If you are a person of a certain age, then Netflix’s The Toys That Made Us is a hit of pure-tar nostalgia. The series does not have the pizzazz of Wild Wild Country or the intrigue of Making a Murderer, but it will transport you back to your childhood like nothing else you will watch this year.
Now, before I go any further, I should point out that nostalgia is bad. Nothing good ever came from longing for the past. Nostalgia stunts people, creates suspicion about the present and causes Brexit. If The Toys That Made Us were simply a rose-tinted celebration of the hunks of plastic you used to bash together as a child, it would be unbearable.
But it is not. What makes the series sing is its lack of sentimentality for the toys at hand. Take the episode on the He-Man action figure, for example. Visually, it is a wonderland of memories, full of lingering shots of colours and textures that you had forgotten were once your whole life. But the meat is the interviews with the people who created He-Man.
To these people, He-Man was just a day job. They lumbered into an office, surrounded by all the annoyances and petty rivalries of every office, and through a combination of ingenuity, luck and carelessness created the quintessential toy of my childhood. We learn that the He-Man cartoon was invented on the fly in a moment of blind desperation by a Mattel employee who could sense that a sales meeting was heading south. Battle Cat was created because Mattel had a bunch of oversized tiger toys lying around, so they made some saddles and marketed them as He-Man’s must-have companion. Again and again, we hear stories of how a mythology that defined a generation was put together pragmatically out of leftovers by a gang of middle-aged men who did not like each other very much.
It is also pleasingly clear-eyed about how the wheels fell off the franchise, about how it expanded too far too quickly, saturating the market with second-rate products until it lost $400 million (Dh1.5 billion) in a year. It is the joy of seeing how the sausage was made that sells The Toys That Made Us.
It is repeated time and time again. One episode shows how Hasbro essentially tipped a pile of Japanese toys on to a writer’s desk and ordered him to create the entire Transformers mythology in a weekend. Another wallows in Gene Roddenberry’s dismal taste for under-the-table licensing deals that ended up with a range of Star Trek tanks, Star Trek army soldiers and an official Star Trek “space fun helmet”, effectively a bucket with a lamp on it and the word “SPOCK” written across the front in massive letters. The breakout star of the Star Wars episode is a lawyer by the name of Jim Kipling, who sits and simmers at George Lucas’ avarice under a huge sign that reads: “It’s FUN!”
The series is also, if you look closely enough, a damning look at the ills of capitalism. Again and again we see toy companies hurl out substandard goods — toys that look nothing like their characters, toys that lack invention and, in the case of Star Wars, an empty box with a picture of Luke Skywalker on it — because they want to make as much money as possible before the brats wise up and abandon them for something newer. It is merciless and it makes you question the worth of your childhood.
In short, The Toys That Made Us is the perfect form of nostalgia. Yes, you will ooh and ahh at the toys — or, if you are me, you will get tipsy and linger over the “Buy Now” button on a used Masters of the Universe Buzz-Off action figure on eBay until better sense prevails — but you will also see your memories be reframed as the result of cynical business decisions. I cannot get enough of it.
Don’t miss it!
‘The Toys That Made Us’ is streaming now on Netflix.