“The yellow slice, our number two priority: Make it 1997 again through science or magic.” —30 Rock
The further removed the television landscape gets from 30 Rock being on the air, the more the series genuinely feels like it must have been a secret biopic about NBC. Not something vaguely based on Tina Fey’s time at Saturday Night Live, but a collection of scenes from the life of an actual NBC executive. This might sound like an exaggeration, but that’s because 1997 is too narrow a field. Just look at recent reports about the possibility of a Frasier revival, in addition to the already in-progress Will & Grace revival, the in-the-works Mad About You revival, and Facts of Life and ALF reboots. (And that’s just on NBC: There is also, of course, the Roseanne revival turned The Conners spinoff/retool on ABC, as well as CBS’ upcoming Murphy Brown revival.) And these aren’t just rumors—they’re projects in development, if not already on the air. NBC now hopes to do the same thing with Greg Daniels/The Office and Tina Fey/30 Rock. The gag has come full circle.
TV reboots and revivals are now a fact of life (sorry), and instead of complaining about it—and about how there are no more original ideas in Hollywood, which has supposedly been the case since the 1990s—it’s more constructive to examine how they might work.
Nostalgia and pop culture are, at first glance, an ideal match: Buzzfeed has built an empire of listicles and quizzes about being a ’90s kid, many of whom you might say were “raised by TV.” But nostalgia is based on earnest love and appreciation of cultural artifacts, in this case TV series, that were integral parts of one’s upbringing—even series that don’t necessarily merit such affection—while TV networks’ attempts to capitalize on that nostalgia is anything but: It’s all about cashing in on intellectual property, no matter what. Think about it: How else can you explain that ALF—a series whose syndication track record has been so spotty it’s not even on Nick at Nite or TV Land—is considered reboot-worthy? Certainly, no viewer’s life has been changed for the better because of it.
Now I’m going to say something that might be surprising: There’s nothing inherently wrong with TV series reboots, revivals, reimaginings, remakes, etc. (The same extends to film as well, even if the world doesn’t need another Robin Hood movie.) In fact, because of the way the medium has advanced—especially in the vogue for serialization with plots that don’t have to be contained to one episode, never to be spoken of again—a lot of past programs could work better in a new creative landscape.
One problem—and one that’s on TV critics and their editors as much as it is on network executives—is the temptation to lump together reboots and revivals. Just to be clear, here’s a working definition of each:
Reboot = remake, reimagining, adaptation
Revival = continuation, reunion
There’s a disconnect when you call something like the new Will & Grace a “reboot” when it’s clearly a revival—as well as, technically, a well-received reset, in terms of dealing with the conclusion of its original run. The series itself hasn’t helped clarify the confusion: Depending on where you look, the upcoming season is either the series’ tenth—which makes sense—or its second, and Hulu even separates the original run from the new run as two distinct programs.
In part because of the aforementioned nostalgia factor, and in part because no one can pin down the proper terms, any discussion about intellectual property (IP) being resurrected is subject to intense scrutiny. Take the recent “new Buffy” news, which fans jumped on because of reports of it being a true reboot of the series—only this time, Buffy is black! New series showrunner Monica Owusu-Breen had to clarify that it’s merely a continuation of the established mythology. So, technically, it’s a spin-off. (Again, to bring it back to film, there is still somehow confusion about Ocean’s 8 being an all-female “remake” of the Ocean’s trilogy, when it’s very clearly a spin-off in the same universe. Imagine someone calling Frasier a more-refined Cheers remake.)
Before the floodgates opened, in fact, “reboot” was a laughable term, as it essentially meant, “Make everything darker (yet glossier), make everyone younger, and call it a day.” Just 10 years ago, NBC tried its hand with reboots of Knight Rider (technically a continuation) and Bionic Woman, and then, a few years later, the failed pilot of Wonder Woman. CBS, though currently succeeding with that formula with the likes of Hawaii Five-0, MacGyver, and the upcoming Magnum P.I., has a spottier track record with film-to-TV adaptations; while the surprisingly great Limitless worked as a guinea pig to show CBS there was something in turning film IP in to TV, the soulless (among other things) Rush Hour proved that there’s not an exact science in “take IP and prosper.”
