Television Necromancy Needs to Stop

When Netflix announced they were bringing back Arrested Development for season 4, I was absolutely thrilled. My favorite show was reuniting once again to tell the story of the abysmal Bluth family and what has happened over the last five years. This is the show that I watch when I’m depressed. I met Mitch Hurwitz and didn’t get a full sentence out before crying. I’m considering an Arrested-themed tattoo sleeve despite my inability to get a tattoo without passing out. The Bluths were back, baby!

In the end, the season was fine. It wasn’t my favorite, but if someone says it was awful, I will defend it wholeheartedly. That is the hill I will die on. Arrested Development is a perfect binge show, so to release an entire season on the same day was genius. It was great to see where all the Bluths ended up, some in new and weird places, some exactly where we knew they’d be. I loved the small asides from the first three seasons that blown up into full plots. (Lindsay’s ostrich problem, anyone?) Most of all I loved that Michael was finally fully revealed to the audience as being a terrible person. How people missed that fact in the first three seasons is beyond me, but I’m glad everyone is finally on board.

It was not without its faults, the biggest being they were only able to get the whole cast in the same room for two scenes. I was thrilled by the fact every person on the cast was having a fruitful career post-Arrested. Many went on to other TV shows while some went on to direct and/or star in large blockbuster films. Yet I was still bummed. Part of what makes Arrested Development so appealing is the way all the family members bounce off each other. Some of the best scenes in the show are when most – if not all – of the cast is present. Alas, we had to make do with what the scheduling gods would allow. The way the season was structured was odd and confusing with each character being given one or two episodes as the main focus. It was hard for a lot of audience members to shift their moral compass from Michael to Gob to Maeby to George Sr. to George Michael.

I don’t watch season 4 with any of the regularity I do of the first three seasons because it feels, looks, and sounds different. It isn’t the show I had fallen in love with. The bitterness with which the show ended was now misplaced. When they were on the verge of cancellation, they devoted an entire episode to a “Save Our Bluths” campaign, pulling out all the tactics nearly-cancelled shows utilized when they clamored to stay on air, even going as far to literally say, “Please, tell your friends about this show.” The audience knew every line of that episode was of a ‘fuck you’ to Fox. Talk about going out in a blaze of glory.

But Netflix picked it up and made a fourth season, effectively neutering Arrested Development‘s hilarious, bitter, righteously angry conclusion. The original run of the show ends on a funny yet hopeful note. Ron Howard says, “I don’t see it as a TV show. Maybe a movie.” which insinuates the whole show was a huge mistake.

There’s no need for a bittersweet finale to say goodbye when there’s a revival. A show that was once dead, that was cancelled kicking and screaming, is now alive again, taking the ending’s genius and throwing it in a dumpster. By removing the emotional impact of the final episode, revivals are creating a television landscape that is anti-creativity, anti-industry, and disrespectful to the audience’s intelligence and emotions.

Before continuing, I would like to define “revival”. A revival is a show in which there are new episodes being created starring the majority of the original cast centered around similar recurring themes. These are sometimes marketed as “revivals”, “continuations”, or “sequels”. Revivals are about rehashing old character relationships, modernizing or updating situations, and creating nostalgia by the tons.

Instead of creating an entirely new season or “limited engagement” of a deceased show, some studios and creators opt for the two-hour movie, usually aired on TV only. TV show movies only count as revivals if the show had a planned ending (i.e. Psych) versus an unexpected cancellation (i.e. Firefly). A show that suffered an unexpected cancellation, such as the case of Firefly, is perfectly suited for a TV movie because there are plots and characters that were not allowed to finish as the story was not completely told. On the other hand, Psych knew season 8 was going to be its last so in this case the upcoming TV movie is considered a revival.

Revivals are not new to television. The very first revival of any sort in the United States occurred in 1977 with Sanford Arms, a revival of the popular show Sanford & Son. Most of the supporting cast appeared in Arms while the two lead actors declined on the project. Arms lasted 8 episodes, half of which never aired, before being canceled due to abysmally low ratings. (First of all time was BBC’s The Likely Lads revival, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? in 1973. However, for the purposes of this post, I will only be discussing the revivals of American television shows.)

