Fifteen years ago, the Internet was the newfangled Information Super Highway, and e-mail was the hot new app. The economy was booming. Teen stars were largely relegated to wholesome family sit-coms, which back then actually aired on broadcast network television. They were far from the megacelebrities that Miley Cryus and Selena Gomez are today. Barely anyone old enough to have a driver’s license paid much attention to them. After their shows ended, most faded into obscurity.
But, like Doc Martens and Pavement, the teen stars of the 1990s are making a triumphant comeback. Former ‘Blossom‘ star Joey Lawrence and former ‘Sabrina the Teenage Witch‘/’Clarissa Explains It All‘ star Melissa Joan Hart are now the stars and executive producers of the ABC Family comedy ‘Melissa and Joey‘. Blossom herself, Mayim Bialik, has joined the cast of ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ ‘Roseanne’s‘ Sara Gilbert created, and is co-hosting, the new CBS daytime talk show ‘The Talk.’ Behind the scenes, former star of ‘The Wonder Years‘ Fred Savage has directed and produced some very adult comedies including ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,’ the late, lamented ‘Party Down‘ and the upcoming ‘Friends With Benefits.’
Why are they returning to the spotlight now? Is it 1990s nostalgia, a coincidence, or just proof that talented people will always be able to make a comeback? Bialik, who got a PhD during her time away from the entertainment industry, waxes philosophical about the subject, “We could theorize that something about the culture of the seventies produced these children who were able to be so successful as TV kids in the 90s and now are back again because their acting strength was that strong but I think that’s probably not the whole truth.” Hart has a more pragmatic explanation. “I think that there was a lot of talent back then and I think the audience misses these people… TV’s coming back around. Reality shows took over for a while and there wasn’t a lot of talent on television. Now you’ve got a lot of talent coming back.”
Watch Bialik On ‘The Big Bang Theory’:
Many of the teen stars of the 90s managed to avoid the sex and drug scandals that have made Miley Cyrus, Taylor Momsen, and Demi Lovato the favorites of gossip columnists. They have never been arrested or gone to rehab. Most are happily married with children. In short, they have managed to avoid all of the cliched problems that former child stars face. In part this is due to having supportive families, but Hart thinks it was easier for teen stars to keep a low profile prior to social networking. “You didn’t get in trouble by posting your random thoughts on Twitter. You kept that information to yourself and if someone heard it he could say you said it and you could say you didn’t say it. There was a lot more mystery.”
Many teen stars of the 1990s did something that would be unthinkable today: they left the entertainment industry for several years to attend prestigious universities. Gilbert when to Yale, Savage chose Stanford, and Bialik went to UCLA. Their intellectual prowess has surely helped them continue to succeed in an industry that is often quick to discard child actors when they can no longer plausibly play high school students. Gilbert was savvy enough to recruit Julie Chen, wife of CBS president Les Moonves, to co-host ‘The Talk’ — a decision that undoubtedly helped the show beat out several other high profile contenders for the former ‘As The World Turns’ timeslot. Gilbert, a neophyte producer, was inspired to create the show because of her own parenting experiences. She told tv.com, “I felt like it was necessary because I felt like when I had my kids that I needed a support system…So I felt that this could be kind of a group of friends that they could tune in and watch and get that same sort of thing.”
Hart began her producing career with ‘Sabrina’, and has since produced numerous television movies as well as ‘Melissa & Joey’ through her production company Hart Break films. She believes that her experience as a teen star has made her a good producer. “I’ve had a 34 year career so I’ve seen and done a lot… It’s really hard for me to sit back and let other people take control and do what they wanted to do… There’s so much collaboration on a set to make it all come to life and make it all just click. I love being a part of that. I always have.”
Hart admits that the transition from teen to adult actress was not easy. “I think I still have that stigma… I’ve never really gotten the chance to play the lawyer or the doctor. Playing a teenager until I was 27 definitely didn’t help. If you have a longrunning episodic [show], a lot of times the movie roles will come and you can segue to that for a while, but with a sitcom it doesn’t really happen that way.” Bialik thinks that former child stars face the same challenges as any other actor. “Ultimately what you are judged by in the industry is both how you look and what you can provide as a service to your employer, who is usually a very wealthy producer.”
Hart thinks that, despite the intense media scrutiny they must endure, today’s teen stars have some advantages over their Generation X predecessors. “They’re actually in a much better position than I was because the way the industry works now, if you have a hit show in the first season they put in your hand movie roles, a music career, a perfume line, a clothing line, and you go on tour… If you have a good business mind, I think you try to slow the pace, say no to a lot of projects, pick the ones that are really close to your heart and the ones that are going to keep you on the path, to your ultimate goal.”
It remains to be seen whether the resurgent 90s teen stars will go on to have the career longevity of Sally Field, the original teen sit-com star turned A-list actress. But their savvy decisions to take control of their own professional destinies should keep them in the spotlight for years to come. Perhaps this is just the tip of the 1990s nostalgia tsunami. This time next year ‘Home Improvement’s‘ Jonathan Taylor Thomas could be on the covers of magazines again.