tv series

Behind many television reboots, that old feeling and a new media landscape

‘Will & Grace’, ‘The X-Files’, ‘Fuller House’, ‘Arrested Development’ – the list goes on.

Designer Yves Saint Laurent once said, “Fashions fade, style is eternal.”

The same could be said for television: When a popular show concludes, it lives on in syndication and Blu-ray. But recently, TV immortality has assumed a new form. Networks and streaming services are increasingly pulling from the past to flood the airwaves with reboots and remakes.

Before Roseanne Barr’s racist tweets led to the cancellation of her show, the reboot of Roseanne was one of ABC’s most popular programmes. Last year, Will & Grace returned in 2017 to impressive ratings, while Full House reappeared on Netflix as Fuller House in 2016.

We’ve also seen reboots and remakes of The X-Files, Twin Peaks and Arrested Development, along with remakes of Dynasty and Lost in Space.

This upcoming fall season, a reboot of Murphy Brown and remakes of Cagney & Lacey, Magnum P.I. and Charmed are set to be premiered.

Nostalgia has always sold. But changes to today’s television landscape have created the perfect conditions for the reboot to thrive.

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Will & Grace.

At a practical level, reboots make sense.

When a fan of the original The X-Files tunes in for the reboot, they’re mostly familiar with the characters’ nuanced histories. For this reason, the show’s writers don’t need to lay as much groundwork. The skeleton’s already in place, and they can pick up where the characters left off and write new storylines.

But for audiences, there’s something deeper at play: nostalgia and the comfort of what’s familiar.

Media scholar Ryan Lizardi has studied the role of nostalgia in advertisements and television programming. He explains how TV commercials will often incorporate familiar characters, famous soundbites and classic hit songs to trigger viewers’ memories, which can transport them to moments of romance, comfort and wonderment from their pasts. The effect is powerful, and it can instantly forge an emotional connection with an audience.

For example, in the weeks leading up to the premiere of Fuller House, actors John Stamos, who played Uncle Jesse on the original show, and Candace Cameron Bure, who played DJ Tanner, appeared on talk shows to promote the series.

Culture and media scholar Kathleen Loock wrote that these promotions, by “repeatedly triggering memories of (the original) Full House,’” were able to convey “the comfort of the familiar”.

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The opening credits of Fuller House evoke the sitcom’s original theme song.

It’s also why a revived series will often use the original theme song or a version of it: The music prompts viewers to recall a bygone time when they watched the original show.

But why is this happening now? Why weren’t shows from the 1970s being rebooted in the 1990s?

Changes in how we watch television have reshaped the TV business. No longer tethered to a standard broadcast schedule, viewers have a much larger selection of shows to choose from – and can watch them however they want, whenever they want.

As a result, audiences have fragmented, gravitating to niche shows that cater to specific interests. There are fewer prime-time blockbuster hits.

But revived television series can actually bridge these fragmented audiences. They represent an established brand from the old days of television, and are recognisable to huge swathes of viewers. Fans of the original series are a preexisting base of viewers that don’t need to be enticed into watching the first episode. And younger, first-time viewers can be lured to the series through media coverage, trailers and advertisements.

As TV critic James Poniewozik writes, “The old hits had far bigger audiences than today’s and so are part of our communal memory.” For this reason, “they have a better chance of reuniting that mass audience.”

The ratings of these reboots and remakes do tend to decline not long after their premieres.

This may suggest that reboots and remakes aren’t paying off. But as television studies scholar Julia Leyda notes, ratings matter less than they used to. She points out how Arrested Development was initially cancelled by Fox for low ratings. However, its ratings from 2006 would actually be considered quite good in today’s environment of fractured viewership.

Perhaps that’s one reason why the show returned after a five-year hiatus.

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Arrested Development.

When older shows do return, the characters might stay the same. But the world around them has changed.

Popular sitcoms – All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times and M.A.S.H. – tend to address some of the most pressing social issues of their times: class, race relations, war and gender issues.

But what mattered politically and culturally in the past matters less to viewers today. So when a revived series makes a return, it often highlights new social issues to appeal to a contemporary audience.

Roseanne returned to TV in March with two back-to-back episodes seen by over 18 million viewers. The family’s politics was a storyline that received a lot of national attention, with the title character having voted for President Donald Trump.

Roseanne did what a lot of effective sitcoms do: explore a major cultural issue and show how everyday people are grappling with it. Viewers had mixed feelings about the show’s political narrative. But no matter one’s political views, the series captured and fuelled a major conversation in contemporary society.

Likewise, the 2016 election sparked the return of Will & Grace, with the original cast getting together for an episode that focused on campaign issues like the border wall, gun rights, education and social class.

By incorporating contemporary social, cultural and political issues, reboots and remakes are able to anchor an older show in the present zeitgeist.

FX Networks CEO John Landgraf has dubbed our current television moment “peak TV”. In an effort to appeal to as many different audiences as possible, shows and their writers are able to experiment and innovate in ways they never could have imagined a couple of decades ago.

But there’s also clearly a demand for comfort and nostalgia, and there are enough viewers who want to return to Will’s familiar kitchen and watch kids of the Tanner family navigate life as adults to make the reboot a niche of its own.

Dr. James Francis, Jr., Lecturer, Department of English, Texas A&M University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.