The Nostalgia Epidemic
A friend and I went to dinner the other night and she mentioned something that greatly interested me. She read somewhere that millennials are the most nostalgic generation. Being a millennial myself, I regarded this statement as true but also not true. It is true in the sense that we long for our childhoods again and the media we consumed, and we are the only generation to have grown up in the big technological boom of smartphones and the internet. Therefore, it is easy for us to be nostalgic for a more "simple time." But I also think that this isn't so true. Millennials are very interested in new media as well as the ones they are nostalgic over. If anything, I'd say a more fitting generation for the "Most Nostalgic" title would be the baby boomers who voted our current president into office under the delusions of their nostalgia.
Speaking of delusion though, I think nostalgia can do that to us: make us delusional. The human memory isn't an accurate representation of our past. It remembers certain things and then breaks those things down into something which the mind can comprehend. These memories shape our being. A millennial may recall the days when Saturday morning cartoons were a must see. Their parents would make them breakfast and they would have no responsibilities. Now, as an adult, this is no longer a thing and the millennial may long to have those "simple" days back. But those days weren't simple. We were kids and didn't have to deal with complicated reality.
So we millennials have used the internet to celebrate '90s culture. We gush about our love for Rugrats, about how we learned to love reading through Harry Potter, and are quick to recite all of the lyrics to the opening of Fresh Prince of Bel Air. But if we take an honest look at the entertainment and culture that surrounded our childhood's, chances are we won't like what we see. Boy Meets World is a cheesy sitcom, Friends is uncomfortably white, and Hocus Pocus is just not a good movie. We can appreciate the things we loved as kids, of course. Most of the things I have mentioned thus far are things I love. But it is also important to recognize that they may not be as good as our memories make them out to be.
Now, in 2017, October is nearing its end and the highly anticipated Netflix original show, Stranger Things, is about to premiere its second season to the public. Speaking of nostalgia, OH BOY, is this show playing on the public's nostalgia. Don't get me wrong, Stranger Things is a great show. It isn't as great as people make it out to be but then again, nostalgia seems to hold the remote control.
Stranger Things is largely praised for its callbacks to various trends of the '80s and '90s. The show borrows from several properties in terms of music, plot, cinematography, art design, and dialogue. When the show first premiered, it was described to me as E.T. meets Stand by Me. This was not a turn off at all because I love both of those movies and of course would love to see something replicate them in some capacity. However, Stranger Things does more than replicate a style of storytelling. It literally takes chunks of '80s and '90s culture and places it into the show. The result is that although Stranger Things is a fun adventure that calls back to the properties we grew up on and loved, it fails to repair the mistakes those properties made and makes the audience compliant with okay and rehashed entertainment. Now, don't misunderstand me. I love this show and am eagerly anticipating the next season. However, for all the good the show accomplishes, it seems to have blinded us to the problems that exist within the frames. Our nostalgia is blinding us.
This problem is not unique to an original show like Stranger Things. There are much more obvious culprits of this crime that exist in modern day media. In order to analyze Stranger Things, we can't ignore this problem of nostalgia as a whole that exists into today's culture. Stranger Things may be using familiar themes and tropes that we miss, but it can be argued that at least they are using these things in an interesting and somewhat original context. Compare that to most other properties today that play only on our nostalgia and you'll find that the crimes Stranger Things commits are mere child's play.
Nostalgia has taken form due to many different factors, but all of them can be boiled down to three individual issues: people being comfortable with what they know, sanitized realities, and formula.
When I went through a list of many nostalgic / revamped properties of late, all of them came into existence out of the studious understanding that people are comfortable with the familiar. Hollywood understands that releasing an entirely new movie is a risk and the reward is completely reliant on positive critique or getting people properly hyped with good marketing. However, releasing a movie that takes a classic character, such as Mary Poppins, and adds an "original" story plays on the public's love of a beloved classic movie, character, and even possibly the actor that played said character. An audience is much more comfortable seeing something they already know they like and understand, versus something new and unfamiliar.
This isn't just a trend in entertainment. It is human nature. If a person attends a party but sees no one they know, they may feel uncomfortable or like an outsider and therefore not have much fun. If they see someone or a group of people they know, they will automatically feel included and more at ease to have a fun time. The same can be understood when it comes to entertainment. Hollywood is blatantly aware of this. As already mentioned, the internet has given way to people celebrating their nostalgia. It would be stupid of Hollywood not to take advantage of this longing. They know what people crave and are making millions by handing out sugary treats to their nostalgia-ridden customers.