This, in the end, is the heart of the problem with reboots and revivals, as much as mislabeling contributes to critics’ and audiences’ reluctance to get behind such series: Executives are more concerned with IP drawing viewers in than they are with making sure that these series truly build or improve on that IP, rather than simply pinging our nostalgia button. Unfortunately for said executives, that has led to quite a few failed attempts. The Roseanne revival is one example of IP coming before all else—and, sometimes, before the fall: Roseanne Barr’s ousting for making racist remarks is something anyone who’s paid attention to her the past few years could have seen coming. Including ABC, which green-lit the series in the first place because of the IP and won handsomely in the ratings. (Whether Roseanne or The Conners was worth the controversy and headache to the network is an open question.)
While the ideal situation might be more original television, for now IP is king, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be of a certain quality. In particular, series that had potential in the past but were cut short, or don’t hold up well on re-watch, have the opportunity for a new creative life. My go-to example is Sliders, a show saddled with a network that didn’t care for serialization airing episodes wildly out of order—despite Sliders’ serialized story— and eventually letting plot points dangle off the edge of a metaphorical cliff.
As another example, the upcoming Charmed reboot has taken a lot of flack for calling itself “feminist”—thereby implying the original wasn’t, which is a discredit what Holly Marie Combs, Alyssa Milano, Shannen Doherty, and Rose McGowan (and their characters) brought to it, in the face of the decidedly not-feminist Brad Kern. But it does stand to improve on the original in one important respect: Unlike the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, Charmed was awful at telling shades-of-grey stories, to the point where anything that got close retreated back to its black and white view of good and evil as quickly as possible. On The CW of today, the point of pride is telling complex, layered stories—something “new Charmed” can do in a way a Charmed revival simply couldn’t. But this isn’t the only reason why Charmed gets the reboot instead of the revival treatment: Not only did the series get a pretty firm conclusion, tonally, The CW and original Charmed aren’t on the same page anymore. 2006 WB (right before The CW’s birth) and 2018 CW truly are two different networks.
When a series that had a long life and a fairly firm conclusion gets the revival treatment, the argument against the revival is usually just that: The show had a long life and a firm conclusion. But if done well, it’s possible for shows that get brought back to life to benefit creatively and do things “right” this time around. Will & Grace reset its controversial series finale—in which Will and Grace stopped speaking to each other until their children went to college—and Roseanne reset its original final season, which was already reset in its series finale—two examples of TV shows using the revival golden ticket to move beyond their disappointing endings and into a new era.
Of course, not every series can benefit from being revived or rebooted. Re-watching Frasier through adult eyes, two things strike me about the series. First, it holds up surprisingly well for a 25-year-old sitcom, with few of the offensive blind spots you’d expect of a series its age (see: Friends). Second, while it would be nice to see the cast back together (save the late John Mahoney, who died in February), Frasier probably wouldn’t be improved by embracing modern TV aesthetics, because it was already ahead of its time when it first aired—like a stage play in which each performance was a new, self-contained farce. That the misunderstandings between Frasier Crane and company never got old in 11 seasons is impressive, and this is where the rightful resistance to revivals comes in: If something was “perfect” (or nearly so), why touch it?
Obviously, not every revival or reboot promises, or even hopes, to do more than bank on nostalgia: Netflix’s Fuller House is committed to the spirit of the original, which banked on easy emotional schmaltz in the first place. (Full House falls under the category of not looking objectively good—in terms of quality—on a revisit, but that’s truly the worst thing about the otherwise non-offensive series.) Plus, this isn’t anything new: Saved By The Bell: The New Class lasted seven seasons without doing anything different from the original, other than making one of its Zack Morris types a transplant from Switzerland.
When discussing reboots, revivals, and everything in between, it’s too cynical to blame it all on IP, or on creatively and morally bankrupt executives (and actors, and writers, and directors, and so on) just wanting to get rich on the belief that the power of nostalgia and a dedicated fan base alone can truly bring a series back from the dead. On the one hand, the TV industry is a business; on the other, it’s a storytelling medium that intentionally evokes these emotions. So to say there’s one definitive, correct stance on these now-unavoidable returns to the television of yore isn’t quite so simple. As with any aspect of the medium—from game show formats to genre conventions—revivals and reboots contain endless possibilities for reinvention. The question is whether networks will learn this lesson before our ‘90s nostalgia goes out of vogue.
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.