The Nature of Nostalgia

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Another weekday night, another difficult decision. What am I going to watch on Netflix? Instinctively I go through my recently watched – back to the tried-and-true The Office. However, in the process I have overlooked dozens of recently added titles that didn’t go off the air in 2013. New documentary series about cults and undercover cops, talk shows from David Letterman and Joel McHale, a movie with the Workaholics guys and many more titillating titles. Yet over and over again, I return to the same old antics of Dunder Mifflin. I would really rather not say how many times I have seen every episode, but let’s just say it’s a higher than the number of championships Lebron James has. Why is this the case with millions of viewers that, even though there is a constant stream of original content being produced by Netflix (over 1,000 hours of content was produced in 2017), we choose to watch the same things on repeat?

Now, there is no inherent problem in giving something multiple viewings. Many films or shows, if made well, require multiple viewings in order to dissect the true meaning or catch a more subtle overarching theme. Films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey could be watched everyday for 100 lifetimes without even scratching the surface of what it truly says about humanity. With all of the philosophical musings and dream sequences, The Sopranos is a rich tapestry of concepts and hidden threads that lie beneath the surface of each episode. However shows like The Office or other networks' sitcoms or cartoons rarely, but not never, contain the aforementioned subtleties and depth that require multiple viewings to truly grasp.

Even so, repeated viewings of certain programs that don’t have quite the artistic merit can still breed further meaning. For example, The Simpsons has been running for nearly thirty years (of which only about two-thirds are watchable) but even so there is still a dedicated cult following that may not keep up with every Sunday’s “new” adventure in Springfield, but do consistently, and at times religiously, watch the classic episodes of the first ten years. These fans have even created their own communities on Facebook and Reddit built around the creation and distribution of Simpsons shitposts. Shitposts are not confined to one platform but are usually found on Reddit, then copied onto Facebook or Twitter, but what they are is essentially a crude mashup of references to a show or movie or various other media. A GIF or screenshot of one joke is mashed up with a shot of another joke and a shitpost is created. The more references shoved into one posting, the shittier the post (which, in Reddit slang, means it is better).

Obviously the benefits of watching the same Simpsons episodes on repeat for ten years (as I have) provides essentially no tangible benefits except the consistent joy hearing my favorite joke brings me each and every viewing. However another benefit is directly related to the viewing experience in that, depending on the age of first consumption (especially if the content was more driven toward adults), there may have been jokes that have gone over a young viewer's head. Rewatching the episode and catching a joke about the Clinton administration from a 15-year-old episode of Family Guy is merely gravy on the viewing experience. This is far different from the aforementioned pursuit of deeper meanings in more artistic projects.

But there is also a scientific explanation for what researchers have dubbed “reconsumption,” or enjoying the same experience (movie, book, vacation spot) multiple times. In a study conducted by marketing professors at American University and University of Arizona, one recurring theme they noticed was the tendency of subjects to use reconsumption as a sort of measurement for how their lives have changed and how they have grown since the last consumption. Some of the instances of what appeared to be pure nostalgia actually turned out to be quite deep. One woman, for example, rewatched Kevin Costner’s Message in a Bottle because the love story helped her work through her own issues of having a failed engagement. For her, it was a measurement of the emotional growth she had made since that emotional event. The same can be said for watching that old Family Guy episode from earlier. It feels gratifying that you have become more culturally literate and understand more of the references.

But even with all of this scientific research in mind, it’s still not a bad idea to try something new every now and then. How do you know that your new Simpsons or The Office isn’t sitting somewhere, hundreds of titles down your queue? That is another problem that is fueling the reboot/sequel phenomena in Hollywood. Nobody seems interested in anything new, so why shouldn’t studios keep making the same thing? If you somehow have no idea what I’m talking about, check out the new Dundee trailer. In previous generations, people weren’t able to just turn on their favorite episode of The Twilight Zone or pop in a DVD of Gone With the Wind whenever they were bored. They had to go out, experience new things and, yes, sometimes be disappointed in what they saw. But that is part of the culture of entertainment. Not everything can be pleasing to everyone, but that isn’t an excuse to just constantly reconsume the couple things that you do find pleasing. It means to keep watching and keep pushing Hollywood until they finally get it right again. Michael Scott isn’t coming back.