Robert Jackman

The return of the 90s

The return of the 90s
Impeachment (BBC)
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The 90s are back. From House of Gucci, Impeachment and the BBC's unmissable New Labour documentary, it's clear that this particular period is enjoying its turn in the cinematic limelight.

For fans of the scandalous and surreal, this can only be good news. Hollywood has fixated on the 70s and 80s for years now which – while a boon to costume and wig designers – has begun to feel slightly repetitive. If drama commissioners are now shifting their gaze to the 90s, then we could be in for a wild ride.

Admittedly, the 90s haven't exactly been absent from our screens recently. We've already had the superlative The People vs OJ Simpson (and its thematic follow-up The Assassination of Gianni Versace). The UK's own 'trial of the decade' gave us Quiz - James Graham's take on the coughing major scandal. And let's not forget that The Crown began – in spirit, if not in name – with a film set in 1997.

Now, though, the trend looks to step up a gear. In the new year, long-time collaborators Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg will bring us Pam & Tommy: a hotly-anticipated mini-series about one of the decade's most notorious romances (and the sex tape that resulted). The show, which was commissioned by the American network Hulu, is set to land on Disney+ (of all places) in the UK, early in 2022. And I, for one, am excited.

Watching the trailer, which landed two weeks ago, you can see it drips with that 90s feel. Not just the music video aesthetic, but in the way it captures that pervasive sleaziness which, in the eyes of this precocious 90s child, defined the pre-millennium period. 'It's like we're seeing something we're not meant to be seeing,' utters Nick Offerman's character in one of those lines, that while a tad contrived, sums up the era.

To a cynical TV commissioner, Pammy & Tom wouldn't have been an obvious sell. You can imagine the questions now. Does a story about a clandestine sex tape (albeit one which probably did, in retrospect, 'break the internet') really have the same purchase in the era of Instagram and the sidebar of shame? Would your average Gen-Zer even be able to pick Tommy Lee out of a police line-up? Or Pamela Anderson for that matter?

But to ask those questions is to miss the point. Whatever has come since, the 90s will always be edgier than their successors for one reason: authenticity. Culture-wise, it was the first decade that the old establishments were caught off guard - and the disruptors took advantage.

The 90s was the period when a seemingly ramshackle cartoon - South Park - became the most scandalous show in years, prompting teachers (at least in my school) to outlaw the lending of VCR tapes. It was the era when three unknown film-makers embarked on an audacious internet marketing campaign to turn their camcorder horror film into a Hollywood smash. And when a camp glam rock artist triggered a full on moral panic.

Celebrities were different too. Not yet dependent on omnipotent PR wizards and scripted interviews, even the biggest stars came across as endearingly mortal – liable to put their foot in it at any given minute. Just think of the famous names who stumbled into what we'd now regard as a 'reputational crisis'. Hugh Grant. Sinead O'Connor. East 17's Brian Harvey.

Of course the pre-millennium years looked great too. Whereas 80s dramas verge on parody with their chunky mobile phones, pastel tones and rubbish shoulder pads, the 90s has that more natural slacker look. It's something Pam & Tommy has captured brilliantly: with most of the cast looking somewhere between a grunge band roadie and an out-of-luck wrestling promoter. Is it any wonder the decade has become the fashion retrospective for Gen Z – a baffling number of whom have proudly embraced shell-suits and fashion mullets?

Time-wise, the 90s are perfectly placed for the Hollywood treatment. The stories are still vivid enough to make you want to watch, but without being so recent you remember every twist and turn. Look at how effectively Impeachment: American Crime Story builds up its cliff-hangers and keeps you binging each episode. Not bad work for a story that, in its time, probably enjoyed as much television coverage as 9/11.

So where should dramatists go next? The downfall of Michael Jackson seems a safe bet for the Netflix treatment. Black Mirror's Charlie Brooker would do an excellent job giving a dark twist to stories from the early dot-com era. The 1997 multilateral agreement between the US, UK and France to seize remaining Nazi gold would make for a solid historical drama.

There are some cracking stories that, you suspect, might take a bit longer: the Britney Spears saga, for example. There will no doubt be wider issues with pesky privacy lawyers keen to rewrite history on behalf of their clients. But for all those hurdles, the truth remains: the 90s will be excellent fodder for today's dramatists. Where Seth Rogen goes, may many others follow.