The Homage is Not Enough: on the Limits of Nostalgia-First Narratives

In the summer of 2016 everyone started telling me that I had to watch a show called Stranger Things. I was reluctant. The reluctance came from the way it was sold: the entire series was one large nostalgia fest for ‘80s Spielberg, Stephen King novels, and Dungeons and Dragons.

It’s not that I don’t like Stephen King or Indiana Jones or battling bugbears. But I had just finished consuming two pieces of media that banked heavily on nostalgia and ham-fisted homages: the show Mr. Robot and the novel Ready Player One.

ready-player-one-back-future
A poster for the upcoming Ready Player One, which this is not a review of.

I had walked away from both Mr. Robot and Ready Player One with a general uneasiness, a queasiness, the stomach ache that comes from too much of any one sweet thing. In the case of both of these, that one thing was the overdose of both

  1. knowing that I had consumed something whose originality was constantly undermined by heavy doses of allusion and homage and
  2. knowing that I had consumed something for which I, a heterosexual white millennial male with an English degree and a penchant for science fiction and a job in digital marketing, was the target demographic.

When I finally did watch Stranger Things, it did not disappoint me in the way that Mr. Robot and Ready Player One both had. Sure, the entire thing has major IT and The Body vibes and there was even a moment where a character is reading Stephen King’s Cujo. The entire thing is, as Stephen King himself said, crowded with Stephen King easter eggs and nods:

But there’s something different about Stranger Things. Something deeper. More tactful, subdued, and thoughtful.

(Stranger Things is not the only nostalgic work that works. FX’s Fargo, crowded with references to O. Henry and Samuel Beckett and, naturally, the Coen Brothers, is a good example of another show that executes where others fail.)

What is it that made Stranger Things work while Ready Player One and Mr. Robot both, in this blogger’s opinion, come up short? It’s a very fine line, but also a bell that, once crossed, is hard to unring, regardless of whom it tolls for. Continue reading “The Homage is Not Enough: on the Limits of Nostalgia-First Narratives”

Should We Celebrate the Return of the Brontosaurus Like We Mourned the Loss of Pluto?

Everyone knows where they were when Pluto stopped being a planet. Well, maybe not exactly where you were, but you remember the general conversation. There are still Facebook pages dedicated to remembering when Pluto was a planet, petitions to bring it back, disappointment over childhoods ruined.

Ice mountains don't make you a planet, Pluto.
Ice mountains don’t make you a planet, Pluto.

But what about when the opposite happens?

I remember as a child, learning that the Brontosaurus wasn’t a dinosaur anymore. This surprised and confused me, as Brontosaurus was one of my favorite dinosaurs.

It turns out that at no point during my lifetime was Brontosaurus ever considered to be a real thing. Its history is a lot like that of Pluto: someone discovered it, got excited, declared it a thing, and later people said “no, this isn’t what you think it is and we should stop calling it that.”

Othniel Charles Marsh. The guy who discovered it. Or did he? (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Othniel Charles Marsh. The guy who discovered it. Or did he? (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Up until 2015. In June of this year, I read in Harper’s Findings that Bronosaurus was restored as a genus. Of course, in the typical style of Harper’s Findings, this was the only information I received, context-free.

A bit of time on the internet revealed to me that the story had failed to blow up a few months earlier, when Wired, Scientific American, and a few other sites and magazines wrote articles about it.

Here’s what is strange to me about the entire thing: where it the excitement? Where is the joy? Isn’t this great? We can say Brontosaurus again? At the very least, it’s a fun word which makes talking about these animals fun. Isn’t this great news for any ’90s kid who like The Land Before Time and Fantasia and Jurassic Park?

Remember?
Remember?

And so I started to wonder: does this resemble that quote that Mark Twain never said about how a lie spreads across the world before the truth has put its boots on? Does the same thing happen when it comes to nostalgia: only the bad is celebrated, and not the good? Does the bad news about twisted fan theories and childhoods ruined make good headlines and good Facebook posts and good tweets, but the fun stuff, the happy stuff, what’s the point?

But then I realized that maybe there was a different reason for the lack of celebration. I asked friends, co-workers, members of my book club: “Did you hear that the Brontosaurus is a dinosaur again Isn’t that cool?”

And the response?

“When did the Brontosaurus stop being a dinosaur?”

Sounds like no one ever realized it went anywhere. So maybe that’s why no one else is celebrating.