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Vakis Boutsalis: "Nostalgia is most powerful in the abstract"

Two days ago news broke that Ben Savage and Danielle Fishel would be reviving their roles as Cory and Topanga in the Boy Meets World update Girls Meets World and the Internet rejoiced. People are excited. How excited? Savage’s tweet confirming his role in the new show getting re-tweeted a hundred thousand times excited.

When Boy Meets World debuted in 1993 I was an eleven year old with poor social skills, a limited network of friends and a love for Thank God It’s Friday’s televised schmaltz. Corey, Topanga, Shawn, Eric, Mr. Feeny and the rest struck a chord with me so much so that I continued watching them well into my teens–a closeted point of shame at the time that has retroactively been upgraded to one of pride. I remember Boy Meets World as a great show and Topanga is what Jay-Z and Beyonce should have named Blue Ivy.

As far as Girl Meets World goes, I wish it well, but meh.  It’s not that I’m above nostalgia; it’s just that I’ve been burned by this trick before. Ever watch the new 90210, the new Melrose Place or the various Degrassi remakes?

Nostalgia is most powerful in the abstract. We love reminiscing about the movies we watched; joking about the clothes we wore; laughing at the video games we played. If I find myself talking to another 30-year-old and the conversation stalls, I can always bring up a cartoon from the eighties to rev things back up: “I kind of think Papa Smurf was a pimp.”

When a remake is announced, if it’s the right remake, we get excited–even if the history of remakes is riddled with mediocrity. Remember Dukes of HazardMiami Vice and The Adventures of Tintin?

It‘s easy to get excited about an announcement because it’s speculative. There’s nothing tangible to judge, so we judge our memories.

Our youth is one of the deepest wells of inspiration available to us, and can lead to the anticipation of great art and culture. Fashion is a prime example, where what’s old is consistently reincarnated as new. But in those instances where nostalgia is more than just inspiration, when what’s being sold is a faded facsimile of the past, more often than not the results are underwhelming. Remember Transformers, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Transformers: Dark of the Moon?

Don’t get me wrong, Transformers is a multi-billion dollar franchise. Selling nostalgia is big business, but the actual culture that emerges from it is redundant and lousy.

A couple years back my brother purchased an updated Atari console from Costco that had twenty old-school games built in. It cost $35. He plugged it in when he got home and we started knocking the pong ball back and forth. It brought back fond memories. Fifteen minutes later we switched back to Xbox. In a world where I can play FIFA with somebody living in Spain, where I tweet about watching TV and text while talking, how long are fond memories expected to hold my attention?

And here’s the thing about those fond memories–they’re distorted. As much as I remember enjoying Boy Meets World, the reality is it was a hammy family show that wouldn’t have appealed to me had I been the age I am now when it came out. Why would the average 30-year-old with no kids be interested in a family-oriented sitcom about a boy and his principal?

If Girl Meets World was pitched as an original show, with a similar premise but a different title and no ties to my youth, I’d never know it existed. But base it on a show I once loved and rehire two actors who haven’t been heard from in years and all of a sudden Disney has another trending topic. While the producers of Girls Meets World won’t rely on the old audience to constitute the new audience–it’s a kids’ show– they were no doubt banking on this groundswell of support to create buzz.

Girl Meets World is being developed by the Disney Channel because of course it is. Does any other company value nostalgia more? It was only a couple of weeks ago when Disney bought Lucasfilm and all the Star Wars that came with it for $4 billion. Just like that, Star Wars Episode Seven is on the clock as Disney lives out its plan to own every franchise on the planet. Selling nostalgia is the marketing magic on which Disney built its kingdom. It’s why they put their movies in make-believe vaults only to be re-released every five to ten years. It’s why they bought Marvel in 2009 for the now familiar price of $4 billion.

I’ve seen this trick before. It’s boring. 


Vakis Boutsalis is a freelance writer in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @VakisB.

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