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On Nostalgia & the Home in “Fuller House”

Nostalgia-TV has had a recognizable presence in the American televisual landscape for the last decade – from Hawaii Five-O (1968 – 1980, 2010 – present) to Dallas (1978- 1991, 2012 – 2014), and beyond – but in recent years, producers and networks have turned to reboots and revivals more than ever before, as the film industry follows suit. This trend towards remakes and spin-offs seems to reflect an economic model – one that depends on a preexisting audience as an example of profit potential – but nostalgia’s marketability extends beyond those parameters. As a result of revisiting an idealized past, nostalgia-TV relies on capturing the attention of viewers for whom the past is romanticized and may represent a more stable time. In particular, the recent rebooting of popular family and child-oriented 90’s series seems to tap into a specific audience with newfound political and economic power. Netflix’s Fuller House (2016 – present), a reboot of Full House (ABC, 1987 – 1995), offers an example of a series intended to rely on a passive and non-critical viewer, who sentimentalizes the memories of their childhood and the domestic space of their past. Netflix appears to have a particular interest in re-envisioning popular 90’s children’s shows, with their forthcoming talk show series Bill Nye Saves the World, a tribute to PBS’ Bill Nye, the Science Guy (1993 – 1998), and The Magic School Bus 360°, a digitally updated version of the Canadian-American animated series The Magic School Bus (PBS, 1994 – 1997) 1, 2 . Beyond the lack of economic risk that remakes deliver for Netflix, the recent proliferation of reboots seems to be due, at least in part, to the marketability of nostalgia to a fragmented and disenchanted portion of young adults for whom the past is idealized. This relationship between creator and consumer is further complicated by Netflix’s ability to use data to decipher what subscribers are interested in viewing. Partially as a result of the datafication of users, Netflix debuted Fuller House on February 26, 2016, the Full House spin-off series that creator Jeff Franklin had been pitching to networks for over seven years 3 .

Full House, which originally aired on ABC from September 22, 1987 to May 23, 1995, tells the story of Danny Tanner (Bob Saget), a widower, and his immediate and extended family and friends. Along with his best friend Joey (Dave Coulier), and brother-in-law Uncle Jesse (John Stamos), Danny raises his three daughters in their home in San Francisco. Each episode follows a similar plot pattern; while the extended Tanner family have their issues, nearly every episode comes to a calm resolution in the living room, where this non-traditional family gathers on the couch to talk things out and discuss what lessons they’ve learned. The living room, kitchen, and children’s rooms serve as spaces in which the viewer can transmit themselves into the construction of the idealized American home. Fuller House continues to use these exact spaces as sites of nostalgic recognition, where the now adult viewer can embrace their sentimentalized past.

Fuller House follows Danny Tanner’s eldest child DJ Tanner-Fuller (Candace Cameron Bure), who is now a widow herself and raising three sons. The series chronicles a new construction of the Tanner family, as DJ moves back into her childhood home and raises her children with her sister Stephanie Tanner (Jodie Sweetin) and best friend Kimmy Gibbler (Andrea Barber), who has a teenage daughter herself. This return home is reflective of an economic condition that many young adults can relate to, and it also romanticizes the childhood home, which, in the case of Fuller House, remains largely unchanged. This lack of change not only serves as a comforting antidote for DJ’s challenging adult years, but as a relief for viewers who may feel disillusioned by the current social and economic conditions of the time.

In The Nostalgic Revolution Will Be Televised by media scholar Ryan Lizardi, a chapter from Remake Television: Reboot, Re-use, Recycle (edited by Carlen Lavigne), Lizardi examines the ways in which nostalgia-TV constructs an audience void of critical engagement with the contemporary media product or its relation to the past or its formative conception 4 :

“Contemporary media trends have increased the tendency to construct nostalgic subjects as subjectively fixed on their own affectively charged media pasts. These viewing subjects are not encouraged to be engaged citizens who can compare the past to the present and gain knowledge from the juxtaposition of continuities and discontinuities. Rather, the consumer of televisual nostalgic media is presented with a flattened distinction between the past and the present. Texts and brands beloved from the past are presented as persistently relevant and activate a yearning for an eternal return to the same,” (37).

