‘The ’90s,’ ‘I Love the 2000s,’ and TV’s Redundant Obsession With Nostalgia

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In 2002, VH1 premiered I Love the ’80s, a fun miniseries dedicated to celebrities and comedians dissecting and discussing both the best and worst parts of ’80s pop culture. I Love the ’80s, which was actually based on a British series, became something of a phenomenon for the network. It was so popular that it spawned a ton of followup series: I Love the ’70s, I Love the ’80s Strikes Back, I Love the ’80s 3D, I Love the ’90s, I Love the Holidays, and so on. For a while, I loved these funny, original, and yes, even informative shows, but they soon became routine, bloated, and obnoxious. Yet they keep happening.

2002 was a good year for I Love the ’80s: plenty of time had passed to allow the decade to sink in and inform the current culture but not so much time that people had stopped caring. It was great for those who had lived through only a sliver of the ’80s — like me — and had their memories jogged during every episode. I Love the ’90s, which premiered in 2004, was a little iffy but still passable and frequently very funny. Then came I Love the New Millennium in 2008, before that decade was even over. Instead of lovingly cracking jokes about events from two decades ago, the talking heads painstakingly forced commentary about The Bourne Ultimatum just six months after it was released on DVD. There was no time for reminiscence or nostalgia. It was a sign of desperation from VH1 — “You watched our other I Love the… series, please watch this one too!” — and it didn’t even end there.

A few weeks ago, VH1 paid another visit to the 2000s with I Love the 2000s, a completely bland installment in the series. Looking back on the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s worked because those series often resulted in a “I can’t believe I forgot about that!” moment. It’s hard to get nostalgic about Wikipedia when we’re still using it, or text messaging when we text even more now, or Glee, which is still on television. Why are we looking back on a TV show that is premiering a new season this fall?

On Sunday, National Geographic joined the millennial nostalgia race with its premiere of the three-part miniseries The ’90s: The Last Great Decade? (If you have to ask, the answer is probably “no.”) To its credit, this network’s version leans toward more newsworthy events and serious takes than VH1. It does get into some pop culture, although placing the same emphasis on race riots and Jerry Springer feels tone-deaf. But the biggest problem is that The ’90s doesn’t ever say anything that we don’t already know. If you already knew about Monica Lewinsky and OJ Simpson and Vanilla Ice, then there is absolutely no reason to watch this miniseries.

The most enticing thing about The ’90s: The Last Great Decade? is the panel of commentators who, thankfully, aren’t all comedians. National Geographic has actually assembled a nice mixture of people, most of whom are primary sources for the subject at hand. In the premiere episode, Courtney Love discusses Nirvana, James Carville chats about Clinton, and a few tech engineers/developers talk Microsoft and computers. Yet none of them provide any illuminating details. We learn that Roseanne was a groundbreaking show and that Bill Clinton played the saxophone. Who knew! It’s less of an informative and entertaining take on the news and more of a cursory glance at a Wikipedia article.

That’s the main takeaway from the never-ending onslaught of decade-specific programming: It’s now completely unnecessary. We’ve exhausted all the main topics of each era, and if there’s any niche ’90s fad VH1 (or National Geographic) glossed over, a quick Internet search will likely pull up hundreds of people waxing nostalgic about that same thing. These shows outstayed their welcome in the mid-2000s, and now they’re nothing but another fad that should end.