The Case for TV Revivals and Reboots
“Why the hell is there gonna be a Coach revival?”
That was one of the bigger questions floating around the internet a couple weeks ago (another one, for some people, was “What the hell is Coach?”) following the surprise announcement that NBC cemented a 13-episode season deal to revive the ‘90s ABC Craig T. Nelson comedy. Yet as random as that news item seems on the outset, it’s just one more point of a larger trend. Reboots and revivals have always popped up here and there, but in the past year or so, things have gotten out of hand.
If anything, the trend has only accelerated in the last six months, with high-profile dramas like Twin Peaks and The X-Files getting picked up, as well as talks or orders for Full House, The Muppet Show, Mr. Show’s spiritual successor, and, of course, everyone’s favorite coachin’ comedy. It’s easy to see why networks decide to do this. For the same reason Hollywood keeps dragging out Jack Sparrow and Spider-Man into theaters every few years, there’s a built-in audience for these things. And with fewer people watching TV live (or in any way that Nielsen can tabulate), every little bit helps. Even if you’re not a fan of Full House, Netflix knows you’re probably gonna check out the new season because you’re worried about Dave Coulier and want to know he’s doing alright.
But regardless of the reason behind the trend, the reaction is usually the same: surprise, followed by an eye roll and a rant about how there’s no original ideas out there anymore and the industry is just cashing in on nostalgia. And you know what? I agree, to a certain degree. I’d rather live in a world where maybe not everything is based on something else, where risks are taken more often. But I also know that there’s more original content out there right now than ever before, that TV is better than it’s ever been, and that maybe, you know, revivals don’t have to be all that bad.
Of course, it’s easier to justify the revival of a drama than a comedy. In the case of The X-Files and Twin Peaks, their worlds are full of ellipses and blank spaces waiting to be scribbled in. Hesitations about quality and hype aside, it’s easier to warrant another trip back to these sorts of shows. When it comes to the comedy side of the equation, though, people, including me, tend to have more reservations. Be it sketch or a sitcom, there’s a certain alchemy in getting the right cast and crew together to make something funny. Sometimes good comics are failed by a bad script, and sometimes it’s vice versa. Sometimes even with great people behind and in front of the camera, it’ll play like an in-joke that leaves the audience cold.
To a certain extent, great comedy is capturing lightning in a bottle, and getting the band back together over a decade later hoping to do it again can be exciting but it’s not exactly reassuring. I’m looking forward to the Wet Hot American Summer series as much as anyone, but there’s still a fair chunk of me that’s a little anxious about how it will turn out.
On the other hand, if comedy revivals and reboots are our future, let’s try to find the silver lining in all of this. I’m not arguing that all of these revivals will be great; I’m arguing that if these revivals and reboots are done right, they are worth making, that they have the potential to be creative and original additions to your weekly DVR schedule. So while we all cross our fingers and wait for the NBC execs to okay another season of Inside Schwartz, let me try to quell your fears with a few reasons why Revivalmania might not be so bad.
Limited series cut the fat
Ideally, a television series, and especially a sitcom, is supposed to work like a perpetual motion machine. A show’s creator may only have enough ideas to last a season or two when starting out, but as long as the series remains profitable, the network usually renews it, causing the writers to think of new ways to push the show forward in hopes of further renewal and so on until the series stops working and it gets cancelled. In other words, it can be difficult to tell a complete story when there’s always the possibility of another chapter.
The nifty thing about many of these revivals is that, while the networks consider them enough of a sure thing to greenlight them, they’re still a gamble. Plenty of these revivals were handed deals for what is often called a “limited series” or an “event series,” one season runs with no guarantees of more episodes to come. Because of that, writers, if they’re smart, will take advantage of the limited series format to create a tighter, more focused season of television, maybe telling a single story that can mostly stand apart from the series that preceded it.
This is more or less what Arrested Development did when it was revived for its fourth season, albeit in a convoluted way. Although we now know AD will get a season five, back then it was unclear what the future held. So with 15 episodes to spare, Mitch Hurwitz structured the entire season around a town holiday known as Cinco de Cuatro and interwove the near-decade journeys each Bluth took to get there. Now, the structure of the whole thing was complicated to say the least, but love it or hate it, it was a bold direction for the show that dwelled relatively little on past glories and felt very different from the show that preceded it.
