recourse, Lorre chided the plagiarists in a title card, joking that he hoped Belarus would at least “break down and send us some felt hats.”

As it turned out, Lorre didn’t need to barter. When news broke that the show had never been licensed, the actors were mortified—they’d been told it was a legitimate production. Rather than continue to star in a rip-off, they protected their integrity by walking off the set. Left without a cast, the producers had no choice but to cancel The Theorists. The next time we need a scrupulous Eastern European actor, we know where to look.

6. Glee: The Show That Boosted the Record Industry

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FOX scored a sleeper hit with the musical series Glee in 2009. But the show’s real impact came between airings. As the rest of the record industry flailed, the Glee recordings found staggering success on iTunes. By the end of 2011, the cast had sold more than 11 million albums and another 36 million single tracks. Meanwhile, the cast’s 2011 concert tour grossed more than $40 million. Forget garage bands—aspiring stars should be shooting garage teen dramas!

7. De Grote Donorshow: The Show That Became an Organ Donor

This 2007 reality show’s horrifying premise: Three patients in need of a kidney compete for the organs of a terminally ill woman, with the dying woman picking the winner, using input from viewer text messages.

The show drew an avalanche of criticism before it aired. What could be more twisted than making sick people duke it out for vital organs as TV entertainment? Worse still, who thought that letting the same TV audiences that can barely be trusted to pick the next American Idol make such a harrowing decision? Dutch health officials vehemently condemned the show and attempted to block its airing to no avail.

Like many reality shows, De Grote Donorshow had a twist ending. Near the end of the program, presenters revealed that the show was a hoax to draw attention to Netherlands’s shortage of organ donors. The “terminally ill” woman was a healthy actress. And while the three contestants really did need kidneys, they were in on the stunt to help publicize the problem. BNN’s chairman admitted the gimmick was tasteless but said, “[W]e think the reality is even more shocking and tasteless.”

Crass or not, the effort worked: A day after the airing, 43,000 viewers requested forms to become organ donors.

8. SpongeBob SquarePants: The Show That Rewired Kids’ Brains

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In 2011, Nickelodeon’s favorite anthropomorphic sponge came under fire when a University of Virginia study showed that SpongeBob was hurting kids’ ability to perform basic tasks. The research involved a group of 60 4-year-olds who were asked to spend nine minutes watching an educational cartoon, watching SpongeBob, or coloring. Kids who watched SpongeBob scored significantly worse in tests involving solving puzzles, delaying gratification, and following instructions. The conclusion: rapidly paced TV with quick scene changes had a clear cognitive effect on children.

When the mainstream media picked up on the research, it decried the show’s mind-melting powers. Nickelodeon fired back that SpongeBob was intended for older kids, not preschoolers. One of the study’s authors even attempted to defend SpongeBob, pointing out that it was just one of many fast-paced cartoons. Her other line of defense was less helpful: She speculated that the program was particularly taxing for kids’ brains because it contained unfamiliar situations, like a talking sponge wearing square trousers. What’s worse, if you ask us, is how it deludes children into thinking they could someday live in a pineapple under the sea.

9. Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Show That Saved a Genre

In the 1980s, hour-long action shows were designed to lose money in their early seasons. Many lost as much as $600,000 per episode before recouping the shortfall with nine-figure syndication deals. But by 1987, action reruns had stopped matching the ratings of their comedic counterparts. As rich syndication contracts dried up, so did networks’ enthusiasm for dropping big money on explosions and gunfire.

Given that climate, even surefire hits like Paramount’s Star Trek spin-off couldn’t generate interest from the major channels. Undeterred, Paramount produced the series anyway and cobbled together its own group of local affiliates who agreed to broadcast the show.

When Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in October 1987, more than 50 ABC, NBC, and CBS affiliates preempted their networks’ programming to air the two-hour premiere. Cash motivated this unprecedented defection. When local affiliates preempt their networks’ programming, they get to keep all of the ad revenue from the show rather than share it with the network. Paramount gave episodes of The Next Generation to the affiliates for free, but with a catch. Each hour-long show included 12 minutes of ads. Stations could sell five of those minutes and keep the loot; the remaining seven belonged to Paramount.

The deal was incredibly profitable for everyone involved. At a time when most 30-second commercials sold for $30,000, The Next Generation’s strong ratings let Paramount and its affiliates command $115,000. The studio responded by investing more heavily in the show to keep it at the top of the pile. By 1992, each episode had a $2 million budget—nearly double that of a normal network drama—yet it was still one of TV’s most lucrative shows, pulling in $90 million a year in ad revenue for Paramount alone.

