As I’ve mentioned before a hundred times on here but will continue to mention in case this is your first time reading any Sneer Campaign content: I love watching documentaries. I’ve learned so much about so many things, sometimes only briefly before I forget it entirely, but I’m still edutained. I’m still satisfied.
History has a particular fascination for me. Did you know that so many things have happened? An astonishing amount of things! And the levels of things you can learn about vary so much! You can learn about the past in a broad brush stroke, or if you’re lucky, find documentaries about extremely specific topics. I usually tend to learn as much as I can about a decade and then eventually I want to learn about the decade that preceded it and so it will continue until I get to the dawn of time, I guess. But for now, my specialty is becoming the first ten years of the 1900s. I must know. I need to know! But that’s not what the documentary series in this article is even about!
I watched Vice’s series called Dark Side of the Ring last year on Hulu. It was interesting because it mixed the history of something I am only slightly aware of with the dim nostalgia I have for that topic. That’s a good blend of material imo. I decided to try another Dark Sided History of a thing since that one was such a hit with me. I think the options were “The Nineties” or “American Football.” While it’s true that I don’t know much about football, it is also true that I have no fond memories associated with it. In fact, I make a scrunched up sneery nose about it pretty often whenever it comes up. So I decided to watch the Dark Side of the Nineties, a time of my life. I know the Nineties! I know the Dark Side of it! This series promised to be a wonderful stroll down the Memory Lane built in that decade which has grown derelict with broken street lamps and rampant vandalism. Ordinary life in the ’90s contained a lot of basic dark side elements, so the dark side of THAT must be compelling in its scandal and treachery.
Or so I thought!
In this much-shorter series than DSOTR, each episode was allegedly about one extremely 1990s thing. There were ten episodes, and as it turns out, there are ten era-defining things that happened when I was old enough to be aware of the goings-on of the world that I was not particularly aware of! Ten things that were so huge that the people employed by Vice to make this series were like, “pff, of COURSE we have to include that — it CHANGED. EVERYTHING.”
I went into this binge-fest thinking that I would be comforted by nostalgic retellings of things that impacted me. It would be fun to see an even darker side to the already dark days that made up the ’90s, I thought. Sensational scandalous music acts, angry nihilistic zines, drugged-up youth culture, Nickelodeon’s cartoons, unattended children fending for themselves — those were the topics I expected to see represented in the DSOT90s. Instead, I was given an episodic list of things that didn’t pertain to me, or that I had willfully ignored. It was an unexpected piece of the puzzle of my own personality and character — a piece that I was not searching for.
E01 – Trash TV: Dirty and Deadly Talk
Former Cincinnati Mayor, Jerry Springer, was the focal point of this episode. And while I guess it makes sense that he was part of the decay of society, I never really watched it at the time. Sometimes it would be on in the background at a friend’s house, but mostly it was just too loud. So loud! Trash folk yelling at each other for around an hour? No thanks, I could just get that at certain other friends’ houses. It made me just as tense! And it seemed so staged and ridiculous. Maury Povich was another such show. And here this thing I thought was silly and boring was in fact CHANGING EVERYTHING! Spoiler: this is the only episode where I accepted that it was a pivotal dark side. They started strong.
E02 – The Viper Room: Hollywood’s Sanctuary
I did not grow up in Hollywood. I didn’t care what people in Hollywood were doing. And while the death of River Pheonix was surprising, it was not exactly shocking. The Viper Room didn’t matter to anyone outside of the Viper Room — sorry, celebrities! It was a blip in the early ’90s that wasn’t interesting enough for an episode, in my professional opinion. My beliefs about celebrities and the Hollywood Meat Grinding Machine were only emphasized as I watched these aging interviewees speaking about the glory days of “we didn’t WANT to be celebrities, we just wanted to ACT and be LEFT ALONE and oh boy there were DRUGS and WEALTH.” Cool story, everyone involved. It sounds so unique and not like the same thing that’s been going on there since the movie industry began.
