Tuned In: Has TV lost all creativity with remakes and reboots?

Article by Rob Owen /
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette /
April 17, 2020 /
Click here to view original /

Next week one of the early entries in the current reboot/remake era comes to a close with another series finale for NBC’s “Will & Grace” (9 p.m. April 23, WPXI-TV), 14 years after the original run’s series finale in 2006.

This zeal to bring back past successes for another round inspired the book “Why We Remake: The Politics, Economics and Emotions of Film and TV Remakes” (Routledge) by Australia’s Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne.

She points out the economic advantages of reboots: They play to executives’ risk aversion; public recognition of a known title makes marketing easier and if a studio already owns the rights to the show, there are financial advantages.

And, of course, there’s the emotional lure of nostalgia.

“We think of the nostalgia of the audience wanting to reconnect with the characters they loved in the past but it’s also nostalgia on the part of filmmakers and showrunners,” she said in a Skype interview last week. “They’re attempting to reproduce something they loved from their childhood. It’s why we see almost a generation gap between an original and a reproduction because that’s when directors came of age and why in the last couple of years we’ve seen so many ‘90s remakes by directors or showrunners who are now in their 40s and idealizing things from their own past.”

Ms. Rosewarne understands the cringe-y response some remakes receive, especially those that just try to pick up where the show left off.

“‘Murphy Brown’ was cutting edge when it was originally on … yet it was coming back in a way that implied nothing has changed except everyone was just a bit older,” she said of the 2018-19 reboot season. “It doesn’t feel like a creative experience; it feels like a cash grab and audiences are very savvy to that.”

Ms. Rosewarne rightfully draws the line at disparaging all reboots/remakes as evidence that Hollywood has run out of ideas.

“There tends to be this heavy idealization of this era that magically once existed in Hollywood where everything was new and amazing and that just has never, ever been the case,” she said. “We have always filmed new stories alongside new versions of old stuff since the dawn of time. If you look at the first films made by Hollywood, they were film versions of plays and novels.”

She points to the 1939 cherished classic “The Wizard of Oz.” Most people forget it can be seen as a remake of a 1925 black and white, silent version of the story based on the L. Frank Baum book.

“When something is a massive success, we often forget it has some sort of link to something in the past,” she notes, adding that the use of Technicolor, a new technology at the time, offered a new impact.

The use of new technology, such as improved special effects, can be a justified impetus for reboots. Timeliness is another way remakes attempt to convey newfound relevance such as “Will & Grace” doing a #MeToo episode.

Other efforts to update series reboots come in the form of a gender swap (the in-development Disney+ “Doogie Howser, M.D.” remake will star a teen girl instead of a boy; CBS’s “Equalizer” pilot has a woman in the lead role instead of a man) or a race swap (the “One Day at a Time” remake focuses on a Latino family instead of a white family) in an effort to make a familiar title newly relevant.

“It looks a little more woke because it’s not the same,” she said. “We’ve tweaked around the edges. ‘Heathers’ is another example with its gender-fluid and lesbian characters. It’s speaking to this new generation with an old story.”

And, she points out, complaining about a lack of creativity in film and TV somehow never carries over to the 500th staging of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” or a symphony playing Beethoven for the thousandth time.

“We don’t even use the same language when something is redone in those mediums,” Ms. Rosewarne points out. “Television and to a lesser extent film has always been seen as lowbrow culture, and it’s considered a patently commercial enterprise. … Part of that is we don’t think culturally of theater and music as primarily commercial in the same way we do film and TV.

“Even then we’re so hypocritical as an audience,” she continued. “As much as we complain and say we hate this stuff, it wouldn’t keep being produced if we didn’t keep paying and going to see it or watching it on TV. It’s not like we’re sleepwalking into the cinema or just letting Netflix auto-play while we’re lying in bed. There is lying involved in fetishizing the concept of original, but we demonstrate through our viewing decisions that we like the comfort of the familiar.”