Since 1977, only 26 shows have been revived in the United States, including those that currently greenlit and in production. Most revivals prior to 2000 had extremely low ratings throughout their entire run – if they made it to a finale at all. The “revivals” of anthology shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents… and The Twilight Zone had been relatively successful, but as anthology shows are ultimately a collection of smaller stories without a cohesive singular cast, they cannot be compared to the revivals that are happening now.

Tons of shows are receiving revivals: Will & Grace, Gilmore Girls, Roseanne, Twin Peaks, Mystery Science Theater 3000, The X Files, PsychFull House, Prison Break, Law & Order. Of the 26 shows revived in the United States, 13 have either aired (or will air) after 2016. Many revivals are taking place on streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu, where audiences can access the original content prior to moving on to the revival. These sites allow the audience to bathe in the original show as opposed to 20 years earlier when audiences would have to hope someone recorded episodes on VHS.

Unfettered access to streaming content allows audiences to fall in love with shows they may have missed due to age, time slot, or lack of recording devices. However, assuming a show’s new audience needs a revival is disrespectful to the audience as well as the creators. When a show is created, it exists in that time and place for a limited duration. It is a commentary and product of their time. When viewers watch a cancelled show, they are watching through a modern lens with the appreciation that this show occurred at an earlier time.

Revivals often call for modernization, yet shows approach modernization from the wrong direction. For example, in the upcoming revival of Will & Grace, Jack McFarland is shown to be checking Grindr, an app for gay male hook-ups. It reads like bad fanfiction. A character who stopped existing in 2006 is using a technology and app that exist today in 2017. How modern! But this isn’t the modernization W&G needs. When the show premiered in 1998, it was revolutionary to show gay characters on primetime television. In 2017, two lead gay white men who are made of the worst stereotypes of the gay community is not modern. It’s a step backwards. Nearly 20 years after the original show aired, W&G is regarded for its place in history, in bringing queer issues to primetime television, but the issues it once presented as controversial are now trivial and the show in and of itself has created its own issues in its representation.

Audiences are smart and capable of watching shows from other eras without the need to update it into today’s terms. A new audience watching W&G doesn’t need to see dated material revived into a shambling corpse with an iPhone. Reviving a show assumes the audience is too stupid to understand the time period in which the show aired and need new information. W&G  is appreciated for what it was at the time it aired and by bringing it back, we are eliminating the poignancy of its historical significance in the pantheon of television. It calls attention to the necessity of keeping a show in its time capsule.

Reboots and adaptations can combat this television necromancy. A reboot is a show in which a finished show is recreated with an entirely new cast within the same universe, and an adaptation is taking a source material and creating a show based on that material. Adaptations have a pre-existing mythos and universe, but they create a world that previously did not exist on television. Reboots retool original series and update them to be brand new. Adaptations and reboots can accomplish what revivals can’t, which is updating the source material without having to awkwardly continue a series that doesn’t belong in modern day. Battlestar Galactica is a great example of a successful reboot. Instead of continuing where the 1978 series left off, BSG recreated itself with modern concepts and ideas, especially considering the advancement of technology between the show’s original airdate and 2003. The BSG reboot was able to leave the original to exist as a product of the 1970s, with its own concepts and commentary, while taking the same characters and having them updated with current commentary. Erasing their history from the previous series and starting anew with a different cast prevents a disjointed and awkward transition.

Another issue is that revivals are anti-industry. In a reboot, the same characters from before are brought into the modern world and played by entirely new actors. By their very nature reboots have to hire new talent and expand the Hollywood circle. Reboots and adaptations create new opportunities for actors and writers (and sometimes showrunners) by gifting them with a pre-existing lovable franchise that will hopefully lead to original work jobs. Looking outside the United States, an example of a successful reboot is Doctor Who. I define the new series of Who as a reboot because, while the show is technically a continuation of the original series, it begins with a brand new cast, a brand new showrunner, resets the episode count, and still exists within the same universe as the original 1963 run. The world of Who is able to change and morph with new talent both in front of and behind the camera. As for adaptations, American studios are obsessed with making adaptations of everything and for the most part they hire talent that is different from the source material’s talent, if they exist to begin with.

