March 31, 2016 by Jason Seligson
It was Don Draper, beloved TV anti-hero, who famously taught us that nostalgia means “the pain of an old wound.” In one of the most memorable scenes in Mad Men, Draper shows us exactly why he’s a master advertising man: he knows just how to manipulate people, to speak to something deep inside them. “It’s a twinge in your heart,” he says, “far more powerful than memory alone.” Aside from being a TV moment for the ages, this scene gets at something profound—about the human condition and how we process stories. That ‘twinge’ that Don talks about provokes something in us, and, when it comes to television, it’s what makes nostalgia-driven storytelling so dicey.
There’s a fine line between feeling emotionally moved (like something that reminds us of our past) and feeling manipulated. We know it when we feel it. But with the recent onslaught of 90s TV revivals, this line is becoming blurred. I think it’s possible, albeit rare, for a TV show to tap into our emotional centers without truly manipulating them. Truly well-crafted sequels, reboots, and revivals should be able to stand on their own feet first before “earning” their use of nostalgia. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to stick to discussing two modern-day sequels of 90s shows: Girl Meets World and Fuller House.
In its pilot, and certainly its early episodes, Girl Meets World relies pretty heavily on 90s nostalgia. My sister and I, die-hard TGIF acolytes that we were/are, have no problem with this. Like countless others, our love of Boy Meets World was what brought us to check out its sequel in the first place. Who wouldn’t want to see Corey and Topanga as parents, or learn what became of Shawn Hunter? These were all good things to get excited about, and valid reasons to tune in. Even in its second season, the callbacks have continued: past alumni have made guest appearances, and past jokes and story lines have been continued and referenced throughout.
Girl Meets World didn’t have to try hard to get its old fans on board; it could have taken the easy way out. This was a new show with new characters, which meant that it also had to cater to a new generation. From its inception, Girl has had to service two different audiences, but the way it has gone about doing so has been extremely smart.
The first order of business was to get the audience to invest in its younger characters in addition to its older ones. And after two seasons, I can’t emphasize enough how beautifully this show has evolved. Even watching the show as an adult, I care deeply about these new characters and have been moved by their stories thus far. Girl still makes plenty of references Boy, but it’s found its own identity as well. Simply put, this is not the Corey and Shawn show anymore, and while that may be a somewhat sad truth, it’s also what has made the show so interesting. Girl Meets World is committed to telling the story of Riley, Maya, and their friends, and creatively, the show has taken the time and invested in their relationships so that the show has moved beyond a simple and arbitrary extension of its predecessor. The show is distinctly different from the one that came before it in that it tells a coming-of-age story from a female perspective, but its heart and humor are one and the same. Pure nostalgia without purpose or story only gets you so far; the show seems to be aware of that, and Girl Meets World continues to strike a nice balance with each episode. In short, it’s earned both its nostalgia and its place as a television sequel.
Nostalgia is a potent feeling, but it doesn’t have to be a painful one. When handled well, like I would argue, Girl Meets World does, writers and performers can capture nostalgia and explore what it means in complex ways. They can reach back in time, to go back to Don’s pitch, accessing the things fans hold close to their heart. They can allow you to feel something without assaulting you with it. Unfortunately, nostalgia can also be used as a cheap tactic, and when this happens, it’s hard not to feel cynical about the things we once loved. Wound or no wound, the connection nostalgia catalyzes in us is so powerful because they are drawing on our own memories—creating an invisible line between who we were and who we are. Think of the shows you loved when you were growing up. You loved them, in part, because of what they meant to you at a certain point in your life. Like Don says, “this device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine.”
Let me preface this next paragraph by saying I am not the world’s biggest Full House fan. I’ve seen probably every episode as a kid with my sister, and I enjoyed it—but it has never been one of my pop culture touchstones, and it doesn’t mean anywhere near as much as Boy Meets World. That said, I’m not all that surprised behind Full House’s revival. I suppose the simplest executive and creative explanation for Fuller House’s existence boiled down to a question of “why not?” And sure, I guess that’s reason enough to get any band back together. To that end, it would also be unfair of me not to consider that for some people, Full House was a seminal show and its return was the greatest thing to ever happen (I don’t know these people, but I’m certain they exist somewhere). But after watching the entire first season, I don’t think the show does enough to earn its nostalgia, nor do I think it’s particularly good.
