The Pleasures and Pitfalls of TV Reruns and Revivals
TV revivals appeal to nostalgia, but it's often the wrong kind of nostalgia.
Posted Mar 14, 2019
I recently read about plans for a TV revival of the classic 1993 movie The Sandlot. The series, set in the 1980s, will feature the movie’s original cast who are now in their 30’s with kids of their own. As much as I love the movie, which I watch at least once a year, news of the planned revival stirs the same feeling in me that I typically have when I hear about the revival or reboot of any beloved movie or series—skepticism. While the idea of dropping into the lives-in-progress of familiar characters from the past is appealing, when the shows or movies finally hit the screen, more often than not it is disappointment rather than pleasure that I feel.
And despite the viewing public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for opportunities to be reunited with favorite fictional characters from the past (a recent TV Insider article listed no fewer than 28 reboots and revivals planned for 2019), I am clearly not alone in my ambivalence toward such attempts to bring the past back to life in the present. If you do a Google search on the entertainment industry’s growing trend toward making the old new again, you’ll find evidence of some pretty strong emotional reactions to the new/old shows and movies, and the reactions are anything but positive. Web page titles such as “Reboots and Remakes Ruin Hollywood,” “Why TV Needs to Stop Living in the Past,” and my two personal favorites, for their sheer forthrightness, “Why TV Reboots Suck So Much” and “Hollywood Rebooting Phase Is Nearing Peak Suck,” indicate the assumption of a prevailing negative attitude toward these entertainment offerings. And even when writers are talking about programming that they like, they go out of their way to indicate that it is more the exception than the rule, as in the title “10 TV Remakes that Miraculously Don’t Suck.”
The prevalence of titles such as these among commentaries on revivals, reboots, and remakes invites an obvious question. Why can watching a show or movie featuring characters that we like in familiar situations that we have, in the past, enjoyed (and that we still enjoy watching in reruns) evoke such strongly negative reactions in us when we encounter them in a contemporary setting? The answer has to do with the reason we are drawn to them in the first place: nostalgia. We enjoy reruns of shows from our past, and we believe (or at least hope) that we will enjoy updated iterations of them because of the pleasure we feel in being mentally transported back to an earlier time in our lives. Reruns of old shows do this for us in the same way that old songs do. Encountering an exact replica of a show or movie that we enjoyed a long time ago takes us back to the time in our lives when we first encountered it, and it stirs in us a twofold pleasure—both in the enjoyment of the show itself, and in the memories it evokes of that earlier time in our lives when we watched it before. We are similarly drawn to a revival or reboot of an old favorite for the promise it offers of reminding us of our past, but the appeal is of a slightly different nature. The difference, however, is an important one. The appeal in each case is based on nostalgia, but on different types of nostalgia.
In her 2002 book The Future of Nostalgia, writer and literary scholar Svetlana Boym identified two distinct types of nostalgia—restorative and reflective--differentiated according to the root words out of which the word “nostalgia” is formed. Coined by a medical student in the 17th century, nostalgia is a compound of two Greek words—nostos, which means “returning home,” and algia, which means “aching.” The word itself, then, translates roughly to “an aching related to the thought of returning home.” Restorative nostalgia, as Boym describes it, “puts emphasis on nostos (returning home) and proposes to rebuild the lost home.” Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, “thrives on algia (the longing itself),” and rather than trying to rebuild the lost home, focuses instead on “the imperfect process of remembrance.”
Both types of nostalgia look back to the past with a certain degree of longing, but while the reflective variety accepts—and even embraces--the fact that the past is, indeed, past, never to return, restorative nostalgia seeks to recreate a past experience so that it can be lived again in the present. Because time’s arrow moves in only one direction—forward—the impulse of restorative nostalgia to relive the past invariably results in disillusionment, since the failed attempt forces us to compare—unfavorably—the present in which we live with the past which we long for. Free from any such futile illusions of turning back the hands of time, however, reflective nostalgia can simply savor a memory as a memory, taking pleasure in the recollection of a happy experience in the past without fretting over the fact that it cannot be relived in the present.
The reason that TV and movie revivals and reboots so often leave us dissatisfied—and even, occasionally, angry—is that they appeal to us on the basis of restorative nostalgia, attempting to recreate a past entertainment experience in the present. When we see familiar characters going about their familiar routines once again, yet suddenly grown years if not decades older and facing (or else implausibly ignoring) the same troubled uncertain world from which we hoped to escape for a few minutes by watching a TV show or movie, we are reminded, not of how pleasurable the past was, but of how much less pleasurable the present is than the past was.
The nostalgia involved in watching a rerun, on the other hand, is purely reflective. When we tune into TV Land or COZI TV and see an old episode of some favorite show from our youth, we savor that past moment in time—knowing full well how it turns out and appreciating it all the more for that fact—without wondering whether we might enjoy it more if we could recreate that comfortably familiar past world in our uncomfortably familiar present one.
Now I’m not saying that revivals and reboots are universally devoid of legitimate entertainment value. Many of them can be quite enjoyable, provided one resists the restorative impulse and views them as creations of the present rather than recreations of the past. As for me, though, I lean toward reruns for my nostalgic viewing pleasure. And while I don’t dismiss the possibility that The Sandlot will make a wonderful TV series, when it airs later this year (or the next), I’ll probably forego the premiere episode and watch the movie again for the twenty-fifth time.
Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. Basic Books, a Member of the Perseus Books Group, 2016
Flynn, Daniel. “Reboots & Remakes Ruin Hollywood | The American Spectator | Politics Is Too Important to Be Taken Seriously.” The American Spectator, 2018, spectator.org/reboots-remakes-ruin-hollywood/.
Gallagher, Brenden. “Why TV Reboots Suck So Much - CULTURE.” MERRY JANE, 2017, merryjane.com/culture/why-tv-reboots-suck-so-much.
Lefkowitz, Josh. “Hollywood's Rebooting Phase Is Nearing Peak Suck.” Study Breaks, 28 June 2016, studybreaks.com/culture/hollywood-reboots/.
Shoemaker, Whitney. “'The Sandlot' Gets TV Series Revival with Original Cast.” Alternative Press, 2 Mar. 2019, www.altpress.com/news/the-sandlot-tv-series-original-cast/.
Venable, Nick. “10 TV Remakes That Miraculously Don't Suck.” CINEMABLEND, CINEMABLEND, 8 Oct. 2018, www.cinemablend.com/television/10-TV-Remakes-Miraculously-Don-t-Suck-99827.html.
Wallenberg, Christopher. “TV Reboots, Revivals, & More Arriving in 2019.” TV Insider, 2019, www.tvinsider.com/740424/tv-reboots-revivals-sequels-2019/