This concept has come up in movies and TV exhibits from the “Sizzling Tub Time Machine” franchise to the British comedy “Timewasters” to NBC’s “Timeless,” by which Rufus, a Black member of a crew utilizing an experimental time machine, says, “There’s actually no place in American historical past that will likely be superior for me.”
Nostalgia is itself a type of time machine, and TV has typically let white characters drive it. “Freaks and Geeks,” “That ’70s Present,” “Completely satisfied Days,” “Brooklyn Bridge,” “American Goals,” “The Goldbergs” — these tales of fads and household and regrettable vogue selections, with occasional exceptions (“All people Hates Chris”), haven’t made for probably the most numerous of genres.
TV’s wellspring of Boomer remember-when is “The Surprise Years,” the dewy-eyed look again at 1968 from the vantage of 1988, when the pilot launched Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), coming into center college in a generic suburb, his hormones coming to a boil in sync with the bigger society.
Although “The Surprise Years” could possibly be pat and heavy-handed (unpopular TV opinion alert), it was not Pollyannish concerning the outdated days. Close to the tip of the primary episode, Kevin learns that his neighbor — the older brother of his long-running crush, Winnie Cooper — has been killed in Vietnam.
However the recurring theme, underlined by Daniel Stern’s voice-over, is that Kevin is studying concerning the bigger world simply because the bigger world is studying disagreeable issues about itself. To an viewers that shared Kevin’s expertise, it says: Positive, lots of issues began going incorrect then, however we have been simply children, figuring all of it out. We didn’t start the fire!
Childhood reminiscences, after all, aren’t distinctive to any demographic group — you discover them in works by Black artists from Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn” to Stevie Surprise’s “I Wish.” Nevertheless it takes a sure type of privilege to counsel that the bigger world ever had an innocence to lose — that issues have been less complicated and sweeter, as soon as, earlier than they turned bitter and complex.
Your relationship to historical past has very a lot to do with which facet of historical past your ancestors have been on. And the way comfortably you revisit the previous is determined by whether or not you assume the previous is pleasant territory for somebody such as you.
You don’t have to look at sitcoms to see this. The political culture-war rhetoric of nostalgia — interesting to the viewers’s sense that the previous was higher for individuals like them, earlier than their childhood favorites have been recast or canceled — has been as central to Trumpist conservative campaigning as any coverage plank. The “Once more” in “Make America Nice Once more” is doing lots of work. Nice for whom?
All this provides ABC’s new model of “The Surprise Years,” centered on a Black household, a direct sense of objective: to combine TV’s Reminiscence Lane, to complicate our concept of what nostalgia means, to indicate us what it seems like when another person climbs within the time machine.
The main focus is Dean Williams (Elisha Williams), an ungainly 12-year-old rising up in Montgomery, Ala. If this “Surprise Years” had turned the clock again the identical quantity as the unique, it could be set in 2001. As a substitute, it additionally begins in 1968, which the narrator (Don Cheadle, because the grownup Dean) introduces as a yr when there was a pandemic, Black mother and father gave their children “the police discuss” and “a presidential election that had created a racial divide.”
The sweetly humorous pilot, written by Saladin Okay. Patterson, is emphatic that this isn’t a bad-old-days story. Dean, his grownup self tells us, grew up in a secure, self-reliant, middle-class Black neighborhood that set him up for achievement. It’s as if a part of the present’s mission is to say that children like Dean have glad, sometimes cringe-y childhood reminiscences like anybody else, and have simply as a lot proper to get misty over them because the suburban white boomers of 1988.
However these reminiscences are sophisticated. Dean remembers his musician father, Invoice (Dulé Hill), as a suave charmer (in distinction to Kevin’s distant simmering volcano of a dad). Invoice’s watchword is “Be cool,” a phrase he utilized to all conditions — together with being pulled over by the police within the household automobile.
Race isn’t a special-episode matter right here. It’s a part of life. It’s in Dean’s sister’s Black Panthers T-shirt; within the taunts of the bully who picks on Dean for carrying a lunchbox “such as you’re white” (the insult “confuses me to this present day,” the grownup Dean says); and in a key scene, when the information of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination breaks whereas Dean is enjoying baseball in opposition to a white college pal’s crew.
The unique “Surprise Years” pilot is about months after the King assassination, in the beginning of the college yr (when Kevin’s college is being renamed for Robert F. Kennedy, additionally just lately killed). King does determine right into a Season 2 story, when Kevin is solid as R.F.Okay. in a didactic college play concerning the latest troubles.
However the episode is generally about Kevin’s doomed crush on the younger instructor who wrote the play; the one Black character given a voice is a scholar who recites the “I Have a Dream” speech onstage. For Kevin, King’s homicide is one in every of many unhappy issues on the earth that echo his private melancholy.
Dean, like Kevin, is a child who doesn’t hold shut tabs on present occasions. He has a crush too, and it’s solely when he sees her kissing one other boy that, he says, “the anger I used to be seeing on the information made a bit of extra sense.” Nonetheless, “The Surprise Years” makes clear that Dean can’t expertise historical past as background noise to the extent that Kevin did.
At occasions the pilot appears cautious of too strongly implicating its white characters (and, possibly, alienating white community TV viewers of in the present day). Dean’s household learns about King’s demise, for example, from a sympathetic, distraught white couple on the ballgame. Presumably there have been much less charitable white reactions too within the Alabama of 1968 — the yr the segregationist former governor George Wallace ran for president on his personal racial nostalgia message — however we don’t hear these, for now.
There’s a extra advanced reflection earlier, when the white instructor at Dean’s built-in college scolds a Black scholar for saying “Yo’ mama.” “That’s one thing the Black college students try this the white college students don’t,” she says. Her prejudice isn’t misplaced on Dean, however, his voice-over notes, she additionally singles out some promising Black college students, together with him, for reward and additional consideration. “Which can nonetheless have been racist,” he provides. “I don’t know.”
In a single brief pilot, the brand new “Surprise Years” is attempting quite a bit: addressing and complicating racial points, whereas not defining its characters solely when it comes to them or permitting the 2021 viewers a straightforward sense of superiority to previous generations.
All of it goes down gently, with a wry wistfulness that won’t shock anybody who watched the unique sequence. Certainly, at occasions the brand new “Surprise Years” appears as a lot about nostalgia for the comfy sitcoms of the ’80s as it’s about nostalgia for the ’60s.
However possibly that’s a part of the present’s venture as properly. We often speak about progress, in TV and elsewhere, as a matter of advancing into the long run. Nevertheless it can be about who’s allowed to search out marvel up to now.