Nostalgia is a thing of the past, but not in the manner you might think. Social media platforms have become vast receptacles of our collective memory. Twitter and Snapchat currently dominate the arena of the ever-shifting present, with a continuous feed of what is happening now. But platforms such as Facebook, and especially YouTube, are increasingly becoming digital scrapbooks with infinite pages full of what we want to remember and revisit. In other words, to tap into nostalgia, just look to YouTube.
The recently announced reboots of Twin Peaks and The X-Files (and the rebooted reboot of Arrested Development) speak to either an alarming lack of imagination on the part of creatives currently working in television, or the genius of those same executives who understand the public appetite for nostalgia. The real answer is likely somewhere in between. It seems the idea to yank Coach back into the game has been met with nearly as much head-scratching as the rumored Full House reboot on Netflix.
At ZEFR, we dig deeply into the data surrounding what fans are doing on YouTube and what content they engage with most. There might be no better prognosticator of the public’s appetite for anything — let alone measuring whether the weight of nostalgia for a particular series warrants a reboot — than YouTube.
We ranked ten shows that our data indicates would have a built-in audience if revived. But the existence of an audience is only one half of the equation. Shows tell stories, and the less-quantifiable part of the reboot puzzle is determining if a show still has anything left to say. In other words, are these shows just fodder for an armchair nostalgic in desperate need of a fix from the past? Or, do these shows have something new to say instead of just retreading old ground?
Of course, the likelihood of a Friends reboot is as likely as, well, getting the entire cast to reunite at all, let alone film new episodes. But if the makeshift reunion skit orchestrated by Jimmy Kimmel is any indication, fans would flock in droves to a film, an episode, or anything that would involve the miraculous regathering of Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston), Monica Geller (Courteney Cox), Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow), Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc), Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry), and Ross Geller (David Schwimmer). Kimmel did his best and even that garnered him nearly 18 million views. But we’re not holding our collective nostalgic breath for much more than this:
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
It seems whenever talk of a beloved television show of years past arises, somehow Jimmy Fallon got to the conversation first. The trials and tribulations of a Philadelphia transplant living in Beverly Hills, otherwise known as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, was recent nostalgia fodder for Fallon when the talk show host brought The Tonight Show out to Los Angeles for a week this past winter. The show began with a parody of the credit sequence from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and has managed to attract over 9 million views… and counting.
Any fans of the show remember the famous “Carlton Dance.” In fact, its place in our cultural memory was recently cemented when Alfonso Ribeiro (the actor who portrayed Carlton Banks on the series) appeared on Dancing with the Stars and brought the crowd to its feet, cheering every time his routine made reference to the dance from the show.
Will Smith, a bankable Hollywood star, even recognizes the appeal of his Fresh Prince character hasn’t waned, it’s only grown worldwide. If there’s a way to make it happen, a gigantic audience for a reboot is guaranteed, considering this British audience was even made giddy by a trip down memory lane with Smith visiting The Graham Norton Show on the BBC.
Saved By the Bell
If anyone understands the power of nostalgia… yes, it’s Jimmy Fallon again. Part of his runaway success, since taking over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno, has been his ability to mine social media platforms such as YouTube, not just for comedy bits, but for understanding what his fanbase is excited about. How else can you explain the 30 million viewers who joined Fallon’s recent trip down a memory lane that led all the way back to Bayside High?
That clip is the sixth most-watched video uploaded to Fallon’s enormously popular channel that boasts nearly 7 million subscribers and over 2.5 billion total views. With that much attention paid to this single skit, perhaps saving Saved By the Bell from rerun oblivion is something network executives might want to consider.
David Simon, creator of The Wire, is a genius. Back in 2010, Simon was awarded the coveted MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship. That, along with a half-a-million dollar grant, legitimized what longtime fans of the show had already known: The Wire was much more than just television, it was something bigger. As Simon confirmed later, the show’s ambitions went far beyond entertainment. In his usual grim candor, he considered the show to be a “failure” for its inability to end the war on drugs.
The legacy of The Wire is difficult to overstate, with even President Barack Obama beginning this interview with David Simon by saying, “I’m a huge fan of The Wire. I think it’s one of the greatest, not just television shows, but pieces of art in the last couple of decades. I was a huge fan of it.” Politicians crave consensus and President Obama seems to have an abundance of it when it comes to admiration of The Wire.
Anyone familiar with the show that ended its run after five seasons on HBO, knows that its story structure is prime for a revisit. As YouTube data reveals, with nearly 85 million views, the appetite is there. Former Attorney General Eric Holder even requested a sixth season, with Simon calling his bluff and saying he would be game if Holder ended America’s war on drugs. However you might feel about the politics presented in the show, it continues to linger in the American imagination, with Harvard University even having to defend its decision to teach a course about the TV show.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
If the ambition of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was somewhat less than Simon’s was for The Wire, the show certainly continues to attract legions of fans well after it ended its run more than 12 years ago. The show’s creator Joss Whedon had already developed a cult following with his previous series Firefly (see below), which had such a groundswell of frustrated fans, his film Serenity was greenlit to bring some closure to the upset mob. Since then, Whedon has gone on to write cult favorite horror flick The Cabin in the Woods and to direct the first two installments of blockbuster franchise The Avengers.
