Friday, January 6, 2012

The ‘90s Are Back? Oh, if only . . .

AllSaints Spitalfield's Chic Rock 'N' Roll Fashions
      In the last four or five years, it seems like American fashion is stuck in a time warp that is Ralph Lauren, circa 1973, and pop/rock music has recalled an amalgamation of 1970s glam rock and 1980s New Wave.  I’m not saying this is exactly a bad thing, but it does seem like American culture is in a transition period and trying to find a way forward through the past.  Perhaps artists aren’t going back far enough to find a key to s future development that might last longer than a couple of seasons or, at the least, a Presidential term.  Kurt Andersen is very concerned about this phenomenon in “You Say You Want A Devolution” in the latest Vanity Fair.  He thinks that we’ve reached a stasis in the culture that is a symptom of a lack of creativity and laziness.  We’re the fattest nation on earth so do we have the energy to create?  The next question is whether we’ll have the energy to lead?  And, after that, have we lost our edge or are we in decline, etc., etc.  Yeah, well Neil and I have talked privately that way since the 1990s when we noticed that everyone and the family dog was desperate to invest in either the stock market directly or in a tax-deferred IRA.  Both options would surely lead to incredible wealth and early retirement.  Ah, the 90s!

      One cultural signifier that Andersen misses is personal electronic technology.  Twenty years ago, William Gibson was still exploring the idea of cyberspace (his coined term) in science fiction.  Hello?  Now, everyone and the family cat
can text and, from the latest news, various governments are funding companies to use those texts against various ‘radicals’ and ‘dissidents’ after governments have been overthrown so that the post-revolutionary Reign of Terror can begin far more quickly and efficiently.  Yes, it’s happening in those various North African and Middle Eastern countries that were part of the democratic “Spring” that began around this time last year and continued into the spring.  And, of course, if it can happen there, don’t think it hasn’t already happened here.   The other cultural signifier that Andersen ignored is that television has a wider range and quality of programming than ever before.  We might not like the same shows, but I bet we can find more shows to like than ten years ago and most certainly twenty years ago and much of it is by channel brand.  There are History Channel junkies, Bravo devotees, HGTV aficionados, and as many sports channels than Heinz varieties.  (One curlicue is TVLand, which proves Andersen’s theory.  It was always a rerun channel.  Last year, it started original programming and, though Hot in Cleveland is cute, all of the original series could have played in around 1989 and done pretty well in the ratings for CBS back then).

      So, let’s hop into the Miata and travel back to the ‘90s – 1994 to be exact – in care of the Sundance Channel that has been replaying My So-Called Life.  It is timeless in both recalling the first Clinton term and unconsciously commenting upon the state of the teenage and family show genre as it has exploded on channels like ABC Family and the reality soap opera that was invented by MTV in 1992 with The Real Word, now a lumbering dinosaur of bad manners in a culturally
Jersey Shore Cast
diverse society, and its newer incarnations such as Jersey Shore, even worse manners in a society so parochial, moronic, and myopic that it’s almost like an American looking-glass version of a Taliban wet dream, and Teen Mom, a testament both to where bad manners can lead and the need for universal birth control to be an immediately available option for adolescents.

      My So-Called Life, though it could have turned into a soap opera, is more than a few steps above the earlier mentioned ‘fare’ because it was a scripted fictional show that did not run even a full season.  Because of this, it has a rounded life as a narrative and a completion that makes it more attractive to analyze more deeply.  Has there been any graduate work done on the Edward Zwick/Marshall Herskovitz shows (thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, Relativity, Once and Again)?  All were set in midwestern cities, except Relativity, and featured mainly middle-class characters that were ethnically and religiously diverse, struggling with self-awareness in the context of families, friends, and work.  They also featured honestly rendered gay characters.  The shows were wry, intelligent, and had a great look – sort of a post-Bauhaus look in the work scenes and Arts & Crafts at home.  All had low ratings that were blamed on either poor time slots, too much navel gazing, or a tone and texture that wasn’t as obvious or as mass accessible as the house styles of other shows of that period produced/created by Bochco (smart, randy, loudmouth cop or legal shows), Kelley (eccentric, quirky, stunt cast legal shows), or Wolf (almost shadow box meditations on up-to-the-minute tabloid crime cases).

The Cast of My So-Called Life
      Claire Danes as Angela Chase (if that name doesn’t possess levels of symbolism, what does) and Bess Armstrong and Tom Irwin as her parents were impeccable in one of the strongest ensembles of that decade.  Winnie Holzman created and wrote the show and the twist was that, although Zwick and Herskovitz had examined adult ambivalence in thirtysomething, My So-Called Life put the adolescent angst up front while the parents’ early mid-life crises were steeping in the background.  Although the mother seemed like the dominant parent initially, viewers got to see why she’d had to become that way and the fact that she was adopted was a detail that constantly played under the conflicts she had with Angela.  She was, however, the savior of a number of those kids even though they were unaware of what she’d done.  The father was disenchanted, dreamy, and incredibly patient who suddenly found his professional passion and the portent that he might have been thrown in the path of another woman who wanted him in a way that could have endangered his marriage and family.  The show never went for that type of melodrama, however, and the series ended before that could be completely resolved.  The teens (Wilson Cruz, Jared Leto, A.J. Langer, Devon Gummersall, Lisa Wilhoit, and Devon Odessa) were startling because they spoke like teenagers at that time dreamed they spoke.  Their temperaments and alliances were authentically quicksilver.  If it had stayed on the air longer, I might not care about it so much now.

      The mature family show genre hopped on to premium cable with The Sopranos, Queer As Folk, and Six Feet Under.  The family/workplace drama was taken up by FX and AMC with offerings such as Rescue Me, Mad Men, and Sons of Anarchy.  None of these were or are ratings blockbusters, but can you imagine TV in the last twelve years without them?

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