Editor’s Note: The past year was filled with uncertainty over politics, the economy and the ongoing pandemic. In the face of big changes, people found themselves longing for a different time. CNN’s series “The Past Is Now” examines how nostalgia manifested in our culture in 2022 — for better or for worse.
After a dreary pandemic winter, a summer surge and a deluge of distressing news in between, it felt good to have dragons on TV again.
“House of the Dragon,” a prequel to HBO’s über-hit “Game of Thrones,” didn’t attempt to reinvent its franchise. “Dragon” checked all the “Thrones” boxes: Bodily mutilation, violence against women, scenes filmed in near-darkness, wigs. (HBO and CNN share parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.)
And though dragons didn’t get nearly enough screen time, it was hard to complain when the CGI winged creatures soared and provided us a fantastical escape.
One week after HBO returned to Westeros, J.R.R. Tolkien fans were whisked back to Middle Earth, with all its Orcs and Elves and wizards, in “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” on Amazon Prime. That same month, Disney’s acclaimed “Star Wars” prequel-to-a-prequel, “Andor,” started streaming. “Interview with the Vampire” and “Wednesday” closed out a year that also saw the TV returns of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Spock.
If the 2020s are the era of “peak TV,” then 2022 was the year of peak IP TV (IP meaning intellectual property), particularly in the fantasy and sci-fi realms. Blockbuster productions such as “House of the Dragon” and “Rings of Power” largely stuck to the proven formula of their predecessors. There were disappointments, like two “Star Wars” miniseries that ostensibly reintroduced beloved characters but illuminated little about them, instead dimming much of the magic that makes the galaxy far, far away so consistently entertaining.
But there were welcome surprises, too, with “Andor” and “Interview with the Vampire,” both of which maintained the heart of their original stories but were decidedly fresher, incorporating more overt themes concerning race, sexuality and radicalism.
Series that transport us to fictional worlds we know well with characters we love are entertaining balms in times of uncertainty. Whether they can stand on their own is largely determined by fans old and new. But in spite of everything 2022 threw at us, it was also a year where we could escape into new tales of elves and vampires — and even those incestuous Targaryens and their magnificent dragons.
Why fantasy series succeeded
Part of the reason why so many reboots, prequels and spinoffs have been cropping up recently is because of the streaming boom, said Daniel Herbert, an associate professor at the University of Michigan who studies film and media. Working within a relatively new medium, companies “grow more conservative in programming” and turn to established titles and fanbases that have been hits in the past, he said.
From a business standpoint, building on existing powerhouses has proven successful this year: The “House of the Dragon” pilot was one of HBO’s most-watched in years, with nearly 10 million viewers, and its finale was HBO’s biggest since the 2019 end of the original “Thrones.” And while Netflix is more opaque with its numbers, the streamer has said that “Addams Family” spinoff “Wednesday” surpassed a viewership record previously set by its flagship smash “Stranger Things.”
But we, the audience, return to these familiar worlds time and again because they’re creative safe havens – we’ve been there before, and we’ve liked the time we’ve spent there. We expect to continue to enjoy the stories produced in these fictional realms.
“I think we overestimate our desire for originality,” Herbert said. “There is comfort in repetition … in having clear expectations and having those expectations fulfilled.”
Familiar IP has a buoying quality, a way to maintain consistency in an otherwise unstable world. We expect bloodshed on “House of the Dragon” and morbid one-liners on “Wednesday.” Both deliver, even if the storylines are new.
“Recycling characters and story worlds is one way of maintaining consistency,” Herbert said.
What’s more, franchise storytelling can be “psychologically useful,” especially during periods of stress and uncertainty, said Clay Routledge, a researcher and director of the Human Flourishing Lab at the Archbridge Institute, a policy think tank in Washington DC, where he studies nostalgia.