Since literally all of the properties I am going to mention through this essay fit into this first category, I am only going to mention a few in particular during this first part. It can be assumed that all properties mentioned past this point fit into the category of "comfortable with the familiar."
The Disney live-action remakes and the new Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) Classic video game system are huge cash cows and examples of Hollywood (or in this case, the video game industry) taking advantage of people's nostalgia dollars. Let's first look at the SNES Classic. At first glance, this product seems really awesome. It harks back to classic games and it is cool seeing the old yet familiar system on shelves once again. But, this is a blatant example of Nintendo blinding its customers with shiny nostalgic merchandise for some extra dollars.
For over 10 years, Nintendo has revived most of its old games in the form of digital downloads. The Wii shop channel, soon to be obliterated from existence, sold virtual games that could be downloaded to the Wii and Wii U systems such as Donkey Kong Country, Super Mario Bros, Zelda, and more. XBox has done something similar since then. All the major systems are also re-realeasing games, whether they be HD re-masters, recreations, or just the classic game itself, and while not every game is available, many are easily accessible to the general public. So why buy this incredibly expensive call back system that only comes with a handful of preloaded games when most games are available for the new systems we already own? Well, it is nostalgia. That is literally it. And sure there is the rare occasion that nostalgia is not a factor (I know someone who said their grandmother loves video games and the SNES Classic system would be perfect for her as it is small, has simpler games, and doesn't take up much space) but, again, that is a rare exception. Nintendo could easily work on their digital store on the new Nintendo Switch, but they won't. They want your money.
Then there are the Disney live-action remakes. If there is anything we don't need, it is the Disney live-action remakes. Just think of how many children we could feed with the money that goes into making these films and the money people put into seeing them in the theater and buying them when they are released on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital (don't forget streaming services!). I seriously believe that I just solved world hunger right there (or at least decreased it substantially). Tell me I am wrong!
I don't think there is much to say beyond that paragraph. The Disney live-action remakes always create literal carbon copies of their animated predecessors, change enough to excuse the fact that this movie didn't need to be made (i.e. transferring a sentence of dialogue to a different character so that the movie is different [we will be exploring this in the future when it comes to the Beauty and the Beast live-action remake]), and give us lots of pretty CGI and cinematography to make us forget how grotesque and disappointing the movie actually is.
Stranger Things definitely takes advantage of this nostalgia that exists in the modern day audience, young and old, and milks it dry. The whole concept of the show just reeks of nostalgia, even to the artwork of the show. One piece in particular that used to be up on Netflix's website is a hand drawn style image of all of the characters in the show. There is very subtle language being used to remind an audience of films they are nostalgic for. A google image search can easily show us that many classic films that are celebrated today contain movie art and posters that are given the hand drawn look (i.e. The Goonies, Jaws, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and even the first Harry Potter film). Continuing on, the show contains a nerdy group of kids who love adventure and ride bikes and talk on walkie-talkies. Tell me that sentence does not give off the scent of the '80s. The show is almost guaranteed a following.
The next point I want to touch on is the idea of sanitized reality. In his book, Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to '80s Teen Movies, Kevin Smokler discusses '80s films that harken back to the '50s and skip over the politically charged and distraught '60s and '70s as if they never existed. These movies embrace, as Rider Strong (ironically, a star of the nostalgic '90s, in Boy Meets World) says on the podcast "Literary Disco," " [a] make America great nostalgia...that's a little disturbing." Julia Pistell, another host on the podcast, notes that these movies are "teen movies [about] emotion and they're about rebellion...in the confines of [the] white, suburban, rich world." '80s movies are not the only culprits of almost retelling history as sentimental and devoid of political issues. Rider Strong goes on to say, in the same podcast episode, in regard to his time on Boy Meets World that the writers were practically writing a '50s version of the '90s. The episode also touches on Stranger Things and I highly recommend listening to it (click here).
Many properties from the past (be it the '80s or even the '60s and '70s) present a very specific portrait of American life that many have mistaken for the reality of the past. These shows are extremely sanitized, showing TV watching folks "normal" people. Even with shows that have some absurd characters or different family structures, it all falls back on these people being a unique nuclear family. These people dress nice and in style, don't swear, and represent wholesome family values. Who cares about real life? This version of reality is much nicer and takes our mind off of real world problems (and the same people who say this also insult the "nerds" who cling to fantastical stories such as Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, properties that at least offer some form of substance along with their form of escapism fiction).
