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Netflix, Full House, and the Temptations of Nostalgia

4 minute read

If the folks at Netflix watch Netflix, last December they might have seen a chilling episode of the British sci-fi series Black Mirror, titled “Be Right Back,” a kind of high-tech version of the short story “The Monkey’s Paw.” After her significant other is killed in an accident, a young woman hears about a tech startup that promises to bring him back–an artificially intelligent simulacrum, anyway–first as a smartphone app, then as a clone. The imitation is perfect, practically perfect, almost perfect–so tantalizingly close to perfect that it’s maddening, because in the end, she can never get past the fact that it’s not him.

Maybe the higher-ups at Netflix skipped that episode, or didn’t really take it to heart, because we’ve just got the official announcement that it is bringing back the sitcom Full House for a full season. John Stamos will be back as Uncle Jesse. D.J. will be a pregnant new widow. You will be young again, safe and loved.

During the long, rich life that Full House lived on ABC, it was not a good show. But it was a well-loved show, and that was enough to bring it back, because that’s what we do now. We’re getting a new X-Files. We have a new Odd Couple. We may be getting more Arrested Development, and possibly another Twin Peaks, depending how things shake out after David Lynch’s departure. Networks are trying to revive The Muppet Show, Coach, Uncle Buck, and Duck Tales.

Everything you loved once is coming back! Did you have a beloved dog who died when you were a kid? Expect to hear a scratching noise at your back door soon.

Over at HitFix, Dan Fienberg says that if there’s a mania for reboots now, it’s because networks, and their new non-reboots, are failing us: “something is missing in today’s TV landscape that causes a certain probably large group of viewers to yearn only for the pablum of their youth and I blame TV networks, not those viewers.”

I think he has part of a point. A good, original family sitcom might appeal to what Full House fans are missing, and it might recapture some of them. But there’s one thing it will never have that Full House did: you, in your Ninja Turtles pajamas, happy and laughing with your whole life ahead of you.

See Photos of the Stars of TGIF, Then and Now


John Stamos. Though Stamos’ post-Full House career seems to have largely taken place in the pages of tabloids, he has had recurring appearances of ER, Glee and The New Normal, making him a consistent presence on the small screen. He most recently appeared as Connor McClane on the series Necessary Roughness in 2013. Getty Images (2)
Candace Cameron. Though she had a handful of roles after Full House ended its run in 1995, Cameron’s biggest TV appearance after TGIF was in the 2014 season of Dancing With the Stars, where she placed third. A resolute religious conservative, she has also penned two books, 2011’s Reshaping It All: Motivation for Physical and Spiritual Fitness and 2014’s Balancing It All: My Story of Juggling Priorities and Purpose.Getty Images (2)
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. 
Inarguably the most successful of all the TGIF alumni, the Olsen twins spun their Full House fame into an empire and launched a series of successful fashion labels including The Row and Elizabeth & James. Getty Images (2)

Bob Saget. For nearly a decade Saget played Danny Tanner, the doting father on the super cuddly Full House. That might explain why he has since taken up a host of non-G rated projects. From directing 1998’s Dirty Work to his adult stand-up routine to guest starring on Entourage, Saget has moved far away from his TGIF days. (Though he did voice the future Ted Mosby in CBS’s largely sweet sitcom How I Met Your Mother.) To cap it all off, this year Saget released his memoir called Dirty Daddy: The Chronicles of a Family Man Turned Filthy Comedian. Getty Images (2)
Jodie Sweetin. The former child actor moved on from Full House to work irregularly in television throughout the late ‘90s and into the aughts. In 2009, she penned the memoir 'unsweetened,' in which she revealed that she had long grappled with a meth addiction. Getty Images (2)

Dave Coulier
. Since playing Uncle Joey on Full House, Coulier has juggled stand-up comedy, voice work and TV presenting with occasional appearances on reality series such as The Surreal Life. In 2013, he appeared as himself on an episode of How I Met Your Mother. Getty Images (2)
Jaleel White. The man behind Steve Urkel—the most famous of all TGIF’s characters—went on to study film and television production at UCLA. He also continued to act, doing television guest spots and voice work. This year, fans might have spotted him playing Grandmaster Caz on Comedy Central’s Drunk History. Getty Images (2)
Reginald VelJohnson. The Family Matters patriarch has worked steadily since the show ended, guest-starring on everything from Bones to General Hospital to Mike & Molly, in addition to film and theater roles. Most recently VelJohnson has had a recurring role on the Rachel Bilson vehicle Hart of Dixie, playing a small-town blogger. Getty Images (2)
Darius McCrary. 

