Through the TV of Future Past – Musings on Nostalgia

So.. I’m feeling nostalgic (again – jeez, I’m only mid-40’s).  It’s a weekend and I’m not in the mood for my current shows – the likes of Jessica Jones, Travelers, or Altered Carbon – besides that, I am trying not to give in to the trend of binge watching, letting myself marinate in a one-a-week approach, appreciating the value of a cliff-hanger. I’ve finished The Leftovers and can’t face anything quite as emotionally draining (in a good way) as that right now.. And my default – rewatching Twin Peaks from the beginning – is an annual event and (at the time of writing this) it’s not quite due yet (season 3 took a while to sink in!).

I have a wistful remembrance of my teenage viewing – Quantum Leap.. Maybe Northern Exposure. Ok, yeah, let’s go for something from back then.

With the TV fired up – I’ve managed to persuade my wife to join me in revisiting this classic – we settle into watching The Wonder Years.

The Wonder Years

End credits.

Mmmm.

We are both a bit quiet.

“I’d forgotten how good that was,” I remark, engaging my other half in what I assume will be some mutual appreciation for Kevin, Winnie and friends.

As the seconds pass I’ve a strange feeling it’s not so mutual.

She replies slowly… “… It’s… of its time really.”

Ah. Ok. I feel a smidge offended for a moment (ok, it was more than a moment). I want to fire off a few reasons why she’s wrong, taking it personally before mulling it over further.

So I divorced her…

Kidding!

She was right, I guess. Perhaps it’s my rose-tinted glasses – am I viewing it as the teenager I was? Was it just average television?  Has it not aged as well I have(!)?

I think there are a variety of elements at play. My initial feeling of nostalgia – “a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life”[1] – may well be at the core of everything. I currently consume shows that have anti-heroes at the fore; a plethora of real-life or dystopian problems and setbacks; a world of dubious characters with world-weary attitudes, solving problems with violence or apathy. Many of these shows want to be consumed quickly and offer up that chance via the platforms they exist on. It makes the experience rich but sometimes overwhelming. The impact of the storylines is like a blunt force trauma in one heavy hit – the high you get from each episode becomes something you acclimatise to and it loses the effect – it’s all over quickly and with a lot of shows, you are on to the next without too much thought or appreciation for what you’ve spent your time on. I needed something different.

However my television viewing in the past benefitted from once-a-week episodes; a narrowing of choice via the four available channels in the UK; the thrill of occasional special effects (a talking car!); my young age and developing sense of personality/character. I was formulating my interests – open to both homogenised programming and the new, ‘off-the-wall’ variations. As time has progressed, that off-the-wall element has become more important for me, and also somewhat scarce and therefore invaluable. Despite the advances in what graces our screens, from the likes of HBO, Showtime or Netflix – perhaps I am not finding that ‘invaluable’ element nowadays. Is that a reason why I am turning to the past? Perhaps despite the abundance of channels and shows we have today, has it all become somewhat regimented and standardised?

Twin Peaks is one of a number of shows that seems to surpass the limitations of television that has been made in any particular decade. Their strengths lie in a combination of factors – the stories, the atmosphere, music and characters. Many components simply do not date. For instance, by removing a dependence on modern technology or current affairs – by dealing with timeless moral quandaries or esoteric mythologies; mysterious personalities or powerful ideas – they can ride the wave of the current zeitgeist and become singular beacons in a sea of manufactured uniformity.

TV of times gone by

Take The Wonder Years, Thirtysomething, or My So-Called Life. Acclaimed shows that speak of what it is to be alive and to be human – the choices we face, the ‘big ideas’ made digestible and accessible, the characters we engage with and the stages of life, love, career and education that we move through. Have they been replicated? Is there a formula at work that is easily reproduced and repackaged? Do we as individuals, watching these at a particular time of life, keep them fresh in our minds only – inaccessible to the next generation of viewers in the ways that they were to us?

Each of these shows was set in a particular decade – the 60’s, 80’s and 90’s. I wasn’t around in the 60’s (no jokes please), and yet The Wonder Years spoke to me in the 1980’s as I was growing up. There were universal themes at play that I connected with, an emotional core that felt authentic, no matter how soft-focused that view could now appear. Whether it was the stumbling and uncertainty of a first love; the overpowering dominance of a father that was a source of family turmoil; the bittersweet friendships that accompanied you through the trials of school life and the joy of staying out late through summer – there was something real and deeply perceptive in that 25 minutes each week.

The now-me was missing something that, as an adult, I felt I needed to revisit the past to experience. “When the word ‘nostalgia’ was coined in the 18th century, it was used to describe a pathology – not so much a sense of lost time, but a severe homesickness,“ [2] remarked author Nicole Krauss. Perhaps this is why I sought out a show that I closely associated with growing up in a time that has passed – with friends I no longer know and a home I am now several-hundred miles removed from.

I was curious as to whether I could do that – rewatch the past and savour it in the same way – or was it indeed “of its time” – outdated, unfashionable – perhaps even irrelevant?

Of course, where there are universal themes that can still be pertinent, there can also be common elements that immediately ‘date’ a show and constrain it to a particular era – some of these are more obvious than others. Could any of these shows withstand being revisited and re-evaluated by anyone – or are they only accessible through the warm, familiar haze of nostalgia?

