This week, Sophie Gilbert writes in the Atlantic about the trend for Netflix teen dramas to “reject modernity” by embracing a retro aesthetic deeply at odds with contemporary teen culture. According to Gilbert, this aesthetic choice, seen in shows as diverse as The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Sex Education, and I’m Not Okay with This, isn’t just a creative decision but symptomatic of a cultural psychosis that refuses to deal with our fractured reality and instead wants to escape into an idealized past. However, Gilbert’s conception of history stretches no further than her own lifetime, so she sees the shockingly postmodern and new in cultural trends that have always been with us.
Many of Netflix’s teen dramas—a loose category, to be sure, since some are actually comedies, and others aren’t even about chronological teenagers—appear to take place in an aesthetic neverland in which elements of the past and present intermingle and modern technology is either never seen or rarely used. For example, I genuinely though Sex Education was set in the 1980s until someone took out a smartphone thanks to the costume and set design. Sabrina has no modern technology at all and could take place any time between the 1950s and now, given the midcentury Gothic aesthetic. Gilbert also notes that many of the shows mash up geographical distinctions as well, so that the British schoolkids of Sex Education wear American-style letter jackets and seem to have American-style cliques.
It’s worth noting that this aesthetic choice is hardly confined to Netflix, or to teen dramas. Riverdale, like Sabrina, combines midcentury style with modern concerns. The CW’s superhero shows trade in reimagined versions of twentieth century heroes, in a retro-future fantasy world. The late Batman-adjacent Gotham notably stocked its 2010s urban center with 1980s cars and fashions. Legion, late of FX, was perhaps the worst offender, creating a bizarre world where the modern era is also somehow the 1970s and its characters flashed back to previous decades that were themselves pastiches of still earlier decades. Then, the whole thing wrapped itself in a bonkers retro-future sci-fi crazy-quilt.
According to Gilbert, though, these aesthetic choices aren’t meant simply to invoke the past but rather to provide an escape to a romantic memory of a past that never was:
More and more Netflix originals are defined by their idealized depiction of the past, even when they exist in the present. In a world where Sesame Street is confronting homelessness, mass incarceration, and the opioid epidemic, viewers can load up Netflix and be soothed by a cultural landscape where kids still freewheel through small towns, main streets still have diners, and people still interact face-to-face, unmediated by screens.
This isn’t true. Most of the shows that use the pastiche style—except for Stranger Things, which is nothing but pastiche—do so to deconstruct the image we have of the past. Sabrina and Riverdale, for example, both use the candy-colored pop culture memory of 1960s sitcoms as a counterpoint to the darkness of the stories. The aesthetics work to comment on the action and vice versa. Even the shows with 1980s aesthetics seem to be self-consciously commenting on the relative innocence of the John Hughes movies they ape by contrasting those pop culture touchstones with more modern ethical and sexual concerns.
At least Gilbert notes in a halfhearted way that there are also practical reasons for a show not to be too tied to this particular cultural moment. First, it’s boring to watch characters type at each other instead of talk, and more importantly, Netflix shows need to be evergreen, to watch today, next month, or three years from now. Setting them in a stylized world means that they don’t date as fast. They become a fantasy no less (un)realistic than Game of Thrones. There is no law saying entertainment requires faithfulness to reality; those are documentaries.
But my biggest beef with Gilbert is that her understanding of nostalgia and the intersection of past and present stretches only back to the 1980s. This is particularly ironic since Gilbert chides young adults for being too young to appreciate the 1980s reference in Netflix teen-oriented shows. Her lack of history causes her to think that Netflix invented repackaging the past as a stylized fantasy.
Let’s take a moment to remember that the Victorians basically dealt with modernization by pasting a medieval fantasy veneer over it. That’s the charitable explanation for their interest in reviving Romanesque and Gothic architecture and why they encrusted everything with gargoyles, coats of arms, and other paste-on medieval fantasy decorations. Even The Twilight Zone did episodes fetishizing the 1890s as an ideal past to which everyone wished to return, much the way we now imagine the pop culture version of the 1950s as a fantasy past that never was.
More to the point, the specific combination of modern people living in a fantasy world half in the modern one and half in some imagined paradise from half a century ago basically describes the Hollywood productions of the Golden Age of cinema. Consider, for example the Universal Studies monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Often called “Universal Gothic,” they took place in a fantasy Europe simultaneously wedged in the 1890s and the 1930s, combining elements of central and eastern European culture with Gothic fantasy and modern American technology. Theirs was a distinct world, but not a realistic one. It’s also worth remembering that the 1890s were as close in time to the 1930s as 1980 is to today. Beyond Universal Horror, the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies had that same oddball mixture of the Victorian and the modern, and many productions of the era had an international style characterized by stylized soundstage sets and actors voicing an artificial mid-Atlantic accent supposedly halfway between American English and the Queen’s English. Think, too, about the number of movies, shows, and even cartoons that were putatively set in World War I but were intended to comment on World War II.
Gilbert misses the fact that this kind of artificial world has one more benefit for global media companies: Belonging to no one time or place, it plays well internationally since it isn’t specific to any one location and therefore can be dubbed, translated, or marketed in other countries without having to deal with too many culture-specific issues.
A huge nostalgia boom for the 1930s fantasy world occurred in the 1960s, driven by television, which turned to old movies for cheap content. New productions then imitated the old, which we can see perhaps most famously in The Munsters, which aped the look and feel of Universal Horror’s Victorian Gothic, making it a 1960s pastiche of a 1930s recreation of an imaginary Victorian aesthetic. Similarly, The Addams Family from the exact same years revived a 1940s cartoon series which was also rooted in an uneasy nostalgia for the Victorian and Edwardian world, simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by it.
The long and short of it is that history shows us that our fantasy worlds, whether high fantasy, urban fantasy, or just escapist fantasy, remix elements of the real world in order to create alternative worlds. If anything has changed recently, it only how openly producers of so-called “teen” dramas are willing to admit that their shows are really fantasies for adults rather than reflections of adolescents’ real lives.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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