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You Thought It Was A Screen, But It Was A Mirror: Why We Re-Watch Old Shows

You Thought It Was A Screen, But It Was A Mirror: Why We Re-Watch Old Shows

  • Culture
  • Life
I’m 18-years-old, and I’m terrified. For weeks, I’ve been up to my ears in essays, assignments, CCA activities; I haven’t slept in thirty-six hours. My sister’s sitting bug-eyed in front of the TV while I pace up and down, back and forth, stomping through our flat.

A flash from the screen catches my eye, and I turn to the TV. She’s watching Avatar, again. No, I don’t mean the film(s), or the sequel, which had come out by then. I’m talking about the original Last Airbender series.

It so happens that we’re somewhere in Book Three. For the uninitiated (unbelievably, they exist), this is the final season. I forget the title of the episode, but the main character, Aang, is stressed to the nines over his inevitable confrontation with the Fire Lord, and he can’t sleep.

Unwittingly, I flop down on the sofa. The scene captivates me, though I’ve seen it before. Aang’s eyes are droopy, sunken, underlined with dark circles. That’s what you look like, my subconscious remarks. Before I know it, I’m watching the whole episode, even though I know the plot better than I know my own name.

Before I know it, I’m in my room, wondering what the hell is wrong with me. Before I know it, I’m ignoring every alert on my phone, every task on my list, and I’ve hit the deck. A different person wakes up the next day.

It is, I suppose, a tad dramatic: many other elements were involved in that fun little anecdote, most of which I don’t care to mention. But at its heart is the truth that, for many of us, the ‘nostalgia factor’ plays a significant role in our selection, consumption, and experience of media—some of which can be life-changing.

And so nostalgia culture has officially come full-circle: first, we liked the old stuff; then, we wanted new stuff; after that, we enjoyed new stuff that looked like old stuff; now, we hate the whole damn lot.

The past, however, is not the enemy.

Image credit: Jonathan Cosens on Unsplash
Rewatching, as a cultural phenomenon, has been spurred by the accessibility that streaming services like Netflix and Toggle have brought us. As an unapologetic hipster, though, I was re-watching before it was cool.

In my cupboard sits my personal bible—a DVD case containing three discs: the complete trilogy of The Lord Of The Rings. During yearly family visits to Malaysia, whenever I was bored, I would put on one of the discs, somehow managing to finish the entire set once every trip.

Why? Because it’s a damn work of art, that’s why.

For our favourite media, every viewing provides a new detail; a new nugget of information that brings enjoyment and satisfaction. Without fail, every time I play that masterpiece, I discover a visual cue, a line of dialogue, a musical flourish that explores new nooks and crannies of that fantastic tapestry. I become an early explorer, retracing the endless sea, or an anatomist, dissecting a fresh cadaver; I may have done this before, but upon every re-doing, there is something new to see, to learn.

But is this all there is to it?

Because there is the Sistine Chapel, and then there is The Room.

Not all art is created equal, yet even the worst films that we watched in childhood can make our hearts swell with unearned emotion.

This is because, contrary to what we like to believe, we don’t always consume media to experience something new. Other than privileged connoisseurs, or critics, most people just watch TV or movies to get them through to the end of the week.

If I’ve had a bad day, I watch Django Unchained, because nothing lifts the spirit like seeing Hans Landa shoot up some racists. When I need motivation, I put on Spotlight, because nothing’s more inspirational than watching Bruce Banner blow the whistle on some paedophiles. When you’re watching for watching’s sake, you already know what you want to feel; you’re just using the relevant media as charcoal on the emotional barbeque pit.

In that vein, one can see how many modern films provide nostalgia-fodder for the remainder of the century—the stellar visuals and storytelling of animated films like Inside Out or Coco, or the sheer irreverent fun of The Wolf of Wall Street, make it fit for re-watching (you’d be surprised how many children have seen that last one).

Recently, however, we’ve become somewhat disillusioned with nostalgia, with the corporate capitalisation of human emotion to lazily feed the money-making machine.

As we all know, media, especially that of the big-budget, blockbuster variety, often utilises callbacks and references to other media. Sometimes it’s clever, even artistic—like Logan’s inclusion of scenes from Shane as a commentary on the Western genre. Often, however, it’s anything but.

With the modern tirade of crummy sequels, prequels, midquels, and paraquels, well, it’s all I can do to quell the bile rising in my throat every time a new one pops out.

This doesn’t mean we should be ashamed, however, for simply feeling nostalgia. Everyone copes with life a little different, and sometimes we all need a little feel-good pill to keep us going.

Still, there’s something else, something beyond just ‘feeling better’. Something more substantial; something existential, almost.

The first time I watched The Last Airbender I was maybe ten years old. I’d never owned a mobile phone, smart or dumb, and I hardly used the internet. By now, it’s common knowledge that the show’s writing, characters and tone are exceptionally mature; revolutionary for a children’s programme, though I didn’t know it at the time—it was just plain fun.

Even my parents enjoyed it; sadly, we’d begun watching halfway through the series, and missed many of the episodes. Still, I remember the hand of excitement that clutched my little heart every time the opening theme played, breathless to learn a little about this fantasy-land.

That’s why, when it came on TV again, I resolved to tape the entire show and watch it once school holidays began.

Which I did. By then, I was awash with the warm post-exam glow, carefree at last. My sister was just old enough to enjoy it, and we watched the show together, as a family.

The next time it came round, she was the one clamouring to watch it. This time, my angsty pubescent soul connected more with a frequently-derided side character, Sokka, who had always entertained me so as a younger child. I enjoyed the show less, for how it made fun of him so relentlessly, but saw it through to the end anyway.

Fast forward several years and re-watchings later. Stressed old me is magically unwound by one episode of my childhood show. What clicked? I think you can see it.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is, to me, more than the diary of a fictional character—it’s the diary of me.

Every rewatching, I am reminded of how I used to think, to feel at different stages of my life. I am reminded of all the persons I have been, and how they still exist in some cobwebbed attic of my mind. The stressed young man is there, yes; but so too is the angsty teenager, the unburdened student, and the carefree, curious child. All come tumbling out when I re-watch the show.

That’s what re-watching is to all of us. It’s a time capsule, a Portkey to before; it helps to ground us in time, simultaneously reminding us who we were and how far we’ve come since then. It invokes personal history, which defines our sense of self. More than telling us about our past, it tells us who we are right now.

In that capacity, as personal historians, devising and revising the story of our lives, we consume the same shows, movies, and other media, over and over, year after year.

That is why we re-watch old TV: it’s a mirror, a reminder to us, from us, that we exist.

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Ajay Nair Contributor