Pop Culture

Why revivals of old TV shows are flopping

Sitcom Fuller House (above) debuted on streaming service Netflix last month. It is a continuation of Full House, which ran from 1987 to 1995.
Sitcom Fuller House (above) debuted on streaming service Netflix last month. It is a continuation of Full House, which ran from 1987 to 1995.PHOTO: FACEBBOOK/ FULLER HOUSE

Mixed reception of television reboots such as Fuller House shows that nostalgia is not always a winning formula for success

Let's face it: Remakes and sequels typically suck.

So, if you were a fan of Prison Break (2005-2009), Gilmore Girls (2000-2007), Twin Peaks (1990- 1991) or MacGyver (1985-1992) and heard that these beloved shows are returning to television, you would probably want to manage your expectations just a little.

The problem with remakes used to be more of an issue with movies.

The so-called golden age of television, which, since the late 1990s has seen quality original scripted content flourish as never before, is often mentioned in the same breath as the decline of cinema, where remakes, reboots and sequels now dominate the box office and are periodically cited as proof of an industry in a creative rut.

However, the television industry is not above doing a spot of recycling itself and the bumper crop of remakes and reboots now flooding the small screen hints that the trend is gathering steam - from the recently aired Heroes Reborn, The X-Files, The Muppets and Fuller House, to the upcoming Prison Break, Gilmore Girls, Twin Peaks and MacGyver revivals.

The bonanza is partly the result of the deep pockets of content-hungry subscription services such as Netflix, which, this year alone, will spend US$6 billion (S$8.3 billion) on content, much of it original programming and remakes, including Gilmore Girls and Fuller House.

There was already a fine tradition of television executives in the United States shamelessly cribbing ideas from abroad to create shows such as House Of Cards (from 2013) and Homeland (from 2011). House Of Cards was inspired by a British series, and Homeland, an Israeli one.

So, it was only a matter of time before they began systematically plundering their own archives to resuscitate long-dormant shows such as science-fiction horror drama The X-Files (1993-2002) - brought back for a 10th season in January this year, and Heroes Reborn - a continuation of the 2006 to 2010 mutant-superhero series Heroes - which returned to screens in the US last September.

It takes fewer viewers for a show to be considered a hit compared with a movie, but the economic logic behind doing a remake of either is the same: You have a built-in fanbase already familiar with the story and characters, along with an opportunity to woo a whole new generation of viewers.

This also explains the rush to turn movies such as Minority Report (2002) and Limitless (2011) into new television series last year.

Two more such movie-to-television creations will debut in the US later this month: Rush Hour, based on the 1998 Jackie Chan-Chris Tucker buddy cop flick of the same name, and School Of Rock, a spin-off of the 2003 Jack Black musical comedy.

A television adaptation of the Liam Neeson Taken action franchise is also in the works, while actress Sarah Michelle Gellar has signed on to reprise her role in a small-screen version of the psychodrama, Cruel Intentions (1999).

If these projects are banking on nostalgia or fan loyalty, however, the reception that has greeted recent revivals should give them pause.

Heroes Reborn was on the air for less than four months when it was hastily rebranded a "limited series" due to poor viewership, and while The X-Files' return did well ratings-wise in the US, many critics were not convinced and notices were uneven at best.

And no reboot has taken a bigger thrashing than Fuller House, which debuted on Netflix last month and is a continuation of Full House, a 1987 to 1995 sitcom about a widowed father trying to raise his three daughters.

The new series was so thoroughly eviscerated that the reviews themselves became the story.

Its star, John Stamos, was invited on a talkshow to read some choice excerpts, including one that said "it's doubtful there will be a more painful 2016 TV episode than the Fuller House pilot", and another accusing the show of crossing the "point where nostalgia becomes more like necrophilia".

Yet, Fuller House has been renewed for another season by Netflix, which does not release viewership figures for its titles.

Its rationale for commissioning more episodes is therefore something of a mystery, but not being beholden to ratings or advertisers certainly comes in handy - and is one reason such platforms are ideal venues for revivals of cult shows that went off the air because their audiences were too small, as was the case when Netflix brought back acclaimed comedy Arrested Development for a fourth season in 2013.

But are remakes of fondly remembered but half-forgotten shows destined to disappoint?

That built-in fanbase brings with it the burden of expectations that may be impossible to fully satisfy, especially when coupled with the fact that the world has changed and so have the fans.

After Sept 11, 2001, the conspiracy- theory paranoia that gave the original The X-Files much of its charm became so closely associated with the right-wing lunatic fringe that it no longer seems quite so benignly kooky.

Some fans of the long-running show had forgotten, too, that they had fallen out of love with the series by the later seasons, which is also what happened to some of the audience for Gilmore Girls, where the novelty of the rapid-fire pop- culture references and banter gradually wore off.

Sometimes, the shift is purely a function of age: Many negative reviews of The Muppets reboot that debuted in the US last year cringed at the more adult tone and humour of its new reality-TV, mockumentary style - the reviewers had first watched the show as children , after all.

With Full House, viewers who returned to it as sophisticated adults were reminded that they once adored a sitcom that had always been deeply cheesy - which is a bit like remembering you once thought a flip-up collar was cool.

And then, there are the purists, of course, for whom revivals are ultimately unnecessary - because if you truly loved these shows, you would leave well enough alone.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 09, 2016, with the headline 'The show doesn't always have to go on'. Print Edition | Subscribe