Why is TV so obsessed with crimes from the '90s?

On the uneasy nostalgia of Waco, American Crime Story, Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., and more

Scenes from current crime dramas.
(Image credit: Justin Lubin/NBC, Jeff Daly/FX, Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network, Paramount Network, Discovery Channel)

The devastating terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were such a monumental moment in recent U.S. history that it's tempting sometimes to divide American popular culture into "pre-9/11" and "post-9/11." Tempting, yes — but not so easily done. Looking back, it's surprising just how many TV shows that we tend to identify with the '90s actually aired a sizable chunk of their episodes after the World Trade Center towers fell. Friends, Frasier, ER, Law & Order, NYPD Blue … They all carried on the spirit of the decade in which they were born, in an era when the world behind the television screen suddenly felt very different.

That schism between the seemingly benign atmosphere of America in the '90s and the "we can die at any moment" anxiety of the '00s is the subject of The Looming Tower, Hulu's miniseries adaptation of Lawrence Wright's book about the U.S. intelligence-gathering errors — and the stealthy forces of international malevolence — that led to 9/11. The differences between the '90s and now also serve as subtext to both series so far of American Crime Story (both the multi-Emmy-winning hit The People v. O.J. Simpson, and the more under-the-radar The Assassination of Gianni Versace), as well as Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, Manhunt: Unabomber, Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac & the Notorious B.I.G., and Waco.

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Noel Murray

Noel Murray is a freelance writer, living in Arkansas with his wife and two kids. He was one of the co-founders of the late, lamented movie/culture website The Dissolve, and his articles about film, TV, music, and comics currently appear regularly in The A.V. Club, Rolling Stone, Vulture, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times.