Other studios noticed Paramount’s 40 percent return on investment from its network-bypassing model and quickly jumped into the fray with shows like Renegade and Xena: Warrior Princess. By boldly going where no show had gone before, Star Trek: The Next Generation made TV safe for action again.

10. Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Show That Improvised Justice

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In 2003, 24-year-old machinist Juan Catalan faced the death penalty for allegedly shooting a key witness in a murder case. Catalan told police that he couldn’t have committed the crime—he was at a Los Angeles Dodgers game at the time. He had the ticket stubs and everything!

When police didn’t buy his alibi, Catalan contacted the Dodgers, who pointed him to an unlikely hero: misanthropic comedian Larry David. On the day in question, David had been filming an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in Dodger Stadium. It was a long shot, but maybe Catalan could be seen in the background. When his attorney watched the outtakes, it took just 20 minutes to find shots of Catalan and his daughter chowing down on ballpark dogs while watching from the stands.

Thanks to the footage, Catalan walked free after five months behind bars. And Larry David found one more thing to be self-deprecating about. “I tell people that I’ve done one decent thing in my life, albeit inadvertently,” joked David.

11. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Show That Spawned An Academic Discipline

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The TV sets in the ivory towers only have bunny ears for one show: Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The series has been so endlessly dissected and deconstructed by scholars that it’s formed its own loose academic discipline, Buffy Studies. It even has its own peer-reviewed academic journal, Slayage, giving new meaning to the phrase “publish or perish.”

Our favorite scholarship from Slayage:

“Buffy the Vampire Disciplinarian: Institutional Excess and the New Economy of Power”
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“I Hear It’s Best to Play Along: The Poststructuralist Turn in Buffy the Vampire Slayer”
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“It’s Bloody Brilliant: The Undermining of Metanarrative Feminism in the Season Seven Arc Narrative of Buffy”
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“Someone to Sink Your Teeth Into: Gendered Biting Patterns on Buffy the Vampire Slayer—A Quantitative Analysis”

12. Friends: The Show That Launched a One-Hit Wonder

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Before Friends hit the air in 1994, Natalie Merchant and R.E.M. both turned down the chance to record a theme song written by the show’s musical director. The Rembrandts, however, jumped at the opportunity. As Danny Wilde, front man for the California band, said, “We thought, Why not? Nobody will even know it was us, anyway.”

To the band’s surprise, when Friends aired, fans inundated radio stations with requests for “I’ll Be There for You.” But the track was never a proper song—it was just a 45-second slice of infectious pop. A Nashville radio station solved the problem by looping the jingle for three minutes. The stitched-together tune shot up the charts. When the Rembrandts’ record label pressured them to cut an extended version of the song, they grudgingly obeyed.

It was a smart move. The rerecorded single spent 11 straight weeks at the top of the charts and helped move more than two million copies of their album. The group admits that it’s frustrating being known for a song it didn’t write, but there’s an upside to being a well-televised one-hit wonder: The Rembrandts receive performance royalties every time a Friends rerun airs.

13. CSI: The Show That Gave D.A.’s Headaches

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By 2006, 70 million Americans were tuning into CSI or one of its two spin-offs each week. That became a real problem for prosecutors. As the show’s popularity grew, jurors started expecting the full CSI treatment in every trial. But in the vast majority of cases, police don’t need CSI-type technology to collar the perpetrator. The tests are expensive and can take weeks, and they tax already overworked crime labs. Circumstantial evidence and eyewitness accounts, on the other hand, can be just as damning for far less money.

Most of the evidence is anecdotal, but prosecutors insist that the CSI effect has raised jurors’ interest in high-tech forensic methods and led to undeserved acquittals. A study by Michigan judge Donald E. Shelton even discovered that investigators were doing unnecessary tests just to make it look like they were giving crime scenes a CSI-level scouring. Real or not, prosecutors fear the effect could cost them an important verdict. Some attorneys now ask potential jurors whether they’re fans of the show as they’re determining who to weed out during jury selection.

14. How I Met Your Mother: The Show That Revolutionized Product Placement

In July 2011, something strange happened on a rerun of How I Met Your Mother. Although the episode airing in syndication had been shot in 2006, a poster in one of the scenes was eerily modern: It was pushing Bad Teacher, a movie that had been in theaters only a few weeks. Did Neil Patrick Harris have a time machine?