Lizardi argues that the nostalgic media product erases almost any meaningful social or historical context, and that the necessary release of childhood texts is subverted by “consistently encouraging the consumption of their contemporary remake counterparts,” (37). Though this notion that nostalgia-TV discourages the release of one’s past – particularly childhood – may at first appear inconsequential, the longing for audience members to return to adolescent texts signals a resistance to change. And the impact of this regressive attitude surely has the potential to percolate into other aspects of society and personhood, beyond the individualized TV- watching experience.

In Inside Prime Time 5 , media scholar and sociologist Todd Gitlin argues that while remakes have their economic benefits, they also reflect an individual and societal “hunger for a stable world,” (77). In Fuller House it is the return to the domestic space that signifies this stability, as the home is coded as safe and nearly unaffected by time. The series rarely brings the characters outside of the home, creating a vacuum in which social and political circumstance is invisible. Additionally, change is merely represented through the alteration of the family dynamic, rather than the transformation of the world outside of the home. Much like the original series, Fuller House’s emphasis on family within the domestic space illustrates Lizardi’s notion that nostalgia-TV constructs a flattened and passive relationship between the viewer and the socio-political context of the series’ past and present.

The immediate, nearly duplicate relationship between Full House and Fuller House is established in the series theme song and title sequence, in which aspects of the original opening are remixed for a present-day audience that affectionately identifies with the series. The opening song features the same lyrics as the original, but a new singer and tempo change give it a modern-pop twist. The title’s identical yellow font hovers above the Golden Gate Bridge – a near replica of the original opening – and furthermore, the name of the series itself is only slightly altered.

The audio-visual introduction of the spin-off immediately signals to audience members that the show intends to uphold pre-existing iconography that’s intrinsic to the original conception of the series. In addition to the visual and auditory consistency of the show (which similarly features laughter and “awes” from a live audience) the characterizations, stories, and plot structures follow an established formula which fans are not only familiar with, but likely expect to be upheld.

Though the series’ original adult cast members are only featured as guest stars in Fuller House, their returns in various episodes stand in as reminders of the ways in which the world of Full House remains unchanged. Danny, Joey, Uncle Jesse, and Aunt Becky (Lori Loughlin) each return a few times in the 13-episode series and re-establish their dominant and fixed character types. Though new lead characters are introduced to the series as DJ’s three sons and Kimmy’s daughter, the periodic returns of the older cast members indicate that many things are still unchanged despite the progression of the household dynamics. Though twenty years have passed since the show’s conclusion, Uncle Jesse remains just as obsessed with Elvis Presley and Joey is still a complete goofball. In addition to Fuller House’s reliance on the return of these recognizable characters, the focus of the home (specifically the unchanged home) is a significant aspect of the show’s production of nostalgia.

Both Full House and Fuller House predominantly take place in the private domestic space. The characters are most often seen inside the home, which establishes a sense of safety and seclusion from the outside world. Many of the episodes from the original series’ eight season run conclude in the living room – a convention which is maintained in the spin-off series. Six of the 13 episodes’ end in the living room, two in a bedroom, and one in the kitchen. Of the episodes that come to an end outside of the literal walls of the home, only three end in the family yard; one in the front yard, and two in the back. The dependence on the domestic space seems to not only be a production choice based on cost, but one which reaffirms traditional family values and conceptions of the American home.

In Television, Memory, and Nostalgia 6 , film and television scholar Amy Holdsworth points out the close relationship that nostalgia and television both have to the home (97). While young fans of the original Full House most likely watched the series in their childhood living rooms, as they grew up (along with the cast) TV-watching trends evolved substantially. Now, the contemporary viewer of Fuller House may be watching the series on a laptop in their bed or on their phone as they’re taking public transportation to work. But despite such significant changes in the life of the audience member, the living room in the series is unaffected by the passing of time. Fans can find comfort in recognizing the blue and white couch in the middle of the Tanner living room, the dark wood staircase in the background, and the art that covers the walls. Not only does the set remain mostly the same, but the characters and the episode structure does as well. In regards to nostalgia’s dynamic with television, time, distance, and the home, Holdsworth writes:

“As a form of longing that does not seek restoration, it is balanced in the play between the past and present, sameness and difference, recognition and estrangement. This is a dynamic which similarly captures the iterative motions of television as an ebb and flow, moving back and forth,” (97).

