I have seen the future of television and it is made of television’s past. At least that’s how it feels some days, as one familiar character after another—Jesse Pinkman, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and even Snoopy—gets disinterred and resurrected on our screens.
Streaming television is about to become a battlefield for media behemoths, as Disney+ and Apple TV+ launch this fall, and HBO Max and NBC Universal’s Peacock follow next spring. With Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu already generating a tidal wave of programming, it’s unclear how many streaming services the American market can sustain. So TV executives are betting that old characters and brands will help lure new subscribers. Welcome to the retro wars. “We’re leaning into the nostalgia,” says Agnes Chu, senior vice president for content at Disney+. “We are very much about responding to the depth of our fans’ love for our I.P.”
Déjà vu may be eerie and unsettling in real life, but on the small screen it’s comfort food. Familiarity breeds content.
Resuscitation is a delicate procedure, though; do it clumsily and you risk tarnishing fans’ golden memories rather than breathing fresh life into them. While some recent revivals have been warmly welcomed (see Will &Grace or Gilmore Girls), others have failed to reignite their original chemistry or sufficiently absorb the current cultural moment (Murphy Brown). The Roseanne revamp was intended to speak to a divided America, but the star just divided the nation further, forcing the network to re-remodel the show as The Conners.
The best reboots use an old property or familiar character as a springboard to create something surprising and vibrant that resonates in the contemporary context. Netflix’s Queer Eye update is a good example of a show successfully surfing the zeitgeist: A big warm multicultural and LGBTQ+-friendly hug, it attempts to prove that blue-state folks and red-state folks can at least agree on interior decor and facial hair.
Disney+ and HBO Max each have a lot at stake with the launch of their new streamers, and both are betting that their grip on pop cultural memory is the key to reeling in viewers. Disney+ crafted its initial announcement to tug on multigenerational heartstrings with series based on Star Wars (The Mandalorian), the Marvel Cinematic Universe (The Falcon and The Winter Soldier), the Muppets, and Monsters, Inc. Also in the mix is a revival of Disney Channel hit Lizzie McGuire, featuring a now-32-year-old Hilary Duff. McGuire might not be the most obvious TV icon, but Chu says the show “came up over and over again as something that had an indelible mark on people’s lives,” particularly for millennial women. TV and movie divisions will also collaborate closely so that Marvel movie figures, say, migrate directly onto the streaming platform.
“Where Avengers: Endgame left off with characters like Wanda and Vision or the Falcon and Winter Soldier—those are now going to be series exclusively on Disney+,” content and marketing president Ricky Strauss explains. And the feedback loop continues, because what happens in those series will have implications for future films, which will also, of course, find an exclusive resting place on the streaming platform.
HBO Max is similarly ransacking WarnerMedia’s closet, crammed with franchises such as Harry Potter and the DC Extended Universe, and TV classics like Friends and Scooby-Doo. “All of these people are raising their hands about cool properties they have,” Sarah Aubrey, HBO Max’s head of original content, told me earlier this year. They’ve planned a 10-episode reboot of the Warner Bros. series Gossip Girl, focused on a new generation of private-school conspirators, and science fiction series Dune: The Sisterhood by director Denis Villeneuve, which will air in between Warner’s two forthcoming Dune feature films. Meanwhile, NBC Universal’s Peacock announced that it will revive several shows from its archives, including Battlestar Galactica and Saved by the Bell.
Reboot mania is not limited to long-established entertainment companies with vast content libraries, though. One recent Netflix excursion into golden era fandom is El Camino, a sequel to AMC’s Breaking Bad; it traces Jesse Pinkman’s adventures after parting ways with meth kingpin Walter White. Other new streamers without back catalogs are following suit: Apple TV+ has announced the return of Steven Spielberg’s 1980s anthology show Amazing Stories and a Peanuts gang reunion via the series Snoopy in Space. Even Quibi, a new phone-centric short-form content platform premiering next year, is looking to the recent past with updates of MTV unscripted shows Punk’d and Singled Out.
If everybody plays the reboot game, there’s obviously a danger that viewers will get retro fatigue. As we’ve seen in the last few years, media analyst Richard Greenfield of LightShed Partners points out, “Just because you reboot something doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful.” What separates winners from losers in this game could be the extent to which an old favorite gets reinvented and repurposed for the present.
Reboots also need to reflect the ways old barriers have started to topple.
Sometimes that means zooming in an old unfavorite, as with Ryan Murphy’s forthcoming Netflix series Ratched, starring Sarah Paulson. Not even the fiercest fan of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest could have dreamed that the 1975 movie’s coldblooded psychiatric nurse would one day be a lead character. But this drama will look for new energy in a twisted woman’s journey, reframing her as an antihero rather than the domineering ward mother who drives a patient to suicide.
For other creators, it’s the challenge of reimagining and adding contemporary resonance to a beloved tale that appeals. Damon Lindelhof’s HBO series Watchmen, which stars Regina King, Jean Smart, and Jeremy Irons, is not an adaptation of either the 1980s comics or the 2009 movie. As Lindelhof told fans in a heartfelt letter on Instagram, it’s an original story “set in the world its creators painstakingly built.” While the Watchmen comics were steeped in the politics of Reagan and Thatcher and Gorbachev, he wrote, “Ours needs to resonate with the frequency of Trump and May and Putin and the horse that he rides around on, shirtless.”
Reboots also need to reflect the ways old barriers have started to topple. The early years of the streaming boom not only cracked open the door to experimentation, they also made some space for women and people of color who had long struggled to find positions of creative power. The increasing reliance on established franchises and reanimated I.P. could easily be a step backward. But in the best-case scenario, networks can harness nostalgia to inject more diversity into their slates.
MTV Studios is developing a franchise of shows inspired by the characters in the snarky 1990s animated series Daria, starting with a series about Daria’s African American schoolmate, Jodie. She’ll be played by Tracee Ellis Ross, who says she’s excited by the opportunities for “allowing in those voices that have been pushed to the fringes, that have lived full and extraordinary lives on the edges of what culture has deemed as popular.” Likewise, in Freeform’s updated version of Party of Five, siblings are left to fend for themselves after their parents are deported to Mexico. “It’s not enough just to have a title that some people recognize,” says CAA television agent Tiffany Ward. “It has to also be a story that is human and resonant to a significant number of subscribers who are connecting to these stories at a chaotic moment in history.”
Entertainment executives say they’re still dedicated to developing original programming too. That’s a good thing, because 10 years from now, they’re going to need more stuff to reboot.
IMAGES © 1972 UNITED FEATURES SYNDICATE (SNOOPY), BY URSULA COYOTE/© AMC (BREAKING BAD), GIOVANNI RUFINO/© THE CW (GOSSIP GIRL, BOTH), © MTV (DARIA), © WALT DISNEY ENTERPRISES (LIZZY McGUIRE), ALL FROM THE EVERETT COLLECTION; BY MARK HILL/HBO (WATCHMEN) ■