I’m not necessarily opposed to the existence of reboots mind you. I grew up with Transformers, who had once central source material (the toys) but no defining continuity, and even with attempts like the Aligned Continuity have never achieved this goal. He-Man & The Masters Of The Universe had the same issue and so have a bunch of other franchise I love. A good reboot can freshen a property for older fans while creating something newer viewers and readers could potentially connect with better. There have been good examples.
However, there have also been bad examples, a name slapped on an original idea and called a reboot or a re-imagining but are nothing of the sort. It could be good but ultimately it’s not-stalgia, something that preys on nostalgia to get people to watch their new or “better” (in the creator’s eyes) interpretation of the base concept. This is where the problem starts and I found a good article to examine the mindset from the perspective of the industry.
Granted, calling this a “vs” article is a bit harsh. Writer, producer, and former ITV exec Stephen Arnell (not to be confused with the actor from CW’s DCU) is simply stating what’s going on in Hollywood and other studios (ITV is a British TV network) around the world. In a piece for Television Business International, Arnell examines the current reboot trend in storytelling entertainment objectively but from his perspective. Since I’m a critic in this article I will be slightly less objective due to my own biases but will examine things from the fan perspective. Has the reboot craze gone too far and just become lazy creating?
It’s not hard to work out the reasoning behind the ongoing stream of rebooted and revived scripted shows: name recognition and residual affection almost guarantee high initial sampling. While it’s unclear how many people actually remember the likes of Perry Mason (currently being rebooted by HBO) or sitcom Designing Women (ABC), the argument that reboots can cut through largely stands.
If that’s the only reason you’re doing it though then you must not have a lot of faith in your concept. New shows come out every season and while some of them fail others go on to multiple season success or even changing networks. Power Rangers has been on five different networks (two of them at the same time because they had the same owner) as of this writing but it was new at one point. Perry Mason was based on a novel series anyway, but why is ABC rebooting a CBS sitcom? Designing Women according to this article is not a reboot so much as a continuation, sort of “Designing Women: The Next Generation”. It will star the next generation of the Sugarbaker family and will focus on modern commentary like the original did for events around their time. Will it be as good we have yet to see given modern culture but that’s another conversation.
I have no problem with continuations. Star Trek: The Next Generation and Beast Wars: Transformers were continuations of long completed series. Many of Designing Women‘s performers have passed away so it’s tough to bring them back but the ones that remain could at least make guest appearances as both TNG and Beast Wars did (though Beast Wars didn’t bring back the old actors). If the creator wants to return to the series they created and catch up on the characters or their families I’m fine with it. Fuller House exists and I’m fine with it. A reboot however should exist for one of two reasons: we really liked the original but want to give it a modern refresher or…no, that’s the only reason.
“Revivals have been going on for years on both sides of the Atlantic,” says David Walton, joint MD and creative director at Free@LastTV, producers of the hit comedy-detective series Agatha Raisin for US streamer Acorn and Sky One. He points to shows such as Endeavour, Prime Suspect and Hawaii Five 0 as “familiar brands that audiences can easily identify” in a sea of product.
However, he adds: “Reboots are only successful in the longer term if they’re sufficiently creative and visionary to initially build upon their past – but then, very importantly, forge their own future. The original series should always be seen as springboards rather than straitjackets.”
I don’t know why Hawaii Five-O couldn’t have been a continuation but that’s beside the point. I haven’t heard of the other two. A good point is made here that a reboot shouldn’t be tied down by the original. However, modern reboots/re-imagining go too far the other way and outright ignore as much of the original as they can. Look at my favorite example to use, Battlestar Galactica. The original series was killed by ABC requesting a lot without realizing how much it cost to look like Star Wars and thus only got one season and a questionable continuation. The re-imagining lasted for a few seasons, their own questionable continuation/prequel, and a few movies but it was given time to. That’s nice but it was Galactica in name only. The pilots’ names were now callsigns. Gender and race swaps (including the two main black character no longer black, and one no longer male) occurred not because of representation but because re-creator Ron Moore didn’t care what original creator Glen Larson made outside of a base concept. (And it wasn’t even Larson’s original concept. ABC made him change details from Larson’s Adam’s Ark idea to match Star Wars.) If you don’t have enough faith in your own original idea you don’t steal names for cheap marketing. That’s how you end up with Jem.
Barry Ryan, co-MD and creative director at the firm, says the key “is to look with fresh eyes on old friends.”
