Sunday, March 18, 2012

Busting the Nostalgia Goggles

Back in the 90s, I was a real honest-to-goodness fan of "21 Jump Street," the cop show about baby-faced police officers going undercover in high schools as students. It was aimed squarely at kids and teenagers, and used to run with PSAs in its early seasons. The premise of the show was ridiculous, but it was well-intentioned, and managed to turn out a few good hours of television. So I was not happy to hear about Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill starring in a movie reboot of the show. I knew there was plenty in "21 Jump Street" for cynical modern comedians to mock, and the first trailer seemed to confirm my worst fears: the movie bears little resemblance to the television show, and everything is played for laughs.

Now, fast forward to this weekend, where the reviews for the "21 Jump Street" movie have come in overwhelmingly positive. I rewatched the trailers and I have to admit that if I ignore the "21 Jump Street" title attached, it looks like a perfectly harmless buddy-cop comedy like "The Other Guys" or "Cop Out." I'm still reluctant to watch the movie, since I don't like either of the leads and I've had trouble with similar films in the past, but I no longer feel bitter or angry that it exists. In fact, I'm a little sheepish at how fiercely protective I've been of the "21 Jump Street" television series. On the other hand, I'm also kind of peeved at Columbia Pictures for goading this response from me.

Why do studios reboot old properties into films that have almost nothing to do with the original properties? Because it's easier to sell something that already has name recognition. I doubt many people my age remember "21 Jump Street" as well as I do, but most had a general awareness of it, and I'd bet a good portion of the younger generation has at least heard of it, as the TV show that Johnny Depp used to be on, if nothing else. The reboot was aimed at those younger potential viewers, not at the older ones, and definitely not the small group of us old "Jump Street" fans who still might be carrying a torch for the show. Actually, the movie's whole take on the material pretty much depends on its audience not holding "Jump Street" in particularly high regard. It's not like they were reviving "The Muppets."

I knew this from the outset, but it was hard to get over the years of trying to defend the show, trying to explain to people that there were good episodes that could be taken seriously, and I wasn't just watching because of Johnny Depp and Dustin Nguyen – one of the very few characters on television at the time who could occasionally be mistaken for an Asian lead. The idea of having a whole new generation being prompted by filmmakers to treat the series as a joke severely rubbed me the wrong way. As a result, I wasn't inclined to be receptive to what they were actually aiming for, which was to do something fun and silly with an outdated property.

It clicked for me when I saw the "Dark Shadows" trailer that was released last week. There was "21 Jump Street" star Johnny Depp starring in a broadly comedic take on the 60s horror soap "Dark Shadows." I knew nothing about the show, and thought the trailer was fantastic. It reminded me of Tim Burton's early kookiness in movies like "Beetlejuice" and "Edward Scissorhands," and it was clearly a passion project that wouldn't have gotten off the ground if Burton wasn't attached to it. At the same time, I understood why the existing fans of "Dark Shadows" were disappointed and reacting badly. Theirs was another small, obscure, barely remembered property, and now it was being revived as a parody of itself.

I can't think of too many of these genre-swaps from the television to the big screen that have been very successful. "Dragnet" was a good one, with the right talent involved. "The Brady Bunch" movie worked because the show was so well known and everyone was in on the joke. "The Green Hornet" had some decent moments of biting satire, but didn't go far enough. All in all, this breed of reboot is generally trickier to pull off than a more straightforward adaptation. They depend on familiarity, but reject nostalgia, which risks alienating the few remaining fans who are the most invested in the return of a particular property.

I think both the new "21 Jump Street" and "Dark Shadows" would have been perfectly fine as original projects. However, the association with former television shows is an easy hook, and makes the films easier to promote. So, fans who love the old series are better off ignoring the titles as a marketing gimmick. "21 Jump Street" should be "Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum Go Undercover in a High School, Kind of Like That Show 21 Jump Street." "Dark Shadows" should be "Tim Burton Presents Retro 70s Vampires Unleashed." Not as catchy, but that should clear up any misconceptions.

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