It’s been almost 24 years since “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” premiered on FOX in 1993 — and needless to say, the TV industry has changed quite a lot since then.
With Lionsgate’s new film in theaters, and the show producing continuously ever since on one network or another, it’s clear “MMPR” isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And while the show’s longevity — in all its various iterations — has proven impressive, I’d like to walk you through my own experience, working on a short-lived “Power Rangers” spinoff series called “V.R. Troopers.”
The “Power Rangers” phenomenon took off almost immediately in 1993, showing just how brilliant Haim Saban and Shuki Levy were in banking on the simple formula of putting an American spin on Japan’s “Super Sentai” series.
A year after its premiere, Saban Entertainment went into expansion mode: Doing their best to bank on this very profitable TV formula. “V.R. Troopers” was the first sister show to head into production. This is where I come into the story…
For those who may not remember, “V.R. Troopers” followed three heroes: Ryan Steele (Brad Hawkins), J.B. Reese (Michael Hollander) and Kaitlyn Starr (Sarah Brown) as they jumped into the world of Virtual Reality to fight off Grimlord and his evil henchmen — continuing to keep our world safe from their constant meddling.
Just at the beginnings of my acting career, I was sent to Magic Movie Studios in Valencia, California — right across the freeway from Six Flags Magic Mountain. The role I was auditioning for was “Bradley Rooney,” the mayor’s obnoxiously nerdy nephew. For those who recall the show, the name of my character soon changed to “Percy.”
The evolution of the audition process
In 1994, the whole audition process was a different beast than it is today. Sure, actors are still given sides, or a portion of a script, to study and perform — but the way an actor’s representation submits their talent to casting has changed completely. These were the components of the audition process back then:
- A hard-copy headshot
- A mailed-in or faxed submission
- That glorious moment casting calls you in
- Membership in the Screen Actors Guild (*maybe)
This is how I got in the door to read for “V.R. Troopers.” (“Maybe,” regarding SAG membership, because at the time “Power Rangers” and its inevitable sister shows — “Masked Rider,” “Big Bad Beetle Borgs,” etc. — were all non-union.)
I wish I could say things are just as simplistic now, but the Internet, social media and union politics have made breaking into the business a whole different challenge altogether. Those changes have indeed impacted the way the business works now:
- Hard-copy headshots are a thing of the past.
- Actors must have a website and social media presence, and all submissions are done electronically.
- Because casting no longer views hard-copy headshot submissions, an actor’s face is limited to a simple thumbnail on a computer screen — which obviously makes it a lot tougher to stand out.
Saban shows being non-union meant not adhering to SAG rules meant paying his cast and crew on the cheap — which he did, and which in turn led to a boycott by SAG, and ultimately, “Power Rangers” became a union series after 1998. This didn’t effect any of the “V.R. Troopers” cast, but a few years after our show wrapped, I was able to join the union. To put things into perspective: In 1996, the fee to join the Screen Actor’s Guild was about $1200 dollars. In 2017, that price is $3,000.
Nerds are totally cool now
In 1994, nerds on television were not at all cool. I can speak on this first hand — Percy was the epitome of everything a ’90s TV nerd could be. Consider him a cross between Steve Urkel (Jaleel White) and Screech (Dustin Diamond) with a little bit of “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” thrown in.
Throughout the first season of “V.R. Troopers,” Percy was merely the comedic foil on the show: Getting attacked by a xerox machine, falling down a flight of stairs head first, almost drowning in a lake, being literally waterboarded… You name it, and it probably happened to me.
Going out in public, though, a trend began to form: Kids couldn’t separate my on screen performance from the real me. Honestly, I lost count at the number of times a crowd of kids ran up and kicked me below the belt for the sake of comedy. It’s a funny visual, to be sure, but the network quickly recognized the messaging the show was delivering: If it was okay for the heroes to bully Percy, then that justified how kids treated their unpopular peers at school. That was just not okay. Needless to say, all that was toned down in Season 2.
It took a while, but the perception of nerds on television has changed. The extreme success of CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory” is a sign of this cultural shift. With the rise of comic-book entertainment and the surge in superhero TV shows, the nerd — in all his/her quirky glory — finally rose to the occasion and pop culture will never be the same. It only took 20 years, but somewhere Percy is cheering.
Movie stars changed the whole TV dynamic
Up until the early 2000s, movie stars didn’t show up on television that much. TV and film were two completely different entertainment worlds: The big screen was where the glitz and glamour were, leading most big name celebrities to avoid slumming it on television.
An evolution started to happen around the turn of the century which found people like Brad Pitt guest starring in “Friends.” This profoundly affected the way television shows were cast, changing the hierarchy in roles available for everyday actors looking for their big break. Before the shift took place, the available roles for episodic projects looked like this:
- Series regulars: The main leads of the show.
- Recurring guest stars: Supporting players, appearing in a multiple episode arc.
- Guest stars: Supporting players, featured mainly in one episode.
- Co-Stars: Roles featured in just one episode of a series, usually with minimal lines.
For shows like “Power Rangers” and “V.R. Troopers,” unknown actors were given a quick shot at stardom. Yet once the business saw how successful a show like “Friends” got, with Brad Pitt making the jump to television, networks began shifting their business model and soon, only big name celebrities were being considered for that recurring guest-star spot on a show, which then led to people normally seen for those roles being bumped down to guest stars, and so on.
Ultimately, this effect made it even tougher for struggling actors to get their foot in the door and be seen.
The evolution of superhero television
If you would’ve told me a decade ago that Marvel and DC properties would reign supreme on the small screen, I’d have probably laughed. Yet here we are. Shows like “The Flash,” “Arrow,” “Daredevil” and “Legion” have changed the TV game — leading me to believe that “V.R. Troopers” could enjoy renewed success if Saban thought a revival was in order.
Television entertainment has come a long way, though. With the increasing budgets being thrown at CW’s superhero shows and the like, action sequences are more realistic and the audience respects the story for it.
In 1995, “V.R. Troopers” was canceled simply because we ran out of footage to use. “Jikuu Senshi Spielban,” “Shaider” and “Metalder” were the three Japanese shows our show pulled from — and there was an obvious limit to the number of times each of our 92 episodes could re-use the same exact scene.
With “The Power Rangers” movie hitting it big in theaters — and six more films in the works — it’s clear that these heroes will be around for quite some time. Since virtual reality has made a resurgence in recent years, is it possible for “V.R. Troopers” to get a reboot? Probably not. Still, as the TV industry has continued to push forward with every new trope and trend, the Saban series has proven its staying power. And no matter how silly the genre has seemed at times, that longevity is quite commendable.