It would be unfair to complain that most of the talking heads gathered for The ’90s: The Last Great Decade? don’t say anything halfway interesting. The three-part miniseries is committed to the most obvious take on each subject it raises. Maybe David Sirota uncorked a steady stream of brilliant insights and dazzling one-liners for most of the time he was being filmed, but what makes the final cut is Sirota saying that The X-Files “tapped into” a popular strain of paranoia about the government. Butch Vig opines, “People were ready for Nevermind when it happened,” which would certainly help explain why so many people bought it instead of throwing the CD across the room and running out of Tower Records screaming. Even Kurt Cobain gets into the spirit, when he’s seen in old video footage offering up the deep thought that “money can’t buy happiness.”
The series’ interview subjects have a knack for sounding obvious even when they’re just as obviously wrong. Kurt Loder says of Vanilla Ice, “At the time, it seemed strange that a white guy was pretending to be a rapper.” (Surely no stranger than the thought that, as late as 1991, an MTV News anchor had apparently never heard of the Beastie Boys.) In another segment, narrator Rob Lowe explains that author Douglas Coupland made the ’90s possible when he coined the phrase “Generation X.” Coupland called his debut novel Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture nearly 20 years after Billy Idol fronted the band Generation X, a name lifted from the title of a book about British youth culture that was published in 1965—more than a decade after the photographer Robert Capa first used the term to describe the post-World War II generation. Over the course of six hours, it’s best to pick your battles; at another point, Lowe insists that Anna Nicole Smith “redefine[d] the decade, and the female form.”
The ’90s has a central conceit: The decade was “an ongoing reality-TV series called the ’90s.” The idea is that, between the CNN coverage of the first Gulf War, the L.A. riots, the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show, the O. J. Simpson trial, the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal, the tabloid-TV glut, and The Blair Witch Project, the line between reality and entertainment became hopelessly, permanently smudged. It’s a point that could be made about any decade dating back to the birth of television, but it gives the show an excuse to cut from Ellen DeGeneres’ onscreen coming out to the murder of Matthew Shepard—or from the first season of The Real World to the relatives of murder victims screaming at Jeffrey Dahmer.
The down side is that the subject matter all carries equal weight, whether American soldiers are dying in Somalia or Friends is doing an episode about Matthew Perry’s character losing a toe. This is a show where Bob Dole makes an appearance not for his 1996 presidential candidacy, but for having been the commercial spokesman for Viagra. The few high points consist of throwaway moments, like Lowe impersonating Bill Clinton and the appearance of Aaron Sorkin during an onscreen discussion of The West Wing, or a TV commercial from the unhappy end of Jerry Springer’s political career. (“Nine years ago, I spent time with a woman I shouldn’t have, and I paid her with a check. I wish I hadn’t done that.”) Springer is also one of the talking heads, offering many variations on, “Hey, if you don’t want crap all over your TV, don’t watch it.” Between his interviews and the clips from his shows, he’s practically the series’ presiding spirit, which is a sad thing even if it’s an unintended result of Geraldo Rivera, Oprah Winfrey, Ricki Lake, and Sally Jesse Raphael not participating in The ’90s.
The only times a strong editorial shapes the material are in the moments when Osama Bin Laden’s fingerprints can be found on passing events. From the response to the invasion of Kuwait to the 1993 truck-bombing at the World Trade Center, the show keeps dropping oblique reminders that the ’90s were “great” not because of the decade’s political and cultural accomplishments, but because Americans weren’t yet freaked out about terrorism. Neither had they signed off on policies—such as the doctrine of preventive war and a massive expansion of government surveillance—that many would later have second thoughts about. When special guest hard-ass Rudy Giuliani says that the tragedy of the 1993 bombing is that the government treated it as a criminal matter, rather than using it as an excuse to declare war on somebody, a giant bare foot should come down and squish the obtuse bugger.
In its rush to hit as many high points as possible and keep moving, The ’90s trivializes this as much as anything else: Lowe sums up the thinking behind American involvement in the first Gulf War as a case of “the world’s one remaining superpower deciding to act like one,” a sound bite that he’d beg to take back if he blurted it out on Real Time With Bill Maher. The ’90s can’t make meaningful sense of the big events, and when it comes to its self-styled specialty—the intersection of reality and entertainment—it treats questions like whether Roseanne got Bill Clinton elected as if they were up there with the one about the chicken and the egg. At least it manages to sum up the appeal and legacy of tabloid TV, thanks to five words from former cop and Jerry Springer security chief Steve Wilkos: “It’s hilarious. It’s hillbillies fighting!”