The 1995 Blog

1995: The year the future began

CNN series gives kitchen-sink treatment to the ’90s

Call it the kitchen-sink approach to documentary-making.

That’s an effective summation of the seven-part, eight-hour CNN series, “The Nineties,” which wrapped up last night with a jumbled look at the decade’s sprawling musical diversity.

Here and there, the series flickered with insight. Last night’s finale, for example, offered a telling look at the turbulence in the ’90s music scene, which was roiled in 1994 by the suicide of Nirvana‘s Kurt Cobain and in 1996 by the drive-by slaying of rapper Tupac Shakur.

But overall, CNN presented a disjointed, analysis-thin look back at a decisive time. The series never adequately addressed the broad significance of the ’90s, or what the decade added up to, despite presenting a parade of authorities as talking heads.

It seemed almost as if the producers were overwhelmed by the vast material of the decade and were unable, or reluctant, to prioritize. Or analyze.

So almost everything got mentioned, making for a fast-paced hodge-podge. Nothing much was examined in detail, so nothing much stood out: Viewers were left without clear takeaways about the ’90s and its digital innovations, political developments, upheavals, and pop culture.

The penultimate episode, addressing the rise of the Internet, aired last week and could have been outstanding. The emergence of the Internet and the World Wide Web was, after all, a landmark of the decade. But the episode stinted on the most consequential developments in new media technology.

The rise of Internet commerce pioneer Amazon.com, which opened for business online in 1995, was allotted just a couple of minutes. As was Google, the breakthrough search engine launched in 1998.

The ’90s browser war between Netscape Communications and software giant Microsoft Corporation received somewhat more attention, although it was never made clear what became of Netscape, the upstart that defined the early Web and traced a meteoric arc in its rise and fall.

Microsoft’s Bill Gates in 1998, under oath at deposition

Microsoft and its former chairman, Bill Gates, came off poorly — deservedly so, given the company’s predatory practices that undercut Netscape and led to a federal antitrust lawsuit in the late 1990s.

But the episode didn’t make clear how Microsoft was able to escape, intact and with little more than a wrist slap, when the government settled the case in 2001.

Earlier segments of the series likewise were choppy and unrevealing.

The incomplete and unsatisfactory conclusion to Gulf War of 1990-91 was left mostly unexamined, even though the effects of the conflict with Iraq have reverberated for more than 25 years.

The episode about domestic terrorism gave short shrift to the consequences of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing — the deadliest act of home-grown terrorism in U.S. history.

Indeed, the episode did little more than stitch together disparate cases of domestic terrorism of the 1990s — from the fiery siege at Waco to the arrest of the Unabomber, to the Atlanta Olympics bombing and the mass shootings at Columbine High School. The approach was check-the-box, and it’s impossible to offer much coherence or understanding that way.

Perhaps CNN’s tacit or unintended conclusion about the ’90s was that the decade remains too raw and recent to permit rich and knowing interpretation.

But surely that’s not so.

Clashing interpretations about the ’90s have been apparent for years, as I pointed out in my book, 1995: The Year the Future Began.

One interpretation holds that the decade was mostly a “holiday from history.” The conservative columnist and commentator, Charles Krauthammer has argued that case, saying the ’90s brought a “retreat from seriousness.” Krauthammer’s critique, as I noted in 1995, “is principally aimed at Bill Clinton, whom he has dismissed as ‘a president perfectly suited to the time — a time of domesticity, triviality and self-absorption.'”

Admirers of Clinton, notably the journalist Haynes Johnson, have described the 1990s to “the best of times” — words from the title of the book Johnson published in 2001.

I wrote in 1995 that the “’best of times’ interpretation sees the American 1990s through a lens of a booming economy at home and unrivaled power abroad.

“But neither ‘holiday from history’ nor ‘the best of times’ is very accurate or nuanced. They are,” I wrote, “more like expedient labels than telling summaries.”

So there remains an interpretative gap to be filled. But the hours CNN devoted to the decade did little to clarify the debate, let alone say what the ’90s really meant.

WJC

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