Nothing represents this better than Full House, now Fuller House. The original show is often criticized for its overt moral moments and the obligatory sad music. It is one of those shows that if made into a cake would have many layers on heavy icing that makes one sick to their stomach. The show paints, as noted above by the "Literary Disco" team, a unique picture of the normal American family in the '80s as having problems "in the confines of [the] white, suburban, rich world." Not only that, but the show blatantly relies on making you sad and addressing problems that aren't actually problems. But because of nostalgia, no matter how enlightened we now are about Full House, there is still a successful spin-off with the all too original title, Fuller House. The show finds our young characters all grown up and running into some more shenanigans as adults that they caused as children. How fun! And as usual, these problems are not actual problems and are usually caused by the stupidity of the characters themselves. Laugh track, laugh track, laugh track. This is quality TV. Well...actually it isn't. But, somehow, it is three seasons strong. Nostalgia.
Another show that represents a distorted reality is Gilmore Girls. Now, full disclosure, I have never watched or liked this show. I've seen bits and pieces of it but never understood the hype. However, I know several people who loved this show while it was on TV and watched the new Netflix mini-series, A Year in the Life. Since I have never watched the show regularly or seen a full episode all the way through of the original or new series, there is really no way for me to give any opinion on said properties. However, from what I know of the original show and new mini-series based on critiques I've seen throughout the internet, the general consensus seems to be that like Fuller House, A Year in the Life relies on the same fast talking, pop culture referencing, and problems that aren't really problems tropes from the original TV show. Here is a good video to watch on all of that jazz.
Stranger Things does this as well. It is what I like to call borrowing from something but not learning from that something's mistakes. Instead of moving forward as a species, we'd rather sit back in our comfy chairs and forget about real issues. So Stranger Things gives us the token black character, parents who are oblivious, and awkward sibling hugs. All characters fall into some sort of cliche, and although the show tries to spin these cliches, it doesn't make it a priority and so these spins often fall flat really quickly. The characters perform to fit the archetype they represent: the hero, the worried mother, or the scientist 100% non-wavering evil villain.
Take Nancy for example. Nancy is the stereotypical straight and white high school girl. The first episode sees her worrying about if a guy named Steve (Steve Harrington, she says his first and last name over and over again as if it is cute) likes her. As the show progresses, we see Nancy go from being this cliche character to becoming a bit of a badass with another character named Jonathan out of pure necessity. Their lives and family are at stake. Steve is the typical guy who doesn't care about Nancy but just wants to have sex with her. But, Steve has a redemption arc! So, the final episode shows us that Nancy, despite all of the episodes of her bonding with Jonathan through an extremely traumatic situation, chooses Steve. And people will say that the trope is that Nancy would of course end up with the other, better guy (that being Jonathan) (though I will say I am very happy to see a show give a seemingly bad character a redemption arc and actually follow through with it realistically) but...well, she would do that because the show's plot and character development led to that conclusion. Why do the build up if you are going to have your characters go the opposite way? This also takes away from Nancy's story, as it now becomes about Steve's redemption over Nancy's independence and growth as a character.
One show I really like is called Good Behavior on TNT. While not a perfect show, it constantly has our characters making bad decisions. Despite that, they are trying to be good people. The show acknowledges the human desire to return to what is easy instead of growing which is difficult, and captures the awkwardness of admitting one's problems and setting things right. In other words, it shows flawed characters who can admit to their flaws and at least be self aware enough to try and be better, even if they keep failing.
Stranger Things, however, falls into the trope that everything can be tied into a nice bow. In other words, it buys into a semi-sanitized reality. Now, I am aware of the scene with Will coughing up that nasty creature in the bathroom, but that scene is specifically building up to the next season. It exists purely to build up the hype. One could argue that Eleven's story isn't neatly tied up but actually is. We know she is alive and returning next season as evidence by the waffles Hopper takes to the woods. Will is an uncertainty. But I'm sure everything will turn out fine in the end, as is the nature of these types of shows. Again, this isn't an outright bad thing. Our current climate, however, doesn't leave tropes like this to be desired.
But continuing, the show firmly believes that all of our characters have come to a good place and that is such an '80s trope. I refuse to believe that the kids in the Breakfast Club suddenly became better people after one Saturday detention. I believe that something of that caliber could spark continued change. But '80s movies don't work like that. Stranger Things had a chance to improve upon this trope but it did not. Why? Because that is what '80s movies do and there is no room for the medium to grow because NOSTALGIA. These characters don't act as if they have been through a life altering event. The only person who does, as mentioned above, is Will. And while I do think that was partially deliberate, I don't think the writers consciously decided to challenge tropes. In fact, their decision was to continue the tropes to appease a certain demogorgon. I mean, demographic.