The bizarrely prescient ad was the work of SeamBI, a company that has craftily elevated the practice of product placement by digitally inserting new ads into old scenes of syndicated shows. Currently, the company tends to insert posters and billboards as set dressing, but its vision doesn’t end there. SeamBI plans to slice and dice markets so that your television does what the Web has been doing for years—help advertisers target very specific geographic areas. Viewers in New York, for instance, might see a Manhattan-based billboard on an old sitcom, while Delaware viewers could see a completely different one while watching the exact same show.

As Entertainment Weekly pointed out, the scheme makes syndicated shows even more profitable, with How I Met Your Mother opening the floodgates to a whole new world. While the idea of seeing June Cleaver opening up a fridge full of Coke Zero or the Fonz leaning up against a poster for The Hangover 3 still seems laughable, SeamBI knows it’s just around the corner.

15. Sex and the City: The Show That Boosted the Pregnancy Rate

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In 2008, a RAND Institute study reported that girls between 12 and 17 who watched Sex and the City and other shows with “high sexual content” were more than twice as likely to become pregnant—a ringing endorsement for enforcing the Mature Audience rating. Of course, all that risqué chatter did some good too. A 2011 Ohio State University study found that undergraduates who viewed an episode of Sex and the City were more than twice as likely to talk to their partners about sexual-health issues.

16. The Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Girl Contest: The Show That Gave China the Vote

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No show has captured China’s heart the way the Super Girl Contest has. When it debuted in 2004, few would have predicted that the all-female American Idol knockoff would draw 400 million viewers. But while the Chinese people couldn’t get enough of the show, the Chinese government viewed it as a threat. The most popular contestants wore Western-style clothes and gave emotional performances that flew in the face of China’s usual stoicism. What really scared the government, however, was how viewers chose the winner by text message. In a nation where citizens have no say in who will lead them, that sort of exposure to the democratic process seemed dangerous.

Government mandarins led by culture minister Liu Zhongde blasted the show as “poison for our youth.” And even after regulators stripped the program of its text voting, the venom continued. “We can’t have working people reveling all day in low culture,” Liu said.

This being China, you can probably guess how the story ends. Government censors gave the show the ax following the 2011 season finale. Still, Super Girl managed to give China a real taste of democracy. Not even Simon Cowell could find fault there.

17. Venice: The Show That Won the Web

As Guiding Light sputtered toward cancellation in 2009, fans were distraught. The show was disappearing just as an unlikely super couple was emerging. Single mom characters Olivia Spencer (Crystal Chappell) and Natalia Rivera (Jessica Leccia) were doomed to go off the air without sharing their first kiss.

Luckily, actress Chappell saved the couple by launching the Web series Venice to explore the relationship of two women similar to Olivia and Natalia (dubbed “Otalia”). Actors and crew were so hell-bent on seeing Otalia’s romance that they worked for free. More radically, Chappell defrayed her costs by selling online subscriptions.

After spending chaste months on the air, Olivia and Natalia’s Web counterparts locked lips in the first minute of Venice, and the Daytime Emmy–winning series is now in its third season, proving that love can conquer anything, including viewers’ reluctance to pay for TV.

18. Chuck: The Show That Sold a Lot of Sandwiches

When NBC’s nerd-spy comedy Chuck looked doomed in 2009, fans embraced commercialism to keep the show afloat. Rather than launch a letter-writing campaign at the end of the second season, die-hard viewers appealed to a higher power: one of the show’s advertisers. Under operation Finale & Footlong, Chuck’s “nerd herd” flooded Subway shops to buy sandwiches. Even the show’s star Zachary Levi got into the action, leading 600 fans to a shop in Birmingham, England.

Amazingly, the ploy worked. Subway liked the business so much that it struck a deal with NBC to sponsor Chuck’s third season, complete with increased product placement. Did fans love seeing the show saturated with sandwiches? Maybe not, but watching Chuck down a foot-long was better than not watching Chuck at all.

19. Designing Women: The Show That Transcended Politics

Dixie Carter’s character on Designing Women, Julia Sugarbaker, was known for her frequent monologues praising liberal causes. Offscreen, however, Carter was a staunch Republican and found the diatribes repulsive. When the actress finally put her foot down, refusing to extol Democratic values, the show’s producers crafted a bizarre agreement. Each time Carter gave one of her character’s trademark rants, she got to sing a song in a future episode. If only Congress would learn to make such compromises.

