Critic's Notebook: The Blinding Whiteness of Nostalgia TV
At a time when everything old seems to be new again, why is our nostalgia so homogeneous?
The '90s were a heyday for black sitcoms, but you wouldn't know it based on the reboots and revivals currently in development.
No one can blame A-lister Will Smith for ruling out a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reunion or Jaleel White for his disinterest in donning Sally Jessy Raphael frames once more in a Family Matters comeback. But why aren't we reading about deals to bring groundbreaking, fondly remembered hits like Martin, Living Single, A Different World, Sister, Sister and countless other beloved black comedies back to the air? A few breakout stars — like Smith, Queen Latifah and Tracee Ellis Ross (whose beloved Girlfriends just missed the '90s cut-off date by debuting in 2000) — are keeping busy, but most castmembers are not. So the time has come to ask: Is there something problematic in the industry's embrace of Roseanne, Will & Grace and The X-Files, but not the iconic black sitcoms that also made the Clinton years an exhilarating time of experimentation and representation?
Given that TV's nostalgia projects now number in the dozens, it's worth asking if the trend has yielded any unintended consequences. The intended ones are evident enough. Netflix has generated staggering amounts of press — and apparently pleased many a viewer — by footing the bill for new seasons of Arrested Development, Gilmore Girls and Full House (now Fuller House). Twin Peaks: The Return seemingly inspired more think pieces than any other series in Showtime history. And Will & Grace and The X-Files' attempts to retake their perches atop pop culture were met with much hoopla and huge ratings, at least for their premiere episodes.
But it's hard not to interpret the current iteration of nostalgic programming as a backlash to TV's increasing diversity — a throwback to the days of Friends and Frasier when people joked that "NBC" stood for "No Black Characters." Yes, these reboots and revivals comprise only a handful of the hundreds of scripted shows on the air, but many of them tend to be TV's highest-profile projects. The fact that, in their totality, they inadvertently re-entrench the normalcy of all-white casts while erasing women of color and queer people is notable and worrisome.
Let's first get this out of the way: There are definite exceptions to the Make (White) TV Great Again trend. Though it's been shut out of most awards consideration, Netflix's One Day at a Time, the reboot of the '70s Norman Lear sitcom, is arguably the biggest critical success story to come out of the nostalgia wave. By focusing on issues of the day with a Cuban-American spin and pairing a superstar of yesterday (Rita Moreno) with a superstar of tomorrow (Justina Machado), One Day at a Time has revitalized the three-cam sitcom to become one of TV's most essential comedies. The upcoming restarts of Party of Five, Roswell and Charmed promise relevance, as all three projects will feature Latinx casts and, in the case of the first two, deal with undocumented immigration. The new Dynasty, Star Trek: Discovery and The Greatest American Hero also boast more inclusive casts than their previous iterations.
But the majority of shows returning after hibernation arrive no more diverse, or with their white centers intact. Such is the case with Roseanne, whose homecoming to ABC unintentionally bolsters the media's curious obsession with portraying the sympathetic working-class families as white, when they actually come in every hue and background. (The new Roseanne features a biracial granddaughter and a queer grandson, but, at least in the preview episodes I've seen, both characters are too young and marginal to contribute their perspectives to family discussions.) Nearly every other revival with the original cast that I've mentioned above looks, demographically speaking, like it did in the '90s, when New York was depicted as lily-white and gay folks were only seen in two cities.
And what are we to make of the successful returns of Will & Grace and Queer Eye, which have instantly become two of the most watched and talked about LGBTQ shows on TV? Queer representation has diversified in recent years through much bolder and more inclusive shows like Transparent, RuPaul's Drag Race, Sense8 and the output of the Ryan Murphy empire. As important as Will & Grace and even the highly problematic Queer Eye were historically, it's jarring and disappointing to see such "safe" depictions of gay men take center stage once again, featuring thin, white, urban, urbane, cis-male, desexualized characters, who spend most of their time with straight women or playing Cupid to heterosexual couples.
The overall picture looks just as discouraging for viewers who hope to see TV's resurgent feminism — a trend that has given us fantastic shows as different as Broad City, Big Little Lies, Grace and Frankie, Inside Amy Schumer, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jessica Jones and The Handmaid's Tale — expanded beyond white women. The revivals of Roseanne, Gilmore Girls and possibly Murphy Brown remind us how unprecedented those shows were during their original runs, but also how they envisioned women's progress as white women's domain.
To be sure, there are some representational silver linings to the nostalgia trend. For example, audiences seem more willing than ever to embrace older female characters. At 65, Roseanne Barr is two years older than Bea Arthur was when the latter started playing Dorothy Zbornak on The Golden Girls, which seemed until recently to be a singular phenomenon. Murphy Brown star Candice Bergen and Grace & Frankie star Lily Tomlin are in their seventies. Tomlin's co-star, Jane Fonda, is 80. It's worth celebrating that nostalgia has paved the way for expanding our storytelling canvas, if only for a subset of people who were considered TV-worthy two decades ago.
But for me, there's a lot more exciting programming where nostalgia is kept at arm's reach. In fact, a slew of contemporary series set in the '90s — only one of which, incidentally, features a white male protagonist — have proved much better at scratching that scrunchies-and-flannel itch while recalling the Clinton era for what it was. Netflix's teen dramedy Everything Sucks! initially feels like a ride in a time machine — no other show captures the clothes and lingo of the '90s so precisely — but the show features a budding black filmmaker and a teenage lesbian as its dual protagonists. That's also true of the most recent season of American Crime Story, which explores in part the anti-gay sentiment that enabled Gianni Versace killer Andrew Cunanan's murder spree. The previous season of ACS, The People v. O.J. Simpson, similarly used hindsight to illuminate how race and gender dynamics warped "the trial of the century." And the 2015 HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero, about an anti-desegregation effort in Yonkers and set between 1987 and 1994, evinces no nostalgia at all, and is all the more powerful for its firm unsentimentality.
There's no denying that spending time with old friends feels good. But it's also important to observe how the past is being misremembered now, and why. Some '90s stars are collecting paychecks again, while others are not. Certain families are presented once more as "all-American," while others are not. There are those who have the luxury of remembering the past fondly, and those who do not. Never has it been clearer that our nostalgia has consequences.
But it's important to remember that sometimes our memories fail us, and that our '90s friends — except for the ones on Friends — never looked as monochromatic as TV is telling us they were. I'm not sure if I necessarily want to watch Carlton Banks defend Trump — it's bad enough watching Roseanne Conner make Hillary jokes in the new season premiere — but there's no reason why he and his cohort shouldn't get to make a case for their relevance, too.