1995: The year the future began
The 1990s deserve better.
Deserve better than the erratic, schlocky, and often-trivial episode that the National Geographic Channel served up last night, in the first of three installments of a docu-series titled “The ’90s: The Last Great Decade?”
The inaugural two-hour program was more pop culture retrospective than a serious and useful reassessment of a recent, important yet much-misunderstood time. It did little to address, let alone answer, the question in the series subtitle, “Last Great Decade?”
It’s a foolish question, anyway, and essentially unanswerable.
As I point out in my forthcoming book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, “Crude myth has begun to define the American 1990s. In recent years, the conservative syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer has taken to scoffing at the 1990s as a ‘holiday from history,’ a ‘soporific Golden Age,’ an unserious time when the United States largely ignored the gathering threat of Islamic terrorism only to pay a staggering price in 2001. The decade was, Krauthammer has said, ‘our retreat from seriousness, our Seinfeld decade of obsessive ordinariness.’”
Krauthammer’s critique is aimed principally at Bill Clinton, whom Krauthammer has dismissed as “a president perfectly suited to the time — a time of domesticity, triviality and self-absorption.”
It’s quite an indictment – overstated for sure but grist for serious television programming.
The ’90s were more complex that a “soporific Golden Age.” The decade was no holiday from history. But you certainly wouldn’t get that impression in watching the superficial fare that National Geographic Channel presented.
Tellingly, last night’s episode offered dubious assertion without analysis. At one point in his voiceover, narrator Rob Lowe declared that “Bill Clinton was the right man for the times,” but failed to explain how or why the former governor of Arkansas merited such distinction. Indeed, the segments about Clinton’s successful run for the presidency in 1992 tended to emphasize his womanizing and his slick and slippery side.
Rather than “the right man for the times,” Clinton was an infinitely lucky politician. He was unfailingly fortunate in having woeful political foes.
The contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992 were decidedly second-tier figures such as Jerry Brown and Paul Tsongas, neither of whom possessed the political instincts or wiliness of Bill Clinton. His Republican opponent in the 1992 general election, President George H.W. Bush, was bumbling and widely seen as out of touch, unable to come to grips with a sharp economic downturn.
Last night’s installment included a clip of the annoying and uncharming Roseanne Barr who claimed to have been “definitely responsible” for Clinton’s election in 1992 because she said on her comedy sitcom that it was time for a change at the top.
And so it went. The first episode at times was head-shakingly bad.
It referred to Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith as “iconic.” It said Roseanne was “revolutionary.” It devoted as much time (or perhaps more) to the Grunge musician Kurt Cobain, who killed himself in 1994, as it did to the epic Netscape-Microsoft “browser war” of the mid- and late-1990s — and without a word from any of the principals of Netscape, a colorful and impressively innovative California startup.
The effect of all this was to reinforce the notion that the ’90s were frivolous, a wayward time of superficial indulgence. The leadoff installment of the National Geographic miniseries certainly does not bode well for the remaining two ’90s programs, to be aired tonight and Tuesday.
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