20. Fei Cheng Wu Rao: TV Killed the Energy Star

China’s Fei Cheng Wu Rao (“If You Are the One”) is a pretty standard dating show. It won’t find any love with Beijing’s air-quality monitors, though. On a 2010 episode, a suitor asked 22-year-old Ma Nuo whether she would ride a bike with him on a date. Ma’s withering response: “I’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle.” The catchphrase went viral, and it cemented the bike’s reputation as Beijing’s ultimate no-status symbol. And with air pollution and auto gridlock both up, there’s a lot to cry about in your BMW.

21. ER: The Show That Made Us Healthier

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ER did more than make George Clooney a superstar. It also changed the way America ate. In three 2004 episodes, the show explored a minor plot arc about a teenager who learns he has high blood pressure. The show’s physician characters advise the young man to exercise and eat more fruits and vegetables.

While the plot sounds humdrum, it scared viewers straight. In 2007, researchers from the University of Southern California’s medical school published a paper in the Journal of Health Communication that found that viewers who caught these episodes of ER had started walking or exercising more, eating more fruits and vegetables, or getting their blood pressure checked. How can anyone say watching TV is bad for you?

22. Days of Our Lives: The Show That Slowed Down the Supreme Court

For years before his 1991 retirement, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall slipped away from deliberations each day to watch Days of Our Lives. The show wasn’t just a guilty pleasure; it helped shape the justice’s understanding of the world. As Marshall once told Justice William Brennan, soaps teach viewers valuable lessons about life.

23. Baywatch: The Show That Proved David Hasselhoff Is a Genius

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When NBC put Baywatch on its fall prime-time schedule in 1989, the network thought it had a hit. How could a showcase for attractive women in swimsuits ever fail? But after the show scuffled in the ratings and took a critical pounding, NBC pulled the plug after just one season.

Nobody knew better than star and executive producer David Hasselhoff that mockery in the States doesn’t preclude success abroad. (Remember, this was a man who had topped Germany’s pop charts.) Hasselhoff and his co-producers bought Baywatch from the studio and re-launched it in first-run syndication.

It didn’t take long for Baywatch to conquer the world. By 1995, the show was being translated into 15 languages and entertaining citizens in 144 countries … including Iran! In fact, the globe-spanning appeal of slow-motion running and scantily clad ladies helped Baywatch surpass Dallas as the most-watched TV show of all time. Not a bad legacy for a critical dud.

24. The 1988 Eurovision Song Contest: The Show That Unleashed Céline Dion on the World

Over 200 million records sold later, her heart is still going on.

25. The Colbert Report: The Show That Won 10 Olympic Medals

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In October 2009, U.S. Speedskating was in dire straits. Its primary sponsor, the Dutch bank DSB, had gone bankrupt just months before the 2010 Winter Games. Worse still, the company hadn’t paid a cent of its pledged $300,000. Luckily for the squad, a savior was about to glide onto the rink.

On November 2, 2009, comedian Stephen Colbert made a surprise announcement that his show was becoming the team’s primary sponsor. But instead of forking over the cash himself, he asked viewers to make small donations. The money poured in: The team received more than $300,000 from a pool of 9,000 donors, and it made for a solid investment, as the squad racked up 10 medals at the games.

What prompted Colbert’s sudden compassion for a sport he’d often lampooned? He identified with the team’s ambitious dreams and dwindling bank account. As Colbert told The New York Times, “Believe me, I spent 20 years racking up huge debts pursuing comedy.”

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Warner Bros.
19 Shadowy Facts About Tim Burton's Batman
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Superhero movies are bigger than they’ve ever been before, but we arguably wouldn’t be here at all without 1989’s Batman. Produced at a time before comic book movies were considered big business, Tim Burton’s dark look at a superhero then best known for a goofy TV show is a pop culture landmark, and the story of how it was made is almost as interesting as the film itself. So, to celebrate Batman—which was released on this day in 1989—here are 19 facts about how it came to the screen.

1. AN EARLY MOVIE IDEA RELIED ON THE CAMPINESS OF THE CHARACTER.

As development of a Batman movie began, studio executives were still very tied to the campiness embodied by the Batman television series of the 1960s. According to executive producer Michael Uslan, when he first began attempting to get the rights to make a film, he was told that the only studio who’d expressed interest was CBS, and only if they could do a Batman In Outer Space film.

2. IT TOOK 10 YEARS TO MAKE.

Uslan lobbied hard for the rights to Batman, and finally landed them in 1979. At that point, the fight to convince a studio to make the film ensued, and everyone from Columbia Pictures to Universal Pictures turned it down. When Warner Bros. finally agreed to back the film, the issue of developing the right script had to be settled, and that took even more time. In 1989, after years of battling, Batman was finally released, and Uslan has been involved in some form in every Batman film since.

