Although I’ve covered the topic of 1990s-style storytelling in other articles, I felt like taking a more in-depth look at two tonally-similar American TV shows from this decade, to see what makes them so quintessentially “90s” and what this can show us about how to achieve this in our own comics, fiction etc..
The two shows are, of course, “Sliders” and “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman“. Both of these shows are somewhat overlooked (when compared to more famous shows from the 1990s like The Simpsons, The X-Files, Friends, The Fresh Prince etc..) but they are both about as “90s” as you can get. A good example of this type of show from the UK is one called “Bugs” although, annoyingly, I didn’t have time to include it in this article.
So, what can these two shows teach us about 1990s-style storytelling? Here are five things:
Yes, these two TV shows are about as “90s” as you can get. But, why?
1) Familiarity and change: One of the reasons why these shows are so quintessentially “90s” is because they focus on one specific location, but with some really interesting variations on this location in every episode.
Almost every episode of “Lois & Clark” takes place in a few parts of a New York-like city called Metropolis (such as the offices of a newspaper) and every episode of “Sliders” takes place in San Francisco (with the characters often staying in the same hotel).
Yet, in each episode, something new or different happens in these locations. In “Lois & Clark”, the city is often threatened by a new villain of some kind or another. In “Sliders”, the characters literally travel between alternate timelines in each episode (so, there are many different “versions” of San Francisco).
This is a screenshot from season 2 of “Lois & Clark” (1994-5) showing the historical outlaws Bonnie and Clyde holding up a bank in 1990s Metropolis.
This is a screenshot from season 1 of “Sliders” (1995-6) showing one of the main characters getting a visit from the Grim Reaper during a stay in a version of San Francisco where magic and sorcery are considered to be real.
Normally, the combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar is meant to be disturbing (eg: the psychological concept of “The Uncanny“). But, in these shows, the familiar locations often serve to create a reassuring atmosphere. Because these locations are repeated, but with enough variations to keep them interesting, they almost become a character in the show. Almost like a member of the team.
Of course, the focus on a single location is also an example of how the people who made these shows were able to be creative despite the limited budgets that they had. After all, television wasn’t as prestigious during the 1990s as it is today. So, this is also a good example of how limitations force creative people to innovate and do interesting things.
2) Team-based stories: If there’s one thing to be said for media from the 1990s in general, it is that there was a much greater focus on team-based stories. Shows like “Star Trek: Voyager“, comics like Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” and games like “Resident Evil” often focused on a group of characters, rather than the much more individualistic focus that many modern films, games etc.. have.
This emphasis on team-based stories is an essential part of both “Sliders” and “Lois & Clark”. Both shows feature a central group of four characters, all of whom are important to the story in some way or another. Yes, even in a superhero-themed show like “Lois & Clark”, the superhero is nothing without his colleagues at the newspaper he works at. I mean, there’s a reason why the show is called “Lois & Clark” rather than just “Clark”.
The four main characters from “Lois & Clark” – (from left to right) Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Clark Kent and Lois Lane.
The four main characters from “Sliders” – (from left to right) Professor Arturo, Rembrandt Brown, Quinn Mallory and Wade Welles.
So, why is team-based storytelling so important to things from the 1990s? It allows for a lot more humour, it allows the writers to add suspense by temporarily separating the team, it creates a more “community”-like atmosphere that draws the audience in, it allows for more depth (eg: by showing different characters reacting to the same thing in different ways) and it also places more emphasis on the story than on any one particular character.
3) Feel-good stories: Another thing that makes these two shows such great examples of 1990s-style storytelling is the fact that they weren’t afraid to be optimistic, fun, feel-good television. Although each show contains a lot of drama (such as a chilling episode of “Sliders” where the characters find themselves in a city-sized prison), there is an overriding sense of reassurance. There’s a sense that things will turn out ok in the end.
Yes, this is a little bit predictable. But it is also part of the charm of these shows. The emphasis changes from “will the main characters win?” to “how will the main characters win?“. And this is designed to evoke a sense of relaxed curiosity in the audience, rather than nail-biting suspense. These shows make up for the predictability of “the good guys always win” by making the audience intrigued about how they will win.
Likewise, both shows include a lot of humour too. This often includes things like sarcastic dialogue, character-based humour, hilariously surreal background details and even some good old-fashioned slapstick comedy too. This is because these shows recognise that one of the roles of storytelling is to make people feel better about the world, to lighten the mood of the audience etc…
4) Subtle politics (sometimes): Even the politics in these shows is handled in an interesting way. Although both shows can occasionally make political points in a hilariously heavy-handed way, they are often a lot more subtle about it than some modern media. Most of the time….
But, yes, these shows can be hilariously heavy-handed sometimes. For example, the episode ”The Weaker Sex” from season 1 of “Sliders” includes a reversed example of 1950s-style gender politics. But, for the most part, the politics in these shows are handled in a more intelligent way than this.
In other words, they often quietly make points about various topics through setting an example.
For example, by the standards of the time, both shows can probably be described as “feminist”. Whilst this is occasionally presented in a hilariously heavy-handed way (such as the example above), it is often presented in a much more subtle way by just making sure that the female characters in both shows are intelligent, witty and resourceful people. They are shown to be important characters in their own right, rather than just members of the supporting cast.
Plus, each show also takes a fairly equal attitude towards the topic of fashion, style etc… But, each show does this in a slightly different way.
A scene from season 1 of “Sliders” showing both Quinn and Wade wearing fairly understated, practical, realistic and “unfashionable” outfits.
A scene from season 2 of “Lois & Clark” showing both Lois and Clark looking rather stylish (by 1990s standards).
In “Lois & Clark”, both Lois and Clark are shown to be incredibly stylish people. By contrast, in “Sliders”, there’s relatively little emphasis on style, fashion etc.. amongst all of the main characters – with the emphasis being firmly on the actual practical events of the story. Both of these shows handle this topic in a slightly “non-mainstream” (by the standards of the time) way, but they do it subtly.
So, yes, keeping any political points subtle and making them through example is a good way to add some 90s-style sophistication to your story or comic.
5) Quirkiness and personality: Simply put, both of these shows have their own unique “quirks” that make them what they are.
For example, in “Lois & Clark”, the newspaper’s editor is obsessed with Elvis (and also uses the phrase “Judas Priest” as an expletive). In “Sliders”, many parallel universes feature political/military conflicts with Australia (of all places!) and there are also a few amusingly dated references to moral panics about toy guns during the 1990s.
These are all fairly subtle things, but they show that an actual person has created the show. They aren’t hip, self-conscious modern “nerd culture” references. They’re just some totally random plot elements that help to give these shows a bit more personality. You can tell that whoever wrote these shows was relying on their own thoughts, memories and opinions rather than just trying to appear “hip” or “cool”.
So, don’t be afraid to give your stories and comics a bit of “personality”. Don’t be afraid to be slightly random or silly. But try to make sure that any quirkiness comes from your own sense of humour, thoughts, memories etc… rather than just whatever happens to be “cool” at the moment.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