“Music these days is awful. It’s much worse than it used to be.”
“I only like movies made before 1985. Modern films are stupid.”
“Back in my day, food was good and nurturing. It gave us energy. Not like today’s food. You can’t chop wood with a belly full of McNuggets.”
You’ve heard the arguments. Perhaps while at Applebee’s with your moderately hipster friend who takes pleasure in critiquing the barely audible background music. Perhaps on an international flight when your seat-neighbor insists on critiquing your television show selection instead of watching his own screen. Or perhaps at the movie theater when you accidentally sit in front of the loud and opinionated older couple who thought Moonrise Kingdom didn’t appropriately represent the Cub Scouts of America. It’s difficult to escape the judgmental gaze of haters of modernity.
What makes such pretentiousness so frustrating is its commitment to tunnel-visioned subjectivity. First, many of these opinions are fueled by the same visceral nostalgia that connects today’s youth with modern pop culture. You may appreciate The Dick Van Dyke Show (which is a wonderful show), but is your love inspired by the brilliance of Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke, and Mary Tyler Moore? Or is it fueled by the fact that The Dick Van Dyke Show reminds you of childhood memories? Though they are not mutually exclusive, there is a difference between nostalgia and critical thought.
Even if hipsters, older generations, and the overly opinionated can swallow the red pill and bypass the temptation to limit criticism to new media, their perspectives of pop culture timelines are often distorted. Pitbull, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift might not create the most poetically inspired albums, but post-Y2K years are not the only years with arguably bad music. Both Dan Hill’s “Sometimes When We Touch” and Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart” were 90s Billboard hits; “Boogie Oogie Oogie” by A Taste of Honey was a 70s disco success; and Patti Page’s “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?” reached the top of the charts in the 1950s. But a nostalgia-infused lens either eliminates such songs from memory or persuades its wearer that hits like “I Write the Songs” by Barry Manilow—”I write the songs that make the whole world sing / I write the songs of love and special things”—are examples of profound lyricism.
There is one specific type of media, however, that I believe has declined in quality since the 90s.
While all decades contain examples of poor programming, the 90s was the best decade for kid’s television. Television shows for children and tweens had not yet reached their potential before 1990, and shows created after 1999 have been, with several exceptions, meaningless and uninspired. The sighs of relief as our computers continued to operate on January 1, 2000 signaled the beginning of over a decade of mediocre programming for kids.
The 90s played host to a variety of intelligent and unique shows for children and young teenagers. Shows like Hey Arnold! and Recess meaningfully and unpatronizingly highlighted the nuances of life as a kid. The protagonists of these shows offered children understandable and often humorous environments in which to consider more profound topics, concepts like divorce, obscenity, multiculturalism, and gender stereotypes. Even secondary characters like Stoop Kid and Swinger Girl, while simple in some ways, contained layers of relatable emotions.
Though not all 90s kid’s shows offered the readily applicable morals of Hey Arnold!, most shows of the decade had something unique to offer. For many, any lack of obvious morality was made up for with bold originality. CatDog featured an anatomically confusing pair of protagonists and an instantly classic theme song; Dexter’s Laboratory introduced an array of fascinating secondary characters and was nominated for four consecutive Primetime Emmys; and The Powerpuff Girls parodied gendered superheroes and had Mojo Jojo.
Wishbone, The Magic School Bus, Legends of the Hidden Temple, and Bill Nye, the Science Guy set the standard for educational entertainment. All That was one of the first sketch comedy shows for kids. Rugrats and Doug became archetypes of kindhearted media for kids. The Big Comfy Couch championed a new generation of imaginative, small-set children’s shows. Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain uniquely combined academia, pop culture, slapstick comedy, and satire. Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? brought the horror genre to kids in a way that has not been done since. Dragon Ball Z and Pokémon peaked in the 90s. And even Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, arguably the best of the Power Rangers franchise, existed in the 90s.
Compare these shows with modern entertainment like Dave the Barbarian, Brandy & Mr. Whiskers, and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, and you may notice the difference. While modern music, film, and television programming for adults and older youth are as inspired now as they were in the past, kid’s television shows are not.