Commentary: Nostalgia economy sets back television


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In mid-July, Vulture reported that Katy Perry was being considered for the role of teen darling Cher in the new “Clueless” musical, a production still in its early stages with the director of the movie on which it is based, Amy Heckerling, leading the way.

The Internet was quick to express its general disapproval. Comments in the Twittersphere and beyond ranged from concerns about her age (“She’‍s great, but she‘‍s not 17 anymore as much as she likes to pretend”) to the ever constructive “yeeeeah no.”

Whether it’‍s deciding on new people to play fictional icons or real-life public figures, the public has strong opinions about how and when it should be done. This year alone, casting backlash has torpedoed biopics about Aaliyah and Nina Simone. The upcoming movie “Annie,” produced by Will Smith and starring Quvenzhane Wallis, received praise and racist outrage. In 2014, the silver screen will have re-debuted “RoboCop,” “Godzilla,” “Hercules,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Leprechaun.” Though nostalgia never leaves theater, recently we’ve had “Legally Blonde,” “Heathers,” “Rocky” and “Matilda.” And television has seen a revival of revivals as well.

In production right now are dozens of reboots, from “The Odd Couple” to “Roots.” Though in the past TV shows brought back from the afterlife of cancellation have done pretty well (see: “Family Guy” and even “Baywatch”), the consensus on the new seasons of previously canceled fan favorites like “Arrested Development” and “The Boondocks” is that both are now mediocre at best. One notable exception, “Girl Meets World,” seems to be decent only relative to its excellent predecessor. The Post-Gazette’‍s own Rob Owen called it “a perfectly pleasant Disney show,” a pat compliment at best. The consensus on Rotten Tomatoes praises its “nostalgia,” and it‘‍s this growing tendency to reminisce instead of innovate that is exactly the problem.

We get it. The ’80s were great. The ’90s might have been even better. And the early 2000s? Oh, don‘‍t even get me started. But, as Hollywood insists on trying to re-create old shows — only to have the same audience who demanded them often turn its back on them — network television moves less toward the sort of groundbreaking series now almost strictly on places like Netflix and Amazon and toward a never-ending cycle of Pre-Teen Mutant Ninja Turtles and I Like-Like Lucys. And reruns. So many more reruns.

The adage that Hollywood wants “the same thing, only different” explains why the nostalgia economy continues to grow. Why take a risk on something new when you can cash in on people’s memories of how fun 1985 was? Why spend the ever increasing amount of money it costs to make quality television on the avant-garde when you’‍re way more likely to make your money back on the original?

But as we continue to see our old recollections repackaged and shot back in our faces, we are less and less likely to be satisfied with the results. The truth is that you don‘’t actually want new episodes of “Hey Arnold!,” “Cheers” or “Seinfeld,” as much as you might think you do. You want what life was like when you watched those shows. You want the glorious times when television felt fresh and new, your own idealized version of when TV meant something. Hindsight may be 20-20, but it most certainly is rose-colored.

The tale of “Community’s” tragic half-death with the replacement of creator Dan Harmon, then actual death with its cancellation and soon-to-be rebirth on Yahoo, serves as a cautionary tale. The “Six Seasons and a Movie” campaign started by fans can be credited with the show’‍s return, but at what cost? I am a huge “Community” fan, but when old network shows move into the only space where new original shows thrive and may no longer be able to connect with their original audience because of it, television overall suffers.

Instead of calling for new episodes of “Hawaii Five-0” or begging your favorite now out-of-work showrunner to pleeeease bring back your favorite obscure childhood cartoon about a talking rat, perhaps the better option is urging that same showrunner to create something new and then actually watch that show. As much comfort as we draw from the familiar, we are running the risk of banishing all true creative innovation to the Internet and leaving these sad half-zombies of shows to wander astray on prime time without our love or viewership.

If the success of shows such as “Orange Is the New Black” and “Scandal” proves anything, it is that the public might be ready to move fully into the 21st century, with all the diversity and inventive plot structures that come with it. Though it is the business of entertainment to give the people what they want, let’s hope that sometime soon a network executive or two might wake up and consider giving television what it needs.


Alexis Wilkinson: awilkinson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1581, on Twitter at @OhGodItsAlexis.

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