Watching shows from the Nineties allows us to slip down a wormhole to an easier time before hope turned to resignation, writes Annie Lord

Watching shows from the Nineties allows us to slip down a wormhole to an easier time before hope turned to resignation, writes Annie Lord

A middle-aged man walks into a record store and asks to buy a copy of Stevie Wonders I Just Called to Say I Love You. They have it in stock but the sales assistant, Barry (Jack Black), is too cool to sell it to him. The best place to find that tacky and sentimental crap, he says, is at the mall. Barrys snipes are to be expected. Hes wearing vintage suede and the sort of shaggy non-haircut that tells us this is a man who thinks anything electronic isnt real music.
This scene comes early on in the original film adaptation of Nick Hornbys cult Nineties novel High Fidelity. This Valentines Day, Hulu released a 10-episode reboot of the comedy-drama, with Zoë Kravitz replacing John Cusack as lead character Rob. Its one of many Nineties reboots to have hit our screens of late: 2018 saw the return of Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch; this January, Party of Five came back; the much-anticipated Friends reunion has finally got the go-ahead, 16 years after the last episode. Frasier and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air remakes are also rumoured to be in development. And its not just TV films such as Sister Act, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Blade, The Crow, The Craft and White Men Cant Jump are all set to return.
Those tuning into the new High Fidelity looking forward to a nostalgia-fuelled dose of tacky sentimental crap will be disappointed. Aside from the Dickies T-shirts, pleated tartan and Lauryn Hill tracks, Nineties ephemera is kept to a minimum.
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In the 2020 equivalent of that Stevie Wonder scene, Jack Blacks replacement Cherise (DaVine Joy Randolph) calls out an iced coffee-drinking bro for using Shazam to work out the name of the mellow French guitar music coming out the speakers. You do know theres an actual person standing right here in front of you? Cherise says, bristling at the fact that the guy is more flirty towards his iPhone than her. 
Shazam is not the only extremely 2020 thing about High Fidelitys reboot. Gentrification in Brooklyn means frosé bars and boarded-up gig venues. Characters discuss whether or not its OK to listen to Michael Jackson in the wake of recent accusations; music snobbery has become passé; an Instagram influencer hires out a house to throw a pretend dinner party. Everythings so current, its surprising that Billie Eilishs neon-green roots dont get a mention. You half expect to see characters Venmo-ing each other the cost of the previous nights watermelon vape juice. 
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1/20 20) The Wire (Way Down in the Hole by Tom Waits) (2002-2008)
A rotating cast of musicians were tasked with covering Tom Waits formidable dirge Way Down in the Hole for The Wires theme, including Steve Earle and The Blind Boys of Alabama. No one beat Waits at his own game, though, the gravelly voiced king of the gutters used for the prolific dramas second series. Regardless of who was singing, the message would remain the same: When you walk through the garden / You gotta watch your back.
2/20 19) Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Unbreakable by The Gregory Brothers and Mike Britt) (2015-2019)
Having the YouTube-famous Gregory Brothers, responsible for viral hit Bedroom Intruder, remix a news report of the shows protagonist being rescued from an underground cult for the theme song is unbelievably strange, but also brilliant. The warped, breakneck burst of bubblegum ridiculousness that it became is truly uncharted grounds, tearing down walls separating television, streaming services and video platforms in a very catchy fashion.
3/20 18) Twin Peaks (Twin Peaks Theme by Angelo Badalamenti) (1990-2017)
That they reused this theme for the recent Twin Peaks revival, an uncompromising, phantasmagoric trip through the mind of David Lynch, is intentionally and deliciously jarring, and thats only because Badalementis theme so perfectly embodied the kitschy, nostalgia-drenched warmth of the original Nineties series, a simpler time. With ominous shadows lurking just beneath the beautiful crescendos, though, maybe Twin Peaks was never what it seemed.
4/20 17) The Twilight Zone (Main Title Theme by Marius Constant) (1959-1964)
The Twilight Zone, an anthology series that was light-years ahead of the curve, had a stellar soundtrack predating an impressive and abundant pantheon of great horror scores, spooking us way before we had Halloween or The Exorcist. Its a bit of Frankensteins Monster, consisting of a number of promotional pieces haphazardly spliced together, but from the messy birth is a tense, ethereal and insanely influential hair-raiser.
5/20 16) Toast of London (Take My Hand by Matt Berry) (2012- )
As sung by co-creator and lead actor Matt Berry, one of the most under-appreciated and multifaceted talents of the decade, Take My Hand is rousing and poignant. Toast of London, a gloriously abstract, untamed animal of a comedy, is often punctuated by unexpected bursts of Berrys singing, though no other performance quite reaches the loveliness of this theme an emotional anchor in a sea of weirdness.
