Editor’s note: The past year has been filled with uncertainty about politics, the economy, and the ongoing pandemic. In the face of great change, people found themselves longing for another era. The CNN series “The past is now” examines how nostalgia has manifested itself in our culture in 2022 – for better or for worse.
After a dreary pandemic winter, a summer surge, and a deluge of distressing news in between, it felt good to have dragons on TV again.
“House of the Dragon,” a prequel to HBO’s hit “Game of Thrones,” didn’t attempt to reinvent its franchise. “Dragon” ticked all the “Thrones” boxes: bodily mutilation, violence against women, scenes filmed in near darkness, wigs. (HBO and CNN share parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.)
And while the dragons didn’t get enough screen time, it was hard to complain when the CGI winged creatures soared and provided us with a fantastic escape.
A week after HBO’s return to Westeros, fans of JRR Tolkien were transported back to Middle-earth, with all its Orcs, Elves and Wizards, in “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” on Amazon Prime. That same month, Disney’s acclaimed “Star Wars” prequel, “Andor,” began airing. “Interview with the Vampire” and “Wednesday” capped a year that also saw the TV returns of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Spock.
If the 2020s is the era of “peak television”, then 2022 was the year of peak IPTV (IP stands for intellectual property), especially in the areas of fantasy and science- fiction. Successful productions such as “House of the Dragon” and “Rings of Power” have largely followed the tried and true formula of their predecessors. There have been disappointments, like two “Star Wars” miniseries that ostensibly reintroduced beloved characters but shunned them, instead toning down much of the magic that makes the galaxy far, far away so constantly entertaining.
But there were also welcome surprises with “Andor” and “Interview with the Vampire,” both of which retained the core of their original stories but were decidedly fresher, incorporating more open-ended themes around race, sexuality, and gender. radicalism.
Series that transport us to fictional worlds we know well with characters we love are entertaining balms in times of uncertainty. Whether they can hold their own is largely determined by fans old and new. But for all that 2022 threw at us, it was also a year where we got to escape into new tales of elves and vampires – and even those incestuous Targaryens and their magnificent dragons.
Part of the reason so many reboots, prequels and spinoffs have popped up lately is because of the streaming boom, said Daniel Herbert, an associate professor at the University of Michigan who studies film and media. Working in a relatively new medium, companies are “becoming more conservative in programming” and leaning towards established titles and fanbases that have been successful in the past, he said.
From a business perspective, building on existing powerhouses has paid off this year: The ‘House of the Dragon’ pilot has been one of HBO’s most-watched in years, grossing nearly 10 million viewership, and its finale was HBO’s biggest since late 2019’s original “Thrones.” And while Netflix is more opaque with its numbers, the streamer said “Addams Family” spin-off “Wednesday” surpassed a viewership record previously set by its hit “Stranger Things.”
But we, the audience, keep coming back to these familiar worlds because they are creative havens – we’ve been there before and loved our time there. We hope to continue enjoying the stories produced in these fictional realms.
“I think we overestimate our desire for originality,” Herbert said. “There is comfort in repetition… in having clear expectations and achieving them.”
Familiar IP has a dynamic quality, a means of maintaining consistency in an otherwise unstable world. We expect bloodshed on “House of the Dragon” and morbid one-liners on “Wednesday.” Both deliver, even if the scenarios are new.
“Recycling characters and story worlds is a way to maintain consistency,” Herbert said.
Plus, candid storytelling can be “psychologically helpful,” especially during times of stress and uncertainty, said Clay Routledge, researcher and director of the Human Flourishing Lab at the Archbridge Institute, a policy think tank at Washington DC, where he studies nostalgia. .
“When the world is feeling chaotic, or we’re experiencing a lot of personal or societal distress, these shared stories help stabilize us,” Routledge said. “Our entertainment interests can help us tap into the psychological and motivational power of nostalgia,” which can make us feel “energized, upbeat, and socially connected.”
This social connectedness is increasingly rare in the age of streaming, but many of these hit shows have renewed it: “House of the Dragon” was a Sunday night date at 9 p.m. ET. It was as if its viewers were simultaneously tuning in together and reacting live around the digital water cooler.
If you’re a die-hard “Star Wars” fan, you remember the dread of seeing the Millennium Falcon jump into hyperspace for the first time or the horror and confusion of Jar-Jar Binks sticking his tongue out in the engine of a pod racer. You want new additions to the “Star Wars” canon to replicate those moments of wonder and genuine surprise.
But prequels, reboots, spinoffs and the like have a delicate balance to strike – they have to have enough to remind viewers why they loved the franchise in the first place. and enough novelty to pique the interest of a new generation of viewers.
“Naturally, we are drawn to IP addresses with which we have a nostalgic or sentimental connection,” said Andrew Abeyta, social psychologist and assistant professor at Rutgers University-Camden. “Because these IP addresses mean so much to us, it creates high and specific expectations. Nostalgia is a feeling, and part of the appeal of nostalgic media is that they make us feel the same as when we got them. experienced for the first time.
Such expectations can be suffocating. “The Rings of Power,” considered the most expensive television series ever made, estimated at $465 million for its first season alone, may have been too big to fail. Narrative risks were few, and critics of the series felt that it was poorly paced, lacked tension, and could not escape the shadow of Peter Jackson’s beloved film trilogy.
But many viewers do not do it want more of the same when it comes to new chapters in their favorite fictional universes, Herbert said.
“If we were really nostalgic, we would just see the originals again,” he said. “It’s about wanting more, wanting the past to catch up with us…wanting these characters to be up to date with our own current historical moment.”
“House of the Dragon” attempted cultural commentary alongside its escapism with its depictions of traumatic childbirth (with mixed results). “Andor” has been praised for finally making the Galactic Rebellion radical, focusing on a small contingent of political actors working to bring about real change often at great expense. Its protagonist becomes a true rebel as Season 1 progresses, out of necessity as much as genuine belief in the cause (thanks in part to a manifesto bequeathed by a deceased comrade).
And AMC is spawning new Anne Rice fans with its “Interview with the Vampire” adaptation. Set in both early 20th-century New Orleans and present-day Dubai, the series makes sexuality and race central themes, inextricably tied to the story of emotionally tortured vampires trying to be a family and the reporter trying to get the story.
But new adaptations of beloved properties can also cause what Herbert called “perverse nostalgia”: When franchises like “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” cast people of color, some vocal fans reject their inclusion. in those worlds based on adaptations that existed before an Afro-Latino actor played a heroic elf or a black woman portrayed a conflicted assassin who worked closely with Darth Vader (whose iconic voice was provided for decades by a black actor, James Earl Jones).
Last year was notable for nostalgic storytelling based on existing IP – something many of us needed when reality offered little hope.
“People turn to IP addresses they have a sentimental or nostalgic connection to during difficult times for comfort,” Abeyta said. “Nostalgia is a quick and effective way to temporarily push away loneliness and stress.”
These series have kept millions of us company through another difficult year, attracting both old and new fans, helped by free advertising on TikTok (see the “Wednesday” dance phenomenon or the now-ubiquitous audio of “House of the Dragon” actor Emma D’ Arcy’s drink order).
Telling and telling stories is a trend as old as stories, and for almost as long as we’ve been making movies and TV, we’ve been recreating them, Herbert said. As long as we dance with Wednesday Addams, sing with Poppy the Harfoot, or watch dragons dispatching foes with anticipation, television will continue to crank out spinoffs, prequels, and reboots of familiar franchises.