How nostalgia became the new normal in TV

Whether we’re rewatching endless episodes of Friends or binging retro-inspired series like Stranger Things, revisiting the past is clearly playing a huge role in our viewing habits – but why? CR dissects television’s obsession with the nostalgia effect

What do you think is the most-streamed show on telly? If you had to guess, you’d probably assume it’s one of Netflix’s big-hitter original series like Orange Is The New Black or, more recently, its lockdown defining docuseries Tiger King. In fact, the streaming giant’s top shows of 2019 were all series that first aired when today’s TV landscape was still a distant dream: The Office (2005), Grey’s Anatomy (2005) and, of course, Friends (1994).

The streaming generation’s obsession with Friends in particular has spawned everything from a book by journalist Kelsey Miller, which explores the show’s enduring influence despite some of its more problematic gags and storylines, to a hotly anticipated (and now postponed, thanks to coronavirus) reunion episode with the original cast to launch HBO’s streaming platform HBO Max. The film world is in a similar position: live action remakes of Disney’s classic animated movies have dominated for the last few years, while most of 2019’s top-grossing films were either sequels to longstanding film franchises like Toy Story and Star Wars, or reboots such as Jumanji and Men in Black.

For viewers, the appeal of popular culture recycling its own history can be distilled into a single word: nostalgia. Originating from the ancient Greek words nostos (meaning to go home) and algos (meaning pain), the term was first coined by Swiss military physician Johannes Hofer to describe the debilitating homesickness of soldiers who were away fighting for extended periods of time. In pop culture terms, the influence of nostalgia has come to signify something that triggers happy memories from what, with the benefit of hindsight, often seem like simpler times.

Dr Amy Holdsworth, a senior lecturer on the Theatre, Film and Television Studies course at the University of Glasgow, has been researching the influence of nostalgia in TV since she did her PhD in the early noughties. “Life on Mars was the big show at the time, and that was about revisiting the 70s but through the lens of a television programme that was referencing another television programme, so I was interested in those kind of meta and really self-reflective forms of television, and the way in which you could think about nostalgia to characterise them,” she says.