6/20 15) The Sopranos (Woke Up This Morning (Chosen One Mix) by Alabama 3) (1999-2007)
Alabama 3, an alternative rock band from Brixton, provides the theme song to a show that consistently outdoes itself with its music choices (see also: the series final few minutes). Woke Up This Morning (Chosen One Mix) is greasy and sleazy and Tom Waits-ish, a swamp of ominous synths and guitar licks, dipping into the weirder and artsier tendencies that The Sopranos would often divulge in.
7/20 14) The Simpsons (The Simpsons Theme by Danny Elfman) (1989- )
With each title sequence, The Simpsons continually finds news way for Americas favourite family to come together on their couch, although the soundtrack to these journeys remains an unchanging monument. Honestly, The Simpsons Theme has transcended iconic status and is essentially a holy text by this point; excluding it from this list would have been sacrilegious. Shout out to Lisa who always knocks her sax solo out of the park.
8/20 13) Postman Pat (Postman Pat & His Black and White Cat by Bryan Daly) (1981-2006)
This sleepy little lullaby of a theme song recalls the sensation of first waking in the morning, enthused by the feeling that everything is okay in the world. Bryan Dalys almost whispered vocals speak of a heart-warming, enviously simple life for our hero Pat and his black and white cat; Pat feels hes a really happy man. Its a doorway to a world that, no matter the age, you would be happy to settle into.
9/20 12) The Office UK (Handbags and Gladrags arranged by Big George) (2001-2003)
What Gervais and Merchants version of The Office does so well is to embrace the humanity of everyday life, at-times hilarious, at-times pathetic. Handbags and Gladrags, originally written by Mike DAbo of Manfred Mann but repurposed here by Big George, is unashamedly sombre and hungover. It sounds like that contrasting look of persistence to achieve better things and resigned acceptance on the face of every Monday morning commuter.
10/20 11) M*A*S*H (Suicide is Painless by Johnny Mandel) (1972-1983)
The lyrics to Suicide is Painless, omitted from the television title sequence but so married to the melody that they hang over it like a ghost, are heart-wrenching. They draw out the tragic, underlying nature of M*A*S*H, a comedy at heart, with their absence only highlighting the repression of this sadness. Its unique and unprecedented in the sense that, each time it plays, it forces you to reconsider what it is you are about to see.
11/20 10) Knight Rider (Knight Rider Theme by Stu Phillips and Glen A. Larson) (1982-1986)
The Knight Rider Theme, composed of pulsating, tensile synths and ticking programmed drums, is a very Eighties, Blade Runner-esque prediction of what the future would sound like: apocalyptic, sleek and synthetic. A bit like KITT itself, its nowhere near being timeless in that sense, but its undoubtedly cool even as a product of its time.
12/20 9) Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia (Temptation Sensation by Heinz Kiessling) (2005- )
The Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia title sequence is all about ingenious contrasts. The episode titles often hilariously contradict the prior few minutes (see: Im gonna save my Dad! into Mac Kills His Dad), the shots of nighttime Philadelphia prove its not actually always sunny, and, best of all, the theme song hints at a certain lusciousness and grace. This, of course, is never the case. That Temptation Sensation is public domain makes it even more perfect.
13/20 8) Happy Days (Happy Days by Pratt & McClain) (1974-1984)
Faced with declining ratings, Happy Days doubled down on the feel-good factor and comedy aspects for the third series. This new theme song, replacing the equally recognisable Rock Around the Clock, follows suit, borrowing the same idea of making the most of the time we have but blowing it out to its most cheery, broad and archetypal potential.
14/20 7) Friends (Ill Be There For You by The Rembrandts) (1994-2004)
The Rembrandts got it pretty spot on no matter what you do to escape it, this song will always be there. A bit like an over-eager best friend, the track brings a certain comfort, a sense of normality and is boundlessly, almost annoyingly joyful. You cant help but love it unconditionally.
15/20 6) The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (Yo Home to Bel Air by The Fresh Prince) (1990-1996)
Never before has a backstory been so endlessly recitable. Pop maestro Quincy Jones collaborated with renowned 80s hip hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the The Fresh Prince, who happened to be starring in the show, to create a genuine cultural touchstone in just 15 minutes. Much like his character, Will Smith makes everything he does look completely effortless, including writing a theme song for the ages.
