Why Returning to Westeros, Middle-earth and 'Star Wars' Was So Great in 2022

TECHNOLOGY
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Editor’s Note: The past year has been filled with uncertainty about politics, the economy and the ongoing pandemic. In the face of major changes, people found themselves yearning for a different time. CNN series “The Past Is Now” examines how nostalgia has manifested itself in our culture in 2022 – for better or for worse.



CNN
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After a dismal pandemic winter, a summer spree, and a deluge of harrowing news in between, it was nice to have dragons on TV again.

“House of the Dragon,” a prequel to HBO’s super-hit “Game of Thrones,” didn’t try to reinvent its franchise. “Dragon” checked all the “Thrones” boxes: body mutilation, violence against women, scenes shot in near darkness, wigs. (HBO and CNN share parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.)

And while the dragons didn’t get enough screen time, it was hard to complain when the CGI winged creatures flew by and provided us with a fantastic escape.

A week after HBO’s return to Westeros, JRR Tolkien fans were transported back to Middle Earth, with all its orcs, elves and wizards, in “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” on Amazon Prime. In the same month, Disney’s acclaimed “Star Wars” prequel “Andor” began airing. “Interview with the Vampire” and “Wednesday” closed out a year that also saw the return of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Spock to TV.

The few sequences of dragons in flight were some of the most effective of all.

If the 2020s are the era of “peak TV”, then 2022 was the year of peak IP TV (IP stands for intellectual property), particularly in the realms of fantasy and science fiction. Blockbuster productions like “House of the Dragon” and “Rings of Power” have largely stuck to the proven formula of their predecessors. There have been disappointments, like two “Star Wars” miniseries that ostensibly reintroduced beloved characters but shed little light on them, instead obscuring much of the magic that makes the galaxy far, far away so consistently entertaining.

But there were also welcome surprises with “Andor” and “Interview with the Vampire,” both of which retained the heart of their original stories but were decidedly fresher, incorporating more overt themes about race, sexuality, and radicalism.

Shows that transport us to fictional worlds we know well with characters we love are fun balms in times of uncertainty. Whether they can stand on their own is largely determined by fans old and new. But for all that 2022 threw at us, it was also a year we got to escape into new tales of elves and vampires – and even those incestuous Targaryens and their magnificent dragons.

Part of the reason so many reboots, prequels and spinoffs have popped up recently is because of the streaming boom, said Daniel Herbert, an associate professor at the University of Michigan who studies film and media. Working in a relatively new medium, companies “become more conservative in programming” and turn to established titles and fan bases that have been successful in the past, he said.

From a business standpoint, building on existing powerhouses proved successful this year: The “House of the Dragon” pilot was one of HBO’s most watched in years, with nearly 10 million viewers, and its finale was the HBO’s biggest since the 2019 end of the original “Thrones”. And while Netflix is ​​more opaque with its numbers, the streamer said “Addams Family” spin-off “Wednesday” has surpassed a viewership record previously set by its flagship “Stranger Things.”

by Jenna Ortega

But we, the audience, return to these familiar worlds again and again because they are creative havens – we’ve been there before and enjoyed our time there. We hope to continue to enjoy the stories produced in these fictional realms.

“I think we overestimate our desire for originality,” Herbert said. “There is comfort in repetition… in having clear expectations and seeing those expectations met.”

The familiar IP has a fluctuating quality, a way to maintain consistency in an unstable world. We expect bloodshed in “House of the Dragon” and morbid jokes in “Wednesday”. Both deliver, even if the stories are new.

“Recycling characters and story worlds is a way to maintain consistency,” said Herbert.

What’s more, the franchise narrative can be “psychologically helpful,” especially during times of stress and uncertainty, said Clay Routledge, a researcher and director of the Human Flourishing Lab at the Archbridge Institute, a policy think tank in Washington DC, where he studies. nostalgia. 🇧🇷

“When the world seems chaotic or we are experiencing a lot of personal or social distress, these shared stories help to stabilize us,” said Routledge. “Our entertainment interests can help us harness the psychological and motivational power of nostalgia,” which can make us feel “energized, upbeat, and socially connected.”