Finally, since we sort of got there already, let's talk about formulas. Many properties today that rely on audience nostalgia also rely on a certain formula to tell a story. In other words, they use tropes. Creators do this because if they change the formula and pull viewers out of their comfort zone, said viewers may not return and that means less money. Instead, they chose a safe and easy form of storytelling that will keep viewers but also dumb them down. Why? Because, nostalgia. And capitalism.
Several properties do this. They simply take the old story, give it a bit of touch ups, and rehash it before our very eyes without the intent to truly tell a good story.
Take Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Now, I am not a Star Wars fan, nor have I seen any of the new movies and most of the old ones (though I have read the Shakespearian adaptations which you should totally read because they are AMAZING). I will say that I do plan to see the new movies soon (probably going to watch Episode VII tonight) and will see the newest one is theater's with my home girl Rachel (who has an awesome podcast with my other friend Zeek and you should totally check it out). But, even though I haven't seen the newest Star Wars numbered title, it is hard to avoid discussion on the topic. Most, if not all, reviews discussed the issue of this new film rehashing Episode IV. Episode VII merely replaces our main hero with a girl, gives us a new robot, and a villain from the same vain as Darth Vader. The new movie is literally the old movie in disguise. Now, to be fair, I have heard that the film was extremely well done. It is also important to note that Episode IV follows the classic trope of the hero's journey which is replicated by many fantasy and sci-fi stories. In other words, this could be argued to be a trope issue instead of a nostalgia issue. I'd say in this case, they go hand in hand. It can also be said that when Episodes I, II, and III came out, everyone loved them. Time is what changed that opinion and people grew to despise those movies. Who says the same won't happen to this current era of the franchise?
On to another title though. Jurassic World came out the same year as Star Wars, Episode VII. But unlike Star Wars, Jurassic World was all fluff and no substance. I saw the movie and had fun. That is it. Jurassic Park stories always rely on the same thing - people stupidly go to a place with dinosaurs and think they are safe, dinosaurs turn on them, someone who we don't care about dies, more bad stuff happens, there is a final showdown, everyone gets away, the end. The new film did nothing different from its original and followed every beat exactly. Jurassic fans ate it up and now another installment is being made. Nostalgia. It is a never ending circle.
With all of these reboots, it is no wonder we are seeing a second generation of Harry Potter material cropping up (Fantastic Beasts films and the Cursed Child play) that is written and released in such quick succession that many of the original details and lore from the 7 book series is now being contradicted or ignored completely. Buy hey, that is what happens when nostalgia blinds us. We eat it up but don't properly address our poor entertainment diet. We are sick and don't even realize it.
Then there is Girl Meets World and Raven's Home. These are both Disney channel spins off of classic ABC / Disney '90s sitcoms; Boy Meets World and That's So Raven. I give Raven's Home a plus for at least picking a semi-original title compared to Girl Meets World which doesn't try to hide the fact that it just did a gender swap. Seriously, where is the originality? Are we so bent on reliving our past that we undervalue original content and ideas? The answer is yes; nostalgia is a powerful drug.
Let's look at Girl Meets World first. The premise of the show is one similar to that of Fuller House. Our characters have grown up and now are playing the role of parent while their kids make mistakes. Isn't it great? (And in case you weren't aware, that question was me being sarcastic). NO, it is NOT great! Boy Meets World is a show I didn't watch growing up and so unlike most of my peers, I don't particularly like it that much. Sure the show has made me laugh and she I enjoy some of the characters, but for the most part I find the show to be family friendly mush. Girl Meets World takes this formula and multiplies it by 10! The amount of cringe I had to experience while watching this show is quite frankly unfair. Seriously, it was an awful mess. It wasn't as successful as the showrunners had hoped, only lasting for a few seasons. In some regard the show failed because it fails to be a legit modern day Disney channel show (which have their own problems outside of this argument!). On the other hand, it can also be said that nostalgia got the best of the show. It was so concerned with being like the original that it failed to be its own thing. Now, we know from experience that this does not always break a show. But this time it did, and I am glad. Seriously, we don't need another Boy Meets World. We had it once, we don't need it again. Girl Meets World is the equivalent of older people insisting young kids shouldn't learn with calculators. No. Calculators aren't bad. They are necessary for the complex math that is taught in high level education. Nostalgia is blinding. It is blaming the calculator for the poor math programs offered in schools. The problem isn't the calculator and the problem isn't new media. The problem is new media trying to replicate old media to a point. It is unoriginal and lazy.
Raven's Home does a bit better, but not by much. After watching the Pilot episode, I found the show to retain its familiar style of humor while also embracing new and diverse characters. That being said, the show catches its audience completely by keeping nostalgia alive. So even though Raven is an adult woman, she still acts like a teenager. She still makes the same mistakes that happened all the time in the original show. Can't someone tell this woman, "RAVEN! Your visions always come true based on your meddling. SO STOP MEDDLING!" But no, that won't happen because then we would have a different show from That's So Raven and different is bad.