Beginning-middle-and-ending a new plotline over the course of one season lets the audience know that this story needs to be told, that the series’ revival has a purpose, and longtime fans aren’t just being taken for a ride. Many of the shows being revived weren’t “cancelled-too-soon” situations anyway, so a change of pace helps to justify their existence.
Considering Coach’s new season was announced with a specific premise and plotline in mind (“Coach Hayden Fox is called back to become assistant coach to his own grown son, who is the new head coach at an Ivy league school in Pennsylvania”), I expect it to follow suit. Will it be great? Will it be terrible? Who knows, but if it’s strong enough, it might rope in some new fans as well as the uninitiated, who weren’t on board with the series to begin with.
They can reinvent themselves
When I hear the term “revival” or whatever, my mind immediately jumps to it being a one-to-one replication of the old show — the format, the sense of humor, the cast, the crew, everything identical — or at least some bad cover version of the same. For a show that’s been off for a few years, that would make sense. When 24 came back last year, it wasn’t like it was Jack Bauer in space or anything (or maybe it was, I didn’t watch it).
But what about Full House? There’s a reason that show is slapped into so many “You Know You’re A ‘90s Kid” lists and why “Too Many Cooks” copped its title font. Full House is a show completely of its time. Not a single primetime show exists like it now, and that type of sitcom has been so thoroughly satirized over the years that no one could make one today without it winking at itself extensively.
Full House’s gravy train runs purely on nostalgia, though, so while a new season will likely be in the spirit of the original series, I have to imagine it’s fundamentally going to be a very, very different show. Maybe it will be a show heavier on the irony and metahumor, making fun of Uncle Joey’s weird impressions or Jesse’s catchphrases. Maybe it’s one that’s single-cam. Considering how many times the cast members have poked fun at themselves and the show over the years, everyone will probably be on board with playing with the sensibility somewhat.
I’m not saying that a Full House that looks like this will be a better Full House, but it will be one with a lot more fresh, creative juice behind it. There’s no reason that revivals for shows like this won’t be different enough to act like a quasi-original series. Sure, they’ll play to the fan base, but I think there’s a lot of potential for change and originality.
This is where Wet Hot American Summer and With Bob And David’s absurdism will help them out. Considering the minds of the people involved in these shows, there’s little reason to think that either of these shows will stay in one place too long, throwing out everything from their pasts and completely changing whatever they need to, just so long as the jokes work. The jokes still have to be there, but when you have no reason to be reverent, the gloves are off from the get-go.
They can help to promote classic television
Television is a medium with a notoriously bad sense of history. Until extremely recently, it wasn’t either possible or remotely convenient to watch episodes of any shows that came out before Seinfeld. And even now, it’s not as if the first 30 or 40 years of television are easily accessible. Many of those shows are only now starting to get DVD releases, let alone Netflix or Hulu deals. Compare that to film. Think how often you might hear about Caddyshack or Animal House versus, say, Newhart or Taxi. And as the years roll on, as the audiences for these older shows grow older themselves, the demand for them might drop even further if younger audiences aren’t turned on to them.
Another bit of silver lining is that, regardless of the success of these revivals, they might foster interest old TV. A newer edition of The Muppet Show might get some people to look up the old seasons of the show on YouTube (just as the newer movies probably did) and might help create demand for other classic shows to be released at a quicker clip and not just whenever Shout! Factory needs to keep the lights on. As much as we like to talk about our current “Golden Age of Television,” that doesn’t mean that every comedy made beforehand was trash. If there’s even the remote possibility that reviving shows can keep that history alive and promote Cheers on Netflix, I’m for it.
The question remains, though: will the revival trend continue? Maybe every single one of them will fail, but I wouldn’t bet on it. (For instance, Girl Meets World is doing pretty well for itself on the Disney Channel, and that’s built from a piece of ‘90s nostalgia.) Plus, you know how long people have been complaining about unoriginal scripts, spin-offs, sequels, and franchises in the film industry? Didn’t stop those guys from making Transformers 4. Only time will tell what will happen. But if this is our reality, I’m trying to remain hopeful. What else can you do? Don’t let me down, Coach.
Chris Kopcow is a comedy guy and pop culture writer, who links to his Twitter because he craves validation from strangers.