16/20 5) Doctor Who (Doctor Who Theme Music by Ron Grainer) (1963- )
The fact that this theme still evokes the excitement of stepping into new worlds almost 60 years on is telling. Composed in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshires otherworldly masterpiece has let loose the imaginations (and nightmares) of children for decades, itself a small but sturdy vessel that transcends time and space.
17/20 4) Dads Army (Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Hitler? by Bud Flanagan) (1968-1977)
Distinctly unimposing and charming yet equipped with a biting sense of self-depreciation and an unmatched persistence, the theme for Dads Army perfectly captures British spirit. In fact, dismissing Hitlers reign as a little game may be one of the most devastatingly British blows ever landed. Bud Flanagan, a vaudevillian comic in his own right, outdid himself.
18/20 3) Curb Your Enthusiasm (Frolic by Luciano Michelini) (2000- )
Just beating out Seinfelds iconic slap bass is the hilariously cocksure clown march that soundtracks Larry Davids second masterpiece, Curb Your Enthusiasm. There was something circus-y about it, he once explained. It tells the audience: dont take this seriously. Its near-impossible to hear it without picturing a slow zoom into his helpless face, forever mocking his inability to understand a world that goes right over his bald, emblematic head.
19/20 2) Cheers (Where Everybody Knows Your Name by Gary Portnoy) (1982-1993)
The quintessential theme song, almost unanimously agreed upon as the greatest of all time. Gary Portnoys Where Everybody Knows Your Name is that warm rush you feel stepping in from the cold or, more aptly, a much-needed beer after a long day. A deep exhalation of a programme, Cheers was that sense of relief for so many people, and the theme couldnt have captured or acknowledged that more perfectly.
20/20 1) Batman (Batman Theme by Neal Hefti) (1966-1968)
From the giddy, opening horn flourish to the driving guitar, the chorus of Batmans to the hits of brass choreographed to our hero punching out crooks, youd be hard pressed to find a better-known superhero theme. Although the franchise would return to darker places, the unabashed campness here harks back to the innocence of watching cartoons on weekend mornings.
1/20 20) The Wire (Way Down in the Hole by Tom Waits) (2002-2008)
A rotating cast of musicians were tasked with covering Tom Waits formidable dirge Way Down in the Hole for The Wires theme, including Steve Earle and The Blind Boys of Alabama. No one beat Waits at his own game, though, the gravelly voiced king of the gutters used for the prolific dramas second series. Regardless of who was singing, the message would remain the same: When you walk through the garden / You gotta watch your back.
2/20 19) Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Unbreakable by The Gregory Brothers and Mike Britt) (2015-2019)
Having the YouTube-famous Gregory Brothers, responsible for viral hit Bedroom Intruder, remix a news report of the shows protagonist being rescued from an underground cult for the theme song is unbelievably strange, but also brilliant. The warped, breakneck burst of bubblegum ridiculousness that it became is truly uncharted grounds, tearing down walls separating television, streaming services and video platforms in a very catchy fashion.
3/20 18) Twin Peaks (Twin Peaks Theme by Angelo Badalamenti) (1990-2017)
That they reused this theme for the recent Twin Peaks revival, an uncompromising, phantasmagoric trip through the mind of David Lynch, is intentionally and deliciously jarring, and thats only because Badalementis theme so perfectly embodied the kitschy, nostalgia-drenched warmth of the original Nineties series, a simpler time. With ominous shadows lurking just beneath the beautiful crescendos, though, maybe Twin Peaks was never what it seemed.
4/20 17) The Twilight Zone (Main Title Theme by Marius Constant) (1959-1964)
The Twilight Zone, an anthology series that was light-years ahead of the curve, had a stellar soundtrack predating an impressive and abundant pantheon of great horror scores, spooking us way before we had Halloween or The Exorcist. Its a bit of Frankensteins Monster, consisting of a number of promotional pieces haphazardly spliced together, but from the messy birth is a tense, ethereal and insanely influential hair-raiser.
5/20 16) Toast of London (Take My Hand by Matt Berry) (2012- )
As sung by co-creator and lead actor Matt Berry, one of the most under-appreciated and multifaceted talents of the decade, Take My Hand is rousing and poignant. Toast of London, a gloriously abstract, untamed animal of a comedy, is often punctuated by unexpected bursts of Berrys singing, though no other performance quite reaches the loveliness of this theme an emotional anchor in a sea of weirdness.
6/20 15) The Sopranos (Woke Up This Morning (Chosen One Mix) by Alabama 3) (1999-2007)
Alabama 3, an alternative rock band from Brixton, provides the theme song to a show that consistently outdoes itself with its music choices (see also: the series final few minutes). Woke Up This Morning (Chosen One Mix) is greasy and sleazy and Tom Waits-ish, a swamp of ominous synths and guitar licks, dipping into the weirder and artsier tendencies that The Sopranos would often divulge in.
