In the beginning was the work. And the work begat the sequel, begat the franchise.
Thus, your “Iliad,” your “Odyssey.” Your Old Testament and New. Your “Sherlock Holmes,” “Sherlock” and “Elementary.” Your “Full House,” your “Fuller House.”
And so does a work become a property, exploitable across diverse platforms and many sorts of merchandise, and in the fullness of time may become a reboot. And we are in a time full of reboots, revivals, re-imaginings and unexpected returns, all across the arts, but especially in television, where the future is looking more and more like the past.
Among the series recently brought back to life from the foggy mists of time are “Will & Grace,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Dynasty,” “Queer Eye,” “Twin Peaks,” “Hawaii Five-0,” “MacGyver” and “One Day at a Time.” On the horizon – in production, on the drawing board, seriously being discussed – are the belated next chapters of “Murphy Brown,” “Miami Vice,” “Cagney & Lacey,” “Mad About You,” “Roseanne,” “Roswell,” “Get Christie Love!,” “Lost in Space,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Magnum P.I.,” “Charmed,” “The L Word,” “American Idol” and “The Office.” Some, like “Roseanne” and “Murphy Brown,” seem made to address the current political landscape. Others are … “Magnum P.I.”
This is only a partial list.
Some of these shows will pick up the old story with the original cast and characters. (There is obviously a limit on how many years you can let pass, but David Lynch and Mark Frost made “Twin Peaks: The Return” in no small part a meditation on time, age and death.) Some will reupholster the concept for the present day, with new attractive young people in parts originally played by the attractive young people of yesterday. Some, like the mid-’00s version of “Battlestar Galactica,” whose critical and popular success might mark the beginning of the current wave of reboots, will look deeper and more darkly into material that was comparatively fluffy the first time around.
Mining the past is not new to the medium. Earlier decades saw “The New Gidget,” “New Monkees,” “The New Lassie” and “The Munsters Today”; original casts took up their old posts in “The New Leave It to Beaver,” “The New WKRP in Cincinnati,” “What’s Happening Now!!” and “Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.” (Both “Kung Fu” and “The Munsters” are currently being re-redeveloped; the former comes from superhero specialist Greg Berlanti – “Arrow,” et al. -- and features a female lead; the latter, from Seth Meyers’ production company and written by “Odd Mom Out” creator-star Jill Kargman, finds the family living in Brooklyn.)
Some would say this orgy of recycling betokens a lack of imagination in the executive offices of Hollywood, and perhaps it does. Show business has never lacked for a lack of imagination. It is a mimetic, monkey-see, monkey-do affair, where nothing seems to guarantee success of a project more than some other project’s previous success. The high cost of filmmaking encourages conservatism, and there is a certain sense, after all, if a circular sense, in giving the people what the people have previously demonstrated they want.
For the businessman, an unexploited property is money left on the table, but there also may be the happy memory of a favorite show and the exciting prospect of bringing it back into the world. For the artist, there may be unfinished business, a bad last season that needs to be put right (“Roseanne”) or a question left unanswered (“Twin Peaks,” though 18 more hours made the mysteries only more mysterious).
For the actor, it may offer a better job than what he or she has had since or might otherwise expect – Netflix’s “Fuller House” is a bigger hit than any other Candace Cameron Bure or Jodie Sweetin project could possibly be. (Even John Stamos couldn’t get more than a season out of Fox’s “Grandfathered,” and that show was really good.) It can also offer, more positively, a chance to reinhabit a favorite character, to get the band back together, to make a certain music only those players can play. Indeed, the creative team of a television show is is very like a pop band, a web of relationships between parts less great than their sum, however great the individual parts may be. Art might have something to do with it, and friendship.
And then there is the audience.
Although watching TV seems a casual enough pastime, television characters exist for us with a special intensity. They come into our house week after week, living more or less in real time, aging alongside us. We may see them grow from childhood to adulthood, acquire kids of their own. It doesn’t matter that it is all made up. We speak of them as “real,” become involved in their woes, their hopes, their joys, episode after episode. Where a film dispenses with its narrative business in a couple of hours, a television arc can stretch across months, even years. A chronological intimacy is established.