Whereas Girl Meets World peppers its references to the original series (there are usually one or two per episode unless it involves some special guest star), Fuller House comes out with the nods, references, and “jokes,” which are mostly catch-phrases, right out of the gate. During the pilot’s first four minutes, my sister turned to me and said “it almost feels like a staged play.” That’s exactly what it felt like. Every main character got a round of applause which stalled the dialogue. And the moment when the entire cast breaks the fourth wall with a line about Michelle (Mary Kate & Ashley Olsen) not being there is painful to watch. And it’s not like the dialogue was so great to begin with. It doesn’t matter to the Fuller House writers that realistically, its now grown (and in some cases, really grown-up) characters probably wouldn’t still be saying the same things they said as teenagers. From the get-go, Fuller House throws everything it has at the viewer, in a desperate attempt to make you remember everything, and feel something. But all of it (mostly) just didn’t work for me. It felt like pure fan-service, which is another consequence of playing with the fire that is nostalgia. it’s a throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach.
Girl Meets World is not perfect—and nor for that matter, is Boy. Both have their fair share of cheesy, didactic moments. But I’ve always admired (and will continue to defend) both shows for their extraordinary merits. Creator Michael Jacobs’ is committed to not talk to down to kids, and to tell stories that not only resonate, but reflect their experiences. In Season 2, Girl Meets World had some exceptional episodes tackling Asperger’s, death and grief, religion, and social class. Ultimately, I found myself not caring about any of the kids on Fuller House. The brighter moments really came in seeing D.J., Stephanie, and Kimmy back on screen as adults, and watching them interact together. The kids, while cute, felt like generic sitcom kids. And you really can’t say the same about the teenagers on Girl Meets World.
To be fair, Fuller House is consistent with the DNA of Full House, and I suppose, technically, that makes it a proper sequel. But ultimately, Girl Meets World does a far better job at both honoring the legacy of what came before, and crafting new stories for the next generation. There’s not too much investment in the new characters and the old ones (John Stamos, Bob Saget, etc.) are barely present. Girl Meets World has found new and surprising ways to bring back old faces, and give them dynamic character arcs. But then again, Boy Meets World was always the deeper show. So maybe comparing Boy Meets World and Full house is like comparing apples to…I don’t know, tomatoes? They’re both fruits, and they both sprouted in the same general cultural zeitgeist, but they really don’t taste all that much alike (especially, the longer the shows go on).
When we talk about nostalgia, even if we’re sharing a happy memory, usually there’s a sadness associated with it. In a storytelling sense, nostalgia is just as powerful. When we watch television, we sometimes spend years with characters: we watch them grow up, and we grow up ourselves along with them. A show doesn’t have to be big or go for 10 seasons to have this affect; it just has to mean something to someone. And I have to admit: if nostalgia is the active ingredient here, I do feel there’s a kind of magic in watching Fuller House’s opening credits. I don’t just remember my sister and I sitting in our house around the TV, watching the original Full House; I remember us being those ages. And so, seeing the actresses grow up before our eyes got to me (I’m only human!).
Fuller House might not be a great show; it might mean the world to someone else: and that’s okay! The TV world is bigger and wider than ever before, and if there’s a home for a breezy binge-watch trip down memory lane for us millennials, it’s Netflix. Perhaps, in its second season, Fuller House will strive for something new and different, or at least deeper, or maybe it doesn’t have to. But now having finished its second season, Girl Meets World has made me a true fan. I’m excited to see where the next Boy Meets World tie-in comes in, but I also can’t wait to see these characters go next. It’s no longer nostalgia; it’s just excitement. And I think that is the mark of a true sequel’s success.