7/20 14) The Simpsons (The Simpsons Theme by Danny Elfman) (1989- )
With each title sequence, The Simpsons continually finds news way for Americas favourite family to come together on their couch, although the soundtrack to these journeys remains an unchanging monument. Honestly, The Simpsons Theme has transcended iconic status and is essentially a holy text by this point; excluding it from this list would have been sacrilegious. Shout out to Lisa who always knocks her sax solo out of the park.
8/20 13) Postman Pat (Postman Pat & His Black and White Cat by Bryan Daly) (1981-2006)
This sleepy little lullaby of a theme song recalls the sensation of first waking in the morning, enthused by the feeling that everything is okay in the world. Bryan Dalys almost whispered vocals speak of a heart-warming, enviously simple life for our hero Pat and his black and white cat; Pat feels hes a really happy man. Its a doorway to a world that, no matter the age, you would be happy to settle into.
9/20 12) The Office UK (Handbags and Gladrags arranged by Big George) (2001-2003)
What Gervais and Merchants version of The Office does so well is to embrace the humanity of everyday life, at-times hilarious, at-times pathetic. Handbags and Gladrags, originally written by Mike DAbo of Manfred Mann but repurposed here by Big George, is unashamedly sombre and hungover. It sounds like that contrasting look of persistence to achieve better things and resigned acceptance on the face of every Monday morning commuter.
10/20 11) M*A*S*H (Suicide is Painless by Johnny Mandel) (1972-1983)
The lyrics to Suicide is Painless, omitted from the television title sequence but so married to the melody that they hang over it like a ghost, are heart-wrenching. They draw out the tragic, underlying nature of M*A*S*H, a comedy at heart, with their absence only highlighting the repression of this sadness. Its unique and unprecedented in the sense that, each time it plays, it forces you to reconsider what it is you are about to see.
11/20 10) Knight Rider (Knight Rider Theme by Stu Phillips and Glen A. Larson) (1982-1986)
The Knight Rider Theme, composed of pulsating, tensile synths and ticking programmed drums, is a very Eighties, Blade Runner-esque prediction of what the future would sound like: apocalyptic, sleek and synthetic. A bit like KITT itself, its nowhere near being timeless in that sense, but its undoubtedly cool even as a product of its time.
12/20 9) Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia (Temptation Sensation by Heinz Kiessling) (2005- )
The Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia title sequence is all about ingenious contrasts. The episode titles often hilariously contradict the prior few minutes (see: Im gonna save my Dad! into Mac Kills His Dad), the shots of nighttime Philadelphia prove its not actually always sunny, and, best of all, the theme song hints at a certain lusciousness and grace. This, of course, is never the case. That Temptation Sensation is public domain makes it even more perfect.
13/20 8) Happy Days (Happy Days by Pratt & McClain) (1974-1984)
Faced with declining ratings, Happy Days doubled down on the feel-good factor and comedy aspects for the third series. This new theme song, replacing the equally recognisable Rock Around the Clock, follows suit, borrowing the same idea of making the most of the time we have but blowing it out to its most cheery, broad and archetypal potential.
14/20 7) Friends (Ill Be There For You by The Rembrandts) (1994-2004)
The Rembrandts got it pretty spot on no matter what you do to escape it, this song will always be there. A bit like an over-eager best friend, the track brings a certain comfort, a sense of normality and is boundlessly, almost annoyingly joyful. You cant help but love it unconditionally.
15/20 6) The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (Yo Home to Bel Air by The Fresh Prince) (1990-1996)
Never before has a backstory been so endlessly recitable. Pop maestro Quincy Jones collaborated with renowned 80s hip hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the The Fresh Prince, who happened to be starring in the show, to create a genuine cultural touchstone in just 15 minutes. Much like his character, Will Smith makes everything he does look completely effortless, including writing a theme song for the ages.
16/20 5) Doctor Who (Doctor Who Theme Music by Ron Grainer) (1963- )
The fact that this theme still evokes the excitement of stepping into new worlds almost 60 years on is telling. Composed in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshires otherworldly masterpiece has let loose the imaginations (and nightmares) of children for decades, itself a small but sturdy vessel that transcends time and space.
