Jurassic Park. Independence Day. Arrested Development. Wet Hot American Summer. Veronica Mars. Star Wars. Harry Potter. Gilmore Girls. Full House.
We are living in the age of the revival. Ten years ago the idea of going back to any one of these “worlds” seemed not just improbable but impossible. But somehow, since the long-awaited return of Arrested Development in 2013 a portal has been opened. A portal to properties that have existed long ago, but have certainly not been long-forgotten. What before seemed like a pipe-dream, to have your favourite show end the way it was meant to be, is now a given.
As 2016 is drawing to a close, a year that saw the return of the Harry Potter universe (a new book and a movie), a Gilmore Girls revival, and Star Wars Episode 7 (ok fine it was in 2015 but almost 2016), the question needs to be asked – is it worth revisiting these old properties? Should we leave this age of nostalgia and flock to new ideas instead of re-hashing our old favourites?
As a totally biased third party, this year was particularly good for me and revivals. I’ve been waiting for the “final four words” of Gilmore Girls since 2007, was an obsessed Harry Potter fan, and although loving the Star Wars universe as a kid, was less than impressed with the more-recent prequels. And in all three examples, I love what’s coming out now. But as producers and executives realize that they can capitalize on people’s nostalgia and reduce the production of original content, what will happen?
John Hodgeman (actor, comedian, podcaster, or you may know him as “the PC guy” in the Mac commercials) refers to nostalgia as the “most toxic impulse”. On the Stuff You Should Know podcast, John Hodgeman claims that at best nostalgia is unproductive, and at worst it can be poisonous. While the hosts, Josh & Chuck, argue that nostalgia can be beneficial, leading to warm remembrances of past times; it can be more comforting than current times because you can remember past times in a way that didn’t actually happen – all the bad memories often fade away. Nostalgia can certainly be beneficial, but this longing for a better past, that didn’t actually exist, can lead to toxic thinking. Hodgeman believes that nostalgia is such a “toxic impulse” because it is founded on the delusion that the past was better. He brings up Star Wars, a story founded on nostalgia (we can make the galaxy great again), and equates it to (at the time a candidate) a certain presidential elect’s campaign (we can make america great again). It is a fantasy and a fallacy to think that the past was better (in all ways) and we should go back to it, and this harkening back to a “better” past is detrimental to society.
So what does this mean for shows coming back? Well it might mean nothing, but it also can illustrate current frustrations with society. People want comfort; they want to visit their old friends. Regardless of your beliefs, morals, political views, etc., the current world we live in can been a treacherous place with a lot of unhappy and upset people. The time is ripe for the revival – the nostalgia is desired. So is it toxic? In a way, yes. I think, as John Hodgeman discussed, nostalgia is a toxic impulse and to delve deeper and deeper into nostalgia, while ignoring the present is particularly damaging. In fact, Josh Clark (Stuff You Should Know) re-phrased Hodgeman’s quote to “nostalgia is the most toxic impulse society as a whole can engage in”, which really presents the problem with nostalgia. Harkening to the past, believing that it is something we should go back to, will only damage society as a whole. So a few revivals are great, they’re the comfort food we need and crave, but this trend needs to slow down, because as we’ve seen this removal from the present, and craving for the past will only stunt the future.
When I started digging into the literature (and by literature in this case, I mean a lot of articles about revivals and what we think about the new Twin Peaks), I encountered a lot of discussions on nostalgia as a “theme” rather than the reboot nostalgia I was considering. And while this reboot nostalgia seems to be strengthening and coming into the forefront of our media now, this idea of nostalgic shows has been present as long as television has been popular, seen in shows like: Happy Days, MASH, The Waltons, That 70’s Show, Mad Men, and Stranger Things. This idea of setting shows in the past can be done to be nostalgic and harken back to a desired past, or to make a statement about the current times using the setting of the past to make a stronger point. M.A.S.H took the latter idea, setting its show during the Korean War, while making a statement on the Vietnam War, happening while the show was airing. In comparison, a show like Stranger Things harkens back to the 80s and relies on nostalgia for its viewers enjoyment, all while packaging itself in a modern way of film making. This is a show that could not be made in the past, but it could also not be made without the past.
So what is the best way to deal with this? Producers will only fund projects that they believe the audience will consume, and typically a property that already exists is a lot easier to bet on. And the thing is, the audience is there (think about Community’s “six seasons and a movie campaign”), and begging for their favourite show to come back. Maybe it’s akin to wishing your divorced parents get back together, but once a show ends, especially if the end was not satisfying, a viewer just wants to get all their friends back together in the same place, even if the resulting product can never match what was there before. So in that way perhaps nostalgia is healthier and deserves to stay as nostalgia rather than becoming these revived products because, well, the ideas in your head can never disappoint you.
Based on all of this, I can certainly say that we are not out of the age of the revival and as long as people ask for it we will probably keep revisiting the past and living in the age of nostalgia. But as you watch that re-run of your favourite show, check out Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them or watch Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, remember to not submerge yourself in the past, it wasn’t always better, and remind yourself that nostalgia really can be “the most toxic impulse”.
*Thanks to Stuff You Should Know for making me think and you should all check out their wonderful podcast (that is filled with everything you could every wish to know)
“Nostalgia is not the most toxic impulse” Stuff You Should Know Podcast (March 31, 2016)
“How LSD Works” Stuff You Should Know Podcast (May 5, 2016)