AAt least Covid struck during the era of “peak television”. After all, if this weren’t a time when the shows streaming into our living rooms were better, smarter, starrier, more abundant, and more available than ever before, what would we have done to stay in a state of mood even for a year locked up? ?
More or less what we did anyway, it turns out. Because the viewing trend of the past 12 months, which few saw coming, has been a clamor for the classics. At a time when there is more prestigious entertainment than can be shaken with a remote control, viewers on both sides of the Atlantic decided to reconnect with old friends: Rodney Trotter, Jerry Seinfeld, and overwhelmingly Tony Soprano.
So why are we gravitating en masse towards television relics of the past? Has the world been hit by a sudden onset of nostalgia, as suggested by a surveyOr have the classics taken on a new relevance? Certainly, in the media, there has been a rush to show that it is more about relevance; we are reinterpreting these shows in light of our strange modern times.
It turns out that a lot of them really talk about the moment. In the last year, we have seen Twin Peaks reinterpreted as a harbinger of the age of anxiety, The Wire as herald of today’s race riots, Scrubs as a greeting to hospital workers, Big Brother as a harbinger of an enclosed world and Seinfeld as an antidote to “cancel culture.”
Then there’s the surprise “2020 show,” The Sopranos, whose rebirth has been variously explained by its status as Trump era prophecy, a newly discovered hotbed of memes and a reminder of the joy of physical contact.
For the most part, these readings are spot on. But perhaps those who see current relevance as the reason for rejuvenating vision figures have confused cause and effect. The Sopranos, like The Godfather three decades earlier, is about the moral decay of capitalist America. It’s also about raising spoiled teens, dealing with a cheating spouse, and being slowly worn out by him. banal irritations of domestic life. These themes are not in fashion; they never go out of style. Similarly, Big Brother feeds an appetite for voyeurism and gossip as old as the species itself. And the social problems uncovered by The Wire at the turn of the century remain as stark and unsolved as ever. The secret to the resurgence of these shows is not that they are timely, it is that they are timeless.
This is not to say that inspecting old TVs through today’s lens is anything but great fun. Whether Soprano would have voted for Trump is a question that has caused all kinds of admirably thorough online discussion, as has Buffy’s status as a heroine of the proto # MeToo era and Dad’s Army as a harbinger of Brexit in Britain. But the ability to find a new angle on an old show is a product of people continuing to watch it, not vice versa.
Meanwhile, the resurgent popularity of shows less obviously applicable to modern culture – Only Fools and Horses and Last of the Summer Wine in the UK, The Golden Girls in the US – has been explained by industry experts. as “viewing comfort”. Surely this is true. But were they ever something else?
There are some exceptions. It’s now impossible to watch The Leftovers, a drama in which an alarming new phenomenon causes 2% of the world’s population to disappear, without the show’s already uncompromising desolation being compounded by real-life events. The “Christmas economy versus public safety” dilemma faced by the populist mayor of Jaws, who found himself at the top of the US box office in the summer, feels uncomfortably familiar. And it doesn’t take a sociologist to find out why Steven Soderbergh’s deadly virus thriller Contagion hit the top of the charts last spring.
But generally, the second life of these decades-old offerings can be explained by a more mundane formula: quality plus circumstance. (The second point goes beyond the fact that we’ve all been stuck at home for a year: The Sopranos, for example, benefited from HBO’s decision to make the show free to watch in April, as well as the launch. from a podcast hosted by two of its stars.)
My current consolation on the small screen is Six Feet Under, the forgotten jewel of the golden age of television, and not among shows that enjoy a Covid-era resurgence, even though it is blatantly about death, death and devastating pain. Looking at it today, has the unprecedented prominence in the real world of these themes given Six Feet Under a new relevance? Not really, other than stating how perfect the grade was in the first place by looking down on one of the few great taboos in public life. The reason the show remains as great as ever is the same reason we keep coming back to Fawlty Towers, Moe’s Tavern, Wernham Hogg, and Bada Bing !: humanity and sharp humor will always stand the test of time.
And while we could get a sentimental sugar rush from Lester Freamon carving the furniture in his dollhouse, or the early bars of Woke up this morning, the real appeal of great shows is not so much nostalgia as a certain undying excellence. Which, surely, is what it should be, as a wise man once said, “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism