Here’s a strange-but-true fact you may have forgotten or never known about 1995: There were not a lot of teen movies back then. There weren’t a lot of teen TV shows, either; My So-Called Life was canceled that year, and those that remained, like Fox’s 90210 and Party of Five or the lingering Saved by the Bell side effect known as The New Class, were considered soaps or junk by a certain portion of the audience, reflecting the lack of respect afforded to that genre (and also the fact that Saved by the Bell was junk). But the teen-movie recession felt more pronounced considering how few were produced (compared to the heyday of the ’80s) and the lack of a John Hughes–like visibility. In ’95, the only non-fantastical movie about teenagers in wide release was Clueless — and that sleeper hit was the biggest teen comedy in years. The year before, the genre’s big entry was My Girl 2. (Hell, with Now and Then, Tom and Huck, A Goofy Movie, and various Macaulay Culkin vehicles and Mighty Ducks sequels floating around, this was an unlikely era of tween domination.) Clueless is a masterpiece of the form, but its roots in Jane Austen further affirmed that it could not be expected to set a teen-movie stereotype agenda for the whole decade.
This is all a long-winded way of excusing how uncertain That ’90s Show often feels about what types its characters are meant to embody. Some of that is probably the classic sitcom-season-one learning curve, too, especially for a show that wants to simultaneously reflect the social realities of 1995 and audience expectations of 2023. But while it’s frustrating that the show’s teen characters are still finding their voice nine episodes into a ten-episode season, it does reflect something about the show’s era, intentional or not. As much youth culture as there is to draw upon from 1995, there isn’t an easy breakdown of types (realistic or not) that, say, The Breakfast Club provided in 1985. No wonder That ’90s Show keeps looking to its predecessor — minted just before a major teen-cinema boom arrived in 1999 — for guidance.
Part of the fun, and a little of the frustration, of “Dirty Double Booker” is how the show seems to belatedly realize who some of these kids could be. Maybe I was just being dense, but it took me this long to really clock Nikki as not just the smart one of the group but a full-on overachiever who vibrates with excitement at the thought of returning to school. Yes, we knew she was spending part of her summer on SAT prep, but her detached manner, somewhat chilly (if thawing) relationship with the other girls, and frequent make-out sessions with a lummox-y boyfriend felt intended to position her as a more sardonic, Daria-like version of Mila Kunis’s Jackie. She didn’t come across as an academic striver or someone who gets genuinely fed up with her friends’ dumbassery, which is how she briefly endears herself to Red early in this episode. She also takes it upon herself to help Kitty with her job application to work as the Point Place high-school nurse for the pleasures of helping a kindly older person, organizing a resume, and absorbing some school-hallway vibes a few days early. Wait, is Nikki a nerd?!
Now, the even-more-generous reading is that the show reflects Leia’s point of view, and Leia, as a newcomer to this group, needs the better part of the summer to really become acclimated to its nuances. But the show doesn’t really play Nikki’s Lisa Simpson qualities as a surprise; it kind of acts like we’ve known all of this about her the whole time. Nate’s revelation in this episode has a little more claim to the unexpected: He’s come across as an amicably dumb bro, but it turns out he’s sort of an athlete gone to seed. He’s supposed to have spent the summer working out and he, instead of doing that, didn’t. Jay takes him to the gym for a crash workout (and bro-out), leaving Nate near-paralyzed with soreness. The fact that Nikki is excited enough about the impending school year to accompany Kitty on her job, feeling ready to “flip over a car,” while Nate can barely move, feels like a handy unspoken metaphor for their relationship.
Also uncommented upon: How Leia’s attempts to spend her last weekend with both her boyfriend, Jay, and her best friend, Gwen, are not so different from Jay dividing his time between the gym with his bro, a shift at the video store, and a picnic–nature hike he’s planned for Leia. The show isn’t trying to draw out double standards between bro time and lady bonding; it’s mostly indulging that old sitcom standby where the protagonist has to be in two places at once, only in this case (as is often the case with this sometimes too-nice show), Leia is pretty much entirely justified in wanting to please both people and attempting to divide her time accordingly. For all of the stress Leia experiences over getting semi-lost in the woods with a nature-awed Jay (and enduring more where-am-I-man shtick from Tommy Chong’s Leo) before showing up late to her country-club-crashing plans with Gwen, she does make a clear effort to accommodate both parties. Gwen feels no sympathy — she did book Leia first — and has her bestie literally tossed out of the club (“like DJ Jazzy Jeff,” Leia later clarifies).
A heart-to-heart with a barely mobile Nate reveals Gwen’s vulnerabilities: She’s as apprehensive about Leia’s impending departure as Leia is and probably more torn up about it than Jay (which explains why she seems a lot more pissed about Leia’s divided time). This inspires Leia to force her way into Gwen’s room and, she hopes, back into her heart. Though her attempts to use AT&T’s time-tested long-distance-advertising rhetoric don’t work immediately, she wears Gwen down with her dedication and sincerity, promising that this wasn’t their last shot at having fun together. While the two besties hug it out, Jay confesses to Nate that he doesn’t see a way forward as part of a long-distance relationship, and the episode ends on a sort of quasi-cliffhanger leading into the finale (or at least, that’s what I assume the idea is when they end on a plot turn rather than a satisfying conclusion or a good joke).
Is Jay a player who can’t be tied down without frequent rewards of affection, or simply full of laid-back pragmatism about the unnecessary difficulties of distance dating as a teenager? The show doesn’t feel clear about this, which is fine if it’s about that ambiguity. But I don’t think it is; I think That ’90s Show is just having trouble working with and around its archetypes. Some of its best ideas defy the kinds of cutesy, self-conscious stereotyping circa-1999 teen movies would indulge. Leia is a dork coming out of her shell, neither expected to fully renounce her awkwardness or reject new experiences. Nikki is a confident, sexually experienced school nerd who may be outgrowing her friends. Ozzie’s quirks and honesty hold his peers at a sardonic distance without tipping over into insult comedy. “Dirty Double Booker” has plenty of moments where these pieces come together. It also sometimes double-books its characters into stock situations and interactions that don’t always fit. In this episode, at least, that quality is oddly endearing, as if the kids are squirming to avoid the teen-movie dogma just around the corner.
Hey, Kitty got the school-nurse job! It makes sense; who wouldn’t hire a retired 70-something to fill a recently vacated position? It almost feels like the show is setting up its own premature spinoff in Leia’s absence, a not-that-new show where Kitty would oversee the remaining Point Place kids in school-year, non-basement shenanigans.
Kitty’s visions of horror at her future job are funny, though maybe they’d be a little funnier if we saw her unrealistically idealized version first.
’90s-reference watch: I know it’s mostly just a gag, but it’s hard to imagine Gwen turning to Michael Bolton in a time of need. Wouldn’t she at least indulge in some Whitney Houston? In any event, a longish scene in Gwen’s room had me going through it like the Zapruder film to catalogue her band posters. I caught the Muffs, Sonic Youth, Veruca Salt, Bratmobile, Calamity Jane, Soundgarden, and the Go-Gos. Not being able to clock the jewel cases she pretends to examine while trying to ignore Leia vexed me to no end, so if you recognized it, please sound off in the comments. I will say Gwen’s headphones look a little fancy for 1995. But that she also spells out “RIOT GRRRL” on her wall is the perfect balance of cheesy teen-show art direction and cheesy actual-teen dorkiness.