Today it’s a lot different. Almost all of contemporary scripted television is set in the present. There are, of course, a few huge exceptions on the cable networks and PBS. “Mad Men,” “Downton Abbey” and “Boardwalk Empire” are not only unusual in being great dramas on their own, but they have the added virtue of using history to illuminate the present.
With their slavish attention to historical detail and long-since-abandoned social mores, these shows makes us think seriously about how society has evolved over the past few generations.
As the writer L.P. Hartley famously wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” A good TV show set in the past will illustrate how they did things differently and help us reflect on how we live today.
Not all history-based shows are as ambitious as “Mad Men” and “Downton Abbey,” of course. Simple nostalgia tends to be the driving force for most of them. Throughout the history of television, there’s a recurring pattern of TV series being set about 20 years before the date of airing. There’s a theory that the music that’s popular when you reach sexual maturity remains the soundtrack of your life, and to some extent the same principle is true with all pop culture. When TV viewers get into their 30s and 40s they seem to want TV shows set in the period when they were young adults.
Thus, the 1960s saw a raft of shows about World War II (“Combat,” “Twelve O’Clock High,” “Rat Patrol,” McHale’s Navy,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” etc.) Then in the 1970s we had shows about the 1950s (“Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley” and “MASH”). In the 1980s, “The Wonder Years” and “China Beach” were explicitly about the 1960s. And in the 1990s we had “That ‘70s Show.”
The appeal of most nostalgia shows is that they portray a world where life was simpler, the music better and the food a little bit tastier. Of course, nostalgia alone is not enough to guarantee a show’s success. A couple of years ago the networks tried to capitalize on the popularity of “Mad Men” with other ‘60s-themed shows such as “Pan Am” and “The Playboy Club.” It turned out that mini-skirts and sideburns alone are not enough to save a history show; you also need good writing and acting. If “The Godbergs” is to succeed, it will need more than funky Cosby-era sweaters to evoke the essence of the 1980s.
I think part of the reason nostalgia shows have lost their appeal is that the Baby Boomers, the most nostalgic generation in history, have essentially aged out of the 18-49 demographic, and the networks have decided to let them get their history fix from The History Channel and Ken Burns documentaries.
But perhaps even more important, as far as the 20-year rule is concerned, the immense cultural transformation that lasted from the 1960s to the 1980s is largely over. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, you could look back two decades and muse, “Can you believe how we acted and dressed back then?” But a series today set in the 1990s wouldn’t portray an alien land at all. Except for the lack of cell phones and Internet access, the way we live hasn’t changed that much.
In a much talked-about 2012 Vanity Fairpiece, Kurt Andersen argued that although America has gone through a lot of technological innovation in the past two decades, cultural innovation has ground to a halt. He argues that, “The appearance of the world (computers, TVs, telephones, and music players aside) has changed hardly at all, less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century. The past is a foreign country, but the recent past—the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s—looks almost identical to the present.”
With an unchanging culture, there’s no need for nostalgia television. If the past is not a foreign country, no one will want to visit it.