Television / Reboots

Blast from the Past: The Phenomenon of Television Reboots

The phenomenon of binge-watching has undoubtedly changed our expectations for television. Streaming sites generally provide full seasons of shows, to be consumed at the pace of the viewer’s choosing, which makes people accustomed to indulging in whatever quantities of television they desire. As a result, viewers tend to expect that there will always be more television: whether that means another ten-plus episodes of the show we are currently watching or an entirely new show for us to gleefully devour. This constant desire of more TV has led to a recent trend in television: rebooting. Aside from wanting more of what is new and current, we want to go back and get more of our first television loves. Streaming sites also provide an archive of various older television shows, allowing total access to the past. Viewers can now binge-watch these old favorites, reintroducing these shows into the their consciouses. As a result, streaming sites also provide perfect spaces for the creation of reboots, which are created to be binge-watched. These sites provide viewers with easy access, attracting an audience that must be fiercely loyal to return to a show that has been long gone.

But just because rebooting is becoming increasingly possible does not mean it is always successful. Ultimately, there are both wrong and right ways to reboot a television show, which is something the audience is eventually going to have to learn the hard way.

Rebooting presents a potential problem in that it theoretically goes against the basic integrity of narrative structure. In a narrative, the ending is important because it is, ideally, the “point” of the plot itself, and therefore gives closure to the story’s audience. Of course, television shows have not always been the best model for perfect narrative structure, because shows typically have lasted for as long audiences were willing to watch and as a result had illogical plots anchored with gimmicky devices and tedious storylines. Still, when these shows finally ended with series finales, viewers had at least some sense of closure. Therefore, rebooting is risky in that it dismantles that idea of narrative closure, opening up the emotional “wounds” of viewers who made their peace with a show’s endings years ago. As a result, there would have to be an important narrative purpose for these narratives and characters to be re-examined, otherwise it is practically a waste.

As is the case with Netflix’s Fuller House, a reboot of the hit 90s sitcom Full House that exemplifies why some television narratives are better left alone. First of all, the new show shamelessly parallels the original. The premise of Fuller House is that the eldest Tanner daughter, D.J., is recently widowed and trying to raise her three sons. Her sister, Stephanie, and best friend. Kimmy Gibbler. decide to move into the famous San Francisco house and help D.J. in this difficult time, which is exactly the same plot as the original show. In the first few episodes there are also several other paralleled moments. These range from cheesy life lessons to a shot-for-shot replication of the last scene of the pilot, in which everyone dances around the baby in his crib singing the Flintstones theme song to get him to stop crying.

Indeed, this show is incredibly catered to the original fan base. From the start of the opening credits, set to a Carly Rae Jepsen cover of “Everywhere You Look,” the audience is completely re-immersed in the world of the Tanner family. In the pilot, each main character is introduced dramatically, even with time allowed for the live studio audience to applaud, as old catchphrases are pointedly recycled: “Cut! It! Out!” “How rude!” “Have mercy!” Although the new show is about D.J., Stephanie, and Kimmy, the original main adult characters, Danny Tanner, Uncle Jesse, Joey, and Becky, each go on to guest star in their own episodes throughout the season, ensuring that the audience has not seen the last of these familiar faces.

It is of course impossible to expect Fuller House to have a productive and layered narrative. The original was a cheesy sitcom and the same standards of that series apply to the reboot. But this brings us back to the original questions: why reboot at all?

The drivers of this reboot, and others, are simple: nostalgia and profit, which ultimately go hand in hand. Despite it all, there is of course some enjoyment in seeing old characters resurrected on the television screen, dealing with the new problems of the modern world that we experience too. Fiction, in the broadest sense, is so powerful because of the effect it has: in many ways, we develop real connections to the characters in books, films, and even television. Therefore, it is enjoyable to have these characters return to our lives. As a result, creators know that they have a fanbase invested in these old characters that will give them the necessary ratings to make this show profitable. And with the resources of streaming sites, there is nothing stopping them from making these rebooted shows, forgetting narrative integrity along the way.

