On March 9, 2016

Your worst babysitter

Has there ever been a time more plagued by pop-culture nostalgia than the present moment? Our new TV shows, increasingly, are old TV shows: not remakes or “reimaginings,” which typically carry the challenging novelty of all-new casts and new characters responding in contemporary style to the older premise (as in the short-lived, high-tech modernizations of “Knight Rider” and “Bionic Woman” from the 2000s); but, in several more recent cases, simple continuations of the earlier story, with a desperate subset of the original actors re-inhabiting the roles of their youth—if possible, on the same sets, as though the show had never
ended, or rather as though it were not a TV show at all but an unceasing parallel dimension in which the lives of the central characters went on even as the TV-based transmissions from their planet to ours were temporarily halted.

The purpose here is not to put a “fresh spin” on a preexisting concept but to reconstruct (more or less perfectly) a fictional universe that viewers already know and love. In between new “X-Files” episodes on Fox (and while patiently waiting for the planned returns of “Gilmore Girls” and “Twin Peaks”), I’ve been masochistically half-watching Netflix’s “Full House,” starring once again the adorable Tanner family of San Francisco, still residing in that lovely Victorian beside Alamo Square. The “Fuller House” sequel is, like the “Boy Meets World” sequel on the Disney Channel (“Girl Meets World”), a gender-inverted redo of the prior series, with the actors who once played the show’s children now serving as parents and authority figures within virtually the same formulaic sitcom plots (and with the older performers, whose structural function their TV offspring have now inherited, making grandfatherly cameos).

Needless to say, “Fuller House” is terrible, and deliberately so, with its painstaking recreation of its predecessor’s cheesiness—the formulaic jokes and canned laughter, the overused catchphrases and over-the-top mawkishness—undertaken in a knowing, in-jokey spirit of false affection, the irony subdued so as not to interfere with the authentic awfulness of its recycled family-friendly earnestness. The cynical sentimentality of “Full House” has become, in “Fuller House,” a kind of meta-dishonesty that remains, however, fully dishonest.

It doesn’t want to be good television; to be good would contradict its purpose, which is to embody all the outmoded aesthetic values of “Full House” and thus, supposedly, to bring a generation of frustrated and terrified 30-year-olds back to the cozy, uncomplicated mental space they occupied in the year 1990. This is what “Fuller House” is selling: a brief return to childhood for the early-Millennial cohort that grew up alongside Mary-Kate and Ashley.

There are only two problems with this. The first is that it’ll never work: you can’t become a seven-year-old again, no matter what TV show you watch. The second problem is that, if you grew up watching “Full House,” your childhood was lousy anyway.

Again and again, when I come across nostalgia-oriented Internet content for kids of the 80s and 90s on Facebook and Buzzfeed, I’m a little saddened by the crumminess of the mass-market products that we’re supposed to regard now with such deep affection: today’s wistful memes and listicles center on memories of cheap plastic toys, Disney movies, discontinued gummy candies, primitive video games, commercial jingles, and shows like “Full House”—the cultural junk food of our youth, to which all of us were exposed . . . but, ideally, not too much. When I think back on my own childhood, I feel that the incalculable hours that I spent watching reruns of hacky sitcoms and fiddling with my Nintendo were among the most pointless and wasted moments of my life.

In truth, the TV was always our least nourishing parent, our laziest babysitter. Why are we now expected to welcome back its earlier output as if it were a cherished member of the family?

The reason, I guess, is that the only way corporations can monetize nostalgia is by pretending that our interactions with corporate products—rather than our interactions with loved ones, for example—should occupy the larger part of our hearts. Everyone’s memories of reality will vary, but we all watched the same sitcoms, with the same commercials in between. With shows like “Fuller House,” we’re being told what to sentimentalize: not the private, indelible particularities of our lives but the shared ephemera.

And I guess it works, since there is no true line between ourselves and the companies that sell us stuff—we invite them into our homes every day, in innumerable ways. But the forced corniness of “Fuller House” is so repellent as to serve, ironically, as a true exhortation toward an oppositional set of corny sentiments: do real stuff, love real people more than you love TV—don’t let the Tanner family squat on the real estate of your soul. The Olsen twins have moved on, and so can you.

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