A few weeks back, I ran into an old classmate I hadn’t seen in nearly 30 years at the grocery store. We were good friends/rivals in elementary school, but we had totally lost touch since moving on to separate middle schools. In fact, so much time had passed that we almost didn’t recognize each other. We hadn’t changed that drastically (we were older, of course, with families now, and I had a few extra pounds and a little more facial hair), but it still took a bit for us to notice each other. Once we did, though, I was immediately transported back to 1988 and the 4th grade. Names of old classmates came flooding back and I could see the classroom as it was back then. I then began thinking of movies and music from that time period and, before I knew it, I was completely immersed in nostalgia.
Nostalgia. It is a term that popular culture has always profited from. It can be an easy fix for creatively stymied writers and a crutch for movie studios and TV networks during lean times. In recent years, nostalgia-rich shows like Netflix’s Stranger Things and Everything Sucks! have debuted to great fanfare and success. Reboots of other shows such as DuckTales and The Tick, as well as revivals Twin Peaks, Fuller House, and The X-Files, among others, have also become more and more common in the past few years. And more revivals and reboots are rumored to be coming soon, such as The Office and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Nostalgia Era has arrived and it isn’t going anywhere.
In the last couple months, the bar for successful revivals was raised to a startling degree. Roseanne, an ABC series that ran from 1988-1997, returned to ABC television after nearly 21 years and delivered their highest Tuesday ratings since 2006. Then just a few weeks ago, YouTube Red released their highest-profile series to date, Cobra Kai, a continuation of The Karate Kid film series 34 years after the release of the original movie. The show was an instant success and has already been picked up for a second season (as has Roseanne). Word-of-mouth for both shows has been very positive and has only fueled both shows’ good fortunes.
What set these two shows apart from other successful revivals/reboots? Why have audiences embraced them in ways that they haven’t most others? Well, I think many of the same elements that have powered those other shows’ triumphant returns are present in these two shows as well. It’s comforting being re-acquainted with something so familiar. These shows generate feelings of happiness and joy just by existing.
The success of Roseanne and Cobra Kai speak to something larger. Both shows returned their original casts, so it felt like catching up with an old friend we haven’t seen in ages. By mixing nostalgia with modern-day storytelling, we get to see where these characters that we know and love are at in their lives now. It isn’t just flipping on an old episode or re-watching the same movie again for the 30th time (not that there is anything wrong with that). With these revivals, the story lives on and we as the viewing audience are rewarded for our long-time fandom. And much like my surprise reunion with my classmate, we are transported back to a time in our lives when life was simpler. When our biggest worries were much less grand in scope. When the country was not as deeply divided as it is today. When the world didn’t seem so crazy (although, it probably was). We are comforted by knowing that even though much of the world and our own lives may have changed, we aren’t alone in our journey.
There was a moment at the end of episode 5 of Cobra Kai where Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), having just visited the gravesite of Mr. Miyagi (spoiler: both he and the actor who portrayed him, Pat Morita, have passed away) has a moment of clarity as the familiar score from The Karate Kid climactic scene plays. It gave me chills. And after the scene was over, it left me with a great feeling of satisfaction and contentment. Just like my grocery store run-in with my former classmate.
How long can the Nostalgia Era last? That’s hard to say, but like almost all things pop culture, it will likely end and give way to a new trend. For now, though, we can just sit back and enjoy the moment, however fleeting, and be grateful for the opportunity to catch up with an old friend after all these years.
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