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Nineties Degree

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, TV channels, TV History with tags , , , , , , , on June 12, 2017 by Tom Steward

Nineties 1

This isn’t the first post I’ve written about nineties nostalgia in television but at the time of writing I had no idea how contagious it would be. Consider the evidence. The most innovative program on TV remains Twin Peaks (I’ll hold off on saying the best until it’s over). There is a television revival of Fargo which not only seems determined to re-capture every iconic moment from the golden decade of The Coen Brothers, but also currently stars Trainspotting’s Ewan McGregor (incidentally, this is too much for someone who once owned VHS of both movies with the other film’s trailer before them). Louis C.K’s experiments with television comedy, both on and off the air, channel nineties indie cinema auteurs like Jim Jarmusch, and what is Horace & Pete but a serialised soundstage version of star Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge? Factor in a Friends revival and you couldn’t be more nineties.

The best of nineties nostalgia TV is also a cultural commentary on it. Netflix’s transcendent sitcom The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt uses the device of a woman kidnapped and secluded for fifteen years in a bunker to retrofit the majority of the program’s points of reference to nineties pop culture. There are so many I’ve lost track but imagine an alternate universe where the apotheosis of pop culture remains Kelsey Grammer. It’s a satire of our arrested development that also manages to capture the (albeit anachronistic) zeitgeist, as any successful sitcom must. Though not specifically aimed at the early nineties, Twin Peaks processes its nostalgic appeal in fittingly gothic ways. In the reboot, the Sherriff’s Department receptionist Lucy has a debilitating phobia of cell phone use, which she regards as some kind of witchcraft, while her son Wally Brando (an unusually well-used Michael Cera) delivers an eerie ventriloquism of namesake Marlon.

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In some sense, it was only a matter of time. We’re about as far now from the nineties as we were from the fifties when movies and TV shows romanticising the decade like American Graffiti and Happy Days started to dominate pop culture. We may be waiting a while for the nineties-set equivalent of the explicit love letter to the fifties that is Back in the Future, which is to say this phase probably hasn’t peaked yet, but it can’t be far from saturation point. Enough time has passed that any piece of media dealing with the nineties can now legitimately be seen as a work of history. Indeed, this very Summer CNN premieres the graduation of its decade-based documentary series The Nineties, the trailer for which positions the CD player as the relic of a bygone era and The Backstreet Boys as detached from the present as The Beatles.

Nineties nostalgia is also a by-product of a TV ecology where the past is always present. Though claiming to revolutionize the reception of television, Video-On-Demand platforms like Netflix and Hulu have done more to take TV content back in time than any oldies station ever did. Entire canons of popular (and not so) TV shows from the 1950s onwards are now instantly accessible to a vast viewership, and without the bitter pill of catheter commercials to swallow. The appeal of such platforms is as much being able to binge on Cheers as House of Cards. If lifespan permits, such extensive replay creates a natural demand for revival, which the VOD platform’s business models are always more-than-happy to accommodate, with a slew of fannish resurrections. Done so routinely online, the on-air networks are now spicing their season line-ups with revivals of nineties properties, as shown by the upcoming return of Roseanne.

The 2017-2018 ABC Television Upfront Presentation

I was a teenager in the nineties and those were my formative cultural years. At the time, I thought the best of film, TV and music had been and gone, though it turns out that’s a very nineties way of looking at things. Now I fetishistically relish what came out of that decade, and regard it as a far more sophisticated era in mainstream media arts than we are currently experiencing. I think I’m pretty typical of my generation, if we can be uniformly tantalised by the prospect of a Minnesota-based police procedural coming to primetime or react excitedly when one of the most belaboured sitcoms of all time returns to network TV. There’s no doubt we’re the demographic that television executives are targeting with their retroactive approach to commissioning, and that producers find common ground with their fragmented audience based on a shared love of the decade’s cultural output.

 

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