Buffy had its own fairly successful spinoff Angel. But if YouTube is any indication, the fandom for Buffy the Vampire Slayer has only grown over the years, boasting an overall view count nearing 50 million, with half-a-million trying to curb their craving just by watching the pilot over and over again.
Are You Afraid of the Dark?
The premise was simple: get a group of kids together, call them the “The Midnight Society,” have them tell scary stories, and have those stories come to life through “reenactments.” The young viewers of the hit Nickelodeon show are adults now, but apparently remain haunted by it 15 years later. Nearly all of the show’s episodes are available to stream via YouTube and that convenience alone has driven Are You Afraid of the Dark? content past 25 million views. Considering none of the show’s stars went on to greater fame, Nickelodeon would have a great advantage over most beloved bygone properties: No reunion necessary; just recast and reboot for a new generation of scare-seekers.
The cult that lusts after a Buffy the Vampire Slayer reboot is so passionate about the show’s creator (Joss Whedon) that nearly everything he’s ever written or produced still lingers in his legion’s consciousness no matter how many years pass from the final episodes of his shows. In retrospect, Firefly appears to be a warmup to the runaway success of Buffy. The show was canceled after a single season, but this hasn’t stopped fans of Whedon who flocked en masse to San Diego’s Comic-Con in 2012 to celebrate the show’s 10th anniversary.
On that panel and subsequent interviews, Whedon has described his frustrations making the show, having it canceled, and has put to rest any notion Firefly will return. But, if view counts alone are any indication of loyalty, his fans are still staring longingly into their screens at the show’s logo, listening with bittersweet reminiscence of what could have been, as Sonny Rhodes serenades them with the show’s theme, “The Ballad of Serenity.”
Six Feet Under
Spoiler alert: A lot of people died during the five seasons HBO’s Six Feet Under aired. In fact, someone died at the beginning of every episode. The show, after all, concerned itself with the daily lives of an unusual family that owned and operated a funeral home. The show was created by Alan Ball, who at the time was best known for writing American Beauty (the 1999 Academy Award winner for Best Picture) and is currently best known for creating another HBO hit franchise, True Blood. In fact, along with The Sopranos, whose premiere preceded it by two years, Six Feet Under is arguably one of the pioneers of the current television renaissance we all take for granted.
After introducing us to future stars Michael C. Hall (Dexter) and Rainn Wilson (The Office), among others, Six Feet Under quite literally drove off into the sunset in its final episode, leaving its die-hard fans not fully ready to say goodbye to the Fisher family. On YouTube, fans have been saying goodbye over and over to the tune of (literally, Sia’s “Breathe Me”) and 1.4 million views of the series’ final moments. (Spoiler Alert: But, really, you’ve had 10 years to catch up.)
Freaks and Geeks
This pick is a no-brainer, considering the show has attracted legions of new fans thanks to the entire series being available to stream on Netflix. A little trickier might be the fact that since the show went off the air in 2000, many of its stars are actually stars, and would be nearly impossible to bring back. Also, similar to My So-Called Life (see below), these stars could not pass as high schoolers anymore (not even you, James Franco), so a reboot would have to center around some type of reunion, or… We’re not television writers, so we’ll leave that problem to Judd Apatow, the show’s creator, who actually considers the films he’s made with former cast members as “episodes of Freaks and Geeks.”
Add the increasing popularity of the show since it was cancelled prematurely to the rising stardom of many of its former cast members (the aforementioned Franco, Lizzy Kaplan, Seth Rogen, Jason Siegel, Martin Starr, among others) to the 17 million Freaks and Geeks-related YouTube views, a reboot would be a guaranteed hit for some brave and creative network.
My So-Called Life
The alarming longevity of My So-Called Life’s place in the public’s imagination is doubly intriguing when you consider the show never even aired for a single full season. Despite its passionate following, My So-Called Life was cancelled 19 episodes into season one of 22 scheduled installments. It was subsequently picked up by MTV (during its Real World heyday, rebranding itself as a network with longform programming, not just music videos) and found the audience it couldn’t quite reach on ABC. Thus, a cult legacy was born.
Of course, rebooting this show would mean luring now-superstars Claire Danes and Jared Leto back to a show they both likely think back on fondly, but only as a stepping stone to where they are now. (As well as updating the story to reflect the passage of time since high school. See also: Freaks and Geeks.) But even Ms. Danes seems to miss it, as she recently shared with (again!) Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show.
As for brands, even Audi was savvy enough to know that including an inside joke referencing Danes’ character’s high school crush/boyfriend Jordan Catalano (played by Leto) in a recent advertisement would play to its grown-up fanbase. (Wait for it and listen closely. It arrives near the very end.)
We never tire of reminding readers that YouTube is a social network. But more than that, it is a platform where what you upload becomes an extension of your identity. We’re not talking about YouTubers, or longtime creators who have garnered millions of subscribers, but regular folks who find content and feel compelled to share it with an audience. Sharing memories of an old show is a shout down through the wires, to whomever else might be watching, that we are dipping into the same well of cultural memory. To a network executive, it’s as valuable as a vote, each view representing another person “out there” longing for the revival of beloved program.
We are creatures of community and social media feeds that need like nothing else. Nostalgia on YouTube may or may not be fueling this most recent wave of television reboots, but spend some time on the platform and you will find evidence everywhere of people sharing the bygone culture that comforts them most, in a place where nothing ever goes off the air.