Nostalgia carries incredible power. It has the ability to alter moods, evoke the warm and fuzzies, and whisk us back to the remembrance of a time often idealized with wistfulness and longing. When it comes to entertainment, nostalgia is currently a prevalent theme for both films and television series—but this is by no means a novel trend. In fact, a 2012 study published in the journal Memory found that nostalgizing (or, reveling in nostalgia) can boost spirits, reduce stress and increase feelings of social connectivity. In this global pandemic moment marked in part by anxiety and isolation, those elements are perhaps more essential than ever. Here’s how programmers are tapping into nostalgic content to deliver entertainment that’s invoking all the feels.

TV Reboots
Scientific evidence suggests that watching a rerun of a favorite old TV show can imbue tangible emotional benefits. “When people are stressed, or anxious, or feeling out of control, nostalgia helps calm them down,” said Krystine Batcho, a psychologist and professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse. “It’s analogous to a hug from your mom or dad or being cuddled.” That may help explain why several beloved television classics are getting a reboot, including The Wonder Years. In its original iteration, the show ran from 1988 to 1993 but portrayed a middle-class suburban family in the late ‘60s. Now, ABC is revisiting their story while focusing on a Black family living in Alabama during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. “The Black middle class had, obviously, extra obstacles,” said showrunner Saladin Patterson. “So we just kind of walk you through that perspective.” Though changes have been made, some old conceits remain. This Wonder Years still features a narrator reflecting back on his formative years, and original star Fred Savage serves as executive producer. “There’s a lot of elements in this show that feel very comfortable and familiar to me, and to an audience, as well,” said Savage. “We’re maintaining similar tone, a similar blend of comedy, truth…kind of the wisdom of age.”

From suburban stories to karate kicks, Cobra Kai fans welcomed the news that season 4 will premiere on December 31. The critically acclaimed Netflix show started as a YouTube original, continuing the story of the popular Karate Kid film franchise that kicked off in 1984. Serving as a sequel to those movies, the series features original actors Ralph Macchio and William Zabka as Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence, respectively, longtime rivals and martial arts champions. In the latest iteration of Cobra Kai, the adversaries team up to help stop an even greater enemy. Show creators liberally pepper episodes with references to the films, plus Gen-X nostalgia like ‘80s pop music. The approach seems to be working—Cobra Kai picked up four Emmy nominations this year, including one for best comedy series.

TV Originals
Some shows successfully weave in nostalgic elements by featuring characters and plotlines that are familiar yet fresh. Case in point: Girls5eva, a musical comedy series from funny woman and executive producer Tina Fey. Currently streaming on Peacock and recently renewed for a second season, it centers on four washed-up former girl group members who scored an unexpected hit in the ‘90s. Now middle-aged 40-year-olds, the pals are striving to revive their careers. Nostalgic elements abound, including flashbacks to ‘90s culture—both good and bad. Along with the birth of iconic boy bands and girl groups including Backstreet Boys, Boyz II Men, TLC and the Spice Girls, plotlines touch on the problematic treatment of women in many of those popular songs. Gen X audiences have praised the work as a blend of musical entertainment and modern pop satire.

If some current programs effectively evoke nostalgia by focusing on a specific decade, WandaVision from Marvel Cinematic Universe and Disney Plus takes that formula to its most extreme expression. Each 30-minute episode jumps through American TV history, starting with a pilot shot in black and white. It depicts the series’ superheroes, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), as a Golden Age sitcom-style housewife and doting husband living in 1950s utopian suburbia, before leaping into the next decade. Episodes pay homage to the ‘70s Brady Bunch aesthetic, ‘80s Full House fashion and Modern Family mockumentary style circa 2010—though the real reason for this nostalgic trip through the ages hides a deeper story about love and loss. 

In a similar vein, films are using the nostalgia trope to connect with audiences. Enter Ghostbusters: Afterlife, a supernatural comedy that debuted at August’s ComicCon in LA and is set for cinematic release in November. Director Jason Reitman picks up the mantle from his father, Ivan Reitman, who created the original 1984 Ghostbusters hit (and now serves as a producer on this film). The movie is itself focused on legacy, telling the story of a brother and sister who move with their single mom to a small town in Oklahoma. Strange events soon transpire, and they learn the creaky farmhouse they inherited belonged to their grandfather, an original Ghostbuster. Fans will love references to the first film, including a blue-colored Muncher ghost that’s an evolution of the iconic green Slimer, plus cameos from original cast members like Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver and Annie Potts.

Finally, a Teen Wolf revival flick is in the works at Paramount Plus, set to hit the streaming platform in 2022. It’s loosely based on the Michael J. Fox fantasy comedy from 1985, about a high school student who unexpectedly discovers his family’s unusual pedigree. That hit movie inspired a 2011 nostalgia-kindling MTV reboot series, and news of this upcoming film was released on the four-year anniversary of the show’s finale. (The full series will also be available to stream on Paramount Plus in December.) From shows to movies, strategically employed nostalgic elements are taking Hollywood by storm. Here’s to many hours of wistful viewing.

Kathleen Thompson
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