“Nostalgia is to memory as kitsch is to art.”
— Charles Maier
“Wish we could turn back time to the good ol’ days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out.”
— twenty one pilots
“President Donald Trump knows how
To make America great…”
— USA Freedom Kids
I was reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake when Netflix’s revival sitcom Fuller House was released. Ever the bleak soothsayer, Atwood’s thirteen-year-old novel takes place in a bio-engineered post-apocalyptic future, an imagined land not too far from our own time. Protagonist Snowman narrates the story, detailing how he became the sole human survivor in a wasteland littered with the remnants of civilisation. Through a series of flashbacks Snowman catches the reader up to speed, recounting a time when he was known as Jimmy, conducting life in a neoliberal nightmare born of extreme corporate privatisation, technological exploitation and blatant class division. The arts are maligned; scientists are the ruling class, living in compounds of various luxury while everyday schmucks are kept in the Pleeblands ghetto.
“Students of song and dance continued to sing and dance, though the energy had gone out of these activities,” Atwood writes. “And though various older forms had dragged on—the TV sitcom, the rock video—their audience was ancient and their appeal mostly nostalgic.”
If comedy is tragedy plus time, does that mean tragedy is the comedy throwback? With the rise of the renewable franchise—an age of cheap pre-packaged content in the form of the revival TV series—somebody better cue the canned laughter.
Within its very narrative construct—status quo, conflict, resolution, rinse and repeat, week after week—repetition is the mainstay of the sitcom. Returning to the same setting at the start of every episode—be it a café, study room table or family home—is as comforting and familiar as the old couch in your living room. In his detailed study Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes, Saul Austerlitz notes how sitcoms were never meant to be studied or, beyond network-dictated syndication, rewatched. Obviously, in the age of DVD box sets, streaming services and torrents, technology has changed all of that. So here we are, frequently revisiting our old favourite shows in the same way we used to visit old friends IRL.
Just last month, New York Magazine ran a cover story questioning whether Friends (1994–2004) is still “the Most Popular Show on TV?” In an article laced with his own nostalgic longing for the show, writer Adam Sternbergh explains how old fans are coming back to Central Perk while new fans, like Paulina McGowan, who was born the year Friends debuted, watch it for its depiction of glory days passed: “It would be awesome to be alive back then, when everything didn’t seem so intense. It just seemed really fun.” However, for some Friends fans—and, if my Facebook feed is anything to go by, this pertains to Gilmore Girls as well—the fact that, as Sternbergh states, Friends mined a “very different geist, in a very different Zeit,” the political implications of rewatching an old favourite is fraught with complications. Only last year, Margaret Lyons responded to a question from such a Friends fan concerned with its homophobic and fatphobic storylines. Writing for Vulture, the magazine’s entertainment news vertical, Lyons admits to loving the show but hating its queer, gender and body politics. Friends “reflected the mainstream values of its time—values that have changed, thanks to the hard work of many people.”
So why are reunion shows so popular? Recycling isn’t new to television; like film, music, literature and theatre, from Greek myths to Marvel comics (or Greek Myths in Marvel Comics), rehashing existing stories is a standard artistic trope. But why do we rewatch these sitcoms for comfort when their shortcomings make us so uncomfortable? Are viewers so scared by increased social awareness, progress and cultural diversity that, as John Doyle argued for The Globe and Mail, they’re clinging to Friends for its obvious celebration of middle-class white privilege? The current spike in revival shows like Fuller House and The X-Files and Gilmore Girls and Twin Peaks (to name but a few) would indicate, troublingly, yes.
Following on from its origins as a medical condition defined by Johannes Hofer in the seventeenth century as physical homesickness, scholar Svetlana Boym argues that nostalgia is “an incurable modern condition … a longing for a home that no longer exists or never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy.” In The Future of Nostalgia, Boym notes that while the beginning of the twentieth century was buoyed by utopian optimism, it ended bogged down with nostalgia, which only directs utopian ideas sideways because while we move forward we can only ever look back, we can’t ever return to the past. She posits a dual prong to her theory of nostalgia: there’s restorative nostalgia that, stressing the nostos, is an attempt to reconstruct what is lost, and reflective nostalgia that “thrives in the algia, the longing itself, and delays the homecoming – wistfully, ironically, desperately.” Our fascination with television reboots is a disconcerting combination of both: a collective defence mechanism toward the current climate as much as an attempt to secure our idealized private mythology.
