If you know me, or heck, if you’ve read past entries on this blog, you know how nostalgic I can get – longing for previous times, or pieces of culture from various parts of my life, or even before my time. I admittedly get that way about a lot of things – cartoons, films, video games, comic books, and TV shows.
One of the TV shows that has constantly beckoned with a nostalgic siren’s call to me has been the misadventures of an immigrant and his tightly-wound distant relative trying to integrate into each other’s lives in 1980s Chicago.
For those of you who may be unfamiliar, Perfect Strangers was an ABC sitcom that ran from 1986-1983 and was about a kind, wide-eyed man from a tiny Mediterranean island (the fictional Mypos) named Balki Bartokomous who came to America with his childlike innocence and wonder and found a far-distant cousin in Chicago – the uptight, jaded Larry Appleton. The Odd Couple-esque set up allowed for many comedic, fish out of water situations as Balki tries to acclimate to America (while embracing its culture to the hilt), while helping his Cousin Larry make it through life without his many neuroses doing him in.
It also had one of the most uplifting, 80s-esque theme songs of all time, which also in 90 seconds set up the show’s premise before an episode would even begin.
I hadn’t seen the show since it was originally on the air but in the past year or so began watching again thanks to the interwebs and the myriad of resources to find just about anything we remember from our past. I can’t even recall what brought me to rediscover it. Likely, it was a passing reference on social media that made me suddenly start remembering catching the show as part of the ABC TGIF lineup of family-friendly sitcoms “back in the day.” Upon some re-viewing, I still enjoy it.
For a show that itself is often remembered as a piece of pop culture, it had many references to already-existing pop culture at the time, through Balki’s overjoyed discoveries of Western pop culture. Balki was often singing songs from the radio’s top 40 of the day, or relishing in something as simple as cartoon character merchandising.
The show is filled with pop culture references of the day, the situations are often based in many of the classic comedic tropes throughout sitcom history or even as far back as vaudeville routines, but there is something about the madcap hijinks or the charming camaraderie of these two oddball characters and the performers bringing them to life.
Beyond that, though, I feel there’s a bit more to my nostalgic attachment on a more subconscious level.
For me, it’s somewhat of a touchstone/an association with the decade that I grew up in – the 1980s. Now hang with me as I’m going to get a little autoethnographic on you. What’s ethnographic? Good question. I only recently learned myself, but according to Carolyn Ellis, Tony E. Adams, and Arthur P. Bochner, “when researchers do autoethnography, they retrospectively and selectively write about epiphanies that stem from, or are made possible by, being part of a culture and/or by possessing a particular cultural identity.”
I’m speaking as part of that culture, as someone who was born in 1980 and whose most influential and cherished years are from that decade and the 90s.
The 1980s. Pre-internet. Cassette tapes. No cell phones, no constant connections. From where I stand now with the day-to-day stress of having to constantly be available, rapidly respond, always connected to something, it all can seem pretty quieter. A nicer time, perhaps greater or simpler, even when awash in the neon glow of yuppies and mass-consumerism and excess that is often associated with the decade today.
But it wasn’t simpler. Or nicer. Or greater. At least not in a larger view with a wider perspective.
We were still in the midst of The Cold War. When I was in first and second grade at Seymour School, I remember us still undergoing the drills you see made fun of these days – crouching under a desk or going to the fallout shelter in the school’s basement in preparation for a catastrophic event.
A conversation with my mom about that time has led to remarks about the state of the economy, the cost of milk, and other anxieties that as a young parent were not as enjoyable as the carefree time that I so often subconsciously associated with the 1980s, and thus the media I consumed in that time, like Perfect Strangers.
Why is that?
Much of it comes because my recollections are shaded in rose-colored glasses because I was a child then. No need to go to work every day. No need to pay bills, to be responsible for others. My biggest responsibilities were to get up and go to school every morning, do my homework, and clean up after myself. Aside from that, what did I have to worry about, really? If i was going to play with Ninja Turtles, Legos, or super hero figures? If I’d catch Batman with Adam West and Burt Ward on WPIX or play a while longer and just watch Ducktales on Fox?
My point is that we are so prone to looking back at things and associating them with “the good times,” that our minds become clouded to the circumstances that made us think that way in the first place. Thus, the things we consumed or remember from those times become associated in our minds with the corresponding times we were exposed to them.
But those good times – they’re always going to look good when we take out the context of life in those moments. It’s why so many people look back on the 1950s as the perfect time, not because of the fear of atomic obliteration that came following Hiroshima. Not because of the domestic violence that bubbled quietly underneath the surface of smiling, surface-level-perfect families, or the loneliness and isolation that haunted those groups who didn’t work out of the house because of cultural norms. No, they were good times to those who were children at the time, living life with a more innocent view of the world around them, sans responsibility that would come later in life.
Perfect Strangers, through no action of its own, does just that. It opens a door inside my mind and memories to a period of life that seemed much more innocent, because at the time I first enjoyed it, I was.
And while it hasn’t yet found itself amid the string of rebooted/continuing sitcoms in the age of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Video like shows such as Full House/Fuller House has, the entire concept does make me think forward to what shows/media my own kids will look back on wistfully decades from now when they reflect upon “the simpler times.” Will it be new shows originating during their childhood like Odd Squad, Wild Kratts or Ready, Jet Go? Or will it be shows that pre-dated their existence that were introduced to them from my generation and handed down (whether in original form or rebooted) in their childhood – like Inspector Gadget or DuckTales?
