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3Qs: When classic TV shows make a comeback

Rebooting films and TV shows is hardly new in Hol­ly­wood. But there’s a growing trend right now to revive classic TV shows and bring back the old cast for another run. Full House, 24, The X-​​Files, Twin Peaks, Heroes, and Gilmore Girls rep­re­sent only a handful of shows that have already returned or whose come­backs have recently been announced—whether it be to net­works, cable, or streaming ser­vices like Net­flix. We asked asso­ciate pro­fessor of media and screen studies Joanne Morreale, whose cur­rent research focuses on the rela­tion­ship between early tele­vi­sion and cul­tural his­tory, to dis­cuss this trend and why we can’t resist going back for more.

What is driving this trend?

One of the reasons these shows are being remade is that there’s a built-in audience. These are shows with loyal and devoted fan bases. I’ve read quite a few articles that say that even though most fans don’t like the idea of reboots and revivals, they all agree that, “I’ll still watch it.” The broadcasters want these viewers because there is so much good TV right now; it’s been called “peak TV.” But that means the landscape is cluttered, so the networks, cable stations, and other platforms like Netflix and Amazon have to figure out how to get audiences to watch their shows. Revivals will bring an audience, at least initially, and many of these shows being revived have small budgets and a limited run. So it’s a very low-risk proposition. If a show turns into a hit, they can always order another season.

Also, because the networks and these other platforms are pretty much assured of an audience for these revivals and are not spending much money on them, they have more space to spend money on and take more creative risks with other shows. It’s a bit of a balancing act, but it makes some economic sense. It’s hard to imagine any of these revivals are going to be major “water-cooler” hits like Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, but they’re not putting the same amount of money into them either. That’s the trade-off.

Your research focuses largely on television history. Where does this trend of reviving old TV shows fit into this context?

We’ve seen this phenomenon before in television history in the form of reunion shows. After some of the early TV sitcoms like Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver, and The Dick Van Dyke Show ended, years later they did these one-time reunions with the original cast and completed the narrative arc of the show. Part of the tendency in television now is to intensify everything, so instead of a reunion show we’re getting a season. But even looking back at these reunion shows, there’s a thirst for knowing what happened to these characters, these people we spent so much time with in the past.

That actually hits on another theme that comes up with these shows being brought back: nostalgia. A New York Post columnist recently noted that “nostalgia is a tricky thing to replicate.” What’s your take on how nostalgia factors into this trend?

Nostalgia is why there’s a built-in audience, and that returns to why a lot of these shows are being brought back. A lot of the critics say that you can’t go back, and that the pleasure of these shows was also about a certain context of viewing. For many people, these shows evoke their childhood or another memorable time in their lives. For example, watching Twin Peaks or The Gilmore Girls was a family ritual in many households. But the repeat experience can’t bring that back, so it will probably be disappointing. And yet, we can’t resist it. We’ll go back and watch.

People relate to television characters. They cry when fictional characters die. There’s a certain comfort in seeing them again. It’s like visiting with old friends you haven’t seen in a long time. You want it to be wonderful, but time has passed.

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