TV’s Reboot Fetish: Nostalgia Never Had It So Good

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One of the biggest pieces of news out of the Television Critics Association press tour last week was that the Age of Peak Television had gotten even peakier. Multiple outlets have reported that FX’s CEO John Landgraf provided estimates to critics and reporters compiled by FX Networks researchers putting the number of original scripted English-language series expected to air during prime-time across all media platforms in 2015 at over 400, up from 371 in 2014. As Linda Holmes noted in an NPR piece earlier this week, this is more television than you could watch during the course of a year. Not more television than you can reasonably watch, but more television than it is physically possible to watch, even if you spent all day, every day trying to catch up.

Complaining about the sheer volume of television shows isn’t new or noteworthy, but whereas the refrain used to be “500 channels and nothing to watch,” what’s novel now is how many of the original scripted television shows are good and worth trying — if only you didn’t have to eat and bathe and turn up at work occasionally.

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Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny on Fox's The X-Files
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny on Fox’s The X-Files

So it might seem strange that the time of Peak Television is also that of the Peak Reboot, with revivals of Full House, Coach, X-Files, Xena: Warrior Princess, Deadwood, Twin Peaks, The Muppets, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Heroes all in various stages of development. When Vulture’s Josef Adalian wrote in April of this year about the coming glut of TV remakes and reboots, he noted this discrepancy but argued that the dizzying array of original programming options was one of the reasons for the sudden appearance of so many reboots. Given an almost overwhelming number of choices, great television shows, like the often lamented Terriers, might never achieve much of an audience. A remake or reboot gives networks a known quantity to market and attracts a lot of press aimed at indulging the nostalgia of the viewing audience.

At the end of the first season of Mad Men, Don Draper reminded all of us that nostalgia is “literally, the pain from an old wound.” I’ve been indulging a little nostalgia myself this summer, by rewatching all ten seasons of Friends on Netflix, a show I viewed regularly when I was a teenager in the 90s. In between tweeting about how much I hate Ross post-breakup with Rachel (seriously, he dated one of his students), I’ve been thinking about the ways it might be rebooted or revived for today. It’s hard to believe that in ten years, when Monica and Chandler and Rachel and Ross’s children would be entering their twenties, someone won’t suggest a next generation reboot of Friends. 

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But I’ve also been thinking about the reasons that some people might not be so nostalgic for a show like Friends, with its all-white cast and its trans- and homophobic jokes, aspects of the show that I might have overlooked as a white, straight, cis-gendered suburban teenager that now seem pretty glaring to me.

Kenneth Kimmins, Shelley Fabares, Craig T. Nelson, Bill Fagerbakke, Katherine Helmond and Jerry Van Dyke on ABC's Coach
Kenneth Kimmins, Shelley Fabares, Craig T. Nelson, Bill Fagerbakke, Katherine Helmond and Jerry Van Dyke on ABC’s Coach

Diversity on television is still a recent and incomplete phenomenon. It hasn’t been that long since 2008, when Entertainment Weekly pointed out that the only minority anchoring a show in the fall television season was Cleveland Brown, an animated character voiced by a white man. It’s hard not to notice that many of the shows being remade or rebooted date to a time before anyone at the networks was taking diverse representation seriously. Glancing at the original cast photos for shows as different as Full House, Twin Peaks, Deadwood, and Coach provokes the same immediate visceral response: they are all very white. Even a later show like Heroes, which aired post-Lost and whose most memorable character was Japanese, had a cast of primarily white leads.

Reboots should be a chance to do things differently, a chance to correct original mistakes and oversights and come up with something better. But for the most part we don’t want change, we want more of the same. When Netflix released the new season of Arrested Development, fans complained because it wasn’t the same, it wasn’t as great, it didn’t have the cast interacting together in every episode, the way it used to be, the way we remember it. 

Orlando Jones, Katia Winter, Tom Mison, John Noble, Nicole Beharie and Lyndie Greenwood on FOX's Sleepy Hollow
Orlando Jones, Katia Winter, Tom Mison, John Noble, Nicole Beharie and Lyndie Greenwood on Fox’s Sleepy Hollow

One of the more interesting aspects of television is the way in which we can watch change happen incrementally, from show to show, until television series from only twenty years ago seem completely out of date. It’s hard not to look at a show like Sleepy Hollow, where a black woman and a white man partner up to fight supernatural shenanigans, as a descendant of The X-Files, but one made for this particular era in which networks recognize that diversity sells. Each of the new reboots represents a unique opportunity to reevaluate where the original shows fell short or might have been more inclusive. It’s hard not to see missed opportunities when looking at publicity stills of the new Fuller House or Girl Meets World, both of which are re-creating the majority white worlds of their originals for a new generation of children.

As much as I or any viewer might long to see more of the shows that we enjoyed in the past, we should be approaching these reboots with a critical eye. Will Xena and Gabrielle be out in the new reboot, or will the lesbian subtext be abandoned entirely? Will Twin Peaks be a town that embraces diversity as well as extremely confusing murders? And will Heroes Reborn take its cues from Sense8 by acknowledging a world that exists outside of the United States? We should remember our complacent enjoyment of nostalgia is a celebration of old wounds.