WITH the future waning in allure as a result of global warming, disease, terrorism, piracy, crippling debt worldwide and the breakup of Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson, the entertainment industry seems to be revisiting the past with increasing zeal.
We’ve seen this before in popular culture, of course -- nostalgia is a lot like it used to be. Creators of television shows and movies never tire of trying to polish up our temps perdu. The assumption is that if a period has passed, that makes it somehow better than today. Thus, the awful retro-1950s sit-com Happy Days begat the lame disco-era sitcom That Seventies Show.
But lately, North American TV and movie writers seem focused not just on whitewashing the past, but on returning to fix things. With the movies Groundhog Day and Back to the Future as memorable precedents, at least two upcoming movies and a couple of TV series thrust their protagonists back in time, or in age, to change their futures.
I haven’t seen the movies -- just their trailers, which these days are so long they tell the whole story anyway. In Seventeen Again, Matthew Perry plays a separated father of two alienated teens who finds himself 17 once more, with the good fortune of looking like Zac Efron. Nevertheless, he remains in the present day, so his own children are among his peers. I gather that by the end of the movie he realizes that the existence he has found unsatisfying as an adult may be disappointing because of character flaws he could have corrected in his youth.
Which adult can’t relate to this theme? Whenever my son asks me questions on some topic I should have aced in high school -- or I discover, to my surprise, that Sweden is not an island -- I kick myself for having been such a lousy student. If I could revisit those days I would spend a lot less time batting my eyelashes at boys who would turn out to be gay and a lot more time poring over maps and getting the hang of atoms. The stuff we did or didn’t do in high school obviously matters -- and not just in terms of the girl or guy who got away.
But of course that tends to be Hollywood’s focus. Case in point: The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Matthew McConaughey, the world’s best-looking bad actor, is appropriately cast as a shallow ladies’ man. Visited by Michael Douglas, which is a scary enough prospect for most of us, he has an extended Scrooge moment in which he is forced to examine his past actions and how they have affected his present. Naturally, lurking in his history is the dimpled girl who eluded his grasp (Jennifer Garner) --somebody who’s not interested in him any more but would have been a keeper if he’d only realized it earlier.
How many of us remain obsessed with the people we dated in high school? On the rare occasion that I recall them, it usually prompts me to cringe at our mutual unsuitability. What were we thinking? Oh, right -- we weren’t. The matchmaking came courtesy of the demon Lust and his sidekick, Ego.
Yet high school holds a peculiar sway over Erica Strange, the protagonist in CBC TV’s Being Erica, an engaging series with an appealing actor (Erin Karpluk) at its core. At 32, Erica feels she hasn’t fulfilled her potential and blames her underachievement on her youthful missteps. A mysterious therapist allows her to revisit key moments in her life -- like her bat mitzvah -- and handle them differently, although things rarely work out exactly as she had hoped.
In large part, the show succeeds because of Karpluk’s personal charm. We want things to turn out better for her than they have so far. She and her family have been shattered by the death of her younger brother and her sister’s bad marriage; she works as the put-upon assistant of a catty books editor; and she’s fruitlessly in love with her longtime male best friend.
Still, one has to wonder why the character of Erica is so focused on the distant past as the cause of her adult troubles. She seems so pert and blameless. The writer of the series, Jana Sinyor, is herself 32, but I originally pegged her as a Baby Boomer because her youthful lead character is so incongruously full of regret.
After all, Erica’s only about a third of the way through her life. If, like I do, you fit into the Boomer category, you’re probably two-thirds gone. If you want to, you have acres of bad decisions to review, from the friends you wish you’d never made to the friendships you foolishly failed to sustain, from the career moves you’ve never tackled to the career gaffes that set you back. And who wouldn’t undo those tactless remarks and cruel gestures you’ve made over the years, the ones that make you groan whenever they pop into your head? Best to shut the door -- firmly.
Detective Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara), star of the U.S. remake of the British science fiction crime drama Life on Mars, has a similar view on the value of going backward. In the series (now cancelled), Tyler plays a police detective in 2008 who has suddenly and mysteriously found himself in 1973, when the police weren’t nearly as tactful, kind or well-equipped as they are now (cough).
While Tyler is baffled and even miffed by his time travel, we audience members are reminded that at the very least, it’s the perfect excuse for bad hair, bad clothes and bad manners. Of course, the same holds true for the time travel in Being Erica, The Ghost of Girlfriends Past and 17 Again. That leads me to my latest theory -- that actually, writers aren’t responsible for all this backward-looking pop culture. Instead, it’s a conspiracy by wardrobe departments everywhere, trying to use up old costume stock while having a laugh.
If so, well done. Never mind the future -- the present stinks so much, it makes even the ’70s look inviting.