The central premise of Netflix revival series Fuller House is the gender inversion of the original. Academics have championed the original Full House, that ran from 1987 to 1994, for paving the way for queer sitcom families by having three father figures—Danny (Bob Saget), Jesse (John Stamos) and Joey (Dave Coulier)—raising three daughters—D.J. (Candace Cameron Bure), Stephanie (Jodie Sweetin) and Michelle (Mary-Kate and/or Ashley Olsen)—after the death of their mother. According to Bridget Kies from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, this alternative family unit was supported by other sitcoms of its era, like Who’s the Boss or My Two Dads, so by repackaging the family with three mothers—bringing back D.J., Stephanie and D.J.’s best friend Kimmy Gibbler (Andrea Barber)—to raise three boys (and Kimmy’s daughter), Fuller House is essentially regressive. This is particularly pertinent given both the original series and its follow up are set in San Francisco—the iconography of the city being ingrained in the very essence of the show—while overlooking the Bay Area’s longstanding affiliations with progressive human rights.
A commenter on Kies’s short piece ‘My Two (and Three) Dads: Full House, Fuller House, and the 1980s Sitcom Families’ published on In Media Res, noted that during the late-night TV promotional rounds, the cast of Fuller House performed a sketch where the character of Michelle is replaced by a caricature of Donald Trump (played by Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon). Each of the actors, in character, take turns to soothe sooky Fallon-Trump’s fears about losing the upcoming presidential race while tucking him into Michelle’s iconic pencil-frame bed. This could be taken as disapproval of the Republican front-runner—also evoked in the pilot episode of Fuller House itself with two strangely incongruous (perhaps overdubbed?) jokes about Trump being a “bad word”—but the promotional association with politics is as stunted as the show’s aesthetic and narrative construct.
As Brendan Gallagher noted for VH1 in a subtly titled review ‘Fuller House Nostalgia is Terrible’, “the oddest moments of Fuller House come when the show attempts to approach current events through a nostalgic lens … It seems that the writers believe that the mere mention of current pop culture phenomena by these throwback characters will bring laughs.” Gallagher is right: there’s no actual commentary here. The explicit relationship between current politics and Fuller House is no more than a gimmick than the show itself. Merely signing up to the streaming behemoth to test the waters of Fuller House will bring them coin – it’s not about bums on seats or Nielsen boxes on sets anymore. It’s well publicised that Netflix doesn’t release individual program ratings, only subscriber numbers – in the first quarter of 2016 they had upwards of 81.5 million. Fuller House has already been renewed for a second season, so in the future we’ll continue to look back – even though, resoundingly negative critical coverage aside, we don’t know how many people actually watched it.
The first ten minutes of Fuller House’s pilot drove home the fact I was watching this for business, not pleasure. Let me make it clear: I love sitcoms. I am not preaching a ‘comedy sucks drama rules’ agenda here, or some kind of ‘quality TV versus the sitcom’ false binary. I’m a literal tote-carrying Community fangirl. I still go back to the timeless older seasons of The Simpsons and enjoy rewatching How I Met Your Mother, laugh track and all (not that the politics of that show are flawless, but the multiple season in-jokes are priceless). As Austerlitz argued, the reason sitcoms are a staple is in their contradictory reliance on traditional set-ups kept fresh; the joy of watching new sitcoms is how they revel in their ‘newness’, be it in narrative or formal construction (HIMYM, The Office), character representation (Blackish, Modern Family) or self-awareness (30 Rock, Community).
The iconic Full House theme song asks “Whatever happened to predictability? The milkman, the paperboy, evening TV?” Well, with Fuller House we got it all back: the theme song rejigged by Canadian pop singer Carly Rae Jepsen (love you CRJ) and catch-phrases from Steph and Kimmy, Elvis-obsessed Uncle Jesse, saccharine-supportive dad Danny, and Bugs Bunny pyjama–clad Uncle Joey. Everyone has aged (except the ever-perfect John Stamos), but no one’s moved on. At the end of the episode Danny even lets D.J., Stephanie and Kimmy live in the familiar family home. Everybody hugs. (Notably, the Olsen twins didn’t return to the series reboot.)