Stranger Things, as already discussed in this essay, relies heavily on the coming of age, '80s formula. It is E.T. meets Stand by Me. Literally. So the kids ride bikes to escape the authorities. Check. Group of boys share an experience that changes them forever and assists their growing up. Check. Siblings have a shared experience that brings them closer together. Check. Secret government / corrupt adult stuff going on under the public's nose. Check. High school rebellion and drinking and sex. Check. Protagonist, funny kid, black kid. Check. I could go on but since this is long already, let's keep going.
Stranger Things is indeed an original property, but it borrows (or really takes from) other properties with zero regard for making anything truly original. If you don't believe me after this long essay, perhaps another original example will change your mind.
La La Land is a movie musical that came out last year to the general consensus that it was an incredible motion picture. Critics and audiences alike raved about the callbacks to old Hollywood musicals in how the film was shot, the musical numbers, and the choreography. However, when I saw the movie I left the theater disappointed. I found the movie to be boring and unoriginal, unsure of why it was considered a musical when most of the second half contained no singing and the movie only had two big chorus numbers. The movie certainly had callbacks but they felt empty, like they were just thrown in for the sake of, you guessed it, nostalgia. It is as if the movie wants to hark back to a better time in filmmaking yet the movie itself can't make a good film. After seeing the movie, I read and listened to several different reviews and found that many people actually didn't like the movie. It became a heavily debated subject. In fact, the movie's polarizing effect on people created a meme when the Oscars accidently awarded best picture to La La Land when in actuality it was Moonlight that won (and rightfully so).
All this points to a problem in our entertainment. Now, more than ever before, we are relying on nostalgia to entertain us. Although I will argue that nostalgia is ingrained in other instances that have existed for decades and long since works such as the Bible were introduced, it seems that today we have entered a Nostalgia Renaissance. So many properties in today's media are stemming off of something that was once popular. And sure I could make the argument that Hollywood and creators are running out of ideas but that argument is overdone. I mean, it comes from an honest place, don't get me wrong. But I think the problem is much deeper than lack of ideas.
Creators always have and always will borrow from other forms of entertainment and other stories. One can argue that there is no such thing as an original idea. However, you won't find me making that argument as I disagree that original ideas are nonexistent. I do believe people are constantly borrowing from other works, but I don't believe people can't make something new and interesting with that material. Nostalgia can be a good influence on entertainment. Take the new video game Cuphead for example.
Cuphead's entire game is designed based on the 1930's cartoons. From its art design to the music, the game is drenched in cartoon nostalgia. In fact, it was these factors that drew me to buy the game. But unlike most of the titles mentioned in this piece, Cuphead does something new and original with its nostalgia. While nostalgia is definitely a reaction one can have to this game, it is not the reason for the game's existence. Rather, it is a way of challenging the current video game market. Most games today have incredibly realistic graphics, focusing on violent gameplay and the incredible detail that goes into each strand of grass on the screen. Cuphead stands out from the crowd because of it's approach to game design. Instead of life-like graphics, we are given a cartoony character with a slightly dark premise of dealing with the devil. In essence, the game deals with dark topics as old cartoons dealt with dark topics - with humor and jazzy music. This style is not put in just for the sake of it. It is clear that the creators of this game made it to be fun and to be a good game. They did not make it to fit in with a current trend. They didn't put in characters from old cartoons to make people feel more content. They created new ideas from the old and gave us a game that celebrates the ‘30s. This distinguishes the game from the other titles discussed in this essay that use nostalgia, instead, as a crutch.
The original idea is not dead. Yes, original ideas may borrow from other ideas but they can remake them in new and interesting ways without being a retread. Netflix can also be an example of this. The platform has consistently been shelling out new and interesting content. It isn't always good, but it is at least trying to do something interesting. In fact, Stranger Things is still an original show that is sparking trends right this very minute. Now everyone wants to make content that harks back to the '80s.
I don't believe Stranger Things is a bad show. I love the show, and can't wait for the second season to premiere on Netflix. But it is important to address the issues that exist within the show to see the bigger problem that exists within the entertainment industry today. Sure Stranger Things is good, but what about the bad things we continue to look past and the entertainment that feature these negative tropes in a more heightened reality? It is important to hold entertainment accountable. As creators, we should learn from the mistakes made in shows and movies we love so that we can create something better. Just because something harks back to the familiar and something we miss, doesn't automatically make it good.