The golden age of reboots: Why 90s nostalgia TV is booming in the 2020s

Over the past decade, the terms “reboot,” “revival,” and “sequel series” have been tossed around abundantly as popular shows from the past return in various incarnations to reignite interest from older fans and (hopefully) delight an entirely new generation of audience. One decade in particular, though, has become fodder for a seemingly endless stream of revived concepts: The 1990s.

From Saved by the Bell to Punky Brewster and even Peacock’s Tina Fey-produced series Girls5eva, which parodies an amalgamation of every girl group and boy band from that decade, it’s evident that the TV revival trend is beginning to skew to a particular timeframe.

It has been more than 30 years since 1990, the beginning of a decade when clothing was baggy, overalls were the height of fashion, and the brooding grunge trend was juxtaposed by the bright and cheerful rise of boy bands and girl groups, adorable Tamagotchi virtual pets, and jelly shoes. It was a decade filled with ground-breaking TV series like Roseanne, Seinfeld, Freaks and Geeks, and Friends, but why is ’90s TV so popular once again?

More than nostalgia

With three decades separating the modern entertainment environment from the daily TV diet of Generation X, much of the ’90s pop culture audience is now in their late 30s or early 40s. Many of those Gen-Xers are raising their own children — kids who are currently right around the age their parents were when they saw Zack Morris and Kelly Kapowski’s first kiss, learned how to “pivot” from Ross, or put blonde tips in their hair to look like NSYNC-era Justin Timberlake.

The kids at a diner on the Saved by the Bell reboot on Peacock.

It makes sense they would want to introduce their kids to series just like the ones they watched when they were a similar age. There’s a sense of security in the familiar, after all, and short of watching reruns in syndication or streaming, a revival of those series — filtered through a modern lens — presents the perfect vehicle not only for nostalgia but for learning the life lessons those shows taught teenage and pre-teen fans.

A delicate balance

Recycling the past isn’t a surefire path to success, though, and not all concepts manage to catch lightning in a bottle a second time.

Revivals need to find the happy medium between nostalgia and existing within the social environment we live in now. Successful series — both in their original run and in their modern revivals — feature a cast and storylines that speak to current times.

Peacock’s Saved by the Bell revival, for example, manages this beautifully (and has already been renewed for a second season because of that success). The series delivers a constant stream of throwback references and returning characters that the original show’s fans appreciate while also featuring an ethnically diverse and LGBTQ+ inclusive cast and storylines that reflect the current cultural environment. It also offers the same level of corny humor that made the original series so popular in the first place.

The Conners family standing in the kitchen on the revival series The Conners.

Coming at the era from a different angle was Roseanne, which became a cultural phenomenon in the ’90s as one of the only shows at the time to present a rough-around-the-edges, middle-to-lower-class American family that struggled with many of the same issues as their audience. The Conners spin-off continuation series, which is gearing up for its fourth season, builds on that concept by putting that same family at the center of timely storylines involving everything from the COVID-19 pandemic to immigration issues, job losses, mental health, and addiction.

In many ways, it’s the same hilarious yet heavy sitcom it was before, but the revival organically integrates topics a new generation of fans can appreciate and relate to.

Fresh but familiar

Finding success in the entertainment environment of the ’90s isn’t just the territory of revival projects, either.

The ladies from the girl group Girls5eva in the Tina Fey comedy Girls5eva.

Tina Fey’s Girls5eva isn’t a reboot, sequel series, or revival of an existing show, but rather a hilarious homage to girl groups from that decade, told through the eyes of four fictional former girl group members who are now in their 40s and trying to revive their careers. The series presents an interesting look back at a decade that was all about pop music and saw the formation of some of the biggest bands in that space, from Backstreet Boys to NSYNC, The Pussycat Dolls, and The Spice Girls.

The series also parodies the ridiculousness of the era and its entertainment fare. Andrew Rannells portrays Kev, a former boy-band member who suffered permanent eye damage due to the swoop of hair that was his trademark style for too many years, while Renée Elise Goldsberry plays washed-up pop star Wickie, who desperately signs a billion-year contract to work as a judge on a singing competition show.

