When Grace Alie was growing up as a child in Chicago in the ’90s, she was surrounded by period TV shows and films that felt like they were from long-ago eras.
The Wonder Years followed a family from 1968 to 1973. That ’70s Show premiered in 1998 and put its cast in flares and Afros. The Wedding Singer mocked the over-the-top and gaudy styles of 1985 — a time just 13 years before the movie was released.
Now, though, time has marched on.
If made today, the original Wonder Years would begin in 2002, That ’70s Show would kick off in the year 2000, and The Wedding Singer would be making fun of what we all wore in the first year of the Obama administration.
“When I was a kid in the '90s, '70s was a period piece, but now we’re in 2022 and the 2000s is just as far away as watching a period piece about the '70s in the '90s, which is weird to think about,” said Alie, the production designer for both seasons of the Hulu cringe comedy PEN15, which is set in a middle school in the year 2000. “When you think back, 20 years doesn’t feel that far away — and it is, which is kind of a shocking thing to accept.”
PEN15 is just one of a handful of shows that have recently hit screens that are set at least partly in the early years of the 21st century, including HBO Max’s The Staircase and Hulu’s The Dropout. Even the upcoming seasons of The Crown are set to take royal watchers into the 2000s.
While these shows may not immediately feel as obviously “period” as recent dramas set in the ’90s — such as Impeachment and The People v. O.J. Simpson seasons of American Crime Story, or Pam & Tommy — the clothing, technology, and general vibes can all eventually feel dated to viewers in the year 2022.
To many people’s horror, the imaginary line between the past and the recent past is continuing to shift.
“I call this one a ‘quasi period,’ but it’s definitely a period,” said Jennifer Starzyk, the costume designer for The Staircase, which starts in the year 2001. “Maybe I don’t want to accept that it’s completely period because I was alive then!”
The HBO Max miniseries dramatizes the 2003 murder trial of Michael Peterson over the death of his wife in Durham, North Carolina — events explored in a 2004 French documentary of the same name (and its 2018 follow-ups, which aired on Netflix).
Tasked with dressing stars like Colin Firth, Toni Collette, and Sophie Turner, Starzyk not only turned to the original documentary and footage from the trial broadcast on Court TV, she also studied Durham high school yearbooks to see what folks in the straightlaced city thought was trendy at the time.
The end result is full of baggy rugby shirts, boat shoes, and pleated-front khakis for the men, and flared bootcut jeans, chunky belts, and thin eyebrows for the young women, with lots of pearls for older women. Many characters are also seen tucking their T-shirts into their mid-blue denim jeans, while Collette sports a bob haircut that seems like an age-appropriate version of one made famous by Jennifer Aniston on Friends.
“It was actually kind of fun to make sure I could punctuate the trends that were happening along that time even though these people weren’t trendy,” Starzyk said. “Like, I made sure I introduced, as our episodes go on at the right appropriate time between like 2005 and ’07, skinny jeans, because that wasn't a popular thing up until then.”
“Colin Firth gave me a really huge compliment the other day and he said his friend had called from London and said, ‘I could never imagine you looking so American,’” Starzyk added of the baggy, unflattering shirts she put the actor in. “So I was like, ‘Yes, we did it! We succeeded! A triumph!’”
It’s not just the costumes that help to evoke the era. When Collette runs on a treadmill in one episode, her gym is blasting Shakira’s 2001 hit “Whenever, Wherever.” The desktop on Firth’s character’s computer uses Windows 95 software and opens to the clunkily designed webpage for a gay escort. When he appears in court, the hazy broadcast footage is reminiscent of early digital cameras.
Alie, the PEN15 production designer, explained that her job as head of the art department is often easiest when she starts with big-ticket items like cars and technology, such as the vintage computers, VCR players, stacks of burned CDs, and clear Unisonic phone (with a cord, of course) that she put in her young characters’ bedrooms.
“It’s very much close in time, but it’s also really hard to find the technology of 20 years ago,” Alie said. “Even answering machines are kind of a thing of the past.”
On Reddit, fans of Better Call Saul, currently airing its final season after taking viewers through the years 2002 to 2008, have discussed the show’s “2000s” aesthetic, also highlighting its use of “clunky plastic gadget looking phones” and cars.
One user also noted seeing a character with blonde streaks in his hair and sporting a zippered camo jacket and gold chain necklace. “Having been a high school kid in the early 2000’s, that took me back,” the person wrote. “That was definitely the ‘cool guy’ look of that time.”
Both Alie and Starzyk said they try not to stylize things too strictly for the 2000s, noting that in reality people accumulate things over time and don’t throw away expensive items like furniture just because they were purchased years beforehand.
In this way, the bleed between decades becomes more prominent. While it’s easy to look back in hindsight and define 10-year spans with clearly defined styles and fashions, the reality is much more subtle.
“It was important to us to kind of do a lens of a bunch of different eras and not just specifically the 2000s because no one's home is specifically of that era,” Alie said. “You have things of the past, you have hand-me-down things.”
Julie Taddeo, a historian at the University of Maryland who studies depictions of history in shows and coauthored the recent book Rape in Period Drama Television, said period dramas have exploded in popularity since the release of Downtown Abbey.
While most of these shows take viewers on romantic escapes to decades or even centuries past, she understands why the late ’90s and early 2000s are now being explored by dramatists.
“It is funny when I hear people say, ‘Oh my god, the ’90s!’ I guess it really was 30 years ago,” Taddeo said. “I think that’s the past, so we should be exploring it and studying it.”
“For people who are teenagers, they have no memory of even 9/11, right? That’s ancient history!” Taddeo added. “There is something about the early 21st century that feels — I don’t want to say quaint, but a little different. I was still using a flip phone and the internet and social media hadn’t exploded yet.”
Taddeo said that she suspects younger viewers, like her 16-year-old daughter, will have an easier time divorcing themselves from any nostalgia and watching these shows as time capsules of the past.
“Honestly, even just now having a teenager,” Taddeo said, “what happened six years ago does sometimes seem different to her.”