Nostalgia is one of those words that has been used so much that it has become meaningless. The term is commonly used to explain why we have innumerable spin-offs, remakes, and endless re-use of famous characters, actors, and franchises in movies, books, and TV shows.
But nostalgia doesn't really mean wanting to watch as many shows set in a galaxy far far away, because you loved Star Wars when you were a kid. Nostalgia is a feeling of pleasure and also a slight sadness when you think about things that happened in the past. It also means a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning to return to some past period or irrecoverable condition.
I wouldn't say that is what most people and I are looking for when we re-watch Friends, Seinfeld, or any other TV show. When we reread Pride and Prejudice or the Hunger Games saga. Not even what brings us to the cinema for another Jurassic Park or Avatar movie. We don't want to go back in time or feel sorry for our lost youth.
What we are really looking for when we come back to something we enjoyed before is comfort. Like when we take ourselves to a restaurant and instead of trying something new ask for the same dish we have always ordered.
It is safe and easy. We know what to expect. Despite the possibility that maybe we won't like it this time, we have a fair memory of enjoying it. Unfortunately (or fortunately), our brains and memory are not as good as we like to think, so we probably don't remember all the details. Even when re-watching we get to see it anew with fresh and more mature eyes. We may experience new flavors.
So, it's not only about being comfortable and not having to choose, it also brings you new things. Probably there were details you didn't notice before or jokes that you now understand better because they were meant for adults. Or storylines that now resonate with you, when they didn't before.
We feel like it's a lazy choice to re-watch Sex and the City or New Girl again, but in an interview with Vox Media, Cristel Russell a psychologist that specializes in revisiting familiar media, explained it's not:
I thought this would be a passive behavior. I thought that people rewatched because they wanted something mindless. But it’s usually very engaging and active. They really wanted to be transported into their show but also into themselves and trying to recapture the enjoyment that they remember having. We call it volitional because you choose it. You want it and therefore you are really into it and paying attention to it.
We want to relive that enjoyment that we first had, but unlike a feeling of nostalgia, we don't necessarily want to travel back in time. Even more interesting, re-experiencing a book, movie, or TV show gives you perspective. It makes you re-appreciate the story you have just enjoyed or even your own perspective from when you first engaged with it. It makes you see what is different and similar about yourself now and then.
As Cristel Russell explains:
What I found in my research is that it’s not so much that [participants] were yearning for the past. It’s that the rewatching experience allowed them to appreciate how much they had grown. It wasn’t yearning for the past; it was an appreciation of the present. The deep connection that you make to [the show] provides this self-reflexive moment that you’re like, “Wow, when I first watched this, I was 20. And now I’m 40. And I have kids.” You see it differently and that allows you to be like, “I’m a different person than I was then.”
So, when we re-read a book that we read and enjoyed when we were teenagers we are in a way trying to better understand our teenage selves. As a result, we are able to take a peek at that moment in our lives. By comparing who we are now, what we like and dislike, and why we don't like, we can learn more about ourselves. It's an investigation into ourselves and that's what makes it enjoyable as well.
It does not matter what you prefer, whether it's comfort TV, movie, or book, you're still paying attention, and you're even learning something new. You are still learning a bit about the world and yourself.
Exploiting our "nostalgia”
Although I'm all-in on re-engaging with things we loved in the past, again and again, I'm not so into the gazillions of re-makes, TV spin-offs, sequences, etc. It's getting annoying. It's more than annoying it's oversaturated. Stop doing the same things over and over again!
People say they are taking advantage of our nostalgia, but as I said it's not quite correct. They are taking advantage of our desire for something comfortable, something we know we will enjoy. Something that will reconnect us with that moment in time when we watched the first version of it.
This kind of marketing is simple. It’s all about using old, familiar concepts known for developing happy connotations and fond memories, to build trust for new ideas and brands. Marketers convince us that they’re worthy of our time by associating their company with something we already love.
But maybe that's exactly why we hate these new versions and continuations so much.
In the back of our minds, we hope to find something comfortable that we think we will enjoy. They promise an immediate return in the form of happy memories and comfort. However, what we end up with is frustration after a really terrible movie or TV show. It can even destroy our connection to the first installment. After all, if our memory is frail about it, when we watch the updated version we start doubting why we enjoyed this at all to start with.
It's not our fault. And it's not true. Yes, the Jurassic Park movies nowadays are awful as hell, but the first one is still quite great (I rewatched it fairly recently). The same applies to a million other examples.
Of course, there are exceptions, like everything in life. However, in general, I hate sequels, remakes, live-actions (!), and spin-offs with every bone in my body. I run from them like a vampire from a cross. My experience with them has been 99% disappointing. Hopefully, one day executives and producers will stop producing them and the public will stop falling for them.
On the other hand, re-engaging and re-watching stuff has never been disappointing. Even when something was much better in my head (hello, Titan AE), I can still understand why I thought it was worthwhile and what it said about this moment in time (for animation in the case of Titan AE, for instance).
So yes, let's re-engage with that story you love. You don't have to fear not loving it as you once did or care about staying updated on the thousands of fresh stories being launched every day. Entertainment is supposed to be fun, after all! :)
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Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen.
As I was writing this piece and trying to remember books I have read more than once, it was actually quite difficult. Sadly, I haven't done it very much. Pride & Prejudice is a classic of English literature and deserves re-reading. I had a lot of fun both times I read it. Written with incisive wit and superb character delineation, it centers on the relationship between Elizabeth Bennet, the daughter of a country gentleman, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, a rich aristocratic landowner.
The Sound of Music (1965)
Another classic. This one I watched many times growing up and so did my mother. It was something we shared. I re-watched it fairly recently and it was interesting to notice that there were a few more parts that were there, which I suppose were cut from what I remember watching on afternoon TV in the 90s and 00s. It's a long film after all. It's about a young novice sent by her convent in 1930s Austria to become a governess to the seven children of a widowed naval officer.
I remember fondly being a teenager and watching Buffy with my sister. In the 00s I watched many episodes many times, but when I thought about re-visiting it three years ago, 20+ years later I thought I would find it ridiculous and not have the stomach to sit through it. God, I was surprisingly wrong! Buffy still remains a fun, sometimes feminist commentary on what teenage life is like. The trope of the blonde girl screaming at monsters is turned on its head. She kills them with ease and pose.
It is amazing to go back and rewatch shows and movies you have seen before. A few weeks ago I watched the first episode of Buffy again and it was just as good as the first time I watched it!
I love this argument. I recently started rewatching New Girl and had the kind of self-reflexive experience you described. The last time I saw the series was as a teenager when it was airing live. It's crazy to see my growth through my reactions to the series but also realize I'm just as invested in Nick and Jess's first kiss as I was when I was 13.