Much was made about this in the first episode—a four-beat too-long breaking of the fourth wall stating Michelle couldn’t join the fun because she was too busy in New York with her fashion empire, in yet another demonstrable dismissal of progress from Fuller House. While all the other Tanners are ‘good sports’, taking time out of their lives to return to the Fuller House universe, Mary-Kate and Ashley—arguably the most successful members of the cast—have moved on. How dare they. Such self-awareness is played for said predictability, cued with canned laughter, not for any kind of advancement in the form. This is a celebration of what is old, not a risk on anything new. We have the home we were longing to return to – a pristine time capsule cracked open, plots and jokes left untouched.
The personal levels of comfort instilled by coming back to our TV favourites’ lives is indicative of the very definition of contemporary nostalgia. Cari Romm discusses this very condition in relation to the soon-to-be-released Gilmore Girls renewal. In her piece for Science of Us (another vertical of NY Mag), Romm notes how that show is something she shares with her mother and how they’re both madly anticipating its return. “That’s the striking thing,” Romm writes. “It feels personal, even though it’s the least personal thing in the world.” The intimate sense of ownership with characters from television is deemed a ‘parasocial relationship’ in the world of psychology. Meanwhile theorist Boym contends a parallel thread in our nostalgic inclinations: “nostalgia is about the relationship between individual biography and the biography of groups or nations, between personal and collective memory.”
All I wanted growing up was a red landline phone just like D.J. had in Full House. In predictable fashion, over split screens that place the original credit sequence next to the current-day actors mirroring their exact mannerisms with all the warmth of being interrupted from a deep cryogenic slumber, the coveted red phone appears before my eyes. I remember the feeling, but I don’t have the same compulsion to run out and get my own telecommunications device that I longed for all those years ago. That moment has passed: a landline phone is now the bastion of workplaces, call centres and grandparents. Watching Fuller House’s opening credits triggered another memory, a Freudian mondegreen I’ve trotted out for years on end: the lyrics aren’t “Daddy’s waiting to carry you home,” like I originally thought – it’s “a light is waiting,” which makes very little sense. This sentimental attachment to Full House demonstrates my personal longing for a less absent father presented in wish-fulfilment fiction three times over in the form of Danny, Jesse and Joey. To paraphrase Community’s Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), for me TV was the best dad and it gave me a lot to aspire to (see: Press Gang), but now I understand that, like parents, like false memories, like me and you, television isn’t infallible – inasmuch as Fuller House, with its idealistic, assuaging, nostalgic family values, attempts to argue otherwise. Part of the appeal of nostalgia is to delay our acceptance of our reality. Our mortal reality is, like our unreliable memories, fundamentally flawed and fatalistic.
Nostalgia is insidious. It’s everywhere you look, from BuzzFeed lists to themed parties. We can’t get enough of rehashing our not-so-distant youth. The rhetoric around nostalgic pop culture trends, particularly revisionist TV, is jarring, particularly in relation to Fuller House. Writing for Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson argues it was “our own noxious nostalgia that dragged the ABC family sitcom out of its grave, where it had been resting somewhat peacefully for 20 years.” Hank Stuever ups the snark for The Washington Post: “There’s a point where nostalgia becomes more like necrophilia.” Hyperbolic, yes, but these comments have a point: the appeal of Fuller House is the pinnacle of audience arrested development (and the antithesis of show Arrested Development, a sitcom that pushed the boundaries of self-reflexivity in its original and fan-petitioned comeback incarnation—a very different kind of Netflix reboot, it must be said).
Fuller House doesn’t aim to be a work of art. It is very much a kitsch production: sheer sentimentalism packaged as entertainment. Is it meant to be ironic? To quote The Simpsons, I don’t even know anymore.
The original Full House was built on a solid serving of treacle and cheese, the family values and morals that sitcoms were forever made of until the likes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and M*A*S*H saw a turn toward more enlightened storylines that questioned gender politics and the morality of war. While some academics have praised Full House for offering an alternative family unit, it was still of its time. As Austerlitz writes,
After a lengthy detour away from family life, toward workplaces passels of friends, and childless couples, the sitcom returned home, aping the format and reassuring feel of the classic 1950s series while updating their content for the go-go 1980s … products, in one fashion or another, of Ronald Reagan’s conservative resurgence.
Fans of Fuller House, like Emily Zauzmer of the Harvard Political Review, celebrate Netflix’s reboot for its return to these anachronistic ideals in contrast to the present moment. “In the midst of so much strife, we could all use a reminder of the values that Full House strove to teach us decades ago,” Zauzmer writes. “Full House stood for family … Full House stood for morality. Nice guys did not finish last in Full House; nice guys finished first.”
