At least Covid struck during the age of “peak TV”. After all, were this not a time when the shows being piped into our living rooms were better, smarter, starrier, more plentiful and more readily available than ever before, what would we have done to stay on an even keel through a year in lockdown?
Pretty much what we did anyway, it turns out. Because the viewing trend of the past 12 months, which few saw coming, has been a clamour for the classics. At a time when there is more box-fresh prestige entertainment than you can shake a battered remote at, viewers on both sides of the Atlantic decided instead to reacquaint themselves with old friends: Rodney Trotter, Jerry Seinfeld and, overwhelmingly, Tony Soprano.
So why are we gravitating en masse towards the televisual heirlooms of the past? Has the world been hit by a sudden onset of nostalgia, as one poll suggested, or have the classics taken on new relevance? Certainly, in the media, there has been a rush to demonstrate that it is more about relevance; we are reinterpreting these shows in the light of our strange modern times.
It turns out that many of them do indeed speak to the moment. In the past year, we have seen Twin Peaks reinterpreted as a foreshadowing of the anxiety age, The Wire as a herald of today’s racial unrest, Scrubs as a salute to hospital workers, Big Brother as presaging a world in lockdown and Seinfeld as an antidote to “cancel culture”.
Then there is the surprise “show of 2020”, The Sopranos, whose renaissance has been variously explained by its status as a prophecy of the Trump era, a newly discovered meme hotbed and a reminder of the joy of physical contact.
For the most part, these readings are spot on. But perhaps those who see present-day pertinence as the reason for rejuvenated viewing figures have confused cause and effect. The Sopranos – like The Godfather three decades before it – is about the moral decay of the capitalist US. It is also about raising brattish teenagers, dealing with a cheating spouse and being slowly worn down by the banal irritations of domestic life. These themes are not in vogue; they never go out of fashion. Similarly, Big Brother feeds an appetite for voyeurism and gossip as old as the species itself. And the social problems unpicked by The Wire at the start of the century are still as stark and unresolved as ever. The secret to these shows’ resurgence isn’t that they are timely – it is that they are timeless.
This isn’t to say that inspecting old TV through the lens of today is anything other than excellent fun. Whether Soprano would have voted for Trump is a question that has provoked all sorts of admirably exhaustive online discussion, as has Buffy’s status as a proto #MeToo-era heroine and Dad’s Army as a harbinger of Brexit Britain. But the ability to find a new angle on an old show is a product of people continuing to watch it, rather than vice versa.
Meanwhile, the resurgent popularity of programmes less obviously applicable to modern culture – Only Fools and Horses and Last of the Summer Wine in the UK, The Golden Girls in the US – has been explained by industry experts as “comfort viewing”. This is surely true. But were they ever anything else?
There are some exceptions. It is impossible now to watch The Leftovers, a drama in which an alarming new phenomenon causes 2% of the world’s population to disappear, without the show’s already uncompromising bleakness being compounded by real-life events. The “holiday economy versus public safety” dilemma faced by the populist mayor in Jaws – which found itself top of the US box office in the summer – feels uncomfortably familiar. And it doesn’t take a sociologist to work out why Steven Soderbergh’s deadly-virus thriller Contagion stormed to the top of the streaming charts last spring.
But, generally, the second life of these decades-old offerings can be explained by a more mundane formula: quality plus circumstance. (The second point goes beyond the fact that we have all been stuck at home for a year: The Sopranos, for instance, benefited from HBO’s decision to make the show free to watch in April, as well as the launch of a podcast presented by two of its stars.)
My current small-screen solace is Six Feet Under, the forgotten gem of TV’s golden age – and not among the shows enjoying a Covid-era revival, despite it being unabashedly about death, dying and devastating grief. Watching it today, has the unprecedented real-world prominence of these issues given Six Feet Under new relevance? Not really, other than to affirm how note-perfect it was in the first place in staring down one of public life’s few great taboos. The reason the show remains as great as ever is the same reason we continue to return to Fawlty Towers, Moe’s Tavern, Wernham Hogg and the Bada Bing!: humanity, and razor-sharp humour, will always stand the test of time.
And while we might get a sentimental sugar-rush from Lester Freamon whittling his doll-house furniture, or the opening beats of Woke Up This Morning, the real appeal of the truly great shows is not nostalgia so much as a certain evergreen excellence. Which, surely, is just the way it should be – as a wise man once said: “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.”