Living in our fancy Golden Age of TV means we get to watch a lot of great shows, but mostly it just means we get a lot of shows. A Real Housewife in every zip code, a single-camera Netflix show for every comedian, and a reboot for every show that was ever canceled.
Resurrecting the dead and buried has always been part of television's business model, but in the past few years, the grave-robbing industry has blossomed, mostly thanks to Netflix. Since Arrested Development was exhumed in 2013 for a fourth season, the movie Wet Hot American Summer was brought back as a series, Full House was zombified as Fuller House, Mr. Show was reincarnated as W/ Bob and David, Pee-wee Herman was given new life in Pee-wee's Big Holiday, Lisa Kudrow's The Comeback came back, and The X-Files was summoned from the great beyond for a tenth season. There are more walking dead on the horizon, including The Magic School Bus, Baywatch, Mystery Science Theater 3000, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (possibly), Twin Peaks, Deadwood, The Gilmore Girls, Xena: Warrior Princess, and the recently announced MAD TV.
The drive to bring back a long-lost piece of pop culture for nostalgia's sake should be familiar to anyone who's attended one of the seemingly thousands of rock reunion tours currently circling the globe. The endearingly desperate impulse to capture a bit of that old magic, to be a kid wrapped in a comforting media cocoon again, is universal enough that every reboot or revival is met with a burst of meme-based enthusiasm. Enough people remember what it was like to snuggle on a couch with their not-yet-divorced parents taking in the cheesy soft rock that announced the beginning of another episode of Full House. The Olsen twins! Bob Saget! Uncle Jesse!
Except your memory is a liar. Full House was a bad show. Fuller House was worse—the AV Club called it "a porn parody without the porn." Most of the current crop of secondhand shows are similarly lacking. Netflix's version of Arrested Development seemed lifeless and flat compared to the original; they couldn't even pull the cast together for an actual on-camera reunion, instead giving each character their own episode. The tenth season of The X-Files or W/ Bob and David couldn't live up to their predecessors' reputations either, despite the positive press the announcement of those projects earned.
A glance at any listicle of TV reboots reveals the obvious truth, that most of them fail and fail for good reason. (I'm talking about straight reboots, not shows translated across the Atlantic, a practice that has a long record of success that stretches from Sanford and Son to The Office to House of Cards.) One reason for this is that throughout history, the great majority of television shows have been pretty crappy, with hits resulting from some alchemy of star power and unexpected cultural pull, not brilliant, renewable premises. As the people behind the short-lived 2008 version of Knight Rider found out, "hey what if a car could talk and it fought crime" is not a universal theme that appeals across generations. (That flame-out is apparently not stopping something called Knight Rider Heroes from existing.)
Here is a complete list of the successful reboots in television history:
- Battlestar Galatica, which took a pretty boring old sci-fi show's conceit and ran with it, becoming a cult classic.
- Hawaii Five-0, which fits nicely into CBS's lineup of interchangeable cop shows starring square-jawed white guys.
You can make the case that shows like Deadwood and Gilmore Girls deserve a revival, since neither had altogether satisfying endings and both are being overseen by showrunners with distinct visions. David Lynch fans will rejoice at a third season of Twin Peaks, just as Pee-wee fans celebrated the character's recent Netflix show. And let whomever among us that doesn't think new MST3K episodes will be worthwhile cast the first stone.
But Jesus Christ, MAD TV? The unfunny, frequently pretty racist offshoot of a decades-past-its-prime magazine wasn't even beloved in its time—alum Bobby King once admitted, "Half of it was good, half of it was the worst sketch comedy you'd ever seen." The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was only tolerable because of a young Will Smith, and I doubt the producers will be able to capture that kind of lightning a second time. Baywatch was a shitty show about hot people running in slow motion—surely Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron can find better reasons to take their shirts off on camera. If the TV industry is going to engage in such obvious necrophilia, shouldn't they focus on better looking corpses?
There is a lot of good TV out there already, some would say too much. We've got sketch gems like Inside Amy Schumer and Key & Peele (the latter from two MAD TV alums); offbeat comedy like Broad City and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; hefty prestige fare like The Americans , Mr. Robot, and Fargo; too many dark "slow procedurals" to count; whatever the hell is going on on Adult Swim; the much-beloved "tits and dragons" of Game of Thrones; and a glut of well-crafted superhero shows, including the actually really good Jessica Jones. Fans of old shows can, thanks to the magic of the internet and Netflix, watch the entire runs of classic series like Cheers and Star Trek.
With all that going on, who wants to sit down and watch actors reprise decades-old roles or writers assemble tributes to pop-culture touchstones? Seriously, who is Fuller House suppose to be for? Are any fans honestly looking forward to CBS's upcoming Star Trek revival, given that every Trek series has been worse than the one before? Even if Netflix brought back Firefly, which has long been the Smiths reunion of hoped-for-but-probably-not-gonna-happen TV events, would it actually measure up to that one-season wonder's best episodes?
The good news is that inevitably these reboots will collapse under the weight of expectations and their own flimsy construction. Sooner or later, even TV executives will recognize a bad idea—NBC stopped short of green-lighting a why-would-anyone-want-that Coach reboot. And remember that Home Improvement revival Netflix was considering? It turned out to just be a joke. Thank God.