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The Time-Travelling of Television

George Adams leads us on a journey through time, stopping by shows like Gossip Girl and Twin Peaks.

TV shows can act as time capsules. Gossip Girl takes us back to the early 2010s, Friends acts as a souvenir of the 90s, and Peaky Blinders even transports us to the 1920s. These worlds are comforting and familiar; they make us feel in control. The characters in these shows become your friends – they are often more attractive than your friends and do more exciting things than your friends and have an inhuman capacity for devastating one-liners and comic timing that it is not humanly possible for your friends to possess. Yes, these shows are a little escapist, but right now a little escapism is no bad thing.

In a Back-to-the-Future-II-type-way, some period TV shows can take you back to two different eras – both to the era when they were made and the era when they are set. This is extremely useful for cross-generational appeal and profit margins – nostalgia is pretty powerful stuff. This type of time-travelling series is extremely popular, including shows such as Mad Men, and more recently Stranger Things and The Queen’s Gambit.

It is no secret that Mad Men does this kind of thing particularly well – depicting an advertising agency on Madison Avenue in the stylish but sexist era of the 1960s. The plot is rewardingly slow-burning, following creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm) as he navigates the ups and downs of his complex personal and professional lives. The sets and costumes and soundtrack all feel excitingly authentic – watching the show is like seeing the 1960s through the critical lens of the twenty-first century.

Like Mad Men, Gossip Girl also acts as a time capsule for the era in which it was created. As a (somewhat guilty) fan of Gossip Girl for many years, I keep being drawn back to the cutely constructed capsule of twenty-first century life in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The show is a fantasy-world of super-rich teenagers narrated by the blogger Gossip Girl, whose mysterious identity is pretty much the show’s MacGuffin. As a time capsule of the early twenty-first century, it is fair to say that Gossip Girl is hedonistically upper-class but still very good fun. The show embodies the nostalgic wish of some young people for the pre-smartphone life of the preceding generation – Gossip Girl cleverly parodies the possibilities of social media for Big-Brother-type surveillance. The sequel planned for release this year will reinvent the show in the 2020s with a new and more diverse cast, introducing a new generation to the high-octane lives of the Manhattan schoolkids.

Although lesser watched today than Gossip Girl, the cult show Twin Peaks is another example of the time capsule phenomenon. Because there are three seasons (two from the 90s and a third made in 2017) Twin Peaks reflects the idiosyncrasies of two very different eras. It is best, though confusingly, described as a kind of Lynchian small-town murder-mystery surrealist-horror. The plot hinges on the murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), the investigation headed by FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and anyone who has watched it will agree that is seriously creepy and sweet and funny all at once. It’s genre-defining legacy is still apparent today – the contemporary series Stranger Things is very much indebted to Twin Peaks. As a time capsule it features a kind of 50s-inspired 90s aesthetic, with prodigious coffee-drinking, doughnut-and-cherry-pie-eating, as well as fir trees and owls and all other kinds of creepiness elevated by a beautifully eerie soundtrack. Travelling back in time to the world of Twin Peaks is like being in a dream you don’t want to wake up from.

All in all, these three series are only a small example of the time-capsule content available at the present moment. The truth is that travelling to different time periods might even give us a better awareness of the idiosyncrasies of our own era – an era which, for all its shortcomings, could well be the golden age of the television series as we know it, with more streaming platforms and content creators than ever before. It is difficult to tell which TV shows might be associated with the 2020s in the future. The popularity of the shows The Queen’s Gambit and Lupin might suggest that the reign of the white male protagonist in television series is finally over (think Peaky Blinders, Mad Men and Breaking Bad). No doubt this move in television to represent the narratives of people of different genders and ethnicities is a positive sign of the times in the 2020s, and evidence, at least, that we are moving in the right direction.

Image Credits: Matthew Paul Argall via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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