The series has earned plenty of praise from Generation X audiences and younger fans for its blend of references to that particular era of music — and musical entertainment — and the satire it lobs at the modern pop culture landscape.

WandaVision's Full House spoof episode.

Much of the same can be said for WandaVision, Marvel’s own “nostalgia series” that pays homage to shows from every decade since the dawn of television, including the ’90s.

Not only does the series feature a long list of Marvel heroes and villains, but its story also weaves multiple decades of television shows and the way they shaped the culture and society around them into the overarching Marvel Cinematic Universe concept. That sort of synergy makes the series common ground for fans of both the old and the new in TV.

Missing the mark

Not every revival has been a hit, though.

The iconic teen sitcom Beverly Hills, 90210 is synonymous with ’90s television, and despite a late 2000s reboot of the show called 90210 that was a five-season win for The CW network, when the original show’s cast reunited for a meta comedy-drama that had them playing fictionalized versions of themselves developing a reunion show, it fell flat. The cast of that series, playfully titled BH90210, played up the stereotypes about them and their characters for comedic effect, but it ultimately disappointed viewers.

The original cast from Beverly Hills, 90210 in a scene from the series BH90210.

There were few feel-good aspects to BH90210, which found the buzz surrounding it more focused on how spoiled the actors were behind the scenes. By putting the spotlight on itself and the less-appealing aspects of the original series, the reboot abandoned what made Beverly Hills, 90210 a success in the first place: The characters and their story, not the actors who starred in it.

Candice Bergen in a scene from the Murphy Brown reboot.
John Paul Filo / CBS

Sometimes outdated concepts can also sink a revival. Murphy Brown was an award-winning 10-season series that cast Candice Bergen as the show’s eponymous investigative journalist and news anchor. The series was groundbreaking for its time, featuring an older career woman who spoke her mind and didn’t submit to the expectations that she should be married and starting a family.

Nowadays, however, that describes many female characters on television. That the title character herself is associated with an outdated construct might be, at least in part, why a 2018 reboot of the series never made it past its first season.

Will and McCoy from the finale of the reboot of Will & Grace.

That might also hold true for Will & Grace, a series about a gay man and his best friend living together in the city, which was praised for bringing LGBTQ+ issues to mainstream TV audiences across an 11-season run that kicked off in 1998. While the show’s premise isn’t as shocking today as it was in the ’90s, its creators hoped for the best with a 2017 revival.

Although the revival did enjoy some success, lasting for three seasons, it ultimately faced renewed criticism for not challenging typical LGBTQ+ stereotypes and also revived criticism for the original casting of a straight cisgender male actor, Eric McCormack, as a gay man in the lead role.

No stopping now

On the surface, the simple nature of growing up — and the entertainment business — has a lot to do with this ’90s television re-revolution.

A large percentage of today’s working professionals who decide which streaming services to subscribe to grew up in the ’90s, after all, and now that they have kids the same age they were during that era, the appeal from both a nostalgic perspective and a business model makes sense.

Dig a little deeper, though, and the ’90s also marked important cultural shifts that are still felt today, from the introduction of mobile technology (beginning with pagers and beepers and through the early days of cellphones) to the rise of streaming music and the internet. It was an era that first embraced much of what’s commonplace in our entertainment world now.

Animaniacs on Hulu.

Whatever the reason or winning formula for ’90s revivals, it’s clear that there’s no end in sight to this mining of that culturally important era in television. Reboots and revivals of shows like Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Beavis and Butthead, and Frasier have already been announced, and others, like Animaniacs, Walker, Texas Ranger, and Mad About You are already well underway.

Not every ’90s-inspired reboot, revival, or original series hits it out of the park, but those that do find a new audience and spark nostalgia while paying homage to society’s transition into 21st Century television. And whether they last a single season or build an entirely new fanbase with a multi-season run, each show is important in its own way for what it says about where we’ve been and where we are now — and that’s something worth celebrating.

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