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TV Review: ‘The ’90s: The Last Great Decade?’

Cast:
Narrator: Rob Lowe  

The question built into “The 90s: The Last Great Decade?” — National Geographic Channel’s three-night, six-hour documentary undertaking — is an inherently interesting one, hung on the simple idea that the prosperous decade fell between the end of the Cold War and the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Yet if that made the ’90s an era where fluff seemed to hold inordinate sway, such material also largely dominates this fast-moving production, which tilts toward pop culture and the salacious (O.J.! Monica!) at every turn. That said, it’s still a fun trip down memory lane and, with the Clintons in the headlines, perhaps a timely one.

Obviously, even over three nights there’s a staggering amount of material to cover, requiring tough choices. So while “Roseanne” gets its share of time — reflecting the economic struggles that helped sink President George H.W. Bush — “Murphy Brown’s” skirmish with Vice President Dan Quayle over single motherhood goes unnoticed.

If there’s an overarching theme here, it’s that the ’90s saw the breakdown of “barriers between real life and entertainment,” as explained by narrator Rob Lowe, himself interviewed for his involvement with late-’90s artifact “The West Wing.” As such, the filmmakers zero in on sensational stories that were essentially mainstreamed, reflecting, as the writer David Sirota notes, the eradication of lines separating hard and tabloid news.

It’s still rather dizzying watching “The ’90s” flit from topic to topic – from Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas to Vanilla Ice, the death of Tupac Shakur to the O.J. Simpson trial, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan to Lorena Bobbitt to Jerry Springer. Plus, there’s the shadow of what’s to come, including the rise of Osama bin Laden and the dangers of overseas military adventures, as exemplified by the events that became “Black Hawk Down.”

Nor does it seem accidental that “The ’90s” feels heavily weighted toward pop culture, which is generally legitimate, but occasionally requires what sounds like overreach in trying to explain why the popularity of Anna Nicole Smith or “The X-Files” so defined those times.

Not surprisingly, the Clintons cast a very long shadow over the whole exercise, from Bill’s initial campaign and the charges of infidelity that surfaced to his eventual White House dalliance with Monica Lewinsky and subsequent impeachment proceedings. The project enlists a relative who’s who of interviewees, without always clearly identifying their particular agenda. (It falls to conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, incidentally, to articulate the “last great decade” assertion.)

Ultimately, the greatness of decades isn’t an exact science, and in any event, NatGeo is less interested in winning the argument than simply deriving the attention that comes from advancing it.

By that measure, “The ’90s” is certainly interesting, fun and a bit nostalgic. But if you’re looking for any real context with your history, crack open a book.

TV Review: 'The ’90s: The Last Great Decade?'

(Documentary; National Geographic Channel, Sun.-Tue. July 6-8, 9 p.m.)

Production: Produced by Nutopia.

Crew: Executive producers, Peter Lovering, Jane Root, Fred Hepburn, Erik Nelson, Michael Cascio; series producer, Glenn Barden. 6 HOURS

Cast: Narrator: Rob Lowe  

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