Emmys: How This Year's Race Is a Nod to the '90s

The scenes on your flat-screen — or computer monitor — look eerily familiar to anyone who remembers the O.J. Simpson trial, Must See TV, Scully and Mulder or Anita Hill. That's because on television these days, including among the Emmy nominees, everything old (about two decades old, to be specific) is new again.
Illustration by: Matthew Billington

New episodes of The Simpsons, South Park, The X-Files and Full House are on TV. Independence Day and a Hugh Grant movie are at the multiplex. Britney Spears is the hottest act in Vegas. Everyone is obsessed with Pokemon. And, despite Newt Gingrich's best efforts, the Clintons may soon be back in the White House. If you just awoke from a very long coma, you could be forgiven for mistaking 2016 for the '90s.

This year's Emmy race is no exception. Among the nominees: FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson, a limited series — starring the likes of Cuba Gooding Jr. and David Schwimmer — about the trial of the '90s, if not the century; HBO's Confirmation, a TV movie chronicling Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' 1991 confirmation hearings and Anita Hill's accusations of sexual harassment against him; and FX's Fargo, inspired by the 1996 Coen brothers film. There's also RuPaul (Logo's RuPaul's Drag Race), Heidi Klum (Lifetime's Project Runway) and both Jerry Seinfeld and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Crackle's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and HBO's Veep, respectively). And House of Cards, a show about a slick Southern Democrat and his shrewd blond wife who wind up sharing power in the White House. Ring a bell?

What explains this bizarre phenomenon? In part, nostalgia among members of Generation Y — in an age of seemingly infinite platforms on TV.

Nostalgia always has existed and appealed to certain people — "Make America great again!" — especially on television. Happy Days, which aired in the '70s, was about the '50s. The Wonder Years, which aired in the '80s, was about the '60s. And That '70s Show, which aired in the '90s, was about — well, you get it.

Today, members of Generation Y — people like me, who were born in the '80s and grew up in the '90s — increasingly occupy positions of power in the world of content production and acquisition. This week, an Emmy-winning TV producer who hails from Generation X marveled to me, "Netflix and Amazon executives? They're all young — in their 30s!"

To many members of my generation, the '90s represent a simpler and, in some ways, better time. We will be the last generation that remembers a world with landlines, disposable cameras and taxis. We are the first generation that came of age with mobile phones, personal computers and the internet. And we, unlike some of our siblings, have clear memories of the world before reality TV, massive deficits and 9/11.

Now grown-ups in a very different world, many of us are seeking "comfort food" in our entertainment, and some of our generational brethren now are in a position to give it to us — particularly because today there are so many more channels and platforms than there were even in the '90s, when people still could and sometimes did gather around a watercooler to discuss "Must See TV." (Those days, with the possible exception of mornings after Game of Thrones episodes, are long gone.)

The gravitation toward the '90s won't be fading anytime soon. Reruns of Nick at Nite programs have begun airing from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. nightly on TeenNick. Gilmore Girls and Baywatch are coming back — as a Netflix limited series and a feature film, respectively — over the next year. Will Smith is producing a reboot of The Fresh Prince. MTV recently announced it will rebrand the VH1 Classic channel as MTV Classic, which will air such beloved 1990s and early-2000s series as Daria, Beavis & Butt-head and Jackass. And the list goes on. In other words, if you want to re-experience the '90s, you can always find some place to do so.

Is nostalgia a smart business play for Hollywood? Based on history, it really can work — or it really can bomb. (That '80s Show lasted less than five months, and Fuller House doesn't deserve to last any longer.) I think it has a better chance of enduring on TV today than at any other time in history because a show need not attract massive ratings to remain on the air (or web, or wherever it is broadcast or streamed from now) — at least until the onset of skinny bundles. Children of the '90s, with our #TBTs and #FBFs, seem committed to remembering the past, if only to have something to kibbitz about on our social media pages.

Of course, the aforementioned '90s-evoking 2016 nominees will compete against a host of shows that never could have occurred in the '90s but that people of my generation love, among them Mr. Robot (hacking wasn't widely employed by people using dial-up AOL), Homeland (who even used that word before Dubya?) and Transparent (most would've assumed "LGBT" was a new AIM acronym). So it seems to me there's plenty of room for living in the past and living in the present. In other words, like it or not, the '90s are back, baby … one more time.

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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