In the worlds of Full and Fuller House, sameness mostly endures despite the constantly changing outside world. Though this style of nostalgia-inducing TV is marketable in part because of its balance “between the past and present,” Netflix also had the benefit of seeing the success of a pre-existing spin-off series that was similarly manufactured.

Boy Meets World (1993 – 2000) which also originally aired on ABC and then lived on in syndication, was followed by Girl Meets World (2014 – present) a spin-off series airing on Disney Channel. Similar to Fuller House, Girl Meets World tells the story of the now-adult- once-adolescent cast of the original series, who have a child of their own. Interestingly, both spin-offs also focus more on women and girls than their foundational texts, though they do mainly uphold the traditional values of the original series’. While Girl Meets World’s programming on Disney Channel signals relevance for a more youthful audience, rather than nostalgic adults, the series provided a successful example of the type of spin-off Full House creator Jeff Franklin was pitching to networks 7 . In addition to the proven success of a similar spin-off series, Netflix is also able to utilize subscriber data to develop a slate of original content that their audience is theoretically interested in.

Neta Alexander’s Catered to Your Future Self: Netflix’s “Predictive Personalization” and the Mathematization of Taste, a chapter from The Netflix Effect: Technology and Entertainment in the 21st Century 8 , examines CineMatch, Netflix’s first algorithm designed to determine subscriber taste and provide recommendations for users. In the chapter Alexander explains that Netflix creates original content based on the data collected from the site’s subscribers/viewers. Though most of the company’s analytics and data-driven information is kept completely under-wraps, one can assume that the decision to produce Fuller House, as well as the Bill Nye and Magic School Bus spin-off shows, is due to Netflix’s ability to produce a quantifiable measurement of viewer’s longing for the past. Based on the spin-off’s popularity on social media, coupled with the fact that it was picked up for a second season, it seems that Fuller House was quite successful, despite the inability to know the actual series ratings as a result of Netflix’s secretive policies.

Based on a study done by Variety during the summer of 2015, Fuller House was the most talked about reboot in development online, followed by The X-Files, The Fresh Prince of Bel- Air, and Xena: Warrior Princess. The study examined the popularity of television reboots in development, television reboots not in development, and movie-to-TV reboots spanning mentions across over 600,000 websites between June and September 9 . Susanne Ault of Variety writes, “In the sea of nostalgic TV reboots in the works, “Fuller House” is riding the biggest wave of online buzz” – a wave which seemingly sustained itself enough for Fuller House to continue on for a second season.

The show’s sophomore season debuted on Netflix on December 9, 2016. The second season is “holiday-themed,” featuring episodes centered around Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve 10 . As an example of a recognizably nostalgic text, the decision to focus multiple episodes on holidays – which culturally signify family, tradition, and the home – is an fascinating and unsurprising choice. It seems that beyond the familiar ways in which Fuller House produces comfort and stability for their viewer (through constructions of the unchanging domestic space, family structure/characters, and formulaic storylines) season two attempts to take the return to childhood memories one step further by incorporating stories that revolve around holidays celebrated in the family home.

Returning to Ryan Lizardi’s examination of nostalgic texts and uncritical viewership in The Nostalgic Revolution Will Be Televised, Lizardi points to the existence of what he calls “playlist pasts:”

“…remakes and other nostalgic television programming/advertising mark an individual and solipsistic yearning that is flattened on and focused through a mediated history by constructing our past as comprising only the constellations of text we individually loved as children, which I am calling our ‘playlist pasts.’ We may all have a different ‘playlist,’ but repetitively consuming this type of media encourages a melancholic concentration of libidinal energy of the individual nostalgic text and takes focus away from a comparative view of history,” (37).

It seems that by focusing on individualistic experiences – pulling together a variety of childhood texts that constitute personalized “playlist pasts” – the viewer becomes unable to examine the text beyond their own singular experience. This individualized and highly subjective relationship between the nostalgic viewer and nostalgic text, coupled with the reboot’s near-elimination of temporal context, creates not only an uncritical viewer, but one who may be incapable of looking outside the self.

