Graham: TV’s reboot trend is latest ode to the past

From ‘Roseanne’ to ‘Will & Grace,’ today’s TV is looking more and more like a rerun

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

In the final episode of “Cheers,” Sam Malone turned away a customer and shut off the lights at the iconic bar where everybody knows your name.

If things on television keep going the way they’re going, soon those lights will be back on and Norm will be back at the end of the bar, nursing a beer.

TV is in the midst of a sizable nostalgia wave. This week, “Roseanne” returned to ABC after 21 years and scored bigger ratings than anyone was anticipating: 18.2 million viewers tuned in to see the return of the Conner family, the highest viewership for any network comedy in more than three years. Another season of the show has already been ordered.

Reboots like “Will & Grace” featuring Brian Jordan Alvarez, left, and Sean Hayes are popular with viewers.

A return season of “The X Files” recently wrapped, and this coming week, “Will & Grace” completes its successful revival season. The latter sitcom has already been renewed for two additional seasons.

“Murphy Brown,” which originally aired from 1988-1998, is coming back to the air later this year, and there’s talk “Home Improvement,” “Fraser” and “Martin” may be joining it on the airwaves.

Why is today’s TV schedule looking like a page out of an old TV Guide? There are several reasons for this flashback trend.

One is TV has always loved looking back. In the past, casts of TV shows would frequently reunite for network specials that would celebrate old shows and replay the greatest hits. Today’s revivals are an extension of that: getting the gang back together for another go-round to see how characters (and the actors playing them) have aged, and seeing how they fit into a new landscape.

For viewers, that nostalgia is comforting, as cozy as the beat-up old sofa in the middle of the Conner family’s living room. Viewers spend years getting to know these characters, and the chance to visit with them again is like seeing an old friend.

For network executives, the move is a no-brainer: There is a built-in audience for these shows, and it’s a lot easier to re-purpose and leverage an already existing property than it is to build a new one. And with cable networks and streaming services stealing more eyeballs away from networks, they need all the help they can get building buzz for their programming. It won’t work for every show — no one is clamoring for a “Shasta McNasty” revival — but for shows that were the juggernauts of their era, it makes sense.

Bands get to do reunion tours, movies get sequels. This is TV getting its piece of our culture’s obsession with yesteryear.

The current reboot wave kicked off five years ago when Netflix brought back “Arrested Development” for a fourth season, seven years after its run had ended on Fox. Others were quick to copy: Disney launched “Girl Meets World,” an extension of “Boy Meets World” with original stars Ben Savage and Danielle Fishel, and Netflix revived “Full House” with “Fuller House.”

Netflix also brought back “Gilmore Girls” for a four-episode run and resurrected the ’70s and ’80s sitcom “One Day at a Time,” while Showtime let David Lynch return to his bizzarro “Twin Peaks” world with an 18-episode salvo last summer.

None of those shows, however, were able to generate the ratings or the heat of “Roseanne.” Series star Roseanne Barr has always been a magnet for controversy, and she has stirred the pot by aligning herself with Donald Trump, who she said called to congratulate her on her ratings bonanza. (If there’s one thing Trump loves, it’s yuuge ratings.)

Like Trump, “Roseanne” tapped into the mood and the spirit of middle America, shocking pundits by cleaning up in the flyover states. And “Roseanne’s” success is not just about nostalgia: the show focuses on an average family, struggling to get by, and middle-class values and problems, themes to which many Americans can relate. (“Roseanne” had lost that narrative in its final season, with the Conners winning the lottery and changing their lifestyle, and the reboot helps erase that sour ending.)

The success of “Roseanne” — even if ratings are cut by half this week, it will still be doing big numbers — is a sign of things to come. Don’t be surprised if tomorrow’s TV looks even more like yesterday’s TV.

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