Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Living with the Dead, a special that premieres on CBS next Sunday, is not—repeat, not—one of those network television retrospectives that will flood the airwaves once the sweeps begin. It does, however, perfectly describe the way a lot of viewers will feel as they tune in during the coming month.

CBS kicks off the sweeps on Friday with an encore presentation of The Carol Burnett Show: Show Stoppers, the post-Sept. 11 ratings blockbuster that convinced network executives that television’s immediate future lay in its past. On Saturday, it’s the Golden Anniversary of Television City, followed the next night by the almost parodic-sounding Every body Loves Raymond: The First Six Years. ABC has made a couple of token gestures in the same direction with American Bandstand’s 50th Anniversary: A Celebration and TV Guide’s 50 Best Shows of All Time.

But no one has seized the trend like NBC, whose sweeps-month schedule reads like a nonstop trip in the Wayback Machine. Besides the much-promoted NBC 75th Anniversary Special on May 5, viewers can indulge with Jay Leno’s 10th Anni versary Special, Bob Hope’s Funniest Outtakes, L.A. Law: The Movie, NBC’s Funniest Outtakes, The Cosby Show: A Look Back and, just in case a single inch of unexploited videotape was left in the vaults, 20 Years of Must See TV on May 20.

It is hard to know who to blame for this all-yesteryear-all-the-time lineup. Is it just business as usual, with the famously lemming-like programming departments throwing resources at the gimmick du jour? Or is it an honest response to an audience that, unsure what to make of the present, seeks to wallow in the past?

It’s both, of course. Many factors make the present difficult to read: the disorienting, waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop shadow of Sept. 11; the wishy-washy cultural impact of a shallow recession and a so-so recovery; mixed signals from a meandering stock market; the enervating doubts left behind by Enron’s collapse; and the dot-com hangover, which has blurred our vision of the next thing, let alone the next next thing.

For viewers whose psyches are in limbo, retrospectives are a convenient cultural placeholder, a no-brainer rest stop on the way to a dimly glimpsed future.

While the nets strip-mine their archives and Hollywood churns out sequels and remakes for the summer, ad agencies, too, turn to remembrance of jingles past. In Pepsi’s overblown Britney Through the Ages epic, the 21st century virgin impersonates the brand’s cola-touting, jingle-singing blondes from the past 50 years. For Burger King, Shaquille O’Neal becomes a walking history of popular culture as he morphs through the many epochs of Whopper commercials. In an ad for Mercedes, a time-traveling car pulls up to the curb. GE invokes Mr. Wizard and old ads in a corporate spot. The cable channel Oxygen takes as its spokeswoman a montage of Miss America contestants from across the decades.

Brand heritage becomes an antidote to uncertain times. The message for consumers is that while hairdos change, jingles change, lapel widths and pop music change, certain brand values never change. Pepsi is for those who think young, until the end of time. Special orders don’t upset us, now and forever. In a world that is dangerous and unpredictable, brands are dependable.

The fashion for retrospectives should not be confused with nostalgia. It is driven more by uncertainty than by yearning. Besides, the beginning of a new millennium is not a particularly nostalgic moment.

First, every decade of the 20th century was pretty much done to death on the way to 2000, except the ’90s, whose glories and wounds are still too fresh to qualify that time as the good (or bad) old days. Second, nostalgia presumes a point of view. It requires a vantage point from which to see the past, a perceived difference between then and now. Such a viewpoint is just what the present lacks. To the question “Where are we now?” retrospectives offer the conveniently noncommittal answer, “We’re at the place that comes after all the stuff that came before.”

It is the nets’ good fortune that cut-and-paste retrospectives are the cheapest audience bait around. Perhaps there is some symbolism in the fact that the most enticing entertainments they can dish up for the sweeps are celebrations of their past—while this season’s new shows offer little fodder for future retrospectives. I don’t imagine the networks are looking forward to the day when audiences once again want something fresh and surprising.

But, hey, that’s why they invented cable.