TV goes back to the ’90s with ‘Surviving Jack’

Posted Thursday, Mar. 27, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Remembering the 1990s

Grunge

“The Rachel” hairstyle

Soviet Union collapse

“Who killed Laura Palmer?”

Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl

Vanilla Ice

Nelson Mandela

Pretty Woman

Hubble Space Telescope

Game Boy

Scrunchies

Jenny Jones

Operation Desert Storm

Zima

Home Alone

George Foreman Grill

Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place

Lorena Bobbitt

Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan

Super Mario World

Contract With America

Basic Instinct

Baywatch

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It’s official: The 1990s are a chapter in our recent history that we can now wax nostalgic about. The 20-years-later rule has gone into effect — and television, as usual, is leading the way.

If you tune in to the National Geographic Channel this summer, you will see such iconic time-warp images as MC Hammer dancing in parachute pants, Suzanne Somers demonstrating the Thighmaster and Bill Clinton playing saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show.

Nat Geo executives announced this month that they’re putting the final touches on a blowout documentary miniseries about the ’90s, a follow-up to last year’s The ’80s: The Decade That Made Us.

Some might contend that it’s too soon to celebrate the decade. But Larry Jones, president of TV Land, a cable network that thrives on “remember when” programming, tells us that ’90s nostalgia is happening right on schedule. He cites the following formula.

“There’s a period in people’s lives when everything starts getting serious and complicated,” Jones explains. “It starts to kick in when they’re in their mid-30s, after they’re out of college and after they’ve been in the workforce for a few years. Maybe they’re married and maybe they’ve started a family. They’ve got mortgage payments and other matters that are associated with being an adult. This is when they start looking back to a time when their lives were simpler, to the carefree years when they were 12 to 20.

“Now combine that with the fact that the primary selling demographics in America for advertising are 18 to 49 and 25 to 54. Smack in the middle of those demos are people who are 35 to 45. So if you’re an advertiser or a clever TV producer and you’re targeting that specific audience, you can try tapping into their feelings of nostalgia. So you go back 20 years, which takes you to the early ’90s. … I wish I could say it’s not as calculating as that, but that’s basically how it works.”

That’s why it makes sense that Surviving Jack, a new family sitcom premiering at 8:30 p.m. Thursday on Fox, is set in 1991. The show contains ’90s pop-culture memory-joggers that can take you back — the same way episodes of Happy Days in the 1970s made viewers reminisce about the ’50s, episodes of The Wonder Years in the late 1980s made us remember the late ’60s and That ’70s Show transported us beginning in the late 1990s.

“It makes you feel old to see these things again, doesn’t it?” says Christopher Meloni, who plays a tough-love ’90s dad in Surviving Jack. “And it kind of hurts, doesn’t it? But you know what hurts me even more? By comparing our show to Happy Days, you’ve just called me Tom Bosley.”

The former Law & Order: Special Victims Unit star will get no sympathy from us. We’ve got our own sudden crisis about aging to deal with.

After last season’s launch of The Americans, a Reagan-era spy thriller, and this season’s premiere of The Goldbergs, a Wonder Years-style comedy set in the ’80s, we knew the 1990s would soon become fodder for nostalgic television. The inexorable passage of time made it inevitable.

The only thing that softens the blow is our ability to laugh at what we were like two decades ago. That’s also what the 20-years-later rule is all about: While reflecting on the “simpler time,” we crack a self-deprecating joke.

“At first, I thought it was a weird choice to set this show in this particular time,” Meloni says. “But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me, because the more I realized that this really is a unique moment in our culture. The early 1990s were the last bastion for the nuclear family.

“It’s only a few years after this period that the Internet and cellphones and ‘You’ve got mail’ will intrude on the family unit and start breaking it apart.”

Not that Surviving Jack wallows in “remember this?” whimsy. The show mainly showcases Jack’s old-school parenting techniques, which are sometimes shocking in today’s era of coddling the kids.

“I appreciate his right-or-wrong, damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead attitude,” Meloni says. “And I admire the non-political correctness of his view on life. I find his bluntness refreshing.”

Meloni admits he has employed a bit of Jack’s throwback approach when it comes to child rearing.

“I remember how other people would look at me aghast, as if I were endangering my child,” he says. “I used to ride a bicycle with my then-4-year-old daughter standing on the seat and wrapping her arms around my neck. People would be screaming, ‘Oh, my god, that’s so dangerous!’ And when my kid would be on a little scooter, everyone was saying, ‘Where are the kneepads and elbow pads and helmet?’ But I want to know: When did kids become so uncoordinated? She’ll be OK. Even if she falls and scrapes her knee, she’ll be OK.”

One of Meloni’s favorite flashback moments in Surviving Jack is when Dad catches his teenage son trying to watch a racy movie on a scrambled premium cable channel.

“Today, the kid would be able to watch practically anything he wants, right on his cellphone,” Meloni says. “Not saying that’s good or bad. Just pointing out that the technology is so radically different.”

Jones says the 20-years-later rule is the reason TV Land today has integrated shows like Everybody Loves Raymond, The King of Queens and Roseanne into a lineup that was predominately ’60s- and ’70s-themed 15 years ago.

Two decades from now, Jones adds, the rule will give the popular shows of today, such as The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family, the same nostalgic staying power.

“It happens to every generation,” Jones says. “My daughter is 18 years old and she is a hardcore Miley Cyrus fan. Which means, when she’s 35, she is going to look back at a time when her life was simpler and she and the other women in her book club will say, ‘Let’s have a twerking party!’ 

He adds. “It seriously pains me to say it, but it’s going to happen. No one will be twerking five years from now. But I can guarantee you that they’ll be twerking when these kids are 35 — and they’re going to be laughing at themselves while they do it.”

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