Most ’90s sitcoms weren’t great, but we needed them
The World Wide Web. Scrunchies. Y2K. Pogs. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Sitcoms. Need I say more? It’s the ‘90s.
Many of my contemporaries and I were either unborn or too young to soak in the iconic ’90s culture that oozed out of every fleeting moment, but that doesn’t seem to matter too much. The ’90s, while we may never truly relive it, is still so culturally relevant nearly two decades later that it doesn’t feel like we missed out on anything. Scrunchies came back in full force, Dr. Martens might never go away and you can hear iterations of “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” in nearly any reality TV show or celebrity scandal today.
The unambiguous nature of the ’90s makes it easily imitated today and many aspects of pop culture take advantage of this fact. Shows like “Bojack Horseman” have created picture-perfect parodies of the classic ’90s situation comedy format through “Horsin’ Around,” a template for what these shows used to offer to the community. Through its simple yet precise usage of “live” studio audiences, cheesy catchphrases and limited filming sets, the essence of iconic sitcoms like “Full House” and “Family Matters” are flawlessly captured. For those who grew up with them, this combination of features elicits warm feelings of nostalgia and coziness. You’re bundled up on the couch with your preferred sitcom on, humming along to the theme song, knowing that no matter what conflict arises in this episode, everything’s going to be okay in about half an hour.
And yet, there’s a level of harsh reality that simmers beneath the feel-good appearance of sitcoms. This optimistic facade is the illusion that modern television has tried to take down. We’ve entered a phase in our culture where mindless consumption is frequent yet frowned upon, and many new shows have tried to incorporate social commentary into their plot lines to make television consumption a little more meaningful. Shows like “Bojack” centered their entire plot on how unrealistic the idea of quick conflict resolution is in real life. Hardly anything in real life is ever resolved within a half-hour time span, and these shows know this. A lot of us do too. Yet sitcoms, especially those made in the ’90s, gained so much traction and are held close to the hearts of many to this day. Why is this?
Simply put, sitcoms are comforting for the very reason that makes them criticized by modern audiences. Their lack of realism, in the wake of decades of war and uncertainty, provided a source of repetition and structure that people lacked in their day-to-day lives. Superficially, most people only remember the positives when it comes to the ’90s. That is, the Spice Girls, barrettes and “Clueless.” We often ignore the negative things — like war, genocide and the Los Angeles riots — that likely brought about the necessity of these positives. There’s a reason why people needed sitcoms to distract them.
Reality television plays a similar role in modern society. When it comes down to it, nothing that happens in either genre is necessarily groundbreaking or surprising. They both take place on someone’s couch, kitchen island or bar down the street. Most of the episodes are predictable and the plotlines are shallow. If there is any deeper meaning, it’s subtle and hidden under layers of petty drama and clever quips. It’s this consistency we often look for when we’re in times of distress — similar to how I crave shows that I’ve already seen when life becomes just a little too much. Distraction is a coping mechanism, and “woke culture” tries to make us feel guilty about this very natural phenomenon. To a certain extent, there’s not much we can do about the macro, uncontrollable dangers we face at every waking moment. We can tote around our reusable straws and take shorter showers, but what is there to do about nuclear war? About natural disasters?
In recent decades, we have been faced with so much change and imminent doom (which I know aren’t exactly new) that we’re left with two options: choose to remain blissfully ignorant, or take on large-scale burdens like they’re our own. Most people, understandably, choose the former. These shows transport us to a world we wish we could live in, where our most difficult problems are having two dates to the dance or not having a jacuzzi. And change, whether positive or negative, is constant and difficult for anyone to endure too much of. I’m certainly not suggesting that you hole up and mindlessly consume until your brain melts, but don’t feel so guilty about ignoring the tick tick ticking of the Doomsday clock by watching a bit of brainless television. Sometimes all we need to cope is a half-hour episode of television where likeable and predictable characters chat around the dinner table and, no matter what, no matter how nasty things get, everything’s going to be okay.