Reeling in the Years is the television anomaly we need in our lives

There’s nothing like a pandemic to make nostalgia a guaranteed hit

How did a repeat of a repeat of a repeat of a repeat become one of the most-watched programmes on Irish television in 2020?

By being Reeling in the Years, RTÉ’s archive hit extraordinaire, is half the answer. Nostalgia has never been as good as it was just last year.

When it was broadcast on RTÉ One on a certain Tuesday evening last March, the episode dedicated to the heady days of 1970 garnered an average audience of 654,000 people – high enough to give it 14th place in the top 50 list for last year, where it sits nestled behind the Prime Time Leaders' Debate and ahead of the most-watched edition of Claire Byrne Live.

That’s quite an achievement for an episode that was first broadcast on RTÉ in 2002 and has had countless airings since then. On a per-viewer basis, Reeling in the Years was already the most cost-effective show RTÉ has ever made, and then, whoosh, along came the windfall of another 654,000 viewers.

Our indulgence in 1970 that night may come to be seen in retrospect as an eleventh-hour hurrah for communal viewing

Indeed, it’s a mad anomaly of a performance, symptomatic of the crazy time that was 2020 in more than ways than one.

Naturally, a Covid-shocked public will not have resisted transportation back to a year with all kinds of everything – including Ireland winning Eurovision with All Kinds of Everything – but no pandemic. From the prism of Eurovision-less 2020, any virus-free period in history would have made for a nice escape.

Now Reeling in the Years is back, with a new series dedicated to the tens or the teens – or whatever 2010-2019 is supposed to be called – making its debut on Sunday, April 11th. Rumours that the entire first episode is just that clip of a man falling on the ice on RTÉ News on a loop could not, sadly, be substantiated at the time of writing.

Ordinarily, a review of bailout-marred 2010 would feel inauspicious, but we take our diversions where we can these days. If it hadn’t been for coronavirus-related delays, the show would have been ready to go last year, when the decade was even less distant in viewers’ minds.

Ratings magnet

The series dedicated to the noughties (or, as they say in North America, the aughts) was also a ratings magnet when it first aired in the winter of 2010, securing an average audience of more than 450,000.

“Viewers flee gloom by Reeling in Years,” read a headline in the Irish Independent that December. This was itself something of a bumper season for Irish television, 2010 being a year when the pubs were open, but a great many of us were too broke to actually drink in them.

I have a love-hate relationship with the show because in the mid-noughties that Steely Dan theme tune used to blast through the old Irish Times office at 6.30pm every summer evening and its crushing inevitability came to encapsulate the disappointment of still being glued to a computer at 6.30pm every summer evening when everybody else in their 20s was almost certainly floating around Tiger-era beer gardens with wads of cash.

Nevertheless, the reasons why Reeling in the Years works, and is acclaimed, are obvious. It is zippy not saggy, light-touch not over-eggy. It dispenses with personality narrators or talking heads who might themselves age badly, allowing it to maintain its crown as the perennial post-news repeat. And its makers know that sometimes just an on-point choice of music is enough to do the trick: in the 1979 episode, for instance, Margaret Thatcher’s arrival in Downing Street is soundtracked by Blondie’s Heart of Glass.

Still, the latest series feels like it might be a less unifying affair. What are we looking back on exactly? Major news events – bailouts, referendums, elections, natural disasters – continue to be consumed by the masses, but in a time of media fragmentation, other cultural touchstones in our lives seem less likely than ever to be universal, or even common.

Social media can sometimes give the opposite impression – with users coalescing around a single meme or hashtag for the night – but it has never been easier to swerve what counts for a mainstream and live happily on a diet of niches, replacing shared culture for fan culture.

The internet’s destruction of barriers to entry in audio-visual production has created a swelling bonanza of choices when it comes to telling the story of Ireland’s recent past.

On a purely practical level, the makers of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s Reeling in the Years will have had much less footage to play with or argue about in the editing room.

Umpteenth showing

This is why in another decade’s time the statistically notable allure of the 1970 Reeling in the Years on its umpteenth showing last year may stick out even more. The show didn’t suck up 654,000 viewers on any old night, but on March 17th – a historic day for the State, which we marked by, well, watching television for hours on end.

St Patrick's Day is not normally associated with year-beating levels of television viewing

Not only was Leo Varadkar’s emergency address seen by more than 1.8 million between RTÉ One and Virgin Media One alone (1.599 million of them on RTÉ One), but the RTÉ Nine O’Clock News, Prime Time and Home of the Year (all RTÉ One) also pulled in some of the biggest audiences of 2020 as the nation collectively lost its remote control.

Reeling in the Years will itself have “inherited” its huge audience from that evening’s Six-One bulletin.

But in the on-demand age, the concept of a show receiving a large inheritance of viewers from whatever preceded it on the same channel must surely have its best days behind it. And St Patrick’s Day is not normally associated with year-beating levels of television viewing. We usually have other things to do.

So our indulgence in 1970 that night may come to be seen in retrospect as an eleventh-hour hurrah for communal viewing – a blip born of a crisis. We were reeling in the years, but also just reeling.