Sometimes, dead is better: Has TV's reboot fever run amok?
I am the happiest TV fan in the world. Over the next year or so, we'll be getting a new season of "Twin Peaks," with David Lynch allegedly directing every single episode. And we'll be getting an "X-Files" sequel miniseries, which may well feature both an episode written by the reclusive-but-brilliant Darin Morgan, and a rumored sequel to one of the sickest hours of network television ever, "Home."
I am the most annoyed TV fan in the world. Over the next year or so, we'll be getting a "Heroes" sequel series run by the same guy who very quickly ran out of ideas on the original. We'll be getting a "Coach" sequel series that will give Craig T. Nelson the sitcom comeback he didn't get when he passed on the role of Jay on "Modern Family." We'll be getting DJ Tanner and Kimmy Gibbler living together in a "Fuller House," potentially another "24" miniseries (with or without Jack Bauer as the main character), and maybe a revival of "Prison Break," which could well bring Michael Scofield back from the dead just to get a new set of blueprint tattoos and bust out of yet another prison.
Sometimes, this era where no television show ever seems truly dead — whether "Community" and "The Mindy Project" sliding over into the streaming world right after their networks cancel them, or "Twin Peaks" improbably rising a quarter century after Agent Cooper inquired as to the quality of Annie's life — feels reassuring. I remember the days, some of which were not even that long ago (we're closing in on the fifth anniversary of a little show called "Terriers"), where I had to sweat out the future of the shows I most cared about, and where any show that got canceled was doomed to never be seen again. If the current atmospheric conditions existed back in the year 2000, "Freaks and Geeks" would have gotten a two-season order from Hulu. Apply them even a decade ago, and either HBO actually makes the damn "Deadwood" movies, or Netflix swoops in before the actors get released from their contracts, never to all be together again. That "Twin Peaks" and "X-Files" should get to live again in a programming environment filled with shows they inspired in one way or another seems a just reward. Who wouldn't want to get a glimpse of a future they helped create?
And yet the announcement of each new revival of an old show makes the whole trend feel sadder and more desperate. Sometimes, as Fred Gwynne once tried to tell us (and as Fienberg tweeted right after the "Prison Break" rumors started flying), dead is better.
Look, I get that some of you will be very excited to hear Joey again telling people to cut it out, or to endure another of Mohinder Suresh's monologues, in which he asks, "Why are we here? What is the soul? Why do we dream?" I've read passionate defenses of both the Netflix season of "Arrested Development" and "24: Live Another Day" that equated them with the best those shows were at their peaks on FOX, and I'm sure there are a few think pieces already brewing about why "Coach" is the perfect show for this moment, given that so much of its original humor drew from Dauber's post-concussion symptoms.
People like what they like, and I'm not going to tell you you're wrong for wanting to see any or all of these reboots, any more than I would demand that you watch whatever weirdness Lynch and Mark Frost have planned for the new "Twin Peaks," or than I would root for the cancellation of a show that wasn't for me. Once upon a time, TV was a zero sum game with limited shelf space, and if you wanted to make room for a show (or a kind of show) you cared about, then the continued existence of some show you disliked was doubly aggravating. That's not really the case anymore. The broadcast networks are programming year-round, and have given up on trying to show repeats of all but their most popular shows, and there are so many new players getting into the original content business that I fully expect to wake up tomorrow to find that my old Garmin GPS device has become the exclusive home to a "Veronica's Closet" revival.
There's room for all these revivals and a lot more in today's current marketplace. If anything, the abundance of choice is exactly why this reboot boom is happening. These shows won't pull in the ratings they got in a less-fragmented viewing universe — if "Coach" gives NBC the ratings it got for ABC in the '90s, Bob Greenblatt would be named Chairman For Life — but their titles are familiar enough to cut through the clutter. It's harder than ever to launch any kind of new show these days, given the overwhelming options the audience has, and a recognizable brand name gives them a huge head start over a wholly new show, even if that new show is appreciably better. Nostalgia is powerful, but it also makes things easier: Do I try this thing where I have to learn a bunch of new characters and terminology, that I may ultimately hate, or do I watch HRG and Matt Parkman get together to talk about people with "abilities"?
Just look at how well old shows are doing in repeats relative to new product. Vulture's Josef Adalian frequently tweets about how cable reruns of shows like "King of the Hill" compare favorably to broadcast network shows they air head-to-head with. Last Thursday, he noted, Nick at Nite's rerun blocks of "Full House" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" did better than NBC's "Aquarius" and "Hannibal" in the women 18-34 demo — just one slice of the viewing pie, but still better than they would have had any business doing under TV business logic that no longer applies. The most surprising aspect of all this is that no one has yet greenlit a "Fresh Prince" revival fronted by Alfonso Ribeiro and Jaden Smith, as Carlton grapples with the horror of having a son who takes more after his Uncle Will.
At the same time, I think back to how underwhelming "Arrested Development" season 4 was, and to the ways that "24: Live Another Day" failed to breath much new life into a tired franchise. And I think to the problems of the later "X-Files" seasons (and to the pilot of Chris Carter's most recent attempt at a TV comeback, Amazon's pre-canceled "The After"), or to the absolute mess that "Twin Peaks" became in its second year. And I wonder how much I really want the new versions of even the shows I used to love. So much of great television is like magic, where elements that have no business working together somehow do perfectly; bring the show back with one or two elements out of place (say, "Arrested Development" doing longer episodes, or ones with only a few characters at a time), and it feels like you're being shown the banal method with which the magic trick actually worked. I'm hopeful that Lynch and Frost have spent the last 25 years figuring out exactly how they want to continue the "Twin Peaks" story, but I'm also bracing myself for the idea that whatever alchemy they performed back in the spring of 1990 won't work anymore.
And while TV in the year 2015 seemingly has room for every kind of show imaginable, the best ones still tend to be original on some level, and usually more than one. "X-Files" had DNA from shows that came before it (including "Twin Peaks"), but everything came together to form something that felt wholly new, and that was as exciting as how good and scary and funny it all was. Even "Heroes," which I tired of a lot quicker than its fans, felt like something new, with its mix of pretentious philosophy, a global scale, and superhero tropes stripped of the costumes and familiar jargon. Once upon a time, these were the shows that were new and scary, with unconventional concepts or obscure actors, and you loved them. Odds are better that you'll find something comforting in the revival of an old show than you would in something different, but those odds flip when you're trying to predict what might be great — so great that, years from now, you may thrill to read reports of a revival of its own.
It can be fun to catch up with beloved characters years later, but maybe only for a little while. When I was growing up, reunion movies for bygone sitcoms were a programming staple. "A Very Brady Christmas" proved so popular, in fact, that CBS greenlit a full-on sequel series, known as "The Bradys," but the movie's huge audience didn't stick around for the ongoing show. (Though in that case, the decision to turn the Bradys into more dramatic characters — Bobby gets paralyzed in a racing accident, Jan struggles to conceive, and Marcia becomes an alcoholic — likely had something to do with it.)
I won't lie. I've felt giddy about every single "Twin Peaks"-related tweet, or at Gillian Anderson posting a selfie of herself with Dana Scully's hair color. And if Mike Schur and Amy Poehler were to announce 10 years from now that they're making a "Parks and Rec" sequel series involving Leslie and Ben's time in the White House, I might not be able to form complete sentences again until I see it. But shows end and stories end — sometimes as planned, sometimes abruptly — and that's been part of the life cycle of television since television existed. This strange and wonderful expansion of the TV universe means that dead shows don't necessarily have to stay dead, but will we still be excited about all these resurrections when Undead Television becomes the norm?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org