Trouble was the definitive TV channel of my teens
It was all about Saved By The Bell, Fresh Prince and Damon Wayans
I remember when we first got cable. Before then, television meant five channels – and for a child, this in turn meant only a few programmes every day and lots of reruns of the wobbly video tapes of Rosie & Jim. One day though, Dad brought home a weird black box with a red LED number display, “ntl” written on the front and a row of buttons along the bottom. Suddenly everything changed.
Even a quick look at a picture of the old cable box should make something about the early days of cable pretty obvious: there were nowhere near as many channels as there are now. The numbers only went up to the high 90s but this was already more TV than my brothers or I had ever imagined possible. TV habits changed: now we could always find a Power Rangers or Dexter’s Laboratory episode to watch.
As I got older, one channel above all the others became my constant, the one I’d instinctively switch the channel to without needing to check what was on. That channel’s number remains burned on my retinas, the red LED digits imprinted there for the rest of my life: 63. Trouble.
Yo, home to Bel Air
A mix of mostly-American family sitcoms and teen dramas, Trouble was a vital stepping-stone between the cartoons of my childhood and teenager-dom. Younger me would sit there watching TV episodes that dealt with drug overdoses and teenage sex and feel really grown-up and clever, even if neither of those things were remotely close to entering my life at that age.
Through the likes of Saved By The Bell, My Wife & Kids and City Guys I got my introduction to the “big kid” world ahead of me, albeit one that was heavily Americanised, and it was a world I fell in love with. While other kids were chatting about whoever was getting bullied on Byker Grove, I was hanging out at The Max with Zach and Kelly Kapowski or sitting on a stoop somewhere in New York. Nothing in these shows was close to my own experience as a teenager (or probably the experience of any real American teenager) but I loved the escapism, the idea I could be living in a country apparently full of extended families and massive houses, where everyone had a funny neighbour and an amiable black friend.
C-I-T-Y, you can see why these guys, the neat guys, the smart and streetwise
Trouble was also probably the most amount of exposure I had to black people and black culture before going to uni. My primary school had no black students in my year. My secondary school had only a handful of non-white students in each year. My football team had one black guy, Perry, who was insanely talented and was even called up to Colchester United’s academy. That was pretty much it though.
By contrast, Trouble’s range of black sitcoms, all seemingly featuring at least one member of the Wayans family, meant about 90 per cent of my favourite TV characters were black. Looking back, there’s obviously no way I can claim to have learned anything from these shows about what it’s actually like to be a different race. It would be like claiming The Wire helped me understand what growing up black in a rough neighbourhood is like. TV shows don’t work like that.
What these shows would do though, often in their occasional, over-dramatic “Very Special Episodes”, is raise awareness of something I’d never had to consider before, like when Fresh Prince’s Will and Carlton are harassed by the police over the colour of their skin. It may have been only the most marginal increase of my worldview, but given how much the rest of my childhood resembled the village of Midsomer (minus the Murders) it was probably a good thing.
It’s alright ’cause I’m saved by the bell
On 17 March 2009, Virgin Media announced Trouble was closing, replaced on the airwaves by Living +2 (a channel I’m fairly confident in predicting nobody has ever heard of). By that point I’d already long stopped watching. I was about to turn 18 and go to uni, so there wasn’t much to be gained by hanging out at Bayside High any more.
The loss of Trouble though was the end of an era for a certain kind of TV channel. Trouble was the channel you put on when you didn’t know what else to watch: now the best we’ve got is Dave and endless QI re-runs. Trouble was also an undeniable product of the 90s, down to its gloriously bad, faux-edgy name: now the best we’ve got is a channel called Dave which thinks it’s being ironic. None of the TV shows on Trouble were revolutionary: in fact, watching lots of them back-to-back revealed how similar their mechanical plot structures really were. But for a small-town kid looking for answers about the wider world or the girl they liked at school, Trouble was the answer. If 13-year-old me was out there now, I’d feel bad for him. There might be 999 channels now, but Trouble ain’t one.