So with Fuller House Netflix is appealing to audiences with nostalgia on nostalgia. The progressive associations with an anti-conservative agenda—stunted lines and a promotional dalliance—does not a commentary make. Fuller House presents a fountain of youth for viewers to bathe in, offering Benjamin Button–like results: remember when our families could be wholesome? Whatever happened to predictability? You miss home? Well honey, you’ve got the Tanners. Cameron Bure—who returns to the Fuller House cast as D.J., the lead – a thirty-something mother rather than eldest Tanner sibling—is an outspoken conservative who argues against marriage equality and for religious freedom. She also has some really public, really messed up ideas (read: traditionalist) about gender roles. If audiences are smart enough to choose what they want to watch in the media-saturated, technologically enabled twenty-first century, the unavoidability of tabloid fodder and a star’s real life actions inevitably impacts how we view a text. Here we have the dangers of Boym’s restorative and reflective nostalgia made manifest through true televisual sentimentalism, catch-phrases and slogans—a strategy not only employed by Netflix or Fuller House but the Trump campaign as well.
Donald Trump is a former reality TV star. The intrinsic link between Trump’s political vision and television is explicit, not merely by his affiliation with the popular medium but in his execution of a dangerous, conservative agenda. Chauncey Devega argues in Salon that the GOP frontrunner’s political narrative built on heroes and villains, the rise of the self-made man and general aggressive bravado was learnt from what was previously known as the WWF (the World Wrestling Federation, not the conservationist organisation). Trump even had a Hitler Youth style theme song crooned by three pre-pubescent, flag-wearing (and waving) ‘America!’-chanting girls (known as the USA Freedom Kids) to the tune of World War I song ‘Over There’ at a recent rally in Florida. At times it feels like Salvador Dalí and Warner Brothers have joined forces to run Trump’s presidential primary campaign, minus any artistry or self-awareness but with bonus misogyny.
Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again!” is written into the subtext of every Fuller House episode, right down to episode eleven’s instance of cultural appropriation where the Tanners throw an ‘Indian-themed’ party. The Tanners and co. dress in turbans and bust a Bollywood-style move in truly ignorant form. As Miranda Deebrah wrote for Brown Girl Magazine, it’s yet another example of how “thousands of years of rich history and heritage are reduced to a party theme for white people’s amusement and consumption.” But, like Trump, Fuller House is clearly fighting against being overrun by ‘political correctness’.
In an excellent piece for LitHub, Kristen Martin charts parallels between Trump’s political rhetoric and Joan Didion’s classic 1991 essay ‘Sentimental Journeys’ about how easily public debate and political myths can be boiled down to ‘good versus evil’ symbolism. Martin states:
In a country built on sentimental narratives—the American dream, Manifest Destiny—Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again,” with its nostalgia for a non-existent past, is clearly alluring to many Americans who feel fear and anger about the current state of our country’s economic recovery and deadlocked political system. Where in ‘Sentimental Journeys’ New Yorkers bought into the narrative that “crime” was what was wrong with the city, in 2016, Trump voters are buying into a narrative that immigrants, Muslims, political correctness, and the political establishment are what is wrong with the United States.
To quote another worrying dose of pop culture nostalgia in the form of twenty one pilots’ rap-rock ditty ‘Stressed Out’, the desire to “turn back time, to the good ol’ days, when our momma sung us to sleep,” is a fallacy perpetuated by Fuller House that’s catching hold of the collective imagination, in the same vein as Trump’s appeal to traditional white-middle-class ‘wholesome’ moral family values and traditions. But like any nostalgic ideal, this idea of ‘home’, of an America that’s oh-so-great (exclamation point) no longer exists or, more realistically, never existed in the first place.
This may seem gloomy and reductionist, especially when we’re talking about TV—come on, it’s just a bit of fun—but by looking to the past and denying our fear of the future, the chance that sentimental narratives will indeed prove victorious is the stuff of propaganda. As “ancient” (and not so ancient) folk turn to stagnant sitcoms reboots, it feels like we’re inching ever closer to Atwood’s Oryx and Crake vision of the future. Actually, keep your eyes peeled to the screen: Atwood’s trilogy is in the process of being adapted for HBO with bleak directorial master Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream) at the helm. The last I read, the Oryx and Crake adaptation is ‘forthcoming’. How foreboding.
Stephanie Van Schilt is The Lifted Brow’s TV columnist.