E03 – TV for Teens
This one was about Beverly Hills 90210, and some other shows I already forgot the names of because I thought they were terribly boring when I was a teenager (by the way, Degrassi was excluded from their mention (unless I had blacked out at this point)), and I still think they are terribly boring now! I was terribly bored through this episode. Some TV executives apparently realized that teenagers would enjoy watching night time soap operas starring a cast of unattainable beauty standards being scandalous and dramatic. It also mentioned that the pressure on these young stars was also immense, just like the Viper Room episode talked all about. Some of the kids got into drugs or alcoholism, or were sad, but not like every kid of the era because they were rich and famous.
E04 – Beanie Babies Go Bust
I didn’t collect Beanie Babies in the 90s and I thought the mania surrounding them was misguided. It was like the Cabbage Patch Doll craze! And like NFTs today. And like whatever next big thing is where people spend a lot of money on something that isn’t worth it and will never be worth it but they think this time it will! However, this episode was interesting because Ty Warner, the toymaker, is a fascinating person who I didn’t know existed until I watched this. He was an eccentric recluse in much the same vein as the fictional Willy Wonka, according to this episode. He was mysterious. He had exciting ideas about marketing and creating demand. He was a crook. I learned a lot about how to better promote and sell our merchandise.
E05 – Grunge and the Seattle Sound
It seems like this would finally be the episode that I could relate to, but I was just a little too young to be aware of Grunge when it was starting up. I think I became aware of it at the same time as everyone else, so it didn’t hold any special appeal to me. Maybe if I had lived in Seattle, I would appreciate it more. But it quickly seemed to become a fad, so it was easy to dismiss! MTV was filled with interviews and videos showcasing those gritty musical artists, and 120 Minutes was a fun watch, but in my experience, those preps in school were wearing designer flannel shirts and pre-shredded denim jeans so — hahaha I’m just kidding. It didn’t matter what anyone was wearing. But okay, Grunge did change EVERYTHING for a minute. If “everything” meant some radio stations and some youth fashion.
E06 – Baywatch: Sex Sells
I never watched Baywatch then and I still have never watched Baywatch.
E07 – A Tale of Two Cults
This episode speaks on the General Association of Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists of Waco, Texas, and the Heaven’s Gate cultists. This one was a little interesting (although I have seen more informative documentaries on these cults before). I barely remember TV footage of the Waco fires. I vaguely remember there being televised outrage at Janet Reno for killing children? Burning children to death? For the government not allowing the freedom to be a dangerous cult that molests children? Some people will be outraged by anything, I guess! Later in the decade, I do remember the crazy-eyes of the Heavens Gate guy, and the video footage (or still images?) of all of their sneakers sticking out from under their death sheets. I really don’t think Heaven’s Gate compares to the Branch Davidians though. There’s nothing I can say that would support my opinion that won’t turn this into the Dark Side of This Article Today, but I just don’t know that they deserved to be included in this series.
E08 – Hip Hop: the East vs West Media War
I remember MTV playing up the East/West Coast thing. Honestly I was so far removed from Hip Hop dealings and doings that it was just another drama on television to me. I seem to recall that the death of Tupac made me saddened at the time.
E09 – Secrets of the Runway
I remember there being supermodels, and I remember not caring about them at all — a feeling which still stands. I think the point of this one was that before this, there were no supermodels? (Don’t look at Twiggy). Or maybe it informed that in the ’90s, the supermodels were … Well, they started in the ’80s, but in the ’90s — okay I really don’t understand why the supermodels got an episode. “Skinny women are famous for remaining skinny! They did drugs, too! Surprise! And they knew other famous rich people!” By the way those were the “secrets” of the runway: they did drugs, were under immense pressure to stay thin, but wow what a fun time you guys (except for all of that sexual harassment and assault in the industry! Woops!)
E10 – Internet 1.0: Don’t Believe the Hype
In conclusion, the Dark Side of the Nineties didn’t really convey a sense of what I’d consider a “dark side” that is specific to that era. It felt like “the dark side of the ’90s as seen by a person who lived in southern California when they were in their twenties and was trying to break into journalism at the time.” Although to be fair, my rendition would be highly specific to me, as well, but I believe the Dark Side of the Nineties for a Teenaged Rural Ohioan would deliver. And having the series turning out to be An Examination Of My Own Obliviousness instead wasn’t the lasting emotional impression I wanted to be saddled with.