Lead image via Netflix's 'Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life'
In the age of peak TV, there is a central problem executives regularly face. They need new content, but they are risk averse: in the studio and network world, one big misfire can lead to the chopping block. The way that television and film execs deal with this problem is to reboot and revive trusted properties instead of taking a chance on new material. Never mind that new material of all sorts, from Mr. Robot to Big Little Lies, comprise the bulk of TV successes: it is safer to build your career on a series of middling also-rans than swinging for the fences with a high-risk, high-reward strategy.
Though investing heavily in reboots and revivals makes business sense (TVLine published a piece on 130 reboots and revivals in the pipeline), it is often a recipe for creative failure. Successful showrunners should be given new creative work to tackle. Managing a pre-existing canon and mythology, as well as the expectations of a reboot’s original fan base, is a surefire way to further complicate the already-difficult endeavor of creating a hit show. Below, we look at some recent attempts of networks trying to bring back fan-favorite TV shows, from the reboots that fell flat to the revivals that managed to inject some new life into well-trodden entertainment terrain.
Sometimes the Show Runs You
There are two types of television reboots out there — both of them typically equally disappointing. The first is perhaps more accurately described as a revival. Sometimes studios and networks try to get the whole band back together, attempting creating more episodes of something that ended years ago. Recent examples include X-Files, Gilmore Girls, and Fuller House. In these instances, the original actors unite with original writer-producers and try to capture the old magic. Almost uniformly, these attempts feel stale and anachronistic. Fuller House’s optimistic nostalgia feels out of place in a 2017 that offers sardonic, smart children’s programming. The revived X-Files is filled with a type of paranoia that feels a bit off in an era far more in tune with Black Mirror. While the world of Gilmore Girls and its central clash of high and low culture feels relevant in the age of Trump, the recent revival spent so much time reminding us how good the show used to be that they forgot to tell start telling a new story until halfway through the new season. The pilot of the Gilmore Girls reboot is inferior to nearly any episodes from the original series, spending at least half of the script simply catching up with characters and reminding us what they’ve been up to since the curtains first went down in 2007. And though prime Gilmore Girls felt authentic and charming, the second coming is the television equivalent of that trip back to your old high school over college Christmas break. Even a show as universally acclaimed as Arrested Development left fans a bit cold once revived; while the new episodes were critically acclaimed, few critics (if any) felt they were on par with the originals.
The other type of reboots, meaning shows with the same concept but new actors and usually a different creative team, have similarly mixed track records. Though they avoid the challenge of dragging actors who have opened vineyards, started clothing lines, and gone into politics out of thespian retirement, they still run the same risks of being out of touch. The most successful of these attempts have been on CBS, where the anachronisms of Hawaii 5-0 and Lethal Weapon don’t bother the aging audience, even if they irk critics. The failures of Damien, Uncle Buck, Heroes, Charlie’s Angels, Knight Rider, Ironside, and many other reboot attempts on other networks prove that CBS, once again, as always, is the exception, and not the rule.
Even if a reboot is set in 2017 and the original actors pass on making cameos, the show often feels like it is speaking to a bygone era and audience. Though the executive producers of the 24 reboot, 24: Legacy, have worked on critically-acclaimed shows like Awake, Dexter, and Homeland since they left 24, the reboot feels like its plot and politics were delivered via time machine from the early post-9/11 years. The pilot episode of the reboot seems to have learned fewer lessons from the war on terror than the Trump administration. The Muslim characters are all bloodthirsty jihadis and the American operatives are red-blooded, steak-eating patriots. The twist in the pilot (spoiler: thousands of sleeper cells are being activated around the country) feels like blind hysteria today, even though there was a time when this was a fear taken seriously in the real world corridors of power. Considering co-showrunner Howard Gordon was an EP on Homeland and Tyrant, it is safe to assume the he and his writers have developed a more nuanced point of view than the show itself in the years since Kiefer Sutherland first started merking terrorists.
Reboot the World: A Compromise
Though 24:Legacy is one of the most striking examples of revivals lost in time, there are many other examples of reboots and revivals that seem stuck retreading the stale plots of a TV world that really should exist solely as re-runs. Luckily, there is a better way to approach nostalgic entertainment. It is possible to keep the name recognition provided by reboots and revivals and make something fresh and creative. The recent trend of giving showrunners keys to existing worlds has proven successful from a creative and a viewership standpoint.
Noah Hawley has done this twice to stellar results with Fargo (which lives in the world of the Coen Brothers film of the same name) and Legion (based on a relatively obscure X-Men character). Though Vince Gilligan’s Better Call Saul has some of the same characters as Breaking Bad, it self-consciously takes a different point of view, and even a different worldview from its predecessor. Jimmy’s Albuquerque and Walter’s Albuquerque are not one in the same. Westworld and Battlestar Galactica took a loose framework from far older sci-fi works and expanded them, using leaps in technology to take the skeletons of ideas and bring them to full and brilliant life. In each of these cases, the creators benefits from name recognition, a central set of themes, and a general tone that already existed without being handcuffed by the mythological particulars of the work that came before. To give executives some credit, sometimes giving a veteran showrunner a crack at an entirely different kind of show doesn’t pan out. Very little of the Sons of Anarchy audience followed Kurt Sutter to Bastard Executioner. Despite the show’s failure, you can bet that his new show, Mayans MC will be a hit. The new series lives in the same world as Sons of Anarchy, but follows the exploits of a Mexican-American biker gang who were rivals to SOA in the original.
It’s not a fair world: audiences want more of the same from artists. This has been true since the Queen ordered Shakespeare to bring back Falstaff. It’s up to executives to work with showrunners to do this in a way that won’t feel like going back to the well one too many times. The approach of using an existing universe as a frame of reference and a jumping off point makes sense in the cluttered TV landscape. Something has to lure viewers in. It’s a difficult needle to thread, but if successful, this tactic of rebooting worlds can lead to a TV show that accomplishes what every great TV show has accomplished, from Cheers to The Sopranos. If you give the writers a little creative distance from the original work, you might end up with something that feels simultaneously familiar and fresh.