I think that I might scream if I hear that another 90s TV sitcom is getting a Netflix reboot.
I’m going to scream into my pillow in sitcom suffocation before I turn over, open my laptop, and binge-watch the entire series that’s causing this internal turmoil. I will live-tweet the show, even if they’re hate tweets, and when I come up for air, I will watch the parody videos of the original cast doing the “Whip/Nae Nae” in an attempt to twerk out of the depths of irrelevance, which smells a whole lot like Aqua Net.
Why do I do this to myself? Why do we do this to ourselves, “this” referring to drowning our media in nostalgia? Since 2014, Full House, Gilmore Girls, and Will & Grace are among the titles that have reentered our vernacular and have perpetuated the snowball effect of series revitalization. While some assert that this is due to a lack of innovative content, I posit that this spinoff spiral is due to a selfish craving from our subconscious.
Television reboots are juiced with the nostalgia factor. We watch them because they are a beloved part of our youth and because John Stamos still looks damn good. Consider how old you were when Full House hit the air: debuting in 1987, the “millennial” generation, born between 1982 and 2000, were 0-5 years old. When the show ended its run eight years later in 1995, the same target audience was aged 0-13. Millennial viewers of Gilmore Girls (2000-2007) saw a similar tenure, aged between 0-20 years old at its premiere and 7-27 when the series met its end.
This native viewership does not account for fans who caught up in later years by way of syndication, but for the sake of this analysis, let’s assume that watching reruns was a part of their early- to late-adolescence. It is during this developmental period called the “reminiscence bump” that occurs between the ages of 12 and 22 when our memories “loom large” and shape our identities as we write our personal history through experiences. These memories tend to be of a happy nature, and so we crave them during the mess that is our mid- to late-twenties.
The funny thing about nostalgia is that it was once considered a neurological disease of a demonic cause. Now, it’s a celebrated habit among young adults and one that is encouraged to those who struggle with depression. The New York Times reported that those who invoke nostalgia frequently have a healthier sense of self-continuity than their peers and actually feel physically warmer in the heat of a flashback.
Adam Brown, Ph.D., and Director of the Sarah Lawrence College Cognition and Emotion Laboratory, assisted me in theorizing just how the brain could be activated in this way during a binge-watching session of a 90s reboot through psychoanalytic and anecdotal speculation. (Note: All of Brown’s speculation is theoretical unless otherwise noted.)
Brown believes that our addiction to these shows can be attributed to their activation of our brain’s rewards circuits that are associated with the production of dopamine, our body’s “feel good” chemical whose activation is often cited as a cause of alcoholism.
“Exposure to present stimuli, such as classic television reboots, can act as a reward and contributes to these really positive and, at times, euphoric types of experiences,” Brown told me over the phone.
“Revisiting material from childhood still activates this idea of a more simple time, a happier time.”
“I think some of that may just be a psychological effect,” he continued. “I imagine a lot of people have varying degrees of difficult childhoods, but there is something about old memories that tend to be biased towards the positive.”
Brown conceded that the jolly reminiscence bump theoretically comes into play in manifesting these positive childhood memories.
“There are a number of theories as to why we remember those memories [encoded during the reminiscence bump] over other events, I think in part because it’s associated with a lot of ‘first’ things that happen to us,” said Brown from a psychoanalytic perspective. “I also think that the data in times of transition tend to be pretty good. We tend to be moving around more and doing things for the first time when we’re in our early adult years, but there’s more disruption and upheaval between high school and college in our personal lives. When there are these rapid changes, it leads to us remembering those things better.”
That said, spending time with Michelle Tanner could be viewed as a selfish grounding mechanism in our identity. When living “in flux” — i.e. transitioning out of college, your first job, or your childhood home — interacting with parts of our childhood calms our nerves, like eating a bowl of macaroni and cheese. “In the age of digital everything, I think that everything is so immediate and yet so fleeting, and by engaging in one’s history, it at least gives the sense of something that’s sticking around,” continued Brown. “There’s a history to your life. There is a bigger narrative: This is where I came from. Not the show itself, but the show being a symbol of a particular time may add a sense of permanence in a time that is so in flux.”
“In the age of digital everything, I think that everything is so immediate and yet so fleeting, and by engaging in one’s history, it at least gives the sense of something that’s sticking around,” Brown added. “There’s a history to your life. There is a bigger narrative: This is where I came from. Not the show itself, but the show being a symbol of a particular time may add a sense of permanence in a time that is so in flux.”
For most young adults, the setting of their original viewership of a favorite childhood show was an after-school treat or a Saturday morning routine that would help melt away stresses of learning geometry. Brown seconded my notion that this mental vacation can be activated simply by listening to a show’s theme song given music’s proven power as a trigger of memory. He witnesses this phenomenon occur in his own life while watching Sesame Street with his son.
“It definitely cues memories in a very powerful way having had a long hiatus from being exposed to this kind of stimuli,” he says, recalling his emotions as he listens to the show’s theme song now. “Suddenly, you’re thinking about things that you haven’t thought about in a really long time. I don’t think that it’s limited to making people feel happy.”
Memory reconsolidation, a largely debated biochemical process in the brain where our mental representation of events are updated each time that we recall them to mind, comes into play when considering how revivals affect our original memories of these series. This reconsolidation theory asserts the idea that we remember the last time that we remembered the memory, not the original memory itself, meaning that the emotions that surface while watching the reboot might taint those from our experience while watching the original.
“So you have all of these people watching these old shows, probably reminiscing and remembering old things, but within this new context,” said Brown. “Obviously, the act of hearing this old music and remembering these things — maybe watching it with new characters — will not only impact on how the person is doing now, but how it can potentially alter their childhood memories because they are sort of blending very similar elements from their past, but in a way that is new and novel and totally in a different context.”
Additionally, the social media aspect of a show’s fandom might affirm our connectedness to a peer group in a way that’s unique to the generation that was raised by technology, but it likely does not substitute for real person-to-person interaction.
“There’s always this fine line that I’m observing among millennials, which is the duality of being so hyperconnected, but at the same time, often feeling pretty alone and isolated,” said Brown. “I do think people are using television and media and online content as a cultural platform to engage with one another. I think that can actually increase things like social connection and social rapport. I definitely think that it’s shaping a cultural landscape, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into social-emotional benefits of spending time with other people.”
Removing ourselves from society for entire weekends at a time to binge-watch an entire series must have its psychological and physiological drawbacks as well. I questioned if our brains are capable of reaching a flatline that I termed a “binge-watching plateau.”
“As a species, we habituate. It may have sounded crazy to watch more than an hour of television at one point, but now that threshold is significantly higher when it was made accessible to us,” responded Brown. So, I don’t know about a ‘plateau,’ but I think the threshold continues to increase and increase. There’s a habituation effect, and I’m not entirely sure what that will do to cognition.”
Technology and the ways that culture interacts with it are moving at such a rapid pace that psychologists have been able to study regarding various phenomenon. A 2014 study attempted to discern whether those who frequently binge-watch series are more likely to be depressed, but platform updates rolled in, the autoplay feature was adapted, and there were too many variables in the data to find a strong enough correlation either way. A more recent study from 2016 attributes autoplay as the root cause of facilitating binge-watching but that our own guilt about procrastination can combat it if we let it.
So what do we do as the orders for more revivals roll in? Do we sacrifice the apparent physical and emotional warmth that courses through our bodies as a therapeutic result, or do we demand that the content creators in Hollywood provide us with a quality escape from everyday realities that we’d like to sugarcoat, if only for 22 minutes at a time? I suppose that as long as we remember to shower, bingeing our nostalgia can’t all be that bad.