3. AN EARLY SCRIPT FEATURED BOTH THE PENGUIN AND ROBIN.

When Uslan finally got the chance to develop the film, he drafted legendary screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who had been a consultant on Superman, to write the script. The Mankiewicz script included The Joker, corrupt politician Rupert Thorne, a much greater focus on Bruce Wayne’s origin story, The Penguin, and the arrival of Robin late in the film. The script was ultimately scrapped, but you can see certain elements of it in Batman Returns.

4. TIM BURTON WASN’T THE FIRST POTENTIAL DIRECTOR.

Though Warner Bros. ultimately chose Tim Burton to helm Batman, over the course of the film’s development a number of other choices emerged. At various points on the road to Batman, everyone from Gremlins director Joe Dante to Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman was in line for the gig.

5. MANY STARS OF THE TIME WERE CONSIDERED FOR BATMAN.

The casting process for Batman was a long one, and involved a number of major stars of the day. Among the contenders for the title role were Mel Gibson, Bill Murray (yes, really), Kevin Costner, Willem Dafoe, Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, Ray Liotta, and Pierce Brosnan, who later regretted turning down the role.

6. TIM BURTON HAD TO FIGHT TO CAST MICHAEL KEATON.

At the time, Michael Keaton was best known for his comedic roles in films like Mr. Mom and Night Shift, so the thought of casting him as a vigilante of the night seemed odd to many. Michael Uslan remembers thinking a prank was being played on him when he heard Keaton’s name pop up. Burton, who’d already worked with Keaton on Beetlejuice, was convinced that Keaton was right for the role, not just because he could portray the obsessive nature of the character, but because he also felt that Keaton was the kind of actor who would need to dress up as a bat in order to scare criminals, while a typical action star would just garner “unintentional laughs” in the suit. Burton ultimately won the argument, and Keaton got an iconic role for two films.

7. JACK NICHOLSON WAS THE FIRST CHOICE FOR THE JOKER, BUT HE WASN’T THE ONLY CHOICE.

From the beginning, Uslan concluded that Jack Nicholson was the perfect choice to play The Joker, and was “walking on air” when the production finally cast him. He certainly wasn’t the only actor considered, though. Among Burton’s considerations were Willem Dafoe, James Woods, Brad Dourif, David Bowie, and Robin Williams (who really wanted the part).

8. TIM BURTON WON JACK NICHOLSON OVER WITH HORSEBACK RIDING.

When Nicholson was asked to discuss playing The Joker, he invited Burton and producer Peter Guber to visit him in Aspen for some horseback riding. When Burton learned that was what they’d be doing, he told Guber “I don’t ride,” to which Guber replied “You do today!” So, a “terrified” Burton got on a horse and rode alongside Nicholson, and the star ultimately agreed to play the Clown Prince of Crime.

9. EDDIE MURPHY WAS ONCE CONSIDERED TO PLAY ROBIN.

Though the character of Robin was ultimately scrapped because it simply didn’t feel like there was room for him in the film, he did appear in early drafts of the script, and at one point producers considered casting Eddie Murphy—who, you must remember, was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1980s—for the role. 

10. SEAN YOUNG WAS THE ORIGINAL VICKI VALE.

Burton initially cast Blade Runner star Sean Young as acclaimed photographer Vicki Vale, who would become Bruce Wayne’s love interest. Young was part of the pre-production process on Batman for several weeks until, while practicing horseback riding for a scene that was ultimately cut, she fell from her horse and was seriously injured. With just a week to go until shooting, producers had to act fast to find a replacement, and decided on Kim Basinger, who essentially joined the production overnight.

11. TIM BURTON WASN’T OFFICIALLY HIRED UNTIL BEETLEJUICE BECAME A HIT.

Though he was basically already a part of the production, Burton wasn’t officially the director of Batman right away. Warner Bros. showed interest in him working on the film after the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but according to Burton they only officially hired him after the first weekend grosses for Beetlejuice came in.

“They were just waiting to see how Beetlejuice did,” Burton said. “They didn’t want to give me that movie unless Beetlejuice was going to be okay. They wouldn’t say that, but that was really the way it was.”

