Strange Days

By Ty Burr
Updated December 29, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

Let’s get that bad news out of the way first: In 1995, entertainment choked on its own irrelevance.

By ”entertainment,” of course, I mean movies, TV shows, music CDs—those consumables we use either to explain the world or to numb us to it for an hour or two. In other respects, 1995 was entertaining as hell. Nothing at the multiplex matched the high drama and low comedy that media figures provided us in real life. Would Christopher Reeve walk again? Would Connie Chung work again? Would Hugh Grant show his face on Sunset Boulevard again? From boardroom bloodlettings at Time Warner’s music labels to the tragic, stupid murder of Selena to the sideshows supplied by the Macaulay Culkin and Michael Jackson camps, we didn’t need a movie to tell us these were strange days.

Looming above it all, of course, was O.J. The Simpson trial was the central event of 1995 and one that media and populace alike worked hard to turn into entertainment that could be ingested, digested, forgotten. It almost worked too: We tallied courtroom points and concentrated on trading-card images, dithered about Marcia Clark’s hairstyles and chortled at Jay Leno’s Dancing Itos, listened to legions of legal experts and tiptoed around the race issue. When a bona fide villain appeared in the person of LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman, we fell upon him with a sense of relief: Every movie needs a bad guy, right?

Despite great efforts, though, the villainy of the man on trial proved harder to fix. For many — mostly whites — the verdict mocked notions of Hollywood endings and thrust reality back into the spotlight where it belonged. What it said about the justice system and, more to the point, about the cultural divide that increasingly cripples America was not what much of the audience wanted to hear. It is, in fact, what most people pay money to avoid hearing.

Luckily for them, there was some honest diversion to be had—even if the year’s entertainment seemed curiously bound to the past. Costume dramas were the rage, whether they were done right (Mel Gibson’s Braveheart) or absurdly wrong (Demi Moore’s shopping-mall version of The Scarlet Letter). Jane Austen was retooled, minus the sting, into the pastel teen comedy Clueless. Pre-sanitized heroes from the past were trotted out, both fictional (James Bond and the Brady Bunch) and true-life (Apollo 13’s plucky astronauts). The biggest movie hit at the moment is a computer-animated film about children’s toys.

In music, the best-selling album of the year was by the safe-as-milk Hootie & the Blowfish, while the success of the deeply reassuring Friends on TV unleashed a spate of yuppie clones, none of which envision a world extending beyond the corner deli. The year wasn’t entirely timid: The bleak carnage of Seven touched a national chord, and TV dramas such as ER and Law & Order reflected gnarly complexities with craft, even if the lauded Murder One failed to find an audience willing to commit to a fictional trial for an entire season.