Nostalgia on TV? It’s Nothing New

Nostalgia is by no means exclusive to our age. TV has always let us escape into comforting stories about the past…

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Remember the good old days? They were good weren’t they? Not like now. It’s horrible now. That’s why everything on TV is comforting, coddling, backwards-looking fluff. We all just want to dive onto a feathery pile of period television and forget about the cruel, unsettling world of today. A world where, get this, the Soviets have gone into space. And there’s that war in Korea. Everyone’s testing hydrogen bombs all over the place, Castro’s taken over Cuba and innocent people keep getting lynched. I ask you. It’s little wonder all we want to watch on TV are cozy Westerns. Switch on Gunsmoke and all that worry melts away.

Fast-forward a few decades to now, when the release of 80s-set sci-fi series Stranger Things prompted a chorus of pronouncements on what’s been termed our peculiarly nostalgic age. The urge to retreat back to the familiarity of childhood—anybody’s childhood—has apparently never felt stronger. The real world, they say, has turned to such shit that everyone’s seeking solace in simpler times.

Stranger Things fills that need nicely, it’s true. If Dawson Leery had ever got it together to make a Netflix series, this would be it, an eight-hour pass to a Steven Spielberg theme park including free entry to John Carpenter World and lunch at an all-you-can-eat Stephen King Buffet (avoid the fortune cookies). An enjoyable sci-fi with a great cast, there are worse ways to retreat from reality and forget about what you saw on the evening news.

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There’s nothing specific to our time though, about comfort as a function of television. Audiences have been reassured by nostalgically backwards-looking TV since screens were no bigger than your thumb and housed in cabinets that could accommodate the entire cast of The Waltons.

What was The Waltons anyway, but a decade-long distraction from Vietnam and Donny Osmond? Bonanza and Wagon Train did the job for those in the fifties living under the shadow of the bomb. Little House On The Prairie and Happy Days did it for seventies viewers trying not to think about recession, the tarnished political class, and glam rock trousers. For decades, a conveyor belt of Dickens and Agatha Christie adaptations have taken the UK’s mind off impending doom. Nick Berry in Heartbeat got us through the John Major years almost single-handedly.

TV has always looked fondly backwards. We’re not the first lot to use it as a reassuring la-la-la hum against distant gunshots and explosions. We won’t be the last. It’s every generation’s vanity to think that it lives in the worst of times and to covet the wholesome simplicity of days gone by. We forget that for the majority of those who lived in them, there was nothing simple about it.

The world, if you take the trouble to look, has always been scary and unsettling. One reason we find our childhood eras so comforting to view though TV screens is that, as a rule, kids don’t follow the news. Bad things happening then were vague shadows, not hi-res images appearing minute-by-minute in the palm of our hand. Our ignorance was our bliss.

The belief that there’s so much comforting TV around because the special horror of our lives requires it is worth treating sceptically. One, because it’s cheering to remember that things aren’t quite as bad as all that. Two, because it’s not true. This stuff isn’t driven by emotions, but by economics. The proliferation of channels and streaming sites with infinite room on their schedules for ‘original’ programming is fuelling a fire for new content. Rebooted or pre-sold titles are more popular than new titles because they pose less financial risk, not because diddums needs a comfort blankie.

The fact that we’re now encouraged to heed the banking advice of Fred Flintstone and Top Cat points less to the idea that we’re all so traumatised by real life we need to retreat into the cartoons of our youth and more to the idea that marketers see us as simple idiots who’ll grinningly throw handfuls of cash at anything that we remember. (Halifax’s next mascot: a white dog poo and some pink custard.)

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Though obviously widespread now, reviving old properties and continuing franchises in different forms is hardly exclusive to today. Dr. Kildare for one, was several films, comics, novels and a radio programme before it was a 1960s TV show and 1970s revival of the same. There’s been a Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson on screen almost continuously since TV began. The Happy Days TV universe, with its Mork from Ork and Laverne & Shirley spin-offs, pre-dated Marvel and DC by decades.

If it was ever thus and cultural nostalgia is as much a part of any generation as our own. Why then, might it feel as though we’re the ones drowning in it?

A simple explanation is that our collective voice rings louder in the ear than it used to. Thanks to social networks, we’re talking more rubbish to more people than ever before. The sort of nonsense chatter that would once fill only pubs and bus shelters has been amplified by the tools we’ve built ourselves—including this website—to the point that it feels as though seventy per cent of human communication is just people remembering King Rollo. Thanks to Twitter, a simple chat between friends about which of the Tracy Brothers to shag, marry, or kill now takes place at the figurative volume of a primary school playground that’s been filled with tigers and then set on fire.

More and louder pop culture talk is one part of it. An economy that’s involuntarily widened the post-teenage-pre-adult tranche of life for many might be another. The ‘nos’ bit of nostalgia originally referred to a physical home that you yearned for in absentia. Now that nobody can afford to buy a physical home, cultural property is all that can be yearned for. You try leaving behind Neil Buchanan’s Art Attack when it’s the rock you’ve built your identity on. When young people are priced out of obtaining the houses, jobs and kids that would previously have signalled they’d made it as grown-ups, they also have a lot more time on their hands to talk about Power Rangers.

Nobody’s as nostalgic for their childhood as people their early twenties. Unlike the rest of us, they can still smell it. And probably still fit into their old jeans. The closer you come the grave, the more you just want to get your head down and race towards the finish line blind to any milestones that might point to how long you still have to go.

Probably. I wouldn’t know. I’m very young.

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The final bone to pick is with the assumption that period TV is all comfort and no challenge. Stranger Things might be a fun hymn to ’80s movies designed to provoke fuzzy feelings about the days of massive walkie-talkies, but not all historical drama aims to reassure.

This Is England certainly didn’t. The BBC’s latest Sunday night period venture, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s terrorism-themed The Secret Agent, is no Cranford. Ditto for the politically savvy Wolf Hall. Call The Midwife even might masquerade as a lovely drama about nuns and umbilical cords, but underneath the frilly hats it’s really a hard-as-nails pro-NHS protest anthem.

We’re alright, is the conclusion. Or at least, not really worse off or more damaged than ever we were. Ours isn’t essentially a tragic age, sometimes we just insist on taking it tragically. So, you know, chin up.