Following the recent announcement that NBC is contemplating a revival of their once mighty sitcom The Office – but without any of the show’s main cast returning – there was the inescapable feeling that we’ve reached the saturation point for this particular television trend. This wave of revivals has not only proved to be creatively empty (with a few notable exceptions), it’s also given networks a free pass to eschew the pursuit of new, exciting shows in favor of easy nostalgia. It’s not just comfort food television, it’s junk food television that is well past its expiration date. We deserve healthier viewing choices.
The current wave of TV revivals can be traced back to Netflix’s resurrection of Arrested Development in 2013. A ratings-challenged, creatively-audacious sitcom in its original Fox run, the show ended in unceremonious fashion after its third season. True to the show’s subversive spirit, the inaugural Netflix revival season took advantage of the streaming service’s binge-watching model with a bewildering structure, as the characters were largely featured in standalone spotlight episodes that would overlap with the edges of other episodes, sometimes even reinterpreting the same event through different characters’ perspectives. It was Rashomon with sex jokes, and it sharply divided a fanbase that was expecting more of the same from a show that always zigged when it was expected to zag, an irony sadly lost on many of those fans.
The wrong lessons were learned from Arrested Development’s success; revivals that followed shied away from reinventions and subversions of expectations in favor of safe, comfortable continuations. This hasn’t always resulted in disaster – the Gilmore Girls revival was a largely pleasant afterword that provided closure to a much beloved series that was denied its proper ending due to behind the scenes turmoil during the end of its initial run. 24: Live Another Day proved there was still gas left in the tank for the story of counterintelligence death bringer Jack Bauer, and was also a sly Obama era commentary on the original run’s controversial Bush-era approach to issues like torture and Islamophobia (let’s just try to forget about 24: Legacy).
But those have been the exceptions to the rule, and even those modest successes didn’t really add much to their show’s legacies. Much more common has been the outright embarrassing retread. Heroes was well and truly out of coherent ideas by the end of its four-season run; it really shouldn’t have been surprising that Heroes: Reborn fell flat on its super-powered face. The X-Files was such a genre-defining show that people are always going to have a hard time letting it go… but at this point it’s only harming its legacy. After the series itself whimpered to the finish line of its ninth season and a second movie was essentially ignored at the box office, Fox brought the series back for a tenth season in 2016. It was a ratings success, but it was creatively bankrupt, with only “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” resembling the show that so bewitched sci-fi and horror fans. It’s difficult to feel anything other than apathy regarding the upcoming eleventh season.
Perhaps the most insidious strain of the revival trend is most succinctly embodied by two beloved sitcoms. Full House was never exactly high art, but it was a fun, good hearted series that families could enjoy together on Friday nights in the late 80s and early 90s. Fuller House, the modern Netflix continuation starring the original series’ kids as young parents – an inversion of the original show’s premise – is a mawkish, smug exercise in empty nostalgia, bereft of any clear reason to exist other than to remind people Full House was once a show that people liked.
Perhaps most disappointing of all has been Will & Grace. When it debuted in 1998, it was not only a massive hit for NBC, it was culturally significant, helping to normalize the LGBT community for large swathes of America that were still openly hostile toward gay men in particular. The show died a natural death after eight seasons with a fairly sterling legacy, perhaps trailing only Friends and Seinfeld as the premiere sitcom of its era. Following a well received short recorded to urge Americans to vote in the 2016 election, NBC decided to revive the show for a ninth season. It was a ratings smash, and NBC has already ordered a tenth season. But there was a reason the show ended after eight years, even though its ratings were still strong – it was narratively exhausted. The revival has proved that in spades, ignoring the events of the original run’s series finale to tell very familiar stories and reducing its characters to broad cartoon sketches.
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