Millennials who keep hyping up the awesomeness of growing up as a "90s kid" may find it odd that the teenagers of that decade, the tail end of Gen X, have very little fondness for that period. This failure to resonate across neighboring generations is not found among the kids and the teenagers of the '80s, both of whom feel pride rather than shame when thinking back on the era.
So it is purely for sociological reasons that I've watched the first two episodes of a new scripted dramedy on VH1, Hindsight, in which an early 40-something woman who is about to get married for the second time miraculously travels back to the year 1995, when she was about to get married to husband #1, and now has the chance to improve on the choices she'd made the first time around. It's basically Hot Tub Time Machine, only for chicks, and set in the '90s rather than the '80s.
I could care less about the plot or character arcs, which seem to be the usual self-absorbed stuff found in the female-oriented medium of television. I'm more interested in seeing what the show's creators have chosen to make the world feel like the Nineties, and how the actors are choosing to interpret the personalities of the time.
First impression: it doesn't really feel like the '90s. It's not for lack of accurate references — shorter skirts on girls, longer hair on guys — or even for lack of placing those differences in their proper context (everyday relations are shown to be more sexually charged and promiscuous than in the middle of the 2010s).
It's more the delivery of these period markers that is off-key to those who lived through the time. The emotional range is what you'd find in mumblecore dialog of the present day, and the attempts at humor are also distinctly 2010s — reading wacky or self-aware lines in a totally deadpan manner. It feels more like Parks and Recreation, only without the annoying shaky cam, and with the cast and sets dressed up in a LARPing '90s style.
(Hot Tub Time Machine also suffered from a jarring mismatch in tone. It was basically The Hangover with cosplay '80s wardrobe and set dressings.)
Where's the extra-thick layer of sarcasm and cynicism? Or showing some kind of emotion on your face? The '90s did see the beginning of the trend toward today's emotional numbness, robotic speech, and attitude of glib dismissal. But it wasn't that pronounced in '95, when there was still a little soul and defiance in the personalities of young people, albeit less so than during the '80s.
See the cult TV show My So-Called Life for the definitive portrayal of coming-of-age in the mid-'90s, where the characters aren't mumbling through most of their dialog, and where something is actually at stake in the lives of the characters, rather than a kiddie romp through a bubble-world free from consequences, in which nothing you do ultimately matters.
Leaving out that side of the '90s will only confuse the Millennials about the decade being one of a pendulum grinding to a halt (after moving in the outgoing direction since the '60s) and starting to swing in the opposite cocooning direction.
A major part of youth angst back then was feeling pulled in opposite directions by larger social forces — the open and outgoing spirit that had been familiar during the '80s, and now this new closed-off and withdrawn impulse. It wasn't clear at the time whether the cocooning thing would win out — maybe it was just a blip of lameness? — but then again maybe that's the way the wind is beginning to blow. You couldn't tell, so you had to hedge your bets by expressing fondness, but then immediately dismissing it or slathering it with sarcasm. That way you had an "out" if either the sincerity police or the irony police got word of what you'd said.
This emotional schizophrenia, and the general feeling of gear-shifting, makes the zeitgeist of the '90s hard to distill and convey, just like the previous decade of switching from an outgoing to a cocooning atmosphere, the 1930s. Nobody can come up with a good picture of the social-cultural zeitgeist of the '30s, caught between the end of the Jazz Age and the beginning of the World-of-Tomorrow Midcentury. "The Depression" refers to the economic and political setting, not everyday social and cultural life.
In fact, the only time that Hindsight feels '90s-y is when the soundtrack plays. Contemporary actors are attempting the impossible — uprooting your mindset from your immediate surroundings and re-growing its tendrils in a distant time. However, the singing and playing from pop music have been preserved in their original form. Not that '90s music was very good, but it is shocking to see how far it has devolved in the last 20 years. Although becoming more withdrawn, you can still hear the soulfulness and melody carrying over from the '80s in the songs by the Gin Blossoms, the Cranberries, and Soul Asylum. That's a way more authentic '90s feel.
Hot Tub Time Machine had the same jarring breaks from its artificial feel, whenever an '80s song played in the background. For a moment, it actually felt like the '80s for real.
The VH1 show has an even tougher time getting the mood right because the actors are mostly born from '82 to '87, making them a bit too young to directly recall the atmosphere of adolescent and young adult world circa '95. Children in the unsupervised '80s were more in touch with what the older kids were up to, but as helicopter parents locked their kids up starting in the '90s, they lost touch with the generation just above them.
(It is striking how the average Millennial's recall of '90s music is entirely restricted to the boy bands and girl groups that were aimed at their own pre-pubescent audience, while suffering from a huge blind spot for the vast majority of pop music aimed at teenagers and young adults. Again, a severe change from children of the '80s, who remember the full spectrum of girl groups, rock bands, and adult contemporary hits from their early years.)
Then again, Hot Tub Time Machine had unconvincing performances, and those guys were all of the right generation to portray those characters. The main stumbling block is removing yourself from your surroundings. Still, when the past is not merely distant but foreign, it becomes nearly impossible to pass yourself off as one of the natives.