Since appearing as Eddie Winslow on Family Matters, McCrary has provided the voice for Jazz in 2007’s Transformers and had recurring roles on Freedom, Committed and The Young and the Restless. He most recently appeared as a regular on the Charlie Sheen series, Anger Management. Getty Images (2)
Ben Savage. After graduating from Stanford and taking sporadic TV and film parts, the boy who once met the world returned to role of Cory Matthews in this year’s Disney Channel spin-off Girl Meets World. Getty Images (2)
Danielle Fishel. After taking on a handful of film and television roles and earning a degree in psychology from the California State University, Fullerton, Fishel joined her former castmates and reprised the role of Topanga in Girl Meets World.Getty Images (2)
Will Friedle. 
Once Boy Meets World ended, Friedle continued to work in kids’ television, voicing a number of animated characters such as Ron Stoppable from Kim Possible. Getty Images (2)

Rider Strong. 
After playing Shawn Hunter, Strong continued to work in TV and starred in a number of horror movies. He also earned a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from Bennington College and took up directing. Like Savage, Strong returned to his Boy Meets World role for Girl Meets World and also directed a couple of episodes. Getty Images (2)
Mark Curry. 
The star of Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper hit dark times in the mid-aughts after an accident in his home left him with burns on 18% of his body. The actor later said he contemplated suicide, before receiving support from friends and loved ones. He’s now the star of Bounce TV’s One Love, where he plays Pastor William Winters opposite Sheryl Lee Ralph of Moesha fame. Getty Images (2)
Melissa Joan Hart. Since starring in Sabrina The Teenage Witch, Hart made numerous onscreen appearances, mostly playing herself. Since 2010, however, she has teamed up with another former-child star Joey Lawrence for the sitcom Melissa & Joey on ABC Family. Getty Images (2)
Patrick Duffy. 
By the time Duffy appeared as Frank Lambert on the Brady Bunch-esque Step by Step, he was already famous for his role Bobby Ewing on Dallas in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Duffy revived his classic role in 2012, when Warner Bros. Television brought back the soap opera. Getty Images (2)

Suzanne Somers. After playing the matriarch on Step By Step, Somers continued to work in television, most recently hosting her own show in 2012, called The Suzanne Show, and briefly appearing on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills in 2013. However, these days she’s best known for her controversial health theories, which she has promoted in a series of books on diet, aging, cancer treatments and wellness.Getty Images (2)
Christine Lakin. Lakin has worked in TV and film consistently since landing her role on Step By Step. Recent highlights include voicing the news anchor Joyce Kinney on Family Guy from 2009 until 2013 and appearing in this year’s Veronica Mars movie alongside Kristen Bell and Jason Dohring.Getty Images (2)

That’s nostalgia. That’s nothing new. What’s new is having the outlets and the resources to enable it. The reboot craze is a new iteration of the old impulse to program what focus groups say they want to see. And increasingly, as more past TV is available on streaming, what they want to see is their own past.

I don’t want to pick on Netflix alone here, because it’s also the TV networks doing this. But Netflix has a particular ability to weaponize this nostalgic impulse. With the granular data it has on who watches exactly what, and how much, it can microtarget shows that are ripe for revival, becoming a kind of TV Lourdes where the dead are brought back to life, if you vote for it with your eyeballs.

And hey, why shouldn’t people get what they want? Why be a hater? It may seem sad to me, but I don’t have to watch. (Though I will in fact totally watch a new X-Files.) I don’t know if any given reboot will be good or not; even if it’s terrible, that will make the original no better or worse in retrospect.

The problem is the millions of dollars, the creative energy, the airtime that’s not spent on something else, something new. Great TV shows–including Twin Peaks and The Muppet Show–were not devised by algorithm. The danger of all this revivalism is that the shows could work, just well enough. Making a reboot could be the most foolproof way of putting on a show with a built-in audience, but one whose highest upside will always be less than the original.

That’s the problem with making TV shows based on what you already know your viewers once liked. You guarantee you will never make the next thing that they’ll love.

Read next: Do We Really Need a Full House Reboot?

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