A lot of 1990s nostalgia, that gimmicky, ridiculous and occasionally heartfelt pastime propped up by parody Twitter accounts and a sizeable chunk of the infrastructure of Buzzfeed, is a symptom of what we’ve allegedly lost. Throw in some natural aching for the freedoms and real-world ignorances of our collective childhoods, as well as a dash of pre-9/11 whitewashing, and you have a solid foundation for treating the era as something arguably greater than it really was.
But there are certainly elements to 90s nostalgia that feel relevant and worthy of acclaim, notably in that era’s pop culture teens. Whether it was Angela Chase or Sabrina Spellman, Dawson Leery or Kenan & Kel, there was a truthfulness to the era’s youngsters. Even when they had magical powers, they still worked dead-end jobs, slobbed around at house parties and hung out in skate parks. There was an interest in reflecting actual truth, or at least a superficial interpretation of it. It’s in direct contrast to the representation of teen idols today, representation which is dominated by the glossily aspirational, rather than the sometimes uglier truth.
It’s a distinction particularly highlighted by last week’s reveal of MTV’s Scream, an upcoming television thriller inspired by the 90s comedy-horror series of the same name. The Scream franchise, created by one-time teen titan Kevin Williamson and horror maestro Wes Craven, was always a lightning rod of broad appeal (a YouTube compilation of Scream 2 TV spots is an interesting case study, with commercials tailored for practically every irresistible demographic: Teens! Adults! Gore hounds! Comedy fans! Black people!), so it’s no surprise that MTV, already home of the radically rebooted Teen Wolf, would seek out such a pan-generational, multi-faceted audience.
While Neve Campbell’s perpetually pained heroine Sidney Prescott lounged around in ugly sweaters before being chased through her suburban abode by a man in a Munch mask, the cast of MTV’s Scream reboot appear to have stepped straight out of Gossip Girl – boys styled like the second coming of Zayn Malik, girls plonking around in too-high heels and tiny cocktail dresses. But the show’s first minute-long trailer felt alien to what came before it, characters hanging out in plush mansions and jacuzzis, Abercrombie & Fitch long having thrown up all over them. This all in spite of being set in the same middle-America heartland as its cinematic predecessors.
It’s all characteristically millennial. Which would be fine, if this were any other series. But a fundamental part of the Scream franchise’s appeal was its ordinary-ness, a world populated by relatable, diverse and endearing people who we then watched get horribly killed. Unlike its slasher ancestry, Scream granted its protagonists actual dimensions. That bag of meat chewed up in a doggy door in 1996’s Scream wasn’t just straight-up meat. She had a personality, agency, a style and character of her own. It’s no coincidence that the series’ least-regarded chapter, the tone-deaf Hollywood pastiche Scream 3, sacrificed a lot of its character work for a parade of faceless lambs gearing up for the slaughter.
Which isn’t to say MTV’s Scream will inevitably abandon any pretense of characterisation. Hell, we’ve only seen a rapid smattering of clips from it so far. The scenes used to promote it though, along with its visual aesthetic and styling, are notable – an extension of the teen pop culture landscape as it stands. Right now, we’re conditioning young people to fantasise, encouraging the worship of the hyper-real.
A quick Google reveals it starts young. Of the 13 live-action series currently running on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, seven are centred around worlds very few of us actually inhabit. If protagonists aren’t actual pop stars or former Hollywood celebrities, they’re normal kids who find themselves, through typical sitcom shenanigans, occupying worlds populated by the 1%.
All teen television is somehow fantastical,whether it’s the cool, grungy aesthetic of My So-Called Life, or the pop video wildness of Skins, but somehow it seems worse, more damaging, when it’s the fantasy of wealth. Series like the aforementioned Gossip Girl or vintage trash like Beverly Hills 90210 are set firmly and proudly within gilded hallways, tongue firmly in cheek where opulence is concerned, but when the 1% creeps in insidiously, on shows supposedly reflecting real life and real young people, even if they’re existing in extreme circumstances, it can’t be healthy.
Nostalgia for a different time is a generational tradition, one that stretches back to the very cementing of ‘culture’ as a thing. It’s easy to dismiss, so entrenched as it is in a fantastical view of the past. But some of it is relevant and potentially helpful, more a time capsule chronicling generational transition and less a bunch of whiny fear-mongering.
MTV’s Scream probably won’t rattle pop culture in the way the film franchise did, neither will it likely make much noise in a crowded, youth-oriented television landscape. But it’ll at least contribute to a lingering cultural problem, one driven by image, consumption and aspirations of wealth and excess. Treating them as ordinary, or the things that should be.
NOW GET OFF MY LAWN.