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Must we remember this?
Welcome or not, the fad of resurrecting old network favourites is as savvy as it is misguidedly wistful for a generation past

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Saturday, February 10, 2018 – Page R1

The list of TV reboots keeps growing - The X-Files, Roseanne, Will & Grace, Murphy Brown, American Idol and Charmed. And that's just a few from U.S. network TV.

Anyone who flaunts the phrase "Don't look back" is not going to get a job in the mainstream TV racket. It's all about looking back. The X-Files has been back for more than one season. Will & Grace has bounced back on NBC, a hit show again.

Roseanne is returning to ABC in March.

Charmed is being revived by the CW. NBC is hoping to reboot Miami Vice and, most recently CBS says it's bringing back Murphy Brown.

American Idol is also coming back next month. You might think it never went away, but it did. After 15 seasons on Fox, the network cancelled it in the spring of 2016. It was fatigued, this once-powerful show, and it was getting expensive to make. It returns on March 11 to take over Sunday nights on ABC. Simon Cowell won't be on it, but Ryan Seacrest returns as host and the format is much the same, with the judges now Katy Perry, country star Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie.

What the heck happened? Why did Fox cancel it and allow ABC to revive it? Gary Newman, the chairman of Fox Television Group, was asked these questions in January by one of the assembled TV critics at the midseason media tour.

"The economics of it simply weren't working any more. We couldn't really get to a place with the producers where we could make changes to the format to make the show more economical and heighten the intensity of the series. And we were competing against not only the other broadcast networks, but a greater amount of content than ever before. And not only the more current productions.

You're competing against every show that was ever made through all of these various video-on-demand platforms. So we're really fine with the show continuing, and I wish them a little bit of luck, not too much, and we will see what they can do."

The important part of his answer is "you're competing against every show that was ever made." It is so true. The vast resources of Netflix and other streaming services mean that extensive libraries of existing TV are there to be consumed and to compete against every new show being made. It makes sense, then, to simply revive what already exists.

While there are sound business reasons for the reboot fad - audience familiarity with the title, the premise and the cast - during the media tour, one phrase kept being muttered by writers who cover TV.

It wasn't "Don't look back." It was "nostalgia porn."

It's a plausible take but it's complicated. The networks pine for a return to the 1980s and 90s, when a handful of main, over-the-air channels and a small cluster of cable channels dominated everything. Hit shows ran for years, getting the attention of a vast portion of the available audience. Money was made easily with the right recipe and the resulting advertising dollars. Even middling-hit series ran for 20 to 26 episodes a season. There was an order to things.

Now, a series often has a mere 10 episodes and its end creates a fraught empty space in the schedule. They fetishize those old days, the networks, even as they try to cope with a vastly disrupted landscape.

There is also a growing belief among some TV critics that the ceaseless restoration of old shows is a form of populism that cannot be separated from the form of populism that elected Donald Trump. That is, a misguided nostalgia for a recent past in which the public was certain of the United States' greatness and mainstream TV provided a comforting picture of the country as mostly white, mostly heterosexual; minorities were mostly absent and divisiveness never reared its ugly head.

For viewers, too, there is a complex emotional relationship with revived series. It's a form of retreat from the frightening, out-of-shape present and it's about luxuriating in simpler times. The impulse to wallow in the past and old favourites is a kind of narcissism and there's an almost masturbatory quality to the glee in re-experiencing a series that was lovingly reminisced about.

There's no doubt that some reboots are intended to place familiar characters emphatically in the present and put an old premise in the context of now.

Certainly, that's the hope many have for the CBS revival of Murphy Brown with Candice Bergen back in the lead role.

(CBS is also hoping to revive Cagney & Lacey and Magnum, P.I.)

Both viewers and some critics want to see Murphy, the TV journalist and single mother, in the new ambience of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements. They want to see Murphy in the context of heightened awareness of glass ceilings and sexual harassment in the media.

"Don't screw this up," was the response of one fellow TV writer, a woman, after the CBS announcement. It's possible that CBS, which always goes for the safe path, will use the contemporary culture to give Murphy Brown a new sharp edge.

Even during its initial run from 1988 to 98, it was controversial, with several politicians decrying Murphy's decision to have a child alone and leave the father out of the situation.

What's happening with the rebooted Roseanne is fascinating. While critics cannot give full reviews yet, it is certainly far from the trainwreck many expected. It's actually a form of didactic comedy, avoiding any illusion that it is family comedy escapism, and has a kind of calculated analysis, argument and documentation of its Conner family in the Trump era.

With Roseanne Barr herself a vocal Trump supporter, the revival is going to be polarizing. But there is merit in the revival of a series that presented blue-collar Americans when few others did.

Barr says she is happy to be back in the limited-run revival.

But the real force behind the new series is Sara Gilbert, who played daughter Darlene on the original. She is an executive producer on the revival and pushed everyone involved to return. Gilbert is gay and an LGBTQ activist who does not see the return as a mere business decision to cash in on the show's former popularity: "The working class has been underrepresented in politics and on television, and this just felt like a wonderful time and opportunity to give a voice to some people in this country."

So, yes, there are business and cultural reasons for reviving all those old TV shows. The new version of Charmed is described as "feminist" by The CW. And at the same time there is a kind of seductive laziness involved.

Many viewers will experience the rebooted shows in a very private way, in the same deeply private way they are fond of childhood or adolescent memories.

The past is both vivid and evocative for them in the context of their own growth and experience. Theirs, not the culture's. Nostalgia is a very powerful state of mind, an onanism of a kind, with very individual, almost clandestine feelings of elation and euphoria. And that's very close to the appeal of pornography.

Follow me on Twitter @MisterJohnDoyle

Associated Graphic

Candice Bergen, left, seen in a 1996 episode of Murphy Brown alongside Elizabeth Taylor, is set to return to the title role in the CBS series later this year.

At the moment, the mainstream TV racket is all about looking back: The return of Eric McCormack and Debra Messing in Will & Grace, above left, has provided a hit for NBC, while The X-Files, top right, has been back for more than one season. Roseanne, above right, returns to ABC in March for a fascinating, sure-to-be-polarizing limited-run revival.

Huh? How did I get here?
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