From ‘Surviving Jack’ To The TLC Biopic, Welcome To The Era Of 1990s Period Pieces

I’m sure that some of you in the audience have experienced this before, whether Sally Draper gave you flashbacks on Mad Men, or movies like The Wedding Singer, Take Me Home Tonight, and Hot Tub Time Machine revived painful memories of eighties fashions. But I think it’s finally my turn to have pop culture make me feel old: we finally have enough instances to make a trend, and 1990s period pieces are officially a thing.

The evidence started building in 2008 with the release of the underrated* romantic comedy Definitely, Maybe, which starred Ryan Reynolds as a former Democratic political operative turned ad man who lost and found the loves of his life while working first on Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, and later in New York Mayoral politics. Then came Notorious, the 2009 biopic of rapper Christopher Wallace, who released the seminal album Ready to Die in 1994, only to be murdered three years later. And now, it seems, the dam has broken. A biopic of the R&B-pop crossover group TLC is in the works. And the nineties have crossed over to television, where Fox has picked up Surviving Jack, a comedy that stars Law & Order: Special Victims Unit veteran Chris Meloni as a father raising his son in Souther California “in a time before ‘coming of age’ was something you could Google.” It’s a fascinating moment, even if it makes my bones feel creaky, because I have no idea how Hollywood is going to decide are the signature conflicts and causes of this decade.

To a certain extent, it makes a lot of sense that the early attempts at 1990s period movies have been biopics, and particularly biopics about hip-hop and R&B artists. The rise of those forms, and the conquest of popular music by forms invented, popularized, and perfected by African-American artists are two of the signature cultural shifts and conflicts of the decade, and it’s wise of Hollywood to have identified them. Movies like these are appealing, too, because audiences are already attached to and interested in their subjects. Wallace’s murder remains unsolved, and his death remains a subject of fevered speculation a decade and a half after the fact. The death of Lisa Lopes, one-third of the original lineup of TLC, in 2002, has a clearer cause—she died in a car crash—but given that she was only 30 at the time, her early demise makes fans eager to cling to the period of her life that remains available to them.

There are other cultural and technological shifts in the same period, of course, and I’ll be curious to see which ones Hollywood identifies as dramatically fruitful territory. The 2001 updating of the classic Archie Comics character Josie and the Pussycats made decidedly munchable hay out of satirizing boy bands, though there are absolutely deeper shifts and more substantive trends to explore. I’d love, for example, to see a movie about the rise of British designer Alexander McQueen, the introduction of Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games that use graphics rather than text, or the rise of video gaming and the video gaming industry, period.

And the introduction of the internet is pivotal, of course. The Fox sitcom Saving Jack maybe set in a time before Google’s founding in Menlo Park in 1998, much less before its omnipresence in search, email, and streaming video services, and it appears to be digging in on that concept in the trailer:

But it will be a more interesting show if it addresses the complications for parenting and family life of the rise of home internet service, rather than trying to escape the internet age entirely. CompuServe offered email service to personal consumers starting in 1979, followed by chat services in 1980. The first version of Prodigy’s service launched in 1988, though only in Atlanta, Georgia, Hartford, Connecticut, and San Francisco. And America Online launched an internet service for DOS users in 1991 and for Windows in 1992. Where a show like The Good Wife has used the fully-developed internet to good effect, with Zach Florrick using his computer skills to do everything from detecting the photo editing that produced snapshots of his father taking a hit from a crack pipe to making a fake social networking profile of the son of one of his father’s political opponents. Saving Jack could take it slower, introducing internet access to the family home part of the way through the first season, and having all the members of the family grapple with their relationships to email, chatting, chat rooms, message boards, and online gaming. Kids aren’t the only ones who got online and had their lives changed by the experience in the 1990s, and if nothing else, watching Christopher Meloni in high comedy mode get increasingly frustrated with dial-up internet could be tremendously entertaining.

If the disruptive nature of expanding internet access is dramatically rich territory, the 1990s do present some challenges to filmmakers and television creators looking for dramatic clashes. It can be difficult to dramatize the economic prosperity that characterized the 90s without a crash, a bubble, or an act of corruption like the era-defining depiction of the finance industry in Wall Street, but Definitely, Maybe offers up one potential path for other characters to follow. Will Hayes (Reyonolds) starts out as an energetic gofer, then fundraiser, and finally campaign manager, first in the Clinton campaign, then for a candidate for New York City mayor. But when he gets disillusioned, first by the revelation that the candidate he believes will make his career is corrupt, and then by Clinton’s affairs–as well as by the failure of his romantic relationships–Will drifts into advertising, a field that uses his skills but has none of the idealism of his former profession. Prosperity, and a settled relationship that’s a decided compromise, become distractions, ways for Will to avoid a painful reckoning with what he really wants, and how he’d have to actually behave to get it. The risk of that approach is that it’s a decided turn-off in a tighter economy. Working at a job that doesn’t fulfill your ideals but that makes you a comfortable may be painful in a boom, but it’s a luxury in a very slow economic recovery. And while the Clinton years are fertile territory for storytelling—Young Il Kim’s Rodham, about Hillary Clinton’s early years, is on my most-anticipated list—there are probably richer debates to be had than a depressed guy’s disappointment that Clinton wasn’t the next JFK (or, given his affairs, maybe that he was, now that we think about it).

Politically, there are other fruitful angles here. I’m actually surprised David Brock’s memoir, Blinded By The Right, about his work in conservative journalism, and in particular his work pushing Clinton-administration scandals into the mainstream media, hasn’t been adapted and fictionalized already, given that it’s a story about the kind of journalistic malfeasance that Hollywood seems to love, at least when said journalists are gamine young comers in established news organizations. The work of AIDS advocacy organization ACT UP has its roots in the late 1980s, but it extended into the 1990s, and could provide rich fodder for thoughtful writers. Impeachment is a great, dramatic clash, if you’re up for telling a story about Congress a la Lincoln, as is the failure of health care reform, and the compromises of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Even if you don’t want to take on specific policy fights, centrism itself is a fascinating subject, and a counter to the frequent Hollywood trope of painting presidential will as a force that, if exerted, knocks aside all comers. House of Cards has done a nice job, a decade and a half removed from the nineties, of demonstrating what kind of policy results from the attempts of someone like Majority Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) to accrue power by trying to please everyone, rather than hew to any of his own particular convictions. Domestically, there’s rich fodder in right-wing extremism that inspired attacks like Eric Rudolph’s bombing of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, or the confrontations between federal officials and enclaves at Waco and Ruby Ridge. And internationally, it would be entirely possible to go back to conflicts like the one depicted in Ridley Scott’s 2001 adaptation of Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, the first attack on the World Trade Center, and the rising sense of Osama bin Laden as a global threat.

These are only a few of the options and large conflicts available to people making film and television about the 1990s as this new decade comes online. It may be difficult for me to believe we’re far enough away from those years to start sorting through them. But it’s going to be fascinating to watch Hollywood pick and choose the stories we’ll tell ourselves about the decade, now and for years to come.

*I know, this is a perpetual hobby horse of mine. Forgive me.