Ma chère Mar-tinique (okay, I am stretching):
I am glad we see eye to eye about this latest installment. As I see it, it’s not just that the new WHAS makes the characters the main characters—that is a problem, I grant you), but also that it makes the 1990s a main character, as opposed to the 1980s, which were the main character in the first two installments. Which brings us to a very important discussion, one that you alluded to but had the good taste to veer away from. I, however, having received my third advanced degree—in kicking ass and taking names—will not be held back. The discussion is, of course, ’80s vs. ’90s—or, put another way, your era versus mine, my elder colleague.
Let me begin by saying that I love the ’80s. And the 1980s, I think we can agree, will always be good fodder for filmdom. Even when we were living through the 1980s, we could watch movies and say, not infrequently, “Yeah, that movie is about right now.” Maybe it was about the Cold War (Red Dawn, Real Genius in its way), maybe about greed on Wall Street (Wall Street), maybe about lexical innovation (Valley Girl), maybe about mall culture (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), maybe about the dawning computer age (Weird Science). It was a time when Dire Straits wanted its MTV, when video had killed the radio star (actually that happened in 1979, but the radio star never rose from the dead), and we all had a sense of what moment we were living in.
By contrast, it is hard to say what a 1990s movie is. It was hard then, too. For a moment, we all pretended to think there was something slacker culture, but nobody even saw the movie that was supposedly about it. One of my all-time school-dance experiences involved “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but grunge sparked for barely a moment, gave us flannel shirts and some great tunes, and never really registered with most of the country. (Did grunge ever give us a TV show, or a good movie? I mean, I’m all for Reality Bites, but come on.) The 1990s just didn’t pop, even at the time. They were muted plaids as compared to the 1980s’ neon jellies. It’s not surprising, then, that when that Wet Hot American Summer moved to the ’90s, it lost some oomph. It has always been damned near impossible to say what the ’90s is, or was. It has therefore been impossible to do ’90s nostalgia. The best attempt, the brilliant VH-1 scripted series Hindsight, in which a woman has an elevator accident that hot-tub-time-machines her back to the ’90s, lasted one glorious season, filled with Gin Blossoms jukebox tunes and an Alan Ruck cameo, then fell victim to the fact that ’90s time has become time more generally.
Here I am drawing on the writer Kurt Anderson, a great scholar of the ’90s, who has argued both that the ’90s were the best decade—”we all had cellphones, but not smartphones,” all the good stuff with none of the technological tyranny—and, more important for our purposes, the decade when culture basically stopped. People changed their fashions, tastes, and attitudes radically from 1935 to 1955, from 1955 to 1975, and from 1975 to 1995, but from the mid-90s to the present we have changed hardly at all. Watch an episode of Friends, and aside from the color palette and some hairstyle choices (and the absence of smartphones), they could all be in the Starbucks near you. Unless you are a real connoisseur, it’s hard to tell pop radio circa ’95 from today. And so forth. Andersen doesn’t connect the dots between his two essays, but I will: things had evolved as far as they could in the ’90s. Yes, there has been social and political progress since—or rather, there has been some, but we have lately slid backward in some obvious ways. But we’ll never have culture as good as when Seinfeld, David Foster Wallace, and Wu-Tang all peaked at the same moment.
So when we watch Wet Hot American Summer take us to the ’90s, with the somewhat bigger hair and somewhat wider lapels, we don’t really know what to do with all the good costuming and prop work. Yes, it looks a little bit different—but not different enough to snap a rubber band of nostalgia in our hearts. Not ridiculous enough to elicit a laugh. Mostly, it just looks better. The Elizabeth Banks character, the undercover journalist working for a Rolling Stone-like magazine in 1991, five years before I worked there as a fact-checker right out of college (I could smell P.J. O’Rourke’s cigarettes on his typewritten pages)—I was just thinking, “Magazines were so thick in those days! They had big pictures! And ads! And journalists!”
Journalists, Mar-tini: you remember those?
Looking through patient eyes,
Marquess of Oppenheimer
Hm, I like Kurt Anderson’s notion that the ‘90s were the best decade and also when culture stopped. But I disagree that it’s a decade with no aesthetic–it’s just that we’re (YES BOTH OF US) too old to appreciate it. For the millennials younger than either of us (and certainly younger than Kurt Anderson) the ‘90s are infinitely more of a cultural touchstone than the ‘80s. In fashion and in music, the kids today are all about the ‘90s. I see my own teen leave the house in my own vintage Sassy t-shirt, choker, flippy skirt and combat boots, or slip dress over a little white t-shirt, and it’s unnerving, frankly.
So I was amused by the 1991 touches in WHAS10: all the acid wash, the baggy weightlifter pants, the stacks of CDs, the modem noises, the Game Boys, the mom jeans, Circuit City, B. Dalton, boy-band-esque dance moves. (But where was the Zima, I ask you?) There was a quick scene in which Chris Pine’s hair switches from Flock of Seagulls to business-mullet that made me LOL. I literally possessed Amy Poehler’s outfit of floral skater dress, motorcycle jacket and floppy scarf twisted in big curly hair. And I snorted when someone piped, for no reason other than 1991 verisimilitude, “I’m reading The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan!”
What also worked for me: Brief moments of spoofing other genres. Action movies in which the hero quips after killing a villain. That whole cheesy Transformers–Robocop–Six-Million-Dollar-Man man-as-machine mishegas. Cooking shows (“I enjoyed preparing these bright, bold flavors for you today,” says a camp chef). I loved Molly Shannon’s wide-eyed (and occasionally blood-soaked) sincerity, Chris Pine’s Eddie-Vedder-esque drawl, Chris Meloni’s crazy eyes (again) and Elizabeth Banks’s dogged journo (again). I salute the fight coordinator, who worked as hard as the show’s writers did not. And as a devotee of fanfic, I was amused by the Dawn-Summers-esque retconning of characters who weren’t in the original, the resurrection of characters who were killed off, the fact that Bradley Cooper is now Adam Scott.
But I stared stonefaced at the screen every time a former president appeared. And what I really missed was camp. The place, not the Sontagian aesthetic. I sighed with pleasure when Janeane Garofalo’s camp director raised her voice and said, “The hand goes up, the mouth goes shut,” and when the DJ at the social announced “Now it’s time for the popular girls to perform the traditional end of summer dance.” But that was not enough. I wanted more. I wanted WHAS10 to smell like teen spirit.