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Introduction: What is Nostalgia?
As days grow shorter, leaves change colour and putting on a scarf becomes a requirement before facing the chilly autumn winds, you might find yourself reminiscing about the summer. Longing to return to the bright moments of your sunlit memories, perhaps you listen to the summer’s greatest hits on Spotify or watch summery feel-good movies like Mamma Mia! and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. These feelings and actions are fuelled by a sentiment known as nostalgia, and its connection to the media we consume is more present in our everyday lives than we are often aware of.
In our modern cultural understanding, nostalgia can be defined as an emotional experience combining “both deep sadness and wistful joy – a bittersweet longing which incites memory work”(4). The two key elements of nostalgia are: a) the stimuli which trigger this longing, and b) the passing of time which is being emotionally reacted to. Over the past few decades, the medium of television has emerged as a master of audiences worldwide. TV shows have the ability to immerse viewers in new worlds by stimulating their sight and hearing, and to provide creative commentary of specific time periods, developments and characteristics. However, the wide range of nostalgic influences on television raises a question: what are the different types of nostalgia in relation to their directness and the originality of the TV content they are embedded in?
An Old Friend
One of the most direct ways many of us have to indulge our nostalgia is by re-watching TV shows we have viewed and enjoyed previously. Seeing episodes of The Office again or bingeing all of Friends for the fourth time can bring comfort to viewers, as shows like these embody collective nostalgia, which is induced by “highly public, widely shared, and familiar” symbolic objects (1). If a show then gains meaning within the temporal context of a watcher’s personal life, the collective nostalgia experience is supplemented by a uniquely private one as well (1). For example, a series viewed together with a loved one can induce more joyfully nostalgic feelings when seen again. On the other hand, if the relationship has suffered in the period between initial and repeated viewing, the show might become subject of heartache-driven nostalgia.
It is not just the viewers who revisit their favourite TV scenes, however; features like flashbacks and recaps of previous events at the beginning of each new episode act as in-universe nostalgic points of reference (6). Entire shows, such as How I Met Your Mother, can be built around the concept of a character reflecting on their journey so far, portraying self-induced nostalgia via the active creation of audio-visual stimuli (4). This signals that both audiences and content producers have come to perceive emotionally positive nostalgia as a gateway to strengthening the bond between the viewer and the world of a TV show. The resulting use of this gateway in the television industry, constantly faced with the creativity vs. commerce dilemma, is the next category after the highly direct, yet running-low-on-originality experience of nostalgic re-watching addressed so far.
Almost everyone has that one TV show they feel particularly nostalgic about, whether it’s a cartoon from your childhood or a great series that ended too soon. These feelings are altered in a quite subtle, unique way as creative industries from Hollywood to television increasingly draw upon older media texts to produce “new” content (1). TV remakes, reboots, revivals – the prefix re- has become an indicator of nostalgia, since it invokes the element of passing time in the sense of re- meaning “again”. Fans are often apprehensive about seeing the shows they love be transformed, frequently bringing their protests to social media. But the same nostalgic feelings that viewers fear might get corrupted also serve as powerful motivation to demand new forms of their favourite content, for example by signing petitions to get series like Chuck or Futurama back on air (7). The high risk of disappointment is balanced by the high reward of increased satisfaction if the remade show does justice to the original.
It is this reward that TV producers are trying to capitalize on by developing strategies of nostalgia marketing – ways to produce media texts which “allow consumers to mentally return to the experience of the favourable past” (3). A guaranteed audience of fans nostalgic for the previous version of a show makes it a difficult task. Commercial success as well as viewer satisfaction depends not only on the quality of the new adaptation, but also on the way it is connected to the original (5). Too many references and the reboot or revival becomes redundant; not enough, and the viewers will claim it to be disrespecting its predecessor. Fuller House, Heroes: Reborn and 24: Legacy are just a few examples of shows which have fallen victim to “contemporary media’s commodification of memory and nostalgia”(5), as basing content on existing culture results in a less direct, yet more original nostalgic influence.
Something Borrowed, Something New
Fortunately for viewers, the growing “re-imagining” culture is not the only way to indulge nostalgia through newly produced TV shows. Original story ideas within in a past setting, complete with period-appropriate dialogue, visuals and soundtrack, are more than enough to evoke nostalgia for the culture of a different time. What’s more, studies show that we are capable of feeling nostalgic for times we have not experienced ourselves, but are familiar with from their depiction in popular culture (1). Therefore, seeing the life of the 1970s in The Get Down, the 1980s in Stranger Things or the 1990s in Fresh Off the Boat can satisfy nostalgic cravings of those who have lived it themselves as well as those who have imagined what it was like, all with original content that ideally integrates this sense of time in an organic manner.
This type of nostalgia is easier to reward both as a viewer and as a TV show-runner: while a reboot or a revival has limited source material to work with, shows about iconic decades, places and events are more abundant and can be made with more creative freedom. This is important since the most successful nostalgia-inducing shows, ironically, are those which are not 100% realistic in their portrayal of the time they are set in. Nostalgia relies on memories, whether lived-through or gathered externally, and our memories tend to highlight the best characteristics of an era in favour of its flaws (6). The sleek visuals, impressive soundtrack and stellar acting of shows like Stranger Things are what make the 1980s seem attractive to us almost four decades later, re-creating “1980s television as we remember it, rather than as it actually was” (2). Thus, original media texts produce a subtler nostalgic influence, constructing the show’s setting rather than representing the show itself as was the case with re-watching or re-imagining previously existing series.
A closer look at the televised media we consume every day reveals the underlying range of nostalgia, with an inverse relationship of how directly the sentiment speaks to the viewers vs. how original the content is. Moreover, regardless of where on the increasing originality/decreasing directness spectrum a show belongs, its creators are sure to use nostalgia for attracting larger audiences and making more profit. There is nothing inherently corrupt about nostalgia itself; it can simply be used for a multitude of commercial and political aims, from Pokémon Go to Coca-Cola re-releasing the 1990s classic soda Surge, to Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again”. On television, these nostalgia strategies can result in shows of varying quality and fan following, but in the end, looking to the past to build a culturally-rich future is certainly a TV trend deserving of its place in our lives.
1. Armbruster, S. (2016). Watching nostalgia: An analysis of nostalgic television fiction and its reception. Bielefeld, Germany: transcript Verlag.
2. Bartlett, M. (2017). Rose-coloured rear-view: Stranger Things and the lure of a false past. Screen Education, 85, 16–25.
3. Ju, I., Kim, J., Chang, M.J. &Bluck, S. (2016). Nostalgic marketing, perceived self-continuity, and consumer decisions. Management Decision, 54(8), 2063-2083. https://doi-org.proxy-ub.rug.nl/10.1108/MD-11-2015-0501
4. Kalinina, E. (2016).What do we talk about when we talk about media and nostalgia? Medien & Zeit, 4,6-15.
5. Loock, K. (2018). American TV series revivals: Introduction. Television and New Media, 19(4), 299-309. doi:10.1177/1527476417742971
6. Niemeyer, K. (Ed.). (2014). Media and nostalgia: Yearning for the past, present and future. Berlin, Germany: Springer.
7. Patches, M. (2016, April 14). The craziest Netflix petitions currently raging on the Internet. Thrillist. Retrieved from https://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/netflix-petitions-to-save-add-reboot-shows