“When the world feels chaotic, or we are experiencing a lot of personal or societal distress, these shared stories help stabilize us,” Routledge said. “Our entertainment interests can help us take advantage of the psychological and motivational power of nostalgia,” which can make us feel “energized, optimistic and socially connected.”
That social connectedness is increasingly rare in the streaming age, but many of these blockbuster series renewed it: “House of the Dragon” was appointment viewing on Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET. It felt as though its viewers were actually tuning in at once, together, and reacting live around the digital water cooler.
The tricky tightrope spinoffs and prequels walk
If you’re a hardcore “Star Wars” fan, you remember the awe of watching the Millennium Falcon jump into hyperspace for the first time or the horror and confusion of Jar-Jar Binks getting his tongue stuck in the engine of a pod racer. You want new additions to the “Star Wars” canon to replicate those moments of wonder and genuine surprise.
But prequels, reboots, spinoffs and the like have a tricky balance to strike — they’ve got to have enough of the same to remind viewers of why they loved the franchise in the first place and enough newness to pique the interest of a new generation of viewers.
“Naturally, we are drawn to IPs we have a nostalgic or sentimental connection to,” said Andrew Abeyta, a social psychologist and assistant professor at Rutgers University-Camden. “Because these IPs mean so much to us, it creates high and specific expectations. Nostalgia is a feeling, and part of the allure with nostalgic media is that they make us feel the same way we did when we first experienced them.”
Such great expectations can be stifling. “The Rings of Power,” reported to be the most expensive TV series ever made at an estimated $465 million for its first season alone, was perhaps too big to fail. Narrative risks were few, and critics of the series felt it was poorly paced, lacked tension and couldn’t escape the shadow of Peter Jackson’s beloved film trilogy.
But many viewers don’t want more of the same when it comes to new chapters in their favorite fictional universes, said Herbert.
“If we were truly nostalgic, we’d just rewatch the originals,” he said. “It’s about wanting more, wanting the past to catch up with us … wanting those characters to come up to date with our own present historical moment.”
“House of the Dragon” attempted some cultural commentary alongside its escapism with its depictions of traumatic childbirth (with mixed results). “Andor” was praised for finally making the galactic rebellion feel radical, focusing on a small contingent of political actors working to make real change often at great cost. Its protagonist becomes a real rebel over the course of Season 1, out of necessity as much as genuine belief in the cause (partly thanks to a manifesto bequeathed by a dead comrade).
And AMC is breeding new Anne Rice fans with its “Interview with the Vampire” adaptation. Set in both early-20th-century New Orleans and present-day Dubai, the series makes sexuality and race central themes, inextricably tied to the story of emotionally tortured vampires trying to be a family and the journalist trying to get the story.
But new adaptations of beloved properties can also provoke what Herbert called a “perverse nostalgia”: When franchises like “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” cast people of color, some vocal fans reject their inclusion in those worlds based on adaptations that existed before an Afro-Latino actor played a heroic elf or a Black woman portrayed a conflicted assassin who worked closely with Darth Vader (whose own iconic voice has for decades been provided by a Black actor, James Earl Jones).
We needed fantastical stories
This past year was a standout for nostalgic storytelling based on existing IP – something many of us needed when reality provided little hope.
“People turn to IPs they have sentimental or nostalgic connection to during tough times for comfort,” Abeyta said. “Nostalgia is a quick and effective way of fending to temporarily fend off loneliness and stress.”
These series kept millions of us company during yet another trying year, attracting both old fans and new, aided by free publicity on TikTok (see the “Wednesday” dance phenomenon or the now-ubiquitous audio of “House of the Dragon” actor Emma D’arcy’s drink order).
Telling and retelling stories is a trend as old as stories are, and for nearly as long as we’ve been making movies and TV, we’ve been remaking them, Herbert said. As long we’re still dancing with Wednesday Addams, singing along with Poppy the Harfoot or watching dragons dispatch enemies with bated breath, TV will continue to churn out spinoffs, prequels and reboots of familiar franchises.