Such cultural mainstays as fashion, technology or music spring immediately to mind when thinking about what can date a television programme. Recalling such well-thought of TV as The Wonder Years, or Mad Men – embracing music associated with the time period sets the appropriate, realistic tone. You could have the sweeping strings of an Etta James classic or the overheated strumming of an 80’s electric guitar – chances are the era the show exists in fits the choice, and therefore fits the show. But what of the electric guitars and fast cars in something like Miami Vice? Fitting for an 80’s TV ‘classic’ (not to mention the haircuts and fashion choices) – but therefore of its time? Yes, probably. It’s a drama when cop shows were (and still are) everywhere. Did it stand out in the decade of its broadcast – with its overall look, production values and winning lead characters? Yes it did – but clothing fashions have changed, beards (not stubble) are now cool, synth-heavy scores have become key elements in shows like Stranger Things (which uses this to particularly hit that nostalgia button), and technology continues to race ahead so that talking cars and super helicopters are no longer the ‘hook’ of a show due to their tremendous leaps in imagination.

Why are these types of productions no longer rewatched to the degree that so many other shows are? They don’t particularly inspire the kind of fan base or online debate and analysis that Twin Peaks, The Prisoner, The Sopranos, Lost, or The Leftovers have and still do. Older TV monsters such as E.R., Dallas, Hill Street Blues, and LA Law, whilst still well respected or well thought of, don’t have the longevity in terms of being revisited and discussed. There are always more medical dramas and police shows to take their place. Soap operas will continue to administer elevated drama and caricatures. It doesn’t mean that the best of them are forgotten, or that they don’t influence what came afterwards, but do they exist outside of their original network run? Do they generate and inspire new viewers years later? Are these types of linear narratives not as engaging? Are they only watched now out of nostalgia?

Looking at other genres, can a series set in the future suffer the same fate? Without going the obvious route with something like Star Trek, lets take Babylon 5 – a wide-canvas product of the mid-1990’s. Can it work now as a classic sci-fi drama or is it hampered by its limited (by the Star Trekian standards of the time) budget, it’s cutting-edge-proto-CGI special effects or it’s (at least to begin with) primarily synthesised-sounding score? The basic plot follows the daily lives of humans and aliens living on board a space station, who try to maintain a fragile peace whilst forces unbeknownst to them work in secret to determine the course of all their futures – the series was an ambitious and epic 5-year ‘novel’ for television. With an effusive and thought provoking story, it contained both rounded and conflicted characters (with some stunning performances) which exceeded the limitations of budget, (occasionally) some admittedly soap opera-style acting and stereotypical network misjudgments (I’m thinking of you Warner Bros and the speeding up of season 4). It had a narrative that spanned centuries and galaxies in its scope, and no matter the race (human or alien), the emotional beats within that narrative spoke to the human condition – exploring a profusion of spiritual questions, psychological conflicts, Faustian dilemmas and emotional complexities – inspiring feelings that resonate with the viewer no matter the year it was produced – or indeed viewed. Timeless topics such as politics, morality, sexuality, religion, war, class, friendship and love were all explored in a universe on the cusp of substantial change. But does its relevance in the mind of a viewer now hinge upon who they were when they originally viewed it, or is it an underrated forebear of similar arc-laden imitations? Are there enough mysteries in the narrative and resonance in the writing to make viewers both old and new alike, enjoy it years and years later?

Back on Earth, The Prisoner – another series evocative of its time, with what could be considered a dated 60’s style in terms of colour, music and editing – contains twists, mysteries, truths and convictions that – by being saturated in a particular aesthetic long gone – help to elevate it into a one of a kind ‘world’ that has become timeless in its own way. Commentary on such topics as free will, government and oversight, individuality and conformity were blended with arresting imagery, heightened acting and picturesque production design. Do the ideas date? They haven’t seemed to. Does the production itself date? Yes.. and no. So is it a unique combination that allows it to endure past the nostalgic gaze?

So-called niche shows and series of a more fantastical or original bent seem to stand more of a chance of being remembered and celebrated years later, than procedural and standardised programming that gives an audience just what they want in doses of predictability. The abstract, the investigation of the human psyche, the questioning of the status quo, the mystery of the unknown and the metaphysical seem to generate more endurance. Perhaps by posing questions and asking the viewer to participate and ruminate, by captivating us in a non-linear narrative and engaging with the audience in a journey to find meaning – it adds a quality not always found in traditional programming. Ironically, by not necessarily delivering the closure that most of us seek in life wherever we can find it, can afford a show life beyond its final episode.

Twin Peaks has achieved much of that immortality. The story – it’s mysteries and humanity – continues to engage audiences years later. The style of the show, the almost-indeterminate period setting and the heart of darkness hidden in a metaphorical pie of slow diner-dancing and psychic logs remain unique. It’s sensibilities may prove to be eccentric to the general population but is that what enables it to surpass the nostalgia test? Is that same test the one that ‘The Return’ seemed to fail for some longtime fans?

There’s so much to explore when ruminating on these questions.

I revisited The Wonder Years for a few reasons, perhaps not so clear to me at that moment. It generally isn’t thought of in the way I recall and revisit Peaks, or Lost – or Babylon 5. I wanted something I wasn’t getting from TV right now. And I looked to the past – my past – in order to find it. Don’t we all from time to time?

Nostalgia may be a key. For some it opens a door to lesser works or forgotten gems, and imbues them with a power that transcends those years that have passed by. For others, it is simply a period they cannot retread. The intervening years have locked something in amber that rewatching (or reimagining) threatens to diminish the memory.

Ok, so my wife could be right. The Wonder Years is ‘of its time’ – and beautifully so. The TV show itself may not change, but we undoubtedly do – nostalgia is such a personal thing.

[1] http://www.dictionary.com/browse/nostalgia

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/may/15/fiction.features3?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

PS. This article cheats. I remarked that by asking more questions than you answer, and then by encouraging the viewer (reader) to generate and discuss their own opinions, it gets more engagement – I did the exact same thing. Apologies for so many unanswered questions! (28 of them – although I did answer some!)


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