complex simplicityMy son turned 10 this year, and it occurred to me that one day he might look back at the distinguishing features of the decade he grew up in—the 2010s—with that familiar mixture of amusement, bemusement and nostalgia that many of us recognize in recalling our own formative years.

My kids were born in a decade that never did decide on a name for itself. The 2000s? The Aughts? The Naughts? The Zeroes? In keeping with that lack of identity, I realized I couldn’t name much in pop culture that was uniquely their generation’s. Today’s movies often seem like mere echoes of the past—Ghostbusters, The Legend of Tarzan, Ben-Hur, The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon, and The Magnificent Seven were all resurrected in theaters in 2016, and 2017 will bring Jumanji and yet another Spider Man movie, among others.

Deserving special mention is 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which ham-handedly pilfered from several comics stories of the ’80s and ’90s, passed them through a blue-black filter, and emerged with a violent mess that could have proved Shakespeare a prescient film critic—as the bard wrote, “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Echoes aside, however, there’s plenty to love about the current era of television—if you’re an adult. This has been called a golden age for long-form stories told episodically, with Breaking Bad (2009-2013), Mad Men (2007-2015), Game of Thrones (2011-) and others. But there’s not much so far that stands out as particularly (pop) culturally significant and unique for this generation, except an endless series of awful Nickelodeon and Disney TV sitcoms. Full House (1987-1995) breeds Fuller House (2016-), and amazingly, looks pretty good in comparison.
I’d feel bad for my kids—except that they have the advantage of being able to seek out past TV and films with relative ease. Thus, my kids, born in the 2000s and raised in the 2010s, are often living in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.

In some ways, the late 20th century represents an ideal sweet spot of censorship and wild recklessness. It wasn’t “anything goes,” but there was more of a willingness to try things that weren’t guaranteed to be financially successful, perhaps because those decisions weren’t quite so statistically, demographically and marketing info-driven back then. At the same time, there was enough mainstream social pressure on moral standards that the networks didn’t push the envelope just for the sake of it—a bedroom scene usually ended with a closed door, or a light turned out, and while the omitted activites may have been less tittilating than HBO’s weekly T&A parade, their absence had little effect on the storytelling.

We watch Star Trek (1966-1969), and Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), but skip the frenetic movie reboots. My daughter asks to watch Reading Rainbow, apparently making a comeback of sorts. My kids have enjoyed episodes of Little House on the Prairie (1974-1982), and I’ve enjoyed not having to worry about the content (other than that freaky clown episode). There was good, cheesy, time-traveling fun with Voyagers! (1982-1983), and my kids learned all about unions, economics and dancing from watching What’s Happening! (1976-1979).

Sure, I may be cultivating an unrealistic taste for bell bottoms and flared collars, but it’s a small price to pay for the ability to seek out and mine those elements of pop culture that merit another generation’s attention. I confess to being a bit of an old fogey in preferring young characters who aspire to be teachers, writers, and, yes, even president over those who yearn to win talent shows or become YouTube sensations.

The era we live in is far from a lost decade—there are always gems to be found amid the debris—but with entertainment options splintered across a multitude of theaters, channels, apps, and websites, it seems unlikely that any particular show, or movie, will resonate with kids in this decade the way that Star Wars, or Jaws, or E.T. did for me. With so much available from the past, maybe my kids will one day look back fondly on their childhood as part of “The Netflix Generation.”