Jonah Hill’s feature directorial debut Mid90s gets released this month and one of the more frustrating things about it, for me, is that it lists the setting as “In the 1990s.” I lived through the 1990s. There was a pretty significant difference between 1993 and 1998 and those could both be called “mid-90s” so I’m irritated that Jonah Hill, who is three years older than me, didn’t bother to get more specific. In 1993 I was an innocent child excited to see the dude I chose for “Kids Pick the President” get inaugurated and by 1998 I was a jaded middle-schooler reading The Washington Post’s special section on The Starr Report. The Spice Girls didn’t even EXIST in 1993 and by 1998 Ginger was leaving the group. You see what I’m getting at; you can’t really fuck around with the specifics of the decade too much. The movie’s been getting some good reviews, but the irritation got to digging at me and I wondered how many other nostalgia properties got squishy with the setting, so I decided to track a few down and see what we can learn about how tied to reality nostalgia series and movies are.
Freaks and Geeks - Set 1980-1981. Aired 1999-2000. Time to nostalgia: 19 years. Due to the aggressively real nature of this series, it’s not entirely clear if it’s meant to be a true nostalgia property but I think it counts. They were very clear about the years this series was set which, coincidentally, would’ve been about the years that creator Paul Feig was graduating from high school.
Happy Days - Set (roughly) 1955-1965. Aired 1974-1984. Time to nostalgia: 19 years. It took the success of American Graffiti for ABC to pick up this show, but once they did it ran for a full 11 seasons. Is it nostalgia? It’s called fucking Happy Days, what do you think? For a generation of Americans, when they remember the 1950s, I assume they’re remembering this show rather than the actual 1950s.
Now and Then - Set 1970 and 1991. Released 1995. Time to nostalgia: 21 years in movie, 25 years in the real world. This is a weird one because I had assumed it was a roughly contemporaneous setting, but apparently they did specific “21 years,” which means it was a double whammy for throwbacks. But 1970 is the real nostalgia here, as the women remember the summer when they found “independence from each other.” Which was a pretty clear rip-off of Stand By Me but whatever, it was fun.
Stranger Things - Set 1983-1984 (so far). Aired 2016-ongoing. Time to nostalgia: 33 years. An intriguing instance of a show set BEFORE THE CREATORS WERE ACTUALLY BORN, the Duffer Brothers are twins born in 1984. So I’m unsure if we can count this as true nostalgia since The Duffer Brothers aren’t remembering shit from 1983, they just watched a bunch of movies from around then and/or are trying to make money off people who do remember 1983.
The Goldbergs - Set in “1980-something”. Aired 2013-ongoing. Time to nostalgia: Approximately 30 years. Adam F. Goldberg explicitly based this show on his own childhood, so this is absolutely a nostalgia property. And Goldberg himself was born in 1976 so, unlike the Duffer Brothers, he can remember the time period in question. Mostly. I’m assuming that ‘1980-something’ trick is to hedge a bit against childhood memories getting a bit jumbled with details like when a specific cereal hit the market that the internet is frustratingly specific about.
That ’70s Show - Set in 1976-1979. Aired 1998-2006. Time to nostalgia: 22 years. You wanna freak out a millenial (like, real millenials, not Generation Z or the Digital Natives as I like to call them) point out that if there were a version of That ’90s Show that would air today, it would be set in 1996. Is it nostalgia? The show lasted eight years but allegedly only covered three years in the late ’70s, yeah, this was rolling around in nostalgia.
The Wonder Years - Set in 1968-1973. Aired 1988-1993. Time to nostalgia: 20 years. According to the Wikipedia page for the show* it was literally created to “appeal to the baby-boomer generation by setting the series in the late ’60s.” A plus, guys, that’s definitely a generation that needed extra affirmation that their childhood was the best and only correct childhood. I mean, they couldn’t have known then, but I am gonna be annoyed about it now.
Stand By Me - Set in 1959. Released in 1982 (novella) and 1986 (movie). Time to nostalgia: 22 or 26 years. Weird for someone to be nostalgiac for a childhood that included child abuse, bullying, alcoholism, horrific burn injuries, and seeing a dead body. But there is an unmistakably nostalgic tone to both the novella and the movie, perhaps because of King’s line “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” And point taken, but 12-year-olds are also literally raw nerves made of hormones and insecurity so let’s not go overboard here.
Conclusion: Nostalgia takes at least 18 years to percolate and occasionally over 30. If someone who was 5 years old in that year is now old enough to rent a car without purchasing extra insurance, it’s probably nostalgia. Some of these are definitely firmer in their setting than others, but for most of them the setting is not what made them interesting or worth watching. Anyway, I can’t wait until I’m in my 50s and watching nostalgia shows for this era trying to give us misty, water-colored memories of discovering porn on your smartphone and accidentally sexting the wrong classmate on Snapchat. Time! It comes for us all.
*Wikipedia is not a valid source unless you’re writing about TV shows.
Header Image Source: NBC