Program Overload: Against the TV Reboot

Television today is a fast-moving medium. The very morning after the 2016 presidential election, ABC executives met to discuss tweaking their programming to reflect a more “economically diverse” audience. Though ABC’s lineup, with shows like black-ish and Fresh off the Boat, had earned acclaim for portraying minority and immigrant families, the studio wanted to appeal to the same demographic that had won Trump the election — working-class Americans.

This, of course, included the revival of Roseanne, Roseanne Barr’s self-titled sitcom that aired from 1988-1997. Its March premiere boasted massive ratings and, just three days later, ABC announced that it had expanded the reboot’s initial season with an additional episode and ordered a subsequent, 13-episode season. In May, it took mere hours after Barr sent a now-infamous racist tweet for ABC to cancel the revival. Now, only weeks later, the studio has reached a deal to move forward without Barr, recalibrating the show to focus on her character’s daughter, Darlene (Sara Gilbert).

Despite massive ratings, critics and viewers begrudged the character’s conservative views. Variety’s Sonia Saraiya called it “off-putting,” noting that it felt “uncouth to revel in an ugly world.” While 2018 Roseanne’s political views may very well be in line with the evolution of the original character, it still feels outdated. And, while her views are certainly abhorrent, I’m not so sure Roseanne’s downfall can be attributed solely to our inability to separate the art from the artist. The problem, it seems, is with the reboot itself.

In the last year, there have been over 100 TV show reboots on the air or in development. Most of them are mediocre. We don’t need more.

The word reboot brings to mind a reset, a do-over. Only in use since 1981, the term specifically refers to restarting a technological device. It’s a process familiar to anyone with a phone or computer: when something isn’t working, turn it off, wait, turn it on again, and it’s as good as new. But leave it powered down for long enough, by the time you reboot it, you’re faced with major compatibility issues. Instead of something innovative, you’re left with a relic. The reboot itself is meant to refresh, restart. The reason we turn our devices back on is because we rely on them to communicate, to create, to get things done.

A reboot is a last-ditch effort, a force quit. It’s the tactic to take when all other options have been exhausted. Why then, in this so-called era of “peak TV,” does it feel like we’re mindlessly slamming the on/off button? Why are we ctrl-alt-deleting forward momentum? Pop culture, and television in particular — with its ability to span long amounts of time — is an integral tool for understanding those who consume and create it. Some of American culture’s most revealing artifacts are TV moments: Mary Tyler Moore asking for a raise, Ellen coming out, the Korean-war-as-Vietnam-War on M*A*S*H. What a shame that the legacy we are leaving is one of viewers who can’t let go of the past.

Television is caught in the depths of a nostalgia spiral. Take a closer look at ABC’s reasons for exhuming Roseanne from the sitcom graveyard, and its downfall becomes less surprising: in an attempt to connect to a modern audience, they tried to recreate the past. For members of an admittedly liberal industry, television executives are operating under a particularly conservative approach. Their eyes fixed on the good old days in the rearview mirror, they are desperate to Make the Sitcom Great Again.

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The reboot problem is not only a conservative one. The return of Will & Grace followed a trajectory almost identical to that of Roseanne. On September 26, 2016, hours before the first presidential debate between candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the creators of that late-‘90s sitcom reunited the four lead characters for a 10-minute, get-out-the-vote PSA. Thick with up-to-the-minute references and pop culture name-dropping, it was a decent gimmick, especially considering the creators and their target audience. But it was a gimmick nonetheless.

Yet merely 36 hours later, talk of a revival was widespread. NBC, bolstered by tweets of adoration and whiplash-inducing viral popularity, announced plans for a 10-episode reboot. By April, 10 episodes had grown to 13. In August, it grew to 16 and an additional 13-episode second season — all before a single new episode aired.

When the revival premiered the following fall, viewers were whisked right back to that Manhattan breakfast nook, kvetching with their old friends as if no time had passed. Except it had. And while it captured the trademarks of the original — Will, Grace, Jack, and Karen, the sarcasm, the jaunty musical bridges — it wasn’t enough. The writers doubled down on the political-tinged humor that worked in the PSA, relying on low-hanging Trump jokes long after the election results were considered news. Even the format felt stale. Filmed in front of a live audience, hollow laughter followed every punchline. Each delivery felt pregnant with the expectation of a reaction. It was distracting.

The nostalgia that carried the PSA wasn’t sustainable for a complete, 22-minute episode, let alone 16. Of course, that’s how nostalgia works: it provides the fleeting familiarity of the past. Now we were nostalgic for both the original series and the effective nostalgia of the PSA.

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It would be foolish to be shocked by studios jumping at the chance to revive an old, beloved show with a built-in audience. When Netflix announced its four-part Gilmore Girls mini series in 2016, having acquired the catalog of original episodes — to the delight of both viewers revisiting the early-aughts favorite and younger viewers discovering it anew — it was a sound business move. Add to that the marketing boost of a nostalgia-obsessed internet, and it was a no-brainer.

If its shorter run helped to curb the impossible task of sustaining nostalgia, positioning the series as more event than art, that was the extent of its creative success. The specifics introduced a revisionist revival: series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino would write each new installment, despite having exited the original over contract disputes three seasons before it ended in 2007. Most of the series’ leads were returning. Acolytes old and new were finally going to get the conclusion Sherman-Palladino was denied almost a decade earlier.

