Critic's Notebook: A Year on the TV Nostalgia Beat

From 'Fuller House' to 'Stranger Things' to O.J. Simpson, 2016 was a year of televised nostalgia, for better or for worse.
From left: 'Fuller House,' 'Stranger Things,' 'The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.'
If you were to summon up a word cloud of my reviews, tweets and conversations over the past 12 months, I suspect that after "Trump" and "godforsaken nightmare," the text that would loom largest would be "nostalgia."
 
As a critic, my job is to be constantly looking forward, examining the next masterpiece or disappointment and anticipating where the conversation is going to be. But 2016 was all about looking backward. I can't function intellectually in the present if I'm not figuring out which bits of technological aptitude are part of the MacGyver canon and which are innovations for CBS' new version, or which Fuller House plotlines are direct homages to Full House and which are just banal, hackneyed "originals."
 
It's tempting to blame Hollywood for a lack of new ideas and an overreliance on regurgitated themes and updated classics and semiclassics, but it's clearly been a national affliction.
 
 
As a country, we elected a president whose slogan was, of course, "Make America Great Again," words chosen with calculated and specific meaning. "Make America Great" would mean that America is not great and has not been great but could be great. It's pretty negative, but it's aspirational. "Make America Greater" would mean that we've achieved a certain level of greatness but that improvement is always a worthy goal. That's aspirational too. But "Make America Great Again?" It's a regressive slogan, pure and simple. It says that we're not great anymore, but we were great, and the current path to greatness cuts through where we were, in the comfort and familiarity of the past, not the uncertainty of the road ahead.
 
In Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," two roads diverged in a yellow wood and the poet took the one less traveled, and that made all the difference. Collectively, America in 2016 seemed to have reached the fork in the road and turned around and retraced its steps home.
 
With more networks and streaming services offering programming than ever before, television gave viewers a record number of options this year. Sometimes the most original material forced you to figure out what a "Seeso" was or to find OWN on your cable listings. But it rarely took effort to find programming that appeared to have been conceived with the motto "Make Television Great Again" in mind. 
 
It's fitting that, in an age when ambitious shows like Fargo or Game of Thrones might be forced by writing and production requirements to take more than a year between seasons, 2016 brought us not one but two seasons of Fuller House  a series that exists not because of any real creative imperative but because a generation of viewers have a warm place in their hearts for a mediocre show from their youth and have been satisfied by an update that doesn't even rise to the level of mediocrity (because that's apparently easier than looking across the landscape and seeing that there are fresh family comedies aplenty, many of high quality).
 
Fuller House fans weren't hungry for a good family sitcom. They were hungry for a meekly reassuring family sitcom. I can mock the execution of Fuller House — and I've been mocking the execution of Fuller House almost nonstop for 10 months because I think it represents some nether region below the lowest common denominator — but I can't deny that there was an audience out there clamoring for it. I can say to that audience, "Demand more and you'll be given more," but that's my own hang-up.
 
At least the appetite was there, and at least Netflix allowed the original creative team and stars of Full House to pour water on their own cremated ashes in the hopes of lumpy reconstitution. CBS spent months determined to bring back MacGyver, with the only important factor being that something called MacGyver come back. The network went through one writer after another and took the rare step of picking up a pilot and then scrapping it entirely. I don't know what any of the iterations before looked like, but what eventually aired was flat and personality-free. Still, it was called MacGyver, and that was all that mattered. Countless TV spies and operatives have modified and expanded on the MacGyver formula over the years, so CBS' nostalgia was for a name and nothing more.
 
MacGyver isn't good, but it isn't doing horribly, which puts it with Fuller House in the category of "popular" exercises in nostalgia. But the 2016 track record overall was mixed. CBS may have made MacGyver work, but the network's patience ran out for The Odd Couple and Rush Hour, which spent less time on the air than the executives who developed them spend stuck in actual rush hour on a busy Friday. Fox had a smash with Grease Live! and a major dud with Rocky Horror Picture Show and experienced both success and failure in resurrecting The X-Files, laying the foundation for buffed and polished retreads of Prison Break and 24 in the months to come. 
 