That social connection is increasingly rare in the streaming age, but many of these blockbuster series have renewed it: “House of the Dragon” was a scheduled showing on Sunday nights at 9 pm ET. It felt like their viewers were actually tuning in at the same time, together, and reacting live around the digital water cooler.

If you’re a hardcore “Star Wars” fan, you remember the amazement of watching the Millennium Falcon leap into hyperspace for the first time or the horror and confusion of Jar-Jar Binks getting his tongue stuck in the engine of a pod racer. . You want new additions to the “Star Wars” canon to replicate those moments of awe and genuine surprise.

But prequels, reboots, spinoffs and the like have a difficult balance to strike – they have to have enough to remind viewers why they loved the franchise in the first place. and novel enough to pique the interest of a new generation of viewers.

“We are naturally drawn to IPs that we have a nostalgic or sentimental connection to,” said Andrew Abeyta, a social psychologist and assistant professor at Rutgers University-Camden. “Since these IPs mean so much to us, this creates high and specific expectations. Nostalgia is a feeling, and part of the allure of nostalgic media is that it makes us feel the same way we did when we first experienced it.”

These high expectations can be overwhelming. “The Rings of Power,” reported to be the most expensive TV series ever made, estimated at $465 million for its first season alone, was perhaps too big to fail. Narrative stakes were few, and critics of the series felt that it was poorly paced, lacked tension, and failed to escape the shadow of Peter Jackson’s beloved film trilogy.

But many viewers not want more of the same when it comes to new chapters in their favorite fictional universes, Herbert said.

“If we were really nostalgic, we’d just rewatch the originals,” he said. “It’s about wanting more, wanting the past to catch up with us… wanting these characters to catch up with our own current historical moment.”

“House of the Dragon” attempted some cultural commentary alongside its escapism with its depictions of traumatic childbirth (with mixed results). “Andor” was praised for finally making the galactic rebellion seem radical, focusing on a small contingent of political actors working to make real changes, often at great cost. Its protagonist becomes a true rebel over the course of Season 1, as much out of necessity as out of genuine belief in the cause (thanks in part to a manifesto bequeathed by a dead comrade).

And AMC is creating new Anne Rice fans with its “Interview with the Vampire” adaptation. Set in both early 20th century New Orleans and present-day Dubai, the series makes sexuality and race central themes, inextricably linked to the story of emotionally tortured vampires trying to be a family and the journalist trying to make sense of the story.

The roller coaster love story of vampires Lestat de Lioncourt and Louis de Pointe du Lac was the emotional center of AMC

But new adaptations of beloved properties can also trigger what Herbert called “perverse nostalgia”: When franchises like “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” cast people of color, some vehement fans reject their inclusion in these adaptation-based worlds. that existed before an Afro-Latin actor played a heroic elf or a black woman portrayed a conflicted assassin who worked closely with Darth Vader (whose own iconic voice was provided for decades by a black actor, James Earl Jones).

Last year was a highlight for the existing IP-based nostalgic storytelling – something many of us needed when reality offered little hope.

“People turn to IPs they have a sentimental or nostalgic connection to during difficult times to feel comfortable,” said Abeyta. “Nostalgia is a quick and effective way to temporarily stave off loneliness and stress.”

These series kept millions of us company through another difficult year, attracting fans old and new, aided by free publicity on TikTok (see the “Wednesday” dance phenomenon or actress Emma D.’s now-ubiquitous audio request for arcy’s drink).

Telling and retelling stories is a trend as old as stories, and for almost as long as we’ve been making movies and TV shows, we’ve been remaking them, Herbert said. As long as we’re still dancing to Wednesday Addams, singing along to Poppy the Harfoot, or watching dragons dispatch enemies with bated breath, TV will continue to churn out spinoffs, prequels, and reboots of familiar franchises.

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