The Diminishing Returns of TV Reboots and Revivals (Column)

Popular on Variety

Barely a day goes by anymore without a new report of a long gone show trying to crawl its way out of the grave. This week, it’s “Designing Women.” Before that, it was “Alf” and “The Facts of Life.” The week prior to that got consumed by controversy over a “Buffy” reboot (which turned out to be a spin-off) and Kelsey Grammer idly musing about a “Frasier” revival. And so on, and so forth; wash, rinse, repeat. It apparently doesn’t even matter if the reboot or revival or spinoff or what have you is actually going to series, so long as someone — anyone — involved expresses interest in doing it. Within a matter of minutes, the internet is aflame with excitement and dread alike, until the next possibility crops up and sparks the whole cycle all over again.

In an age when TV keeps rapidly multiplying itself like a hydra replacing heads, it makes sense that creators and networks would start fishing into their own pasts for content. But a truly worthwhile reboot or revival is an exception, not the rule. Returning shows like this fall’s “Murphy Brown” have to thread a precarious needle to try and both remind audiences why they might be excited to revisit these worlds and justify their existence in a whole new era. Once the novelty of a show’s return wears off — and it will within the first few episodes, guaranteed — it has to prove why it’s there at all. It’s an extremely tricky balancing act — and most end up stumbling in the attempt.

For every success story, there are several lackluster entries that can’t quite capture the same spark that made their first incarnations stand out in the first place. There was no point to introducing the world to a bland new “MacGyver.” We don’t need 18 versions of “24,” each less distinct than the last. When revivals of beloved shows like “The X Files” and “Arrested Development” can’t seem to get back in the groove that once made them great, they run the risk of tarnishing the original’s luster for good.

Maybe at this point you’re squinting at your screen wondering why, then, I and so many other critics tend to fall all over ourselves in praise of “One Day at a Time,” Netflix’s reboot of the 1975 Norman Lear sitcom. And that’s fair! But consider that “One Day at a Time” is only a reboot insomuch as it took the original’s most basic premise — “a single mother raises two kids, deals with a nosy landlord” — and made it its own. The Netflix version is about the joys and struggles particular to a Cuban-American family, infusing it with modern day details that make it an entity all its own. Lear lent his name and expertise to the production; otherwise, it’s entirely in the hands of a new team building a new show atop his foundation.

That’s the kind of flexibility, ingenuity, and specificity that this exciting era of television can offer if we let it. It’s beyond frustrating to see such a fevered focus from networks, the media, and beyond on which long gone properties could get a 2018 makeover when there’s so much more room out there for so many more voices to be heard. There may be space for more reboots and revivals now, but the increasing possibility of diversifying stories and greenlighting riskier shows should mean less drawing from old wells, not more.

So if you really want to see a beloved voice or actor make a return to the airwaves, well, let them do so on a different show. Even if it can’t replace the one from whence they came, you might just end up loving it in a whole new way.