This isn't stopping, by the way. From Heathers to Beaches, many of your favorites from decades past are coming back or, like The CW's The Lost Boys, trying to come back. And folks will keep attempting to remake Knight Rider until long after we're all dead and gone, because that's what TV networks think you want, and they won't be dissuaded by failure.
 
I might sneer at the quality of so much of what was nostalgia-driven in 2016, but that's not a wholly accurate reflection of either how nostalgia works or how nostalgia worked in 2016. Nostalgia isn't just about recognizable brands, and it isn't surprising that some of 2016's best exercises in nostalgia were actually originals. 
 
 
Netflix's Stranger Things overcame the normal pitfalls of hyperliteral nostalgia by looking back at a sensibility rather than at a specific "property." In not adapting any one Stephen King book or remaking any one Steven Spielberg or John Carpenter movie, the Duffer Brothers achieved an omnidirectional nostalgia. You can't capture my childhood by remaking any one thing, but the Duffers proved that if you create a nostalgic panorama of a general '80s childhood experience, each viewer will locate his or her own specificity in it.
 
And what drives NBC's This Is Us if not nostalgia for wholesome family dramas of yesteryear? Moreover, the series is about a family looking backward for lessons on how to live. Creator Dan Fogelman's great inspiration was making his show's nostalgia concurrent with that of his characters. In the pilot, the scenes set in the past were meant to be indistinguishable from the scenes set in the present. Time is a living, breathing organism that allows the lessons of fathers and mothers to children to be taught and lived simultaneously. 
 
Looking backward is a position of privilege. One group may have had things better 30 years ago or 50 years ago, but that time-traveling takes us to a point where countless other groups may have had things much, much worse. Voting, or viewing the world, based on the idea that things were better runs the risk of either ignoring or erasing the ways in which things are demonstrably better now. (It's no coincidence that time travel has made a comeback this year in everything from Timeless to Frequency to DC's Legends of Tomorrow. Whether these shows are about characters trying to change the future, change the past or protect the integrity of a current timeline says a lot about their take on history.)
 
Fuller House is nostalgia with rose-colored glasses, but nostalgia doesn't have to be regressive, and it's notable that many of 2016's best exercises in nostalgia were the ones that looked backward and recognized the need for change.
 
It's nostalgia that fueled History's remake of Roots, but in celebrating a communal TV viewership experience of the sort we may never experience again, the producers took the opportunity to adapt Alex Haley's book in ways that made it harsher and more real, without sacrificing its bottom-line uplift. Roots retained its nostalgia for a beloved brand while also arguing, "The past? It was actually worse than you thought it was, and that's why it's important to learn from it."
 
Or you can use nostalgia to inform the present. Netflix's Luke Cage has a visual and musical vernacular straight out of '70s blaxploitation and '80s and '90s hip-hop. The style and swagger induce comfort, but the show's perspective on urban politics, gentrification and vigilante action in the era of Black Lives Matter couldn't be more 2016 and, at times, more unnerving. Fuller House and MacGyver use nostalgic tropes in ways that couldn't tell us less about the way we live our lives today, but shows like Luke Cage prove that it doesn't need to be that way.
 
Finally, who would have guessed that 20 hours of 2016's best TV programming would focus on a decades-old murder trial? It turns out that we haven't entirely bridged the racial divide, that justice still isn't blind in 2016 and that the wounds we opened during the O.J. Simpson trial back in 1995 still have things to teach us now if we pick at them with the unyielding energy and focus of Ryan Murphy's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and Ezra Edelman's O.J.: Made in America. Our amused memories of Kato Kaelin or Dancing Itos or a Marcia Clark haircut or even that dread in the pit of our stomachs at the mention of the name Mark Fuhrman might have been what got us watching, but the lessons about celebrity, violence against women and the country's black-white divide are anything but dated.
 
Nostalgia doesn't need to just be a one-way ticket to the past: At our best in 2016, we looked back to look inward. 
 
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