The inarticulable sadness of the 90s and early 00s.

Is it just me or did 90s and early 00s media have a deeply unsettling sentimentality to it?1

I’ve never been able to put this into words, nor have I been able to tell if this is a feeling unique to me or a real phenomenon I’m picking up on.

For me, media from that era had a strange air of yearning to it—like it was perpetually looking backwards, wistful for something that would never return.

One more tangible example of this is how Halloween specials would frequently feature uncharacteristically somber ghost stories about dead teens from the 50s and 60s, a proxy for a more innocent era, the ghostly teenagers perhaps metaphors themselves for a hopefulness snuffed out before its time.

Two different episodes of “My So-Called Life” stand out to me.

The first is the Haloween episode:

The second is episode 19, titled “My So-Called Angels,” which is about teen homelessness.

Here’s a short description of a scene that’s been living rent-free in my mind for over a decade, where Angela’s mother encounters the ghost of a homeless teen girl:

The vicinity of Tennessee Avenue clearly is unfamiliar territory to Patty, figuratively and literally, because she must ask directions. The passerby whom Patty asks refuses to stop and help, giving Patty a dose of her own medicine in her moment of need. But Patty's plea for direction is answered by the homeless girl, whom Patty follows to the door of a church. Just as Scrooge was guided by an element of the Divine in his journey of redemption, so too is Patty. As Patty approaches the church, she calls for Angela. The homeless girl appears; the play on Angela's name is unmistakable.

"I'm trying to find my daughter," Patty tells the girl.
 
"I know," the girl says. "Because I'm no different from her."
 
"You don't understand."
 
"Sure I do," the girl says. "I had a mom -- clean sheets, all of that. Another toss of the dice, I could be in her shoes, she could be in mine."

Suddenly, Patty begins to understand:

"There but for the grace of God--"
 
"Go I."
 
With prompting, Patty asks, "Why did you leave home?"
 
"My mother and I had a fight -- the kind of fight where it seems the fight is having you."
 
"How did you die?" Patty asks, her voice quavering -- she stands before tangible confirmation of her faith and the comfort of knowing that one's prayers are heard.

(Watch the scene carefully, and wonder whether Bess Armstrong has ever been visited by an Angel.) The girl reflects.

"I froze."

(Why does she pause before answering? Debating whether to tell Patty the truth? Or can she not clearly remember?) Patty then raises her eyes, and the prayer she knows will be heard. ("God, please help me.")

When Patty looks down, she is alone.

Are You Afraid of the Dark? had a similar episode, “The Tale of the Dream Girl.” I think also of the independent film Girls Town (1996), which is not about ghosts, but is about an adolescent loss of innocence.

This sense of sentimental yearning is present in The X-Files, in Twin Peaks, in the short-lived but brilliant children’s show So Weird, but it’s also programs like Friends, The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Futurama, Boy Meets World, Hey Arnold, The Powerpuff Girls, and Cold Case.

Take this episode of Futurama, from 2001. And no, it’s not “Fry’s Dog.” It’s actually “Luck of the Fryish,” which is largely about the importance of family, but also is deeply rooted in a sense of regretful longing and a sweet but unreachable past:

Still, I struggle to describe what exactly it is I’m sensing here. Maybe this is an opinion that can only be held retrospectively, and only knowing what we know now. Maybe it’s less about media, and more about looking back at the 90s and early 00s from the vantage point of 2021.

I guess to me, a millennial, the 90s and the early 2000s are best summed up in their high profile deaths: Aaliyah, Kurt Cobain, JonBenet Ramsey, Princess Diana.

Oh, what could have been with more time.

1

My mother and younger sister insist that it is just me, and what I’m pinpointing, if real, is more visible in media from the 80s and early 90s than 90s and early 00s.