Aside from the concerns brought about by what Lizardi refers to as a “subjective hypernostalgic worldview,” (40), what about the issue of stasis? If viewers insist on returning to the past – specifically an idealized version of their childhood – what does this imply about the individual and society as a whole? Beyond the marketability of nostalgia, why are creators and consumers constantly referring back to stories that have already been told, with characters that are readily identifiable? Why do these reboots avoid commenting on the socio-political changes that occurred while the series was off-air? And furthermore, why are those now nostalgic adults who were children in the 1990’s being aimed at as ideal audience members, most notably by Netflix?

In Left in the Past: Radicalism and the Politics of Nostalgia 11 , sociologist Alastair Bonnet references the “dangers of stasis, or failure to change,” in his examination of nostalgia, society, and politics (3). If the television texts being revisited time and time again remain unchanged, and if their relationship to history remains unchanged, then is the viewer actively challenging the necessity of change as well? And if the audience does find comfort in the nostalgic media text and remains somewhat stable and fixed, is this lack of inertia in the best interest of television producers and networks?

It seems that nearly every few weeks or so a new reboot is announced. Recently, reboots are more often than not tailored to young adults, such as the That’s So Raven spin-off 12 . This target audience, in particular, has newfound purchasing power and political influence, yet may find themselves disenchanted by their own instability. The young-adult audience’s possible longing for a return to more comfortable times is supported by the values and structures of Fuller House and nostalgic shows like it, bringing the young-adult back into their comfortable and unchanging childhood home. Within the domestic space DJ Tanner-Fuller is safe and sheltered from the outside world, which is constantly evolving and unstable. Fuller House’s focus on DJ’s homecoming not only reflects real contemporary economic concerns, but also a longing for stability that resonates with young adults across the country.

While Netflix and other subscription providers and networks are scrambling to program reboots because of their built in audience and nostalgic-marketability, what is the risk? If the current trend of audience members yearning for their idealized pasts endures, then reboots and remixes of popular television series will remain economically viable for networks and studios. The question, then, remains: if viewers continue longing for the past and remain resist to change – and producers and networks continue to cater to these audiences – what will this cycle of nostalgia impact beyond the interpersonal experience? How will this desire for stability continue to shape not only television programming, but our world at large?

 

Sources:

  1. Miller, Liz Shannon. “’Bill Nye Saves the World’ to Give Netflix a New Take on Talk Shows.” 31 Aug. 2016. Web. 28 Sept. 2016
  2. Jensen, Elizabeth. “Netflix Orders New Children’s Show Based on ‘Magic School Bus’.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 June 2014. 1 Nov. 2016
  3. Sage, Alyssa. “’Fuller House’ Debuts on Netflix: Fans React to the Hit Sitcom Reboot.” Variety. N.p., 26 Feb. 2016. Web. 1 Nov. 2016.
  4. Lizardi, Ryan. “The Nostalgic Revolution Will Be Televised.” Remake Television: Reboot, Re-use, Recycle. Carlen Lavigne. Lanham: Lexington, 2014. 37-51. Print.
  5. Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon, 1983. Print.
  6. Holdsworth, Amy. Television, Memory, and Nostalgia. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.
  7. Yahr, Emily. “‘Girl Meets World’ Review: Sorry, Teens of the ‘90s, This Spin-off is Not for You: The Good News Is That Modern-day Tweens Might Like This ‘Boy Meets World’ Update.” The Washington Post. p., 28 June 2014. Web.
  8. McDonald, Kevin, and Daniel Smith-Rowsey, eds. The Netflix Effect: Technology and Entertainment in the 21st N.p.: Bloomsbury, 2016. Print
  9. Ault, Susanne. “’House’ Full of Buzz: Social-media Activity Indicates That the Tidal Wave of TV Nostalgia Will Break Well for Some Series, but Not Others.” Variety 23 Sept. 2015: 51. Business Insights: Essentials. Web 1 Nov. 2016.
  10. Khatchatourian, Maane. “‘Fuller House’ Season 2 Gets Premiere Date.” Variety. N.p., 21 Sept. 2016. Web. 1 Nov. 2016.
  11. Bonnett, Alastair. Left in the Past: Radicalism and the Politics of Nostalgia. New York: Continuum. 2010. Print
  12. O’Connell, Michael. “Raven-Symone Exiting ‘The View’ as Disney Eyes ‘That’s So Rave’ Reboot.” The Hollywood Reporter. p., 27, Oct. 2016. Web. 1 Nov. 2016.
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