I should note that I was one of those acolytes. From 2000 to 2007, I had a standing date with my mother and my television to take the trip to Stars Hollow, Connecticut. I watched the show religiously, and got my first byline reviewing it in my high school newspaper. So when Thanksgiving weekend 2016 rolled around, I hunkered down in my parents’ house with pop-tarts and candy. I intended to give myself over completely to a celebration of a series seminal in the development of my passion for pop culture. Yes, I jumped right back into Sherman-Palladino’s trademark, mile-a-minute dialogue. Of course I reveled in the reappearance of every familiar face. I cried an embarrassing amount during the more sentimental moments. But there are only so many convenient storylines and clever cameos I can look past without acknowledging that they offered nothing new. Character traits that had been endearing years ago had grown stale and stunted. The 90-minute episodes, possible because of their home on a streaming service, made what would have been sharp dialogue strained and exhausting.

The more time that passes between iterations of a series and its revival, the stronger both its mythology and our attachment to it become. The internet, with its watchful eye over every development from negotiation to production, raises expectations so high, it’s nearly impossible for a revival to live up to the buildup of the news, let alone the original. A revival that fails to meet those expectations can irrevocably tarnish the experience of the series as a whole. It’s almost like learning your favorite 1990’s sitcom star is, say, a racist. That same internet, bloated with excited comments and theories and countdowns, is just as quick to immortalize shortcomings. By trying to recapture the charms of its first run, the reboot feels archaic — suspended in the amber of an earlier TV era.

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Revisionist reboots often take other, more inventive forms. Some are recast entirely, using tried characters as vehicles for young actors. In some cases, a reboot is similar to its source material in title or concept only — new characters, new storylines, new sets, new style. The divergence is often deliberate and necessary to cater to a modern audience. Yet rather than add diversity or tell contemporary stories, these tactics only further tokenize them. Imagine Hart to Hart, but with a gay couple! What if The Greatest American Hero was — prepare yourself — a woman? With Insecure, Pose, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and many others already giving overdue airtime to marginalized voices and neglected stories, and doing so in a way that is woven into the fabric of each series itself, it seems both tiresome and pandering to force them into places better left untouched.

There are so many worthy ideas on so many platforms fighting for attention. Reboots dilute these options with empty spectacle. Why not prioritize the new and innovative over the established? When ABC canceled the Roseanne revival, networks Hulu and CMT followed suit by pulling syndicated episodes of the show’s original run, which I think is a great disservice. Let’s employ first-run series as they are most valuable — as magnifying glasses held up to the past — rather than stymie them with burdensome updates. What do we gain from a reference to Justin Bieber when the original would have referenced Justin Timberlake, or swapping a joke about Michael Jordan for one about Lebron James? Let’s trust that there are new insights to be made. Consider the cultural implications of the fact that a one-liner about Donald Trump or Roseanne Barr 20 years ago might exist today as a one-liner about, well, Donald Trump or Roseanne Barr.

Television critic Alan Sepinwall is a self-proclaimed “revival agnostic at best.” His reason? “They’re usually not good.” He cited Twin Peaks as the only successful recent reboot, and I agree. But the Twin Peaks reboot was successful because it was hardly a reboot at all. Writer/creator/director David Lynch had no interest in the reunion-for-reunion’s sake fan service typical of the format. In fact, he withheld the return of Peaks protagonist Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) until the last of the 18-episode series. Lynch didn’t bring back the show from a 25-year hiatus simply to give viewers a new perspective on the original. Instead, he provided a wholly unique, surreal rumination on violence, power, aging, ennui, and the American and human experience. He gave viewers a new perspective on the possibilities of TV.

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It’s hard to come by criticism of the current television landscape that doesn’t invoke the phrase “peak TV.” As the argument goes, the myriad platforms available allow for unprecedented experimentation of both form and content. DVR and on-demand services mean success is no longer measured in same-day ratings, but in critical acclaim and cultural conversation. And though many critics are quick to point out reboot fatigue, studios continue to announce new revivals at an alarming clip.

By miring themselves in nostalgia, reboots are essentially predicting their own mediocrity. Nostalgia is predicated on dissatisfaction. It is defined by the very pain or longing felt for something that no longer exists. It is also a particularly selfish enterprise. It’s the acquaintance at a party who recites movie quotes ad nauseam, seeking cultural capital but providing nothing but the conversational equivalent of a ticket stub. Nostalgia is also isolating. Imagine that acquaintance has a friend with the same bad habit. You are alone with the two of them, and you haven’t seen the movie.

In the 19th century, nostalgia was considered a disease, one that needed to be cured lest the sufferer go mad clinging to an unattainable past. Of course, the modern understanding is not as stark; maybe that’s what makes it so insidious. Scientists have determined that nostalgia can have psychological benefits, but only in small doses. Some have even warned that it can be harmful to those with avoidant personalities —people who turn into themselves, who surround themselves only with like-minded people, creating for themselves a comfortable bubble. Sound familiar?

As long as there is a market for nostalgia TV, the reboot will persist. For the sake of television, for our mental wellbeing, let’s stop indulging them. Many of the same critics of Roseanne (myself included) balk at the current administration for its backward and revisionist policies, but we are letting a similar principle seep into our collective culture. Nostalgia is pleasing in small doses, but that’s not what we are consuming. Let’s get our fix from the archives of programs now available on those great and myriad platforms, unprecedented in their availability, and use it to examine the context of their creation. Maybe the trick is as simple as a name change. Take those revivals that stray so far from their source material and stop calling them revivals. Perhaps if we can rebrand these works as new shows — new shows paying homage to their forebears, if necessary — we can at the very least remind ourselves that their is value in innovation rather than promoting the danger in sinking into the past. Sometimes, if you fall off the horse, the best solution is to take the car.

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