17/20 4) Dads Army (Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Hitler? by Bud Flanagan) (1968-1977)
Distinctly unimposing and charming yet equipped with a biting sense of self-depreciation and an unmatched persistence, the theme for Dads Army perfectly captures British spirit. In fact, dismissing Hitlers reign as a little game may be one of the most devastatingly British blows ever landed. Bud Flanagan, a vaudevillian comic in his own right, outdid himself.
18/20 3) Curb Your Enthusiasm (Frolic by Luciano Michelini) (2000- )
Just beating out Seinfelds iconic slap bass is the hilariously cocksure clown march that soundtracks Larry Davids second masterpiece, Curb Your Enthusiasm. There was something circus-y about it, he once explained. It tells the audience: dont take this seriously. Its near-impossible to hear it without picturing a slow zoom into his helpless face, forever mocking his inability to understand a world that goes right over his bald, emblematic head.
19/20 2) Cheers (Where Everybody Knows Your Name by Gary Portnoy) (1982-1993)
The quintessential theme song, almost unanimously agreed upon as the greatest of all time. Gary Portnoys Where Everybody Knows Your Name is that warm rush you feel stepping in from the cold or, more aptly, a much-needed beer after a long day. A deep exhalation of a programme, Cheers was that sense of relief for so many people, and the theme couldnt have captured or acknowledged that more perfectly.
20/20 1) Batman (Batman Theme by Neal Hefti) (1966-1968)
From the giddy, opening horn flourish to the driving guitar, the chorus of Batmans to the hits of brass choreographed to our hero punching out crooks, youd be hard pressed to find a better-known superhero theme. Although the franchise would return to darker places, the unabashed campness here harks back to the innocence of watching cartoons on weekend mornings.
But updating it like this kind of misses the point. Because we still watch Nineties shows with unparalleled enthusiasm. People fall asleep to episodes of Fresh Prince. They play Frasier in the background when their boss lets them work from home. A former employee of Robert De Niros production company was alleged to have watched 55 episodes of Friends in four days. No wonder Netflix is believed to have paid WarnerMedia $100m (£85m) to licence the show in 2019. We might be furiously tweeting our takes on Stranger Things, Sex Education and The Crown, but its Nineties reruns that we spend most of our time on. 
Its easy to blame Nineties mania on aesthetics: a penchant for fluffy pens and Johnny Depps old face. But our desire to see Rachel and Ross back together derives from much deeper-seated needs. 
The Nineties were a comparatively prosperous time. You could go to university for free. The NHS was well-enough funded that there werent patients sleeping in hallways. There werent any articles telling young people that they should reuse tea bags or stop eating avocados so they could buy a house.  
Everythings so current: Zoe Kravitz in High Fidelity (Hulu)
The Nineties might not have delivered on its promises: trickle-down economics didnt trickle down very far, the intelligence economy just means we spend all day answering emails, and young people have to rent their overpriced houses from baby boomers. Watching shows from the Nineties lets us slip down a wormhole to an easier time one before hope turned to resignation. 
But rather than capitalising off nostalgia, many reboots have chosen to confront the complexities of the now. Where Nineties sitcoms are full of man-children watching sports all day from their armchairs, Robs life in the new High Fidelity is more complicated. She brings up the record shops lack of customers constantly and bemoans the way her neighbourhood is being taken over by pastel-hued, Instagrammable coffee shops. High Fidelity is an easy watch, but thats less because the cultural climate is laidback, and more because someone as good-looking as Kravitz can only have an unsuccessful love life for so long.
The Party of Five reboot follows High Fidelity in replacing the cheery optimism of the original with something altogether bleaker. Instead of the middle-class white Salingers of San Francisco, we meet the Acostas: Mexican-Americans living in Los Angeles, who become de-facto orphans after ICE agents deport their parents. Just eight episodes in, the Acostas must learn to navigate an increasingly hostile country. Val stays off school to chat with her parents on the phone. Matthew wants to be a dishwasher, but without an ID, he has to illegally obtain a social security number. Grief has rendered Gloria depressed. 
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Rather than disrupt the lives of Ross, Rachel, Joey, Chandler and Phoebe with the anxieties of modern life, the upcoming Friends reunion will see the gang reminiscing about old episodes of the show. So we wont see Central Perk replaced by a cafe that sells $8.50 butterfly pea lattes. Or how Rachel would cope with having lost her job at Ralph Lauren after being cancelled on Twitter. But it makes sense that the sitcoms stars would be hesitant to enter the now. Friends exists in a bubble of nostalgia that we dont want to pop. The 2020s just arent as comfortable to watch. 
We want to see them all languishing in the same coffee shop, talking about the same meandering non-events before going back to their big Manhattan flats where nothing ever changes. We wish we could join them there too.

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