To paraphrase the great song-and-dance man Peter Allen, wait around long enough and eventually, everything old becomes new again — and where television is concerned, that’s never been more true. We’re living through a moment in which dozens — literally dozens — of familiar shows from dusty decades past are simultaneously undergoing the process of pop-culture resurrection.
As one might expect of the network with the oldest living audience on TV, CBS is leading the charge, bringing back such favorites as Magnum P.I., Cagney and Lacey and Murphy Brown to join its current comebackers MacGyver, Hawaii Five-0 and S.W.A.T. Meanwhile, ABC is about to see if Roseanne can bloom again, and is putting a brand new (and equally unlikely) crimefighter into the scarlet tights of The Greatest American Hero. NBC, fresh off the moderate success of its Will & Grace revival, is cueing up the shock paddles for new versions of The Office and — gulp — Miami Vice. Fox, which is currently airing the second season of its continuation of The X-Files, is looking to bring back its animated hit King of the Hill. Even The CW isn’t resisting the allure of the undead, tapping its library to breathe new life into early 2000s cult classics Charmed and Roswell, alongside their currently-airing take on the long-running ABC soap Dynasty.
As easy as it is to eye-roll the déjà vu trend as evidence of Hollywood’s growing risk-aversion and creative desperation, it’s important to note that not all approaches to reheating old-school leftovers are the same.
Reboots — taking old stories and rethinking and recasting them to reflect a more contemporary (and conscious) context — can produce brilliant and disruptive results. The Netflix reboot of One Day at a Time is a great example: Norman Lear’s refresh of his own classic single-mom sitcom imagines the story through a Latinx lens, combining established talent (Rita Moreno!) with emerging breakouts (Justina Machado and Isabella Gomez!), and even layers the story with intersectional complexity: Gomez’s Elena comes out as lesbian, while her mother Penelope is a military veteran struggling with PTSD and depression. Meanwhile, take two on ABC’s The Greatest American Hero replaces the original’s average white dude protagonist Ralph Hinkley with a young Desi woman named Meera. While the original satirical superhero series hinged its humor and relevance on challenging how one defines “Greatest,” this version will push audiences to expand their frame of reference for “American” and “Hero” as well.
Revivals are another story entirely. Or rather, the same old story, with the same old faces, offering mostly the same comfortable feels. The NBC continuation of Will & Grace erased the original run’s flash-forward finale entirely, turning it into one of Karen’s booze-boosted dreams, and picked the show up in exactly the place it left off. Fox’s new old X-Files gives us all the bizarre beasties and back-and-forth banter between Mulder and Scully that fans anticipated, with most of the show’s more climactic twists unwound. No one knows much about the new Roseanne, other than that ABC has managed to corral all of the original cast for the reunion, including both actresses who played daughter Becky Conner (Lecy Goranson and Sarah Chalke, who took over for Goranson after the former left the show to go to college). And Candice Bergen is locked in to return as the intrepid and acerbic protagonist of the revived Murphy Brown — no word on whether other characters from the earlier seasons will return, although the late Robert Pastorelli’s beloved house painter Eldin obviously won’t.
But if the show follows the template of its fellow retreads, we can predict one thing: Like the original, Murphy 2.0 won’t be all that Brown.
And that’s hardly a coincidence. After all, these shows are turning back the clock to a time when all-white casts were the norm. A 1993 report by George Gerbner of U.Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication to SAG-AFTRA revealed that in 1982, primetime network television featured just 7.8 percent characters of color with speaking roles. By 1992, that percentage had basically doubled, to 15.2 percent. As of 2017, according to a USC Annenberg study, the percentage had doubled yet again — to 29.7 percent, about in line with the percentage of the American population that’s nonwhite.
In the ’80s, St. Elsewhere could imagine a major inner-city hospital with just three nonwhite staff members. In the ’90s, Seinfeld and the friends of Friends could wander a monochrome New York City where “diversity” meant “loud red-headed guy” or “swarthy moustache dude with accent” without raising eyebrows.
It’s hard to imagine launching a brand new series today under these pretexts. But by reviving shows with their original casts, networks face no pressure to make them reflect today’s vastly different demographic realities. And that might be the point.
While reboots disrupt the canonical mythology of television, driving the medium to evolve to reflect our multifaceted, inclusive reality, revivals seek to deny the cultural shifts that have reshaped our world, stripping away decades of progress in a nostalgic attempt to bring back what some might call a “simpler and more innocent time” — and others might frame as a bleak era where women, LGBTQs, nonwhite and disabled people were systematically erased and disempowered at an institutional level.
Primetime television has always mirrored the subtextual forces driving society at large. So maybe it’s not surprising that, underlying the roiling attempts by networks to remain relevant in the Peak TV era is a battle between the rebooters who maintain that the path forward for our culture is a diverse screen reality that’s “stronger together,” and the revivalists whose goal is to “make TV great again” — one schedule slot at a time.
Jeff Yang | Contributor