Revivals inherently prevent new talent from entering the industry at a notable level. A revived show is rehiring an actor who was previously fired from their job for whatever reason. Shows end when the network decides it’s done, whether that is due to low ratings or an agreement with the showrunner. Putting a previously cancelled show in a broadcast time slot takes away an opportunity for new talent and new ideas to enter the industry. This especially puts creators at a disadvantage. According to the Wall Street Journal in 2012, the major 5 networks – ABC, Fox, CBS, NBC, & The CW – receive about 500 pilot pitches each year. That doesn’t include the amount of pilots written but not pitched. Then they order around 20 pilots. The odds are low for a show to make it to air, but they get lower when a network decides to side-step new series to revive one that has failed once before. Streaming sites are complicit in this problem as well. While they have a vastly different platform to show content, funding series is the same across the board. Studios and networks are happily passing over new content in order to pay cancelled talent because they know it’s easy money.

We’ve made it to the root of the problem: money. In the case of Arrested Development, a cult following emerged after its cancellation. Admittedly, I am part of that cult fandom. Its popularity only increased once Netflix acquired it for streaming and we learned it was a binge-watching show from its inception to catch and fully comprehend its complexity. Netflix noticed this as well and felt it needed to capitalize further. By creating a new season, they were able to get more money through new subscribers since the new seasons weren’t available anywhere else. They were able to re-brand and re-market a cancelled show with new merchandise and new profitable opportunities just like any regular network. Studios are more interested in their bottom line than looking at history: the majority of revivals have failed miserably. Revivals allow studios to do minimal marketing, minimal casting, minimal work into their shows so they can cost on the backs of fans without supporting the entertainment industry or truly servicing fans.

There is a special type of fan that carries a torch for a cancelled show. This fan still deeply loves this show that is dead and gone. Watching a season finale is an emotional experience. Many fans go through a grieving process when their favorite shows end. People often cite characters as being part of their family or having substantially changed their life. We say these phrases when we eulogize a loved one at their funeral. There is a point of acceptance when you realize a show is over. That’s it, there are no more episodes. In the case of planned endings, the story is complete in how the creators intended. There may not be resolution to some plots, but isn’t that life? By resurrecting a dead show as a revival, a studio ruins that grieving process. It takes away that emotional impact of a final episode because it is no longer the final episode. A show’s swan song is (often) beautifully crafted to say goodbye to its fans, its cast, its crew. Adding a revival cheapens that goodbye and makes it a coda instead of a finale.

Finales are some of the best and biggest moments in television. The series finale of M*A*S*H was the single most watched television program in history with 105.9 million viewers – beating every Super Bowl prior to 2010. People tune in to say goodbye, even if they gave up on the show seasons prior. They want to see how it all ends and what, of any, of their questions are answered. Shows go big or go home. They create moments that viewers will always remember them by. Weddings, prison sentences, returns home. These are ultimate defining moments in a characters life that are what everything has been leading to. What exists for a character after they have reached what they wanted – or what they deserved? After watching this character strive for years to reach this pinnacle, what else is there? The goal has been reached. The story has ended for that character – for better or for worse – and are often permanent decisions. 

The most permanent of all finale choices is death. For shows set in reality, a character’s death is irreversible. It affects all aspects of the show. You cannot eliminate a character’s death without fundamentally changing the finale of the show. Therefore, how does a Roseanne revival work? Dan’s death in the finale not only affects the characters, but is revealed as the primary catalyst for the whole show. The facts have changed; the entire world of the show exists in a different reality than what originally aired. How can a revival with the entire cast work if the characters are actually not who audiences originally fell in love with? More specifically, how do you eliminate Dan’s death without nullifying the finale? And how do you explain the revival episodes within the show’s canon when the audience is aware of the actual reality in the finale? The Roseanne finale is listed in TV Guide as the 9th most unforgettable finale. It made an indeliable mark on the television landscape and not allowing it to remain the finale robs the original run of its power.

Revivals have all sorts of good intentions. They’re there to allow people to feel nostalgic and enjoy characters they haven’t seen for a while. The new season however comes at the expense of the original show. Original content is how television and the entertainment industry will continue. Audiences should demand that the studios push new ideas, new concepts, and new creators instead of looking backward to ended shows for an easy buck. Television that takes risks pushes boundaries to make us better as artists and audience members, and it is ultimately the future of our rapidly evolving American culture. 

Stop the television necromancy. DEAD TV: Do Not Eat!

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