What’s With The ‘90s Sitcom Nostalgia Boom?
This week, it was revealed that Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser were interested in reviving their hit 90s sitcom, Mad About You. The show, which aired between 1992 - 1999, was one of NBC’s most reliable hits of the era, garnering upwards of 20m viewers. At its height, it was watched more than Friends and its stars were paid $1m an episode for the final season. Nowadays, the show is not remembered as fondly as its network counterparts, with Friends being the perpetual nostalgia favourite and Frasier the more critically favoured show. The notion of reviving it seems laughable, especially given how both Hunt and Reiser are doing rather well without it (Hunt is directing shows like Feud as well as recently starring in the acclaimed mini-series Shots Fired, while Reiser has been a reliable supporting player in everything from Whiplash to Stranger Things). Yet in the current era of network TV, the notion of doing so seems par for the course.
Check the upcoming network schedules and you’ll see a ton of familiar faces: Will and Grace made a comeback, garnering a bunch of Golden Globe nominations along the way; Roseanne is returning to our screens; NBC are apparently scrambling to convince everyone who isn’t Steve Carell that a reboot of The Office, a show that ended a mere 4 years ago, is a good idea; and then of course there is Netflix’s Fuller House, a concept that seems like its own walking parody. It seems disappointing that the elements of the 90s being revived aren’t the more optimistic politics or sturdier economic circumstances but the schlocky comedies.
Even talking about this craze feels like a pointless endeavour. We know perfectly well that nostalgia sells, and even the most hardened cynics have a soft spot for the stuff that made them happy when they were younger. We can all laugh at the absurdity of Fuller House even existing but those viewership numbers and the fact that it keeps getting renewed suggests it still has the power to tap into some desire of the general TV-watching audience. This particular brand of reboot doesn’t do much to the tried and tested formula, they still repeat the same catchphrases and very special episode lessons of the week. Indeed, their sheer predictability seems to be a selling point.
The return of these shows signals bigger desires too. Will and Grace back on our screens feels like a throwback to a time when we didn’t talk as openly about LGBTQ+ experiences on TV, and having such stories on air at a time when our rights are threatened by the highest office has its own distinctive appeal. It can also offer a chance to go back and fix those unfortunate mistakes, or at least atone for them. Go back and visit even the best episodes of the show and you’ll hear more than a few incredibly callous jokes about trans people, and this in a supposedly progressive ally show. Bringing Roseanne back wouldn’t be the worst idea - at its peak, it was one of the most empathetic and well-written comedies on television, as well as the best take on working class life - but it’s hard to view it as anything beyond an ego trip and possible redemption vehicle for its leading lady, who has worn out her welcome several times over.
Still, Roseanne was an undeniable juggernaut in its day, as was Mad About You and everything in that NBC comedy bloc. They’re remnants of a time when the big three networks held an iron grip over audiences and commanded 20m+ viewers a night with ease. This was water cooler TV, the very definition of must-see programming that everyone would talk about the next day. Now, such things no longer exist. Outside of Game of Thrones, there really aren’t many shows on any channel that can command that sort of loyalty. Must-See TV doesn’t exist because there are way more choices nowadays and audiences’ attentions are splintered across a variety of arenas. The most talked about TV often isn’t broadcast in the traditional manner of an episode a week: Think of how Stranger Things became the most talked about show of the year, but that build-up took time because everyone watched at a different pace.
The big networks want to return to those days, but the model to do so simply doesn’t exist. Why settle for that one show you’ve seen a million times before when you can have the world at your fingertips via Netflix or Amazon? Even though streaming services are, according to Nielsen, more likely to be used to watch familiar programming than anything new, there’s no guarantee that nostalgic hunger or aching for comfort will translate to a return to 90s sensibilities. Maybe they’ll record the episodes and just wait until the season is over to catch up, as they do with other shows. Even if this model works, it’s one that has a short shelf life by design. What happens when you need to tap into the nostalgia of the next generation, but you offered no new programming to accommodate that because you were too busy rebooting the 90s? Can you really be surprised when viewers go elsewhere?
That’s not to say that such reboots can’t offer something new or transgressive to viewers. CBS are once again bringing back The Twilight Zone, but with Jordan Peele as one of the showrunners, it has immense potential to be as daring and culturally cutting as it was during its heyday, commenting on modern attitudes and fears through a genre lens in a way that’s a lot less male and a lot less white. Netflix’s reboot of One Day at a Time is a rare example of a show that’s as good and as necessary as its predecessor, taking the family comedy mould and using it to explore the kinds of social issues most shows wouldn’t touch, from immigration and sexuality to trauma and post-military life, and all centred on a Cuban-American family. Remakes are as inevitable as death, taxes and complaining Star Wars fans, and a hunger for the sureness of the past is hardly something we can knock during times of such startling uncertainty. We can never go back - and frankly, isn’t that a good thing? - but maybe we can learn from the mistakes of our past.