The Returning TV Series: What They Are, What They Should Be, And What Should Come Back
These days, it seems that every broadcast network, cable service, and streaming is bringing back some incarnation of an old — or in many cases, fairly recent — classic series. Whether it’s CBS’ reboot of Magnum P.I. with a female Higgins, Fox’s reincarnation of Last Man Standing, or the CW’s return of Charmed, it’s really starting to see that we’ve run out of new ideas for series, and have now started reincarnating the old ones.
It should be noted, of course, that like the reboots themselves, this is nothing new. We’ve gotten new versions of The Twilight Zone every twenty years and Star Trek was constantly being revisited long before J.J Abrams put his stamp on it. What is becoming different is the fact that more and more often these new incarnations are just the same series with the cast much older than they were when they signed off. This still isn’t anything radically new — Jackie Gleason and Art Carney did another version of The Honeymooners more than a decade after the classic series was canceled. — but it is doing little to change the narrative that broadcast TV evens wants to try and join the radically different world of cable and streaming, where most of the great series currently reside. (They also bear guilt in this, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)
Now, I can understand, if not defend, why network TV is doing this. With audiences fragmenting at an ever increasing rate, one wants to have series with a ready-made audience. And considering that some of the highest rated series in the last couple of seasons have been returns of these series — Roseanne and Will & Grace being only the most obvious examples — one can understand why every network should jump on the band wagon. And I’d be willing to get on board with this — if these series had anything new to say. But the sad truth of the matter, many of them don’t. The various returns of 24 didn’t have anything new. The return of Murphy Brown, while culturally relevant, probably will age even less well than its antecedent. And even the series that represented the Zeitgeist at one point — I’m thinking most obvious of The X-Files — showed little imagination.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m glad X-Files came back, if for no other reason than for the fact that it brought back it gave us two more incredible Darin Morgan scripts to add to the world, and showed once again, how ahead of his time he was. But the reboot basically just showed how little imagination Chris Carter and his colleagues had, dealing with storylines that really should’ve been left for dead, and bringing back characters who likewise. It basically featured all the things that made the series so problematic in it later seasons, with little of the joys that made it worth watching.
At this point, you probably think I loathe the various reboots and returns. This is where things get complicated. I’m in favor of them, if they have a new vision, or they have a new way of telling their story. And the fact s, I do believe that there are some series that should come back to television with the original cast, if their original story was left unfinished.
Let’s start with two examples of the former. Twin Peaks: The Return was probably one of the most anticipated series of 2017. Given all the buzz about it, and the remarkable amount of secrecy surrounding it, it would’ve been easy for Lynch to just revisit Twin Peaks twenty five years later, like he promised when the original series ended. That’s exactly what we didn’t get. We didn’t even get the original Agent Cooper, until the series was almost over. We got a vision of surrealism, madness, frustration, dark humor, and confusing stories, featuring many of our old favorites, and hundreds of new characters. In other words, we got something that was almost, but not entirely, unlike the series that debuted on ABC in 1990. That’s a formidable achievement, considering what the original was.. It was the most bizarre thing about the return. It was also the most wonderful. Even if you barely understood what the hell was going on, you couldn’t deny its vision. Lynch has talked about doing a follow-up season, and that’s one I wouldn’t mind seeing.
A different kind of cult sensation was Arrested Development. One of the funniest series of the 2000s, with one of the greatest casts of any series ever assembled, people had been fighting for a continuation of the series for more than five years. In 2013, Netflix granted us a Season 4 — that bore very little resemblance to anything the Bluths had ever shown us. Critics and fans were up in arms because it wasn’t what they had wanted to see. I was privately delighted, for exactly that same reason. Mitchell Hurwitz could’ve easily given us another season of the Bluths doing the same old thing. Instead, he created an interlocking 15 episode story where the cast didn’t interact for much of the show. Was it the show we remembered? No, and that’s the point. We got something better. And maybe it’s worth getting a new season every five years or so for just that reason.
Now, let’s talk about some series that deserve the returns they’re getting. Veronica Mars is one of the most beloved series that I never got around to seeing. Featuring one of the most dynamic teenage heroines who never appeared on the WB, and a series format that really was remarkable even for its time, a lot of people were pissed when it got canceled. (I’m sure there are still CW executives who still get Mars Bars in the mail.) And the love for that series has not diminished more than a decade later. When Rob Thomas used Kickstarter to try and raise funds for a movie based on it, he got all the money he needed from fans in less than 24 hours. And even though there was the film and some books, there were still people who wanted another season. And now, Hulu is giving it to them, with a very busy Kirsten Bell attached. I’m sure there will be disappointed fans regardless, but this is a story that never got finished.
Similarly, Deadwood, one of the landmark series that brought about the new Golden Age has been promised some continuation of the series ever since it was cancelled. The set was struck, the actors have since moved on, most of them achieving superstardom in film or other TV series, and even though HBO executives admitted they made a mistake cancelling it, it seemed finished. Even when word came out earlier this year that we were going to get a movie, Timothy Olyphant said that he’d believe it when he saw it. Well, he apparently believed, because he and a dozen other series leads (including Swearengen, Ian McShane) have officially been cast for a movie that is going to come out in 2019. I don’t know if it’ll be on HBO or released to theaters (if it is, we have a very interesting discussion as to whether a movie can get an NC-17 based on language alone) but its looking like its really going to happen at last. It will definitely be worth seeing, even if it is ten years later.
Those are the series that should be coming back — and that’s my biggest problem with so many of the returns. They seem to be ignoring that they wrapped everything up with a bow, and are now deciding to cut the ribbon in half. (Why else is John Goodman alive in The Conners?) The stories that should come back are the ones that either never got to finish their story, or had a good premise that was never given a chance to come to fruition. In my follow-up, I’ll discuss several series that should come back — and that I’d watch if they did.