In addition, there are many potential narrative problems that can occur in rebooted plots. For example, there is the issue of time. Forget the logistical problems of getting actors and actresses to return and re-create sets that have long been decommissioned. The real issue that exists when reincarnating these television stories is how the time is addressed within the plot. In order for reboots to have true narrative structure, the time that has passed in between where the original show left off and where the new one begins must be considered. These characters, and the settings in which they live, were not frozen in place throughout all of these years—things must have happened in their lives, whether positive or negative, and these changes must be reflected in the new narratives. Besides, it is also more enjoyable for the viewers to see where their favorite characters are in life after all of this time, rather than just pick up where things left off, which would be completely illogical.

Netflix’s upcoming reboot of Gilmore Girls has the potential to be a real success in part because its narrative is indeed structured with regards to this lost time. In general, the reboot is special because it actually addresses the issue of improper narrative culture. The beloved show, centering on the caffeine-addicted, fast-talking, mother-daughter duo Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, ended on a generally agreed-upon bad note, since the show’s original creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, left the show before it went off air due to disputes with the production company. What made this particularly frustrating is that Sherman-Palladino, a smart creator and writer, has always had a master plan for the show’s overarching narrative. All hardcore Gilmore Girls fans know of the famous “final four words” of the show that apparently Sherman-Palladino came up with way back when she originally drafted the pilot. But those four words were never heard. Without Sherman-Palladino, the last season of Gilmore Girls was noticeably different (and worse, as argued by several dedicated fans). The ending of the show, therefore, was not what was originally planned, which would have provided that narrative closure that is so necessary in a story. As a result, fans have always felt somewhat disheartened that they never found out what was actually going to happen to Lorelai and Rory, and of course, what those last four words are. But the Netflix reboot, with Sherman-Palladino back in charge, promises to reverse the damage that has been done. The reboot supposedly ends with this ending that fans have long been craving for, which should result in the narrative closure that no real Gilmore Girls fan has ever felt.

At the same time, there is the potential for narrative problems in this reboot, as previously discussed. Specifically, the question of time is relevant in the plot of this reboot. Even though we are heading in the direction of the originally intended ending in the reboot of Gilmore Girls, it would be a mistake to ignore the effects of time on the characters’ lives. It would not be believable if these characters’ lives picked up where they were in 2006, when the last season Sherman-Palladino was a part of aired. Instead, the years that have been missing have to be treated as they occurred, with the characters undergoing believable life changes. Thanks to hints that have been circulating online, interviews given by the cast and creators, and photos posted on social media, it is clear that time and change will be taken into account plot-wise. For example, the actor who played the main character Lorelai’s father (and Rory’s grandfather), Edward Herrmann, died in 2014. His death has been incorporated into the script and the loss of the Gilmore patriarch is going to be a significant plot point explored in the reboot. The effect of time will also be apparent in the details of the show, including a change in Rory Gilmore’s career (now that she is in her late twenties) and possibly changes in romantic and personal relationships for several of the main characters. That these changes are present and the plot’s timing is going to be dealt with seriously points to the exciting possibility that this reboot will be a success.

Rebooting is most likely going to become an even more prevalent trend in the years to come because of increasing means of production and audience desire. But ultimately, it is not going to work to bring back characters and plotlines aimlessly. Instead, there needs to be a defined purpose for these reboots; their characters and narratives must be treated with respect, crafted meticulously and artfully. There needs to be a narrative point. This is exemplified in the differences between Fuller House and the Gilmore Girls reboot. The former is a reboot with no clear narrative purpose: the rebooted story does not affect the original. It is just something that devoted viewers will watch, generating profit for the creator. The latter is a reboot that addresses an essentially unfinished plot, and therefore has a real and necessary connection to the original story. Ultimately, the reboot that has plot fulfillment will be better than one that is catered to nostalgia and arguably just made for a profit. For without a real narrative purpose, reboots are simply futile.