12. DANNY ELFMAN THOUGHT HE WAS GOING TO BE FIRED UNTIL HE PLAYED THE MAIN THEME.

Danny Elfman is now considered one of our great movie composers, but at the time Batman was released he didn’t have any blockbuster credits to his name. He recalls meeting with Burton (with whom he had worked on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) and producer Jon Peters to go over some of the music he’d already written for the film, and feeling “a lot of skepticism” over whether he should be the composer for Batman. It wasn’t until Burton said “Play the march,” and Elfman went into what would become the opening credits theme for the film, that he won Peters over.

“Jon jumped out of his chair, really just almost started dancing around the room,” Elfman said.

13. THE JOKER WASN’T ALWAYS GOING TO KILL BATMAN’S PARENTS.

In the final film, The Joker (then named Jack Napier) is revealed to be the gangster who guns down Bruce Wayne’s parents in the streets of Gotham City. It’s a twist that some comic book fans still dislike, and according to screenwriter Sam Hamm, it definitely wasn’t his fault.

“That was something that Tim had wanted from early on, and I had a bunch of arguments with him and wound up talking him out of it for as long as I was on the script. But, once the script went into production, there was a writer’s strike underway, and so I wasn’t able to be with the production as it was shooting over in London, and they brought in other people.”

Hamm also emphasizes that it was also not his idea to show Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave.

14. THE CLIMACTIC SCENE WAS WRITTEN MIDWAY THROUGH SHOOTING.

Though much of the film is still derived from Hamm’s script, rewrites continued to happen during shooting, and one of them involved the final confrontation between Batman and The Joker in a Gotham City clock tower. According to co-star Robert Wuhl, the climax was inspired by Jack Nicholson and Jon Peters, who went to see a production of The Phantom of the Opera midway through filming and watched as the Phantom made his final stand in a tower. Together, they somehow determined that a final fight in the tower was what Batman needed.

“The next day, they started writing that scene … the whole ending in the tower,” Wuhl said.

15. MICHAEL KEATON’S BATMAN MOVEMENTS WERE INSPIRED BY THE RESTRICTIONS OF THE COSTUME.

Batman fans still love to make jokes about the original costume, and Michael Keaton’s inability to turn his head (there’s even a dig at that in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight), but the restrictions of the costume actually inspired how Keaton performed as the Dark Knight. In 2014, Keaton revealed that his performance as Batman was heavily influenced by a moment when, while trying to actually turn his head in the suit, he ended up ripping it.

“It really came out of the first time I had to react to something, and this thing was stuck to my face and somebody says something to Batman and I go like this [turning his head] and the whole thing goes, [rriipp]! There was a big f***ing hole over here,” he said. “So I go, well, I've got to get around that, because we've got to shoot this son of a bitch, so I go, 'You know what, Tim [Burton]? He moves like this [like a statue]!’”

“I'm feeling really scared, and then it hit me—I thought, 'Oh, this is perfect! This is perfect.' I mean, this is, like, designed for this kind of really unusual dude, the Bruce Wayne guy, the guy who has this other personality that's really dark and really alone, and really kind of depressed. This is it.”

16. GOTHAM CITY WAS REAL, AND IT WAS EXPENSIVE.

Production designer Anton Furst put a lot of work into the incredibly influential designs for the film’s version of Gotham City, and the production was committed to making them pay off. The production ultimately spent more than $5 million to transform the backlot of London’s Pinewood Studios into Gotham City, and you can see the dedication to practical effects work in the final film.

17. PRINCE WAS PART OF THE PRODUCTION EVEN BEFORE HE JOINED IT.

Batman famously features original songs by Prince, who wrote so much new material for the production that he basically produced a full album. Even before the Purple One was drafted to write for the film, though, he was influencing it. Burton played Prince songs on set during the parade sequence and the Joker’s rampage through the museum.

18. THE FILM’S MARKETING WAS SO EFFECTIVE THAT IT INSPIRED CRIMES.

By the time Batman was actually on its way to release, it was becoming a phenomenon, and the marketing for the film was inspiring a frenzy among fans. People were buying tickets to other films just to see the first trailer, and selling bootleg copies of the early footage. The poster, featuring the iconic logo, was so popular that, according to Uslan, people were breaking into bus stations just to steal it.

19. IT WAS A BOX OFFICE LANDMARK.

Though studio executives resisted the idea of a “dark” Batman movie for years, the film ultimately set a new standard for box office success. It was the first film to ever hit $100 million in 10 days, the biggest film in Warner Bros.’ history at the time, and the box office’s biggest earner of 1989—and that’s not even counting the massive toy and merchandising sales it generated.

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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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