At the Super Bowl, Nostalgia’s the Only Game

“This is the millennium of Aftermath.” When Dr. Dre rapped that line on “Forgot About Dre,” from his 1999 album “2001,” he was referring to his record label. But from the vantage point of the 2022 Super Bowl, where he headlined the halftime show, it was also a pretty accurate forward-looking statement.

The big game, its spectacles, its ads and its trappings all shared a sense of looking backward — a nostalgia-saturated attitude that we were living in the aftermath of the best times, and that it was more comforting to look to the past than to the future.

This is not a knock on Dr. Dre, or the incendiary legends-of-hip-hop show he put on. For the game to finally center America’s biggest music genre in front of America’s biggest audience was overdue and thrilling.

But the calendar doesn’t lie. The Super Bowl, as a rule, discovers music when that music’s audience discovers high-fiber diets, and the price of admission was knowing that this revolutionary soundtrack was now dad’s treadmill workout playlist. Snoop Dogg commanded the midfield stage, cool and resplendent in a blue bandanna tracksuit; that afternoon he had hosted the Puppy Bowl with Martha Stewart.

Remember-when was everywhere at Super Bowl LVI, an event that counts off the ceaseless march of time in its very name. It was even on the field, where the Los Angeles Rams won the championship wearing “modern throwback” uniforms, a popular way for the N.F.L. to hark back to its glory days. (Football itself is a cultural throwback, really, its TV broadcasts being the last vestige of the mass-media era when Americans still watched the same TV shows at the same time.)

Most years, the host TV network uses the biggest show of the year to promote one of its flagship programs. This year, NBC spotlighted “Bel-Air,” the new teen drama on its streaming sibling Peacock, inspired by the ’90s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

On its own, “Bel-Air,” in the three episodes that premiered Sunday, is a perfectly serviceable rendition of the outsider-comes-to-Richville soap theme (“The O.C.,” “Our Kind of People”). But it would be entirely unremarkable if not for the references to its source material and its famous theme song, which stand out like Will Smith’s Day-Glo fashions from the original.

The new Will (Jabari Banks) is indeed from West Philadelphia — “born and raised,” he makes a point of saying in the pilot, which also includes a cab sporting dice from its mirror, as well as a couple of guys, up to no good, making trouble in Will’s old neighborhood.

There are some genuinely interesting reinventions in the new version, particularly the character of cousin Carlton (Olly Sholotan), here imagined as a child of Black wealth tormented by his parents’ expectations and the pressure of holding his social position at his (largely white) private school.

But any attempts to distinguish the new series are drowned out by reminders of the old one. And in an era bloated with TV reboots and revivals, the reminders are the point — as underlined by the promos in which Smith reprises the theme song with a cast of international fans.

The past was everywhere in the Super Bowl ads. The most attention-getting spot of the night was a nearly shot-for-shot remake of the opening credits of another turn-of-the-century icon that, like Dre, represented for gangsters all across the world: “The Sopranos.”

This version, directed by the “Sopranos” creator David Chase, starred Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who played the Mafia daughter Meadow Soprano, and the new electric Chevrolet Silverado. Tony Soprano’s cigar was replaced by a lollipop; the World Trade Center towers by One World Trade; the high-voltage charge of James Gandolfini’s dangerous swagger by an electric-vehicle charging station.

It was a curious tribute to a series that once told us, through Tony, that “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.” But “remember when” is also big business, in entertainment — last year gave us a “Sopranos” prequel film — and in advertising.

The job of Super Bowl ads has always been to find a cultural lingua franca, the vein of comedy or emotion that can speak equally to young and old, urban and rural, within a gigantic TV audience. Thus we have met a menagerie of talking animals, become familiar with the Budweiser Clydesdales and heard from a host of celebrity endorsers.

Increasingly, our only common ground is in the past. The present moment is too polarizing — see Eminem’s recalling N.F.L. racism protests by taking a knee. Or it’s too fragmented, divided among niche stars and niche interests.

Thus we got Mike Myers reprising the “Austin Powers” role of Dr. Evil for General Motors, while Jim Carrey resurrected his “Cable Guy” character for Verizon. Thus Anna Kendrick used retro Barbie and He-Man figures to explain home-buying in a Saturday morning kids’ ad parody for Rocket Homes and Rocket Mortgage.

Once, ad campaigns could unite an audience not just by returning to the past but by promising a glittering future. But now the future is confusing — see all the ads for cryptocurrency — or scary. Samuel Adams beer tried to turn those viral Boston Dynamics robots into party animals rather than foot soldiers from a “Black Mirror” episode. And implicit in the game’s many electric car ads was the threat of climate catastrophe. (The present’s not so awesome either, as represented by a dystopian ad for the Cue home Covid test.)

That may be why Meta, in the most unintentionally disturbing ad of the night, offered the metaverse of tomorrow as a way of reclaiming a vanished past, with the kind of pitch-dark melancholy usually reserved for the weepiest Pixar movies.

An animatronic dog finds itself on the junk heap after the Chuck E. Cheese-like restaurant where it performed goes out of business. Saved from the trash compactor, it is put on display at a space center, where someone slides a set of virtual-reality goggles onto its head. Inside the metaverse, its decrepit body is reborn. There’s the old restaurant, and its animal bandmates, and an audience! Alone in the dark lobby, the dog jams and howls with delight. Somebody wants it again, if only in its head.

This is the future we can all look forward to, the ad says: becoming outmoded and discarded, broken in a broken world. But Meta could be a virtual palliative, a cyber-hospice, a mental escape to a time when you understood the world and felt loved. It’s depressing, but it rings true. After all, Facebook, whence Meta sprang, both destabilized the society of the present and functioned as a kind of eternal photo album and 24/7 class reunion.

Even the soundtrack is perfectly backward-looking. The ad ends to the swell of the Simple Minds hit “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” a nostalgia artifact itself, forever associated with the Gen X touchstone “The Breakfast Club.”

In my day — when I saw the movie in a theater, buying my ticket with a nickel that had a bumblebee on it — the song voiced the passion and hope of John Hughes’s teen-misfit characters on the verge of adulthood. In 2022, with those characters, like me, now in the target demographic for the Super Bowl’s nonstop appeals to yesteryear, “Don’t you forget” sounds a lot more like a command.

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