As Dr. Ryan Lizardi, author of Nostalgic Generations and Media: Perception of Time and Available Meaning puts it, “As older generations of people are encouraged to revisit media and products they loved as children by hyper-nostalgic media companies, through remakes, reimaginings, and re-releases, it leads to a reduction in available meanings for current and subsequent generations who are then all encouraged to attach to the same nostalgia-soaked objects…the cultural rise in nostalgic media has the dual generational impact of making the subjective experience of time speed up for those who are nostalgic, as well as create a surrogate nostalgic identity for younger generations by continually feeding them the content of their elders.”
Perhaps only time (and they, and the media culture existing as they grow) will tell.
I’m not really a video game guy.
Sure, I played some Nintendo when I was in elementary school, but it was always at a friend’s house. I didn’t own one myself until I was a pre-teen and had earned enough delivering the weekly Pennysaver once a week for the tidy sum of $8 a week to buy one myself. And at that point most people had moved on to Super Nintendo.
But I’ll say that one of the games that was a childhood favorite for me at many a friend’s and was the first that I went out to buy when I had my own NES system was Disney’s DuckTales.
And I am all about the nostalgia of my youth, especially when it comes to DuckTales. Any quotes and notations you find hereon in come from the book Mediated Nostalgia by Ryan Lizardi. Check it out if you want to take a look at what drives you or folks like me to cherish things from our past like Disney ducks so much.
The graphics in retrospect were not the best. You knew who the characters were, but compared to their animated counterparts, seen daily on the Disney afternoon cartoon block, it was the limits of 8 bit gaming graphics in 1989. The storyline didn’t explain much other than that Scrooge had to travel the world, collect treasure, and win. That was it, really. Why these places, why these enemies? The purpose? It was a bit thin, but it was okay. Because the gameplay, its music, and its sheer relationship to a favorite hit cartoon series was fantastic enough to get one hooked that it became one of the most fun games on the system and a part of many collective memories of both cartoons and gaming in the late 80s/early 90s.
For years I remember the mere mention of classic Nintendo with folks often led to one of the conversations – Mario and DuckTales.
My original DuckTales game went, along with any other NES games I had, when I sold my NES system shortly after I got married and we moved into our house. There just wasn’t room for a lot of things, and many of the things that had been sitting in boxes for a lengthy period of time hit the bricks via ebay. NES was one of them. That lack of access certainly added to my desire to play again.
So it’s no wonder that when I got a smartphone with enough memory to do so last year, the only game I ever spent money on was a revisit of that now classic game under the title DuckTales Remastered.
“The economic concern derives from a desire on the part of a film remake producer to construct a maximum audience base consisting of those who are already familiar with the original text and those that are not.” (Lizardi 2015, 118)
Released in 2013, just a bit shy of 25 years since the original game’s release, this is a nostalgic fan’s dream. Because it’s evident from the get-go that, while anyone could play it, this is truly aimed at fans who grew up with the original and now as adults have the chance to revisit not just the game, but a fully improved-upon visual game that taps into your longing for the characters, situations, shows associated with it by adding even more characters, layers, and story to it.
“Considering the specific time period from which many remakes derive their source material, constructing those whose childhoods occurred in the 1970s and 1980s as perpetual nostalgics means economically targeting consumers who are currently somewhere between twenty and forty years old.” (Lizardi 2015, 124)
The gameplay, levels, music, and worlds are virtually the same as it was in 1989 with the exception of enhanced, better looking 3 dimensional backgrounds and two-dimensional characters that are almost identical to their onscreen counterparts in the original animated series.
If that weren’t enough to make me feel nine years old again, the game developers gathered together all of the surviving cast members of the animated series to provide the voices of their characters in the game, which is quite the feat in itself. Alan Young, who voiced Scrooge McDuck was around 93 at the time he provided vocals for the game and he still wasn’t the senior cast member on deck. That goes to June Foray, voicing villainous sorceress Magica DeSpell just as she did in the cartoon series, and doing so at the age of 95. For characters whose voice actor had since passed on, the developers of the game were keen enough to hire very good vocal impersonators who were able to emulate the original voices from the cartoon series.
The voice cast was utilized not just to provide vocals as characters moved through gameplay, grunting if they got hurt or exclaiming as they located treasure. One of the greatest additions to the Remastered version of the game were full animated sequences featuring the characters to provide backstory, segue, and make sense of what otherwise made none for the show’s continuity back in the day of the original game. (How can Scrooge breathe in space? What the heck is GizmoDuck doing on the moon in the first place?)
“These re-imaginings prove time and time again that they are not only aimed at establishing a new audience base for rebooted properties, but are speaking primarily to the already established nostalgic base.” (Lizardi 2015, 130)
With a new DuckTales cartoon series headed to Disney this summer with an updated look, story, and voice cast, I’m sure there’s bound to be another, brand new game of some sort coming. And if it has as much care as has been put into this, it’ll be great.
But, for me, I just want that feeling of being nine years old again at a sleepover at a friend’s house hopping Scrooge through the Amazon, across the Moon, and finding treasure wherever it lay, reliving the adventure not just of a game, but of childhood. Isn’t that what nostalgia’s all about?
It is, and the game developers counted on it.