There’s something about television. Maybe it’s that I was an only child whose parent worked a lot, but TV is just a big part of my life and always has been. Before Netflix, you watched seasons week after week, getting to know characters, storylines, and the lives of fake people. TV doesn’t last forever, but it lives on in reruns and in memory. And within my own life, television has become a signifier for experience, both shaping and changing the way I remember my own experiences. . The intro of a television show is a space for reflection, recollection, and analysis.
Every episode of Arthur begins with Ziggy Marley singing the praises of friendship and the benefits of “walking down the street, and everybody that you meet has an original point of view.” It’s a simple message that I’m glad I learned at a young age, but one that I now think is saccharine—too optimistic and overly enthusiastic about life. I remember watching the show after school every day on TVO Kids and occasionally on PBS Kids. The title credits circle through highly meta animated photographs of Arthur and his friends, reminding me of how uncomplicated childhood is. It’s impossible not to miss the sense that the biggest issues in life aren’t things like the Tibble twins, learning to spell “aardvark,” and discovering the truth about Mary Moo Cow.
When I was ten, my dad died unexpectedly of a heart attack. And when I watched Arthur from that point in time onwards, its meaning changed in my memory. Importantly for ten-year-old me, Arthur and his friends never changed—the outfits, the credits, the characters stay in a suspended state, someplace outside of the fast-paced, always moving, ever-constricting world. I was at a point in my life where things were always changing. Having Arthur as a daily constant became very important to me, as did its unwaveringly upbeat messages. The idea of being normal became important—Arthur was a lesson in staying the same, in dealing with life’s big problems in small, manageable pieces. Arthur has remained relevant, even today when I no longer watch the show. At least once every couple of months I think about “Jekyl Jekyl Hyde Jekyl Hyde Hyde Jekyl” from the library card episode. But instead of bringing back the bad memories associated with that time in my life, it reminds me of what I learned about myself and what I did moving forward.
I watched Sex and the City when I was far too young. I think I was 14 when I saw one of the daytime appropriate episodes on TV, and I was an instant fan. The show is now my go-to guilty pleasure when I’m sick, depressed, procrastinating, or generally unhappy. The happy, upbeat percussive theme song and fast-cutting credits present an undeniably stylish vision of what it’s like to be Carrie Bradshaw. The opening credits suggest something of the fun of the city and a sense of alternostalgia: the feeling of the show is not introspective or focused on the past, but, instead, oriented towards the future.
During my teenage years, I thought somewhat cringingly that everyone in SATC had their lives together. In the eight years since I first watched it, I’ve realized that no one on that show has it together. When I started going through my more serious issues with anxiety in high school, I watched a lot of SATC, hours upon hours of the series, to the point that I could quote characters. For me, it was a break from the stress of real life, and a show without real life consequences. It’s total trash, but it’s the kind of expensive trash that might come from an upper east side dumpster. It was helpful because it wasn’t serious and didn’t make me think about my problems—and while for many people escapism is bad, for me it was one way to cope. The show was unapologetically focused on a group of seemingly together people who were imperfect behind the scenes. While the show definitely didn’t replace my psychiatrist, it helped me make sense of the feelings of imperfection and insignificance I felt, and gave me examples of how being less than able to cope would be okay. In testament to my past, I still watch Sex and the City when I need a break.
Mad Men was the first prestige drama I really watched. I started it when I was 15, and I remember watching the entire first season during a weekend AMC marathon when I had the flu. The thing is, I didn’t even like the show when I first saw it. It was boring and pretentious, and at that time I didn’t appreciate Jon Hamm. Once I got past episode five where (SPOILERS) Don is revealed to be Dick Whitman I was invested, but up until that point the opening and closing credits were what kept me from changing the channel. Or maybe it’s because I was lying on my couch and was too nauseous to sit up and use the remote, but that’s somewhat beside the point. What matters is that I followed the show right through to its closing episodes in April 2015, and the credits remain one of its salient, highly evocative features. As an animated Don floats downwards in slow-motion from the building of his executive office, past images of 1960s culture to a seat on a couch, cigarette in hand, there’s a sense of mystery that accompanies the lilting score. The music is melancholy, but also driving and intense. It’s a title sequence that seems timeless and forever appropriate as the series progresses through Don’s rise, fall, and rebirth. It evokes Dante’s Inferno, real-life associations with New York’s ad man culture, and the American Dream effortlessly.
While I would say Arthur and SATC have consistent associations for me, Mad Men has changed significantly since I started watching it. What started as aspirations for Don’s intelligence and shifted to allegiance with Peggy has, at its end, turned to associations with loss and being lost. While I watched Sex and the City after the series had finished airing and Arthur never had that strong, overarching narrative thrust, Mad Men is one of the few shows I’ve stayed with for years without losing interest. When I got to the second part of season seven, I felt an intense amount of longing for the things that came with early-season Mad Men, and in many ways I think I just wanted to be a younger me. I identified with late-season Don. As I near the end of university, Mad Men’s tagline “the end of an era” really hits me with its literal application to my own life. I look back at the show and its progression and see a mirror of my own feelings of being lost.
I don’t see myself as Don by any means, but the series generally brings me to a place where its conclusion feels like the conclusion to a part of my life. I watch the opening credits and remember how Don’s fall is refashioned by the show to mean different things. I’ve recently reflected on how low points in my life are too moulded by my reactions and experiences to mean different things. I came away from Mad Men with a better sense of how the end of something is hardly ever its conclusion. Out of all my life experiences, graduation looms somewhat ominously for me and represents a set moment where I’ll need to grow up. Reflecting on Mad Men somewhat delays the panic that accompanies the moment.
Nostalgia is not artful and rarely are its sources. It’s not about thinking amazing, mind-altering thoughts, but instead about memory and its fraught inconsistencies. My experiences with nostalgia are not about looking at the past in wonder at my perceptiveness, but are instead about repurposing memory, attaching it to cultural objects, and remaking those objects to suit my life. Television becomes part of life, both present and absent. It’s an argument made about film and literature by lots of smart people, but little has really been written about television. Taking its timelessness further than film or music, television is always both stuck in the past and caught up in the future. Opening credits signal this dissonance with every single episode and ignite the memory of the watcher while silencing memory’s impact. Nostalgia is rooted in its repetitions and remembrances, and in its little details that aren’t strictly part of a story or a narrative, but can be subsumed into our personal lives.