He continues: “These aren’t lazy legacy projects, they are IP-led. The original source material is more important to us than the initial television show. The US doesn’t have the hang ups that the UK has about remakes because they look at story first.
Actually, as stated above, that’s part of the problem. The old shows with the fans that make the names marketable are just concepts, the baser the better by people who don’t trust their work and moneymen who don’t have faith in anything original. Oh, we’re not letting the investors off the hook here. If they had more guts the re-imagining nonsense might not even be necessary except for “we can do it better” people like the new She-Ra creators. Ron Moore could have come up with a new title for his show and original character names, and explain he was “inspired” by Battlestar Galactica. Larson might of even gotten to see a proper remake in his lifetime if The Last Spacemen or something had been the name of the successful work.
Each reboot differs, of course, and has its own backstory but all share nostalgia value as part of a shared viewing experience, at least for audiences who remember the originals – although Van Der Valk may well be a grittier proposition this time around.
As an American I don’t know that brand, but this is another part of the problem. Going back to BSG, the original was an analog of a spiritual quest while the remake was about the last survivors of man dealing with the growing “humanity” of their machine threat. Moore took a darker look at the space refugees. While the original’s ragtag fleet rebuilt their lives among the various ships the remake opted to keep everyone down, and that’s the trend. Video games and comics have done this as well. Everything is more cynical, less hopeful or less exciting and fun than the original work, which makes it even stranger that they’re bothering to use the name because it uses up that “nostalgic value” as Arnell calls it and just pisses off the original’s fans rather than coming up with something that will please the original fans while still finding a modern audience. Then you increase the fans rather than decrease them. A few paragraphs down someone involved with the Van Der Valk remake talks about building “on the heritage of shows that have gone before and bring them to a whole new audience.” Fine, but you shouldn’t do so at the expense of the old audience, which sometimes can include modern viewers who are into older works, like black and white shows. Unless you’re Noel Stevenson, then the goal is to take it over and make it “for us and not for you”.
Despite the apparently lower risk strategy of reviving classic shows, there’s no guarantee of success – as the resurrections of the BBC’s Upstairs Downstairs and Minder on Channel 5 can attest.
Casting is, of course, of prime importance: original stars can usually entice viewers, hence the popularity of returners such as ITV’s Cold Feet and BBC duo Gavin & Stacey and Open All Hours spin-off Still Open All Hours.
But it’s not a given – witness the failure of reboots such as Kojak for USA Network 15 years ago, Knight Rider on NBC, TNT’s Dallas resurrection and the revived Murphy Brown on CBS in 2018.
Dallas actually did relatively okay. Maybe not on the level of the original but what killed that show was the death of Larry Hagman. What’s Dallas without J.R. Ewing? Murphy Brown is no longer special as plenty of shows make attacks on the current government or promote a particular (usually left-wing, and sometimes ultra-left-wing) point of view so it’s not needed nowadays. Knight Rider was a show that for all intents and purposes felt like its own show but claimed to be a continuation. They finally course corrected and got back to the “one man can make a difference” theme of the original but by then it was too late and Michael Knight Jr didn’t get to experience his father’s success. I didn’t see the remake Kojak but as great as Ving Rhaymes is as an actor he’s not Telly Savalas and he had two series–the original in the 1970s and again in the 1990s–to make it hard to replace him.
In the next paragraph Arnell talks about hiring the right new actors, but for a reboot/re-imagining/remake/rewhatever the rules are the same as any other show or movie. You get the right collection of people with the right understanding of the characters and proper chemistry between each other, as least when it comes to the acting. They can hate each other in real life but unless their characters they have to play off each other properly when acting.
Despite these challenges, there’s little chance the remake is going anywhere soon, as the instant recognition factor becomes ever-more important as drama proliferates, a point made by BBC Studios’ global VOD director Jon Farrar.
“There was a great piece of research a couple of years ago, which found that the average person will spend 2.4 years of their life just looking for something to watch. We are totally overloaded with content from every direction. We need cues – the familiar and the well-loved – to help direct us through that fog.”
Except this isn’t what the modern reboot offers. And no, this isn’t new (for example the Buck Rogers show I grew up with had little in common the comics, especially in the second season when it turned into Star Trek) but the problem wasn’t as wide spread as it is today.
But the reboot surge also underlines the trend for nostalgia, he adds. “In a world that’s getting more complex, angry, and uncertain we have a need to seek comfort. We want to escape into the familiar that reminds of us simpler and, perhaps, happier times.
