Why Is All Our TV So Nostalgic At The Moment?
Stranger Things. Photograph courtesy of Netflix
Are shows like Netflix’s Stranger Things and The Get Down really good for us? We explore the current on-screen obsession with the recent past.
The past was so much simpler. The clothes were cooler. The music was better. The world was easier to understand. And algorithms didn’t dictate our range of cultural choices. It’s a neat irony, then, that the message those algorithms currently seem to be sending to the makers of our TV is that we collectively long for a time when culture was less backward-facing and spoon-fed. So much so that we’re prepared to permanently face backwards to relive it. The early stages of this century were a golden era for television. Shows like The Wire addressed – with real intelligence and originality – issues and ideas that were unashamedly modern. But that’s not where we are now. All of a sudden, we’re drowning in nostalgia. From Stranger Things to The Get Down; from Fargo to The People V OJ Simpson, we can’t get enough of our recent past.
How did we get here? Clearly the Netflix and Amazon model of commissioning by data analysis is significant. It may be a demographic issue as much as a cultural one. The children of the 1980s have now arrived at an algorithmic sweet spot. They are perfect consumers for their historical moment – old enough to have some disposable income but still young enough to have an open mind about cultural and technological innovation. Why not give them what the data says they want?
Furthermore, these are alarming times. Sure, the past was alarming, too. Maybe that’s why we enjoy seeing it explored in shows like The Americans and Deutschland 83. Because those scary times were oddly simple ones, too. Basically, there were Russians and there were Americans. We knew where we stood; the threat, while impossibly grave, was also clear. Compare that to the issues we face now. Is there a right side to be on in the Syrian war? Are there any plausible solutions to the refugee crisis? Is it possible to reckon with the intimidatingly vast challenges posed by climate change? Is it any wonder that we retreat into the certainties of the past; find entertainment in grim situations that actually did seem to resolve themselves?
Ms Kirsten Dunst and Mr Jesse Plemons in the second season of Fargo. Photograph courtesy of FOX
While they might require a touch more invention and lateral thinking, truly contemporary stories are being told. Amazon’s Mr Robot is a smart, pulsating thriller taking a scary, invigorating ride through the horrors and opportunities presented by the eternally connected present. Channel 4’s Black Mirror approaches similar themes in a way that’s by turns dystopian and darkly hilarious. And BBC3’s Fleabag is different again, uproarious yet sad; laying bare the alienation and catharsis of modern urban life. None of these shows are dry or dull – indeed all of them are widely adored. And all of them suggest routes out of the nostalgia trap that threatens to overwhelm us.
However, despite these honourable exceptions, this fetishisation of the past isn’t stopping any time soon; Netflix have just announced a second season of Stranger Things along with a new drama G.L.O.W., which explores the no doubt riotous lives of female wrestlers in, inevitably, the 1980s. Perhaps the algorithms are becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s hope someone is ignoring them and keeping half an eye on the future, too.