The 1995 Blog

1995: The year the future began

What did the ’90s mean?

The National Geographic Channel’s series about the 1990s began quite poorly but became rather better during its three installments, the last of which aired Tuesday night.

But in the end, six hours of programming devoted to the decade failed to offer cohesive and searching analysis, to explain what the ’90s meant.

NatGeo logo_90sThe respective episodes touched on or explored most of the important moments of the ’90s — and devoted considerable time to frivolous topics and shallow personalities: Alien abduction, the Jerry Springer Show, Vanilla Ice, Roseanne Barr, and Tanya Harding all received extended treatment.

The omissions were striking. The genocide in Rwanda — and how the West largely stood aside as the horror unfolded in April 1994 — merited little more than a mention. The meteoric rise and fall of Netscape Communications Corporation — the swaggering California startup that developed the software that illuminated the Web for millions of people — was considered briefly, within a cartoonish discussion about the rise of tech nerds.

The rise of Amazon.com, a 1995 startup, received scant attention and the separate partial shutdowns of the federal government that began in late 1995 were lumped together as one.

So there were more than a few curious choices and odd emphases in what was a fairly heavily hyped docu-series. In National Geographic’s treatment, the dysfunctional trumped the outstanding, and that offered, if indirectly, a negative response to the question in the series subtitle — were the ’90s “the last great decade?”

The closing portions of the series were the best, and the U.S. military debacle in Somalia in 1993, the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, the death and funeral in 1997 of Princess Diana, and the sex-and-lies scandal that swept up President Bill Clinton in the closing years of his presidency all were absorbingly presented.

Even then, omissions were notable: The program failed to describe the penalties that Clinton paid for telling lies under oath about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern 27 years his junior.

As I discuss in my forthcoming book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, Clinton survived the spectacle of his impeachment by the House of Representatives but paid a steep price for his mendacity.

He was found in contempt by the federal judge who presided at Clinton’s deposition in 1998 in the infamous Paula Corbin Jones sexual harassment case; Clinton was ordered to pay a fine of $90,000. Moreover, Clinton settled the Jones case for $850,000 and agreed to pay a $25,000 fine to the Arkansas Bar Association. He also surrendered for five years his license to practice law in Arkansas.

Those penalties were not trivial. But they tend to be forgotten these days.

National Geographic’s producers seemed determined to touch on almost everything — especially the personalities and events in ’90s pop culture. And the effect was disjointed.

A thematic treatment would have provided a more coherent, less superficial, look at an important but much-misunderstood decade. Detailed segments could have been devoted to pop culture, to politics and scandal, to terrorism, to the digital revolution, and so on. And they could have been followed by an extended and analytical closing discussion about how the ’90s affect us still.

As it was, analysis was given short shrift. Indeed, the absence of interpretation and searching analysis was the most glaring defect of the series.

The final episode ended with a scattered bit of muddled summing-up that hardly passed for meaningful analysis. Included were comments from the likes of the grating and self-important Roseanne Barr. And the series narrator, actor Rob Lowe went in front of the camera to say that the ’90s was “when we got our [blank] together.”

Whatever that means.

WJC

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