Between 1975 and 1983, Steven Spielberg directed Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.
In that same span, George Lucuas wrote and directed Star Wars: A New Hope, produced The Empire Strikes Back, produced and co-wrote Return of the Jedi and co-wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Also in the same timeframe, Martin Scorcese directed Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The King of Comedy.
Almost all of those films were original ideas unto themselves, sprung forth from their imaginations and that of their collaborators. While Jaws and Taxi Driver were derived from books, you would have a hard time separating those filmmakers from the vision they had for the films. We look back on that era as a time when our pop culture creators were working untethered.
Today’s versions of those pioneers don’t seem to be working in the same way. In fact it might be fair to say that modern pop culture, itself, isn’t working in the same way.
J.J. Abrams has done a lot of impressive things but right now he’s mostly known for his work reviving other people’s franchises (Mission Impossible 3, Star Trek, Star Wars: The Force Awakens).
Joss Whedon, who has created some unique pop culture throughout his career, just ended a stint as the voice driving The Avengers movies and everything that happened around them in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Even someone like Colin Trevorrow, whose name might be unknown to the masses but is actually “The Next Big Blockbuster Director,” is following them down this path. His film Safety Not Guaranteed showcased an ability to offer unique spectacle unlike most films, but after directing Jurassic World and taking over for Abrams as the director of the next Star Wars movie, his pop culture pathway has been set for him.
None of this is to say that it’s entirely a bad thing for our best pop culture producers to be tracing over the work their heroes previously drew. Abrams reinvigorated the Star Trek franchise and may have possibly made the second-best Star Wars movie of them all, not to mention dominated the box office. Those movies were going to be made with or without him and he’s proven himself a capable director to helm any franchise.
It’s just a shame that he has to helm someone else’s franchise at all. And he’s doing it because we’re caught in some kind of pop culture loop where we’ve convinced ourselves we only want to see the things we already know we love rather than explore our imaginations to find new things to love.
Instead of trying to create the next Star Wars, we’re going to just keep watching Star Wars. Instead of using Star Trek as an influence, we’re going to just rehash it with a few in-jokes sprinkled in to make ourselves feel like we’re in on the joke.
But this is not a cinema-specific issue. We’re making the same tradeoff on television as well. Call it The Netflix Paradox.
Netflix has all the data on our viewing habits so they know how strong nostalgia can be. They’ve used that knowledge to give us what we want even if deep down we know we don’t actually want it. It’s then giving us repackaged nostalgia that’s not nearly as good as what we remember.
The extra season of Arrested Development? It was…fine.
The Wet Hot American Summer series? It had some moments.
With Bob & David, a reboot of Bob Odenkirk’s and David Cross’s epic Mr. Show sketch show felt like getting back together with old friends to remember how good things were back in the day before realizing we’re all different people now and that time is gone and can’t be recaptured.
Netflix has certainly tapped into some of our better pop culture habits, deep-diving into Marvel series like Daredevil and Jessica Jones as well as their own original work. They should be commended for at least trying to fill every viewing void, even if some of them don’t feel necessary.
It’s not just Netflix whose caught in this loop. Veronica Mars returned as a movie that you just had to make yourself remember happened. Heroes, a TV show no one wanted to be reborn, was brought back as Heroes: Reborn. MacGyver is returning as both a movie and a TV show and you have to wonder just how many people are that desperate for MacGyver?
This isn’t to say that most if not all of those fan-fueled returns weren’t worth it. It’s just hard to look at all of these reboots and revivals and feel as though it was necessary, which then makes you wonder if it’s better to want more of the thing you want but never actually get it. Be careful what you wish for and all that.
The return of Full House seems like a prime example of all this. The show’s cult-esque following has little to do with the quality of the show itself (a pretty run-of-the-mill 80’s sitcom) and more to do with the fact that the generation who grew up watching it is also the generation that laid the foundation for Internet discussion and social media discourse. As such, there Full House memes and Full House GIFs and ironic Full House quotes as far as the eye can see. So in that sense, the nostalgic value kicks into gear and we get Fuller House. One can’t help but wonder if any of the nostalgic excitement over the show’s return will actually pay dividends. Or is it just that the idea of it was what we wanted back, not the actual show itself? (Not that we’ll know since Netflix is questionably-stingy with their data).
It’s something we’ll probably be asking ourselves when Saved By The Bell gets rebooted. Which you know it will eventually.
The recently-announced Gilmore Girls reunion series is probably (hopefully) an exception to all of this. The creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, never got the chance to end the show on her own terms. That she gets to so many years later with a good chunk of the original cast could end up being the kind of thing that proves while there’s value in renewed nostalgia when there’s a purpose behind it.
One can’t help but wonder, though. What could J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Mitch Hurwitz, Dan Harmon and the rest have accomplished all the time they’ve been working on nostalgic projects? What new and unique worlds could they have come up with, free from the boundaries they were forced to work within because of fan service and expectations? There’s still plenty of time for all of them to create new things, and maybe an era that’s reactionary to all of this is coming soon, but it still feels in a way like missed opportunities.
There are worse problems in the world than getting more of the things we like. But the diminished returns and over-saturation begs the question of where the line is between nostalgic glee and actualized disappointment. What the current state of pop culture seems to be telling us is that most of the time the thing you like is already gone, even when you get it back.