We are in a golden age of television right now. TVEnthusiast will be celebrating this golden age through the holiday season with 10 feature articles, each focusing on 1 year of television in the golden age.
1999: Its not TV, its HBO
1999 is the second year we are focusing on in this series. In 1999 the influence of Buffy the Vampire Slayer had started to set in with shows like Roswell, Popular, and Freaks and Geeks taking influence from a new kind of teen drama, while the Buffy spin-off Angel expanded Joss Whedon’s reach. South Park and King of the Hill continued to support The Simpsons in a dominant trend in animation which brought in Futurama, and Family Guy. Meanwhile, comedy giants Curb your Enthusiasm and Spaced both debuted.
1999 was a huge year in violence which has largely shaped our current culture. In London a series of nail bombs were unleashed, inflicting injury and death. The attacks were targeted against ethnic minorities and homosexuals. Violence against homosexuals in specific was a trend in 1999, with US Army soldier Barry Winchell murdered by his comrades over his relationship with a transgender female. The Jenny Jones show was found liable for the murder of Scott Amedure who confessed a gay crush on a co-worker on the show, and was later murdered by the same co-worker. Perhaps the most known act of violence in the year, however, was the tragic Columbine High School massacre, in which 2 bullied outsiders murdered 12 fellow students, 1 teacher, and themselves. The tragic event in Littleton, Colorado was the tipping point for more open discussion about bullying, zero tolerance measures in school discipline, ongoing gun rights debates, and a misguided attempt to land the blame on music and video games. The event inspired television projects for years to come, including the first season of FX’s American Horror Story. Unfortunately, the event also encouraged other young outsiders to take up arms and commit similar offenses, a climate of violence that is still prevalent in our culture.
Politically, 1999 was a year of changing perceptions. The Euro was established, a currency that united many countries in Europe with a shared interest. The Euro was seen as a potential threat to the American Dollar as the worldwide currency standard. Though the Euro never took that role, it has competed with the value of the dollar before coming into its own problems. Bill Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States of America, was acquitted from impeachment hearings resulting from his sexual relationships and harassment of several women, most notably his intern Monica Lewinsky. The nation was divided as Republican leaders sought to use Clinton’s dishonesty of the event to remove him from office. Many consider it to be the first instance of such public dirty politics which has become increasingly normal since.
Y2K panic was the prevalent fear of 1999. With computer systems integrated into every facet of our lives, people feared the turn from 1999 to 2000 due to older systems using a 2 digit year identifier. Essentially, older computer systems would see the switch from 1999 to 2000 as a switch from 1999 to 1900, which could create havoc on banking and power systems. In the end, the transition didn’t have any ill effects as most important computer systems were successfully updated or replaced in time. The panic of the coming transition, however, was a huge part of pop culture in the year.
Another major event of 1999 was the complete change of the music, movie, and tv industry due to the file sharing service Napster. Napster launched in 1999 and suddenly everybody realized they could easily get all of the music they wanted for free. Debates over piracy, and digital rights are still going today, not only in music but in film, tv, video games, and nearly every other form of entertainment.
1999 was a big year for film as well. The long awaited Star Wars prequels launched with Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Fans waited with great anticipation in lines for months to be the first to see the movie. After countless re-watches many fans began to sour on the film. The prequels became an object of scorn for long time fans of the series who felt that the mystery and romantic adventure of the series was ruined by over-explanation, and over-reliance on CGI. The backlash to the prequels deeply affected the way television was made, especially in the case of 2004’s LOST, whose showrunners made it their goal to avoid having a “metachlorian moment” that would ruin the wonder of their mystery. Also released in 1999 was The Matrix, a hugely influential science fiction film that has been consistently imitated and referenced. The idea that we could wake up to find that our entire lives were a mere simulation, struck and influenced the imaginations of many future writers, directors, and showrunners. Fight Club was released in 1999 as well, a movie that was hugely influential to modern existentialism in fiction. Though Fight Club didn’t do well in theaters, it became a quick (and frequently referenced) cult classic.
Freaks and Geeks – The Impact on the Future of Comedy
Freaks and Geeks didn’t have a huge impact on television, despite its popularity with a niche fanbase, but the iconic teen drama kicked off the careers of several now prominent actors, and a writer/director in feature films. Series creator Judd Apatow rose to such prominence after Freaks and Geeks that his very name became associated with a specific kind of comedy movie. His actors also took on the mocker of the Apatow crew, until some of them, including Seth Rogen and James Franco became huge names in their own right.
The Sopranos – The Turning Point of the Critical Reception of Television
The biggest debut of 1999 on television was the HBO modern New Jersey mafia series The Sopranos. The Sopranos was instrumental to the change in television we enjoy today. The series put HBO on the map as a maker of exceptional content. HBO began to use the tagline “its not TV, its HBO,” to differentiate themselves from the less impeccable content on Networks and Cable. With shorter season orders, heavily serialized storytelling, and uncensored content, HBO used The Sopranos as the flagship to a brand that would later include such hits as Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Boardwalk Empire, and Game of Thrones.
The Sopranos told the story of Tony Soprano, the new head of the Soprano family mafia who begins to see a psychiatrist in order to deal with his panic attacks, a condition he cannot let his fellow criminals know he suffers from as it would make him seem weak. Through the series Tony becomes a better criminal, and a better killer through the use of the coping mechanisms he learns in therapy. The Sopranos took everything we loved about Goodfellas and then let us get deeper into the world and the psychology of its characters.
Leading the cast of The Sopranos was the late James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. Gandolfini played Tony as a quiet and introspective gorilla of a man that struggled with his role in a connected family, and the responsibilities of being a mob boss, a husband, and a father.
1999 was a turbulent year in which values were reassessed and redefined. Tragedy shaped art, and art shaped culture. Stay with us throughout the holidays as we explore more years of our current golden age. Participate in the discussion in our comments, and stay tuned to TVEnthusiast for more coverage of all of your favorite shows.