“What’s interesting here is also the need to escape to older brands for a generation that weren’t born first time around, but crave warmer, simpler programming. Gen Z’s embrace of Friends suggests older brands have value far beyond the audiences that remember them first time.”
So why not just clean up those shows with upscaling the video (please stop stretching them out to the modern aspect ration) and allow these new ideas to become original properties and find their own audience? “If you liked this old show then try our new show” works better than “if you liked this old show here’s a replacement with zero connection to it but the window dressing because clearly that’s what you want”.
For Farrar, there are two approaches that work. “You have a faithful homage to the original or a complete breaking out, taking the bare bones and re-inventing it into an unrecognisable new drama,” he says. “The dangerous ground is what lies between those two approaches. It’s littered with corpses.”
There’s nothing wrong with a faithful homage, but that requires someone who respects if not outright loves the original but isn’t so beholden to it that you end up with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a movie that took no chances and was basically the original with a new coat of paint. If you’re making something unrecognizable then just change the names and call it something new. The Orville shows this can actually work. It was Star Trek for people who missed how Star Trek used to work. Even making a gritter version of, for example, Superman isn’t a bad idea so long as it isn’t a gritter Superman. Nobody wants that. Eventually a show will take its own path (2003 He-Man for example) but it must respect the original character and make us see them as new takes on old characters and ideas rather than new characters and ideas with old names they don’t actually represent.
And the US tends to have a stronger hit rate in bringing back TV classics – recast, rejigged and usually with higher budgets, although that is in part because of the huge volume of shows produced.
Streamers such as Netflix have made hay with reviving shows, including Fuller House, Gilmore Girls, Lost In Space, The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina, Tales Of The City and Arrested Development, to varying degrees of critical approval.
All but two of those shows (or three; I don’t know what Tales Of The City is) are continuations, not remakes. Sabrina, based on the Archie comics series, has seen at least three different non-comics incarnations before this, only one of which was live-action (and the second cartoon was based more on the live-action series with Melissa Joan Hart). Lost In Space is the third attempt at remaking the original show and only the second one to make it. Everything else are returns to old shows rather than a brand new series. Bringing an old show back (possibly with a new name like Girl Meets World or Star Trek: The Next Generation) is not the same thing as a new show with a new cast playing the old characters.
“Of course, the shows are easier to promote at launch as viewers will have an idea of what to expect, but they face a hard time retaining and building an audience if they aren’t good enough in their own right. And familiarity isn’t necessarily the enemy of creativity,” he says, pointing to what the creators of Riverdale were able to pull off. “That was a creative and unique take on the beloved Archie characters.”
That was a terrible take on the Archie characters and there’s nothing familiar about any of them besides the names. Their history and personalities are heavily altered, especially Archie and Ms. Grundy. This is the best example you could point to for a terrible re-imagining. And I hear it’s not even a good show.
Alex Kessel is head of Russian production company Sputnik Vostok, which has been behind Better Than Us, available widely on Netflix, and UK-based series Londongrad. For him, a remake is not simply about using existing IP awareness to cut through.
“The best stories are remade with nearly every generation,” he says. “However it’s not only because of the recognition factor, but because these shows will need updating – especially in Russia, usually with more complexity and faster pacing, so that it can reach younger generations, who otherwise may treat the originals as old hat.
Making a version of a show for a different country rather than simply bringing that show over is nothing new either. I’m not going to go into that because that’s even less a reboot than the continuations are.
Clearly, it’s unlikely that the trend for bringing back older shows will end soon, as demand for product continues. Ownership of IP and name recognition will always be strong drivers to revisit past glories, and Covid-19 will see an increase in repeats from broadcasters – with comfort TV featuring strongly, potentially spurring more remakes as and when the world returns to near normalcy. Whether this is good news for new writing talent and viewers is another matter.
It isn’t. If you can do a proper reboot, or even a continuation, of something I enjoyed I’m more than willing to at least give it a shot. If you want to create something new, call it something old when it isn’t and tell me to like it, I can’t. It means a proper reboot will not happen, especially if the show is successful. That means a potentially good show will lose part of a potential audience by pretending to be a beloved favorite rather than be inspired by one. Making any show find an audience is already an uphill climb but not-stalgia is like cutting the rope. If you want to make something original, make something original. If you want to bank on nostalgia, air the original or do a proper modern take on it without proving how much better yours supposedly is. Do it right and you increase your audience. Do it wrong and you ruin the very reason you did a reboot in the first place.