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The Age of Nostalgia: Why Young Audiences Are Seeking Out Old TV

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Does the world seem like it’s more complicated and confusing than it used to be?


When you look at the way people lived in previous generations, are you struck by a vague sense that you missed out on something?


Do you sometimes feel as though it just hasn’t been your day, your week, your month — or even your year?

Friends Reunited


If so, you’re not alone.


This might sound like the voice-over that plays over a beach volleyball scene in a commercial for the latest magic-bullet anti-depressant, but it’s actually the beginning of an attempt to understand the viewing habits of tens of millions of Netflix customers.

Jennifer Aniston Hard at Work - Friends


A Surprising Trend


You see, in most previous decades, one of the defining traits of young people was a rabid interest in all things new and innovative, often to the exclusion of anything deemed “old.”


That’s still the case for members of Generation Z in most areas.


Today’s youths spend small fortunes on the latest tech; they speak in slang that tends to baffle their parents, and they’ve demonstrated a fondness for facial tattoos that’s likely to bewilder anyone over the age of 25.


Related: The Shows That Best Depict Being a Gen-Z Teenager


But when it comes to their television viewing habits, zoomers show a surprising interest in shows that peaked well before they were born.


Friends, The Office, and Suits are just some of the series that enjoyed unexpected resurgences in popularity when they premiered on Netflix.

Michael Scott lead  - The Office


Now, there’s nothing terribly new about adolescents appreciating sitcoms of the past.


Many a millennial enjoyed syndicated reruns of Cheers or The Golden Girls along with their after-school snack of Snapple and those cookies that were shaped like Keebler elves.


But for ’90s kids, their parents’ TV was something to be enjoyed — or tolerated — passively while waiting for Saved By the Bell to come on.


These days, the youths are actively seeking out older shows, in some cases making these bygone series more popular than they were during their original runs.


The Numbers Don’t Lie


In 2023, Suits stunned the world by becoming the most-watched show in the history of Nielsen’s streaming surveys.


It’s one thing when a show like Friends — which was wildly popular in its heyday — finds a second life with a new generation.

Harvey Suffers a Loss - Suits


Suits, however, was a basic cable legal drama that scored some decent ratings and positive reviews during its time on the USA Network — but it didn’t exactly set the world on fire.


In fact, for the past several years, if the series was mentioned at all, it was mostly due to its status as a historical footnote:


This was, as you’re probably aware, the show earned future Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle her first taste of mainstream fame.


Related: Why Has Gen Z Produced So Few Prominent TV Stars?


It’s not as though the modern TV landscape is bereft of shows about good-looking attorneys.


And while there are fewer network sitcoms these days than in years past, young folks looking for shows in which people their age lounge around in massive, ludicrously well-decorated apartments can surely find something much more recent than a series that’s approaching its thirtieth anniversary.


So why is it that Suits and Friends are so popular with folks who might be inclined to refer to the 20th century as “the 1900s”?

Football - Friends Season 3 Episode 9


The answer to that question could have a lot to say about our society in particular and human nature in general.


Why Are Young People Nostalgic For an Era They May Not Even Remember?


We’ll start by acknowledging that humans have been living in “times like these” for roughly the past 500 years.


Every generation looks back wistfully to earlier eras in which life appeared — rightly or otherwise — to be simpler and less confusing.


But these days, the usual concerns about incivility and the cost of living are compounded by profound feelings of loneliness.


Americans are, by any metric, more isolated than ever.


There are many reasons for this, but smartphones, remote work, and the breakdown of traditional community structures go a long way toward explaining the phenomenon.

Brad Pitt - Friends Season 8 Episode 9


We’re not gonna pretend to have the answers, but it’s no surprise that many young people are finding relief through escapism.


They’re retreating into a world where six single New Yorkers enjoyed endless free time, which they usually spent lounging around their favorite coffee shop and strengthening bonds with their found family.


At this point, it’s tedious to point out that the ’90s spawned numerous sitcoms that were funnier and more insightful than Friends.


Related: The 33 Greatest Ships in Sitcom History


And those criticisms tend to miss the point of why that particular show connected with tens of millions of viewers in its prime and continues to ignite interest among audiences who enjoy unlimited viewing options.


It’s important to bear in mind here that laughs are just one of the reasons why we watch sitcoms.


Seinfeld was almost objectively a wittier and more insightful show, but it also lacked the warmth and amiability that makes Friends seem like such a comforting relic in our hyper-ironic times.

Ross and Rachel - Friends


Chandler Bing may have been a sarcastic smart-alec, but his affection for his loved ones was never in doubt.


And while it might be the one-liners and wry cadence that first spring to mind when we think of that character, it’s likely his more tender moments that explain why so many young people grieved when Matthew Perry passed away last year.


Also, it’s not terribly surprising that the gang who spends so much time occupying the couch at Central Perk has become popular with the generation known for prioritizing work-life balance.


In an age where the future of our economy is more uncertain than ever, you can’t overstate the appeal of vicariously sitting in with a group of affable loafers whose relaxed attitude toward life never seems to affect their bank accounts or waistlines.


Spawning Spinoffs


So what’s the upshot of all of this fondness for the shows of yesteryear?

Monica and Rachel - Friends Season 5 Episode 8


Well, it should come as no surprise that network execs are eagerly looking for ways to cash in on the nostalgia trend.


A Suits spinoff starring Stephen Amell is set to debut on NBC later this year.


The network has also announced an Office sequel series starring Domnhall Gleeson and Sabrina Impacciatore.


Related: 5 Spinoffs That Never Made It To Air


We’re sure fans of both original shows will take some interest in these new iterations — but it seems unlikely that either series will prove as popular as its predecessor.


That’s because, as another beloved representative of a bygone era once observed, nostalgia is both potent and delicate.


You can’t predict it, and you can’t force it, but when it hits, it hits hard.

Box - Friends Season 4 Episode 8


For as much as they might be inclined to look backward, the Suits spinoff, the Office sequel, and the Friends reunion are all products of the modern age.


And now more than ever, viewers want to take refuge in a time when today’s concerns had yet to be imagined.


We don’t blame the network execs who are attempting to recapture lightning in a bottle, but we can’t help wondering — with apologies to the immortal Chandle Muriel Bing — could they be any more tone-deaf?


What are your thoughts, TV fanatics? Is the current trend toward nostalgia-watching here to stay?


Hit the comments section below to share your thoughts.

Tyler Johnson is an Associate Editor for TV Fanatic and the other Mediavine O&O sites. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, cooking, and, of course, watching TV. You can Follow him on X and email him here at TV Fanatic.



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