And so we want to keep the characters we care about with us; witness the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments that accompany the cancellation of a well-loved series – and every series has someone who loves it.
Writers of literary fiction have also exploited this element of time. When a British ship arrived in New York in 1841, carrying the latest installment of “The Old Curiosity Shop” — serialized novels being the television shows of their day — fans gathered on the pier are reported to have called to the sailors on board, “Is Little Nell alive?” Joseph Heller gave the characters in “Catch-22" later lives in “Closing Time.” John Updike saw his Rabbit Angstrom through four novels, spaced 10 years or so apart, from “Rabbit Run” in 1960 to “Rabbit at Rest” in 1990, with the 2000 novella “Rabbit Remembered” providing a posthumous coda. (The novels are reportedly being adapted for television by Andrew Davies, Britain’s dean of literary miniseries.)
But where the original writers are unavailable, substitutes have served. There are James Bond books Ian Fleming was no longer around to write, while something of a cottage industry exists in Jane Austen sequels, mostly speculating on what happened after Elizabeth Bennet married Mr. Darcy, including P.D. James (and TV-adapted) “Death Comes to Pemberley,” Helen Halstead’s “Mr. Darcy Presents His Bride,” Carrie Brebis’ “Mr. & Mrs. Darcy” mystery series and Eucharista Ward’s “A Match for Mary Bennet: Can a Serious Young Lady Ever Find Her Way to Love?”
Similarly, where the entertainment industry has proved unwilling, fans have taken it on themselves to sustain a series or property, writing and sharing new stories of old characters – even filming new episodes of canceled shows. (“Star Trek” – which officially came back last year with the CBS All Access series “Star Trek: Discovery” – leads the pack.) These stories often go where series themselves had not gone before, or could. (That Kirk and Spock romance Gene Roddenberry never imagined, or kept quiet about, if he did, is a staple of “Star Trek” fan fiction.) Copyright holders may cavil, but it’s just such dedication that can make an old canceled show seem like a new good bet.
Why does it matter to us? Why should we care that Frank Sinatra reunited the estranged Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis together onstage during a telethon? That Iggy and the Stooges got back together? Perhaps it’s because, past our habit of identifying with the joys and sorrows of celebrities, such events play to our hopes that what has gone wrong in our own life can be be put right, that lost friends will be found again. “Maybe everything that dies one day comes back,” sang Bruce Springsteen, on a record he made without the E Street Band, which he broke up and could not help reconvening, to enormous success.
Reunions promise potentially happy endings to relationships that may have ended badly. Of course, they may lead to new bad endings – to continue the musical metaphor, consider the Beach Boys, who managed to come together for a long, celebrated 50th anniversary tour, only to split again into acrimonious camps. Still, the interpersonal push and pull is what makes the band Talking Heads a more interesting prospect than frontman David Byrne’s solo career, a Pavement reunion a hotter ticket than a Stephen Malkmus tour. That Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey mean more as the Who than on their own owes much to our desire for a partnership with a history. We like that story. It’s the reason why, however much one might enjoy the individual work of Gillian Anderson or David Duchovny, there is something especially exciting in their working together again in “The X-Files,” however much the revived series fails to live up to the original.
This moment will pass. The culture moves in cycles, or swings like a pendulum, but in either case the audience will want something new — something newer. At some inevitable point in the unpredictable future, it will come to seem a less stupendous idea among the executive class to depend so heavily on the back catalog. Maybe there will be a rage for series starring animals, or set on houseboats, or written by robots – who can say?
But eventually the wheel will turn again, and the reboot will be revived and the revival rebooted. Tomorrow’s original will become the day after tomorrow’s remake — “Houseboat Farm 2030”? — and everything old will be new again. Again.
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd