"I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die." — John 11:11
“Six seasons and a movie.” — Community
In pop culture circa 2012, the fan is God. Literally. Their Lazarus is a beloved and dead show, film, band, or book series. But they don’t despair and don’t give up, because they have discovered that Lazarus can live again if the fans cheer loudly enough. They can resuscitate moribund film franchises, embolden authors to add one more chapter to a series they swore they were done with, and prompt squabbling bandmates to get the group back together for one last tour. In the olden days, they did it with letter-writing campaigns and incessant phone calls to networks and studios. Today, they do it more effectively via Twitter and Tumblr, Facebook, and blogs. Social media make it easier for them to contact filmmakers, musicians, writers, and actors directly and say, “We love your work, please make more,” and assure the entertainment conglomerate that their enthusiasm can translate into profits.
In the past, fans’ power was limited to convincing networks to put off cancellation of shows that were barely hanging on: It worked with Star Trek, Cagney and Lacey, and Jericho. But in the aughts, Family Guy and Futurama came back years after shutting down, though animation is, from a practical perspective, an easier thing to revive — reassembling an entire cast is not as difficult because voice-over work is not a huge time commitment. But then came the resurrection of Arrested Development six years after its demise, its new life powered by word-of-mouth streaming popularity and an Internet that seems to be 32 percent AD quotes, GIFs, and YouTube clips. The entire cast has returned, swarming over from film sets and current TV shows as if summoned to assemble by some sort of Bluth Signal shot into the sky. Now the determination to bring other shows back as a series or movie has been doubled: Party Down! Veronica Mars! Entourage! (Okay, nobody really wants that.) The impossible has become possible: The laws of TV mortality no longer apply!
But maybe they should apply. Maybe what’s dead should stay dead.
The track record for resurrections is, to put it mildly, mixed, and the morals of the stories evoke not the Book of John but W.W. Jacobs’s short story “The Monkey’s Paw”: “Be careful what you wish for, for you may receive it.” I’m nearly alone in kinda, sorta liking the fourth Indiana Jones film and the Star Wars prequels, which returned from pop culture’s great beyond decades after their supposed final chapters and smelled, by most accounts, pretty rank; that, in defending them, I resort to claims like, “Revenge of the Sith is basically a downer seventies movie for 9-year-olds,” and “If the dialogue were exactly the same, but in Japanese with English subtitles, you might not be so hard on it” is not what you’d call a ringing endorsement. (In South Park’s still-horrifying takedown, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg rape Indiana Jones and a Star Wars Stormtrooper; call it the continuation of criticism by other means.)
Can anything be as good as the revered original go-rounds? We can dream of best-case scenarios, but as Fred Gwynne’s New England wiseass brayed in Pet Semetary, “Sometiiiiimes dead is bettah!”
Lovers of HBO’s Deadwood (R.I.P., 2004-2006) have long had their hopes buoyed by the show’s creator, David Milch, who is always optimistic when asked about a return, even as star Ian McShane recently proclaimed the show “dead” and urged fans to move on. It is unlikely to come back, but what if it did — as a series, a movie, a downloadable podcast, something — and was bad or just likable but awkward? Arrested Development boosters are feeling warm and fuzzy right now, knowing their constant clamoring made the Netflix revival possible, but what if the new episodes, you know, suck? Odds are, of course, that the new episodes won’t disgrace the originals; the principal actors, producers, and writers are all clever, passionate people. But we should accept that even if the new seasons are funny and memorable, they still won’t feel organically connected to the 53 episodes that devotees have watched over and over. They can’t: The show’s sustained, week-to-week energy was destroyed by cancellation, and the intimate connection between art and artist was broken. That rupture can never be wished away, only acknowledged or denied.
When a work’s cultural moment has passed yet fans convince creators to revisit it, the result will always feel unnatural, no matter how deftly it tickles our nostalgia. Consider Never Say Never Again, the off-brand 1983 James Bond picture produced thanks to contract loopholes in Thunderball paperwork. The movie allowed Sean Connery to return to the role he’d defined, twelve years after he left it, and that fact alone generated tremendous advance buzz. But viewers’ excitement deflated when they saw the finished product, a pretty good spy fantasy featuring a 53-year-old, toupee-clad Connery sucking in his gut. (He was still preferable to his equally haggard successor, Roger Moore — but really, who wouldn’t have been?) Any affection one felt toward the movie wasn’t really about the movie but about the audience’s collective (idealized) memory of a time when the series felt fresh and Connery was young and gorgeous and wickedly funny. Such works inspire mixed feelings, trending toward melancholy, even if they’re good. When they’re bad, it’s like a slug in the gut. The Chinatown sequel Two Jakes, released sixteen years after the original; The Evening Star, made thirteen years after Terms of Endearment; the Honeymooners reunion special that aired in 1977, 22 years after the show’s last telecast — none were horrible, exactly, but they all felt weird and forced and inspired thoughts that their creators surely didn’t intend. (I remember watching the Honeymooners reunion as a kid and thinking how sad it was that the couples were still living in the same crappy apartments.) And let’s not even talk about The Blues Brothers 2000, except to say that it’s the best possible argument against the Ghostbusters reunion.
There is little difference between a returning TV show and a movie sequel. Both involve two groups — the cast and the fans — who are equally invested in recapturing the feelings they had in a magical time. It’s the same thing that powers the urge for a family or summer-camp reunion. However, this joy is more accessible to the cast because it comes from the process, not the result. Look at the prerelease hype for any movie sequel, whether it is made two or twenty years after the original (i.e. Ocean’s 12, Men in Black II, Lethal Weapon 4): You’ll often read about the cast and director laughing and razzing each other and marveling at how amazing and magical it is to be all together again. It’s just like old times! they say, and for them, maybe it is. But too often, the end product reads as an in-joke type of fun, with the actors enjoying themselves more than the audience — like a videotape of someone else’s family reunion, but with every relative handsomely compensated. And the fan is left with the nagging feeling that something is off. Why?
Maybe it’s because reunions and resuscitations aren’t just about the artistic challenge of adding new wrinkles to familiar characters or telling funny jokes. At heart, they’re about satisfying that eternal human urge to undo an outcome that we believed to be wrong and unfair and that continues to depress and obsess us. The movie series ended; the band broke up; the show died; your beloved grandma is never coming back. You can’t do anything about that last one, but the others just might be reversible, right? So we join forces with like-minded depressive-obsessives and try to turn a negative into a positive, to swap out death with life. We don’t just do it because we loved and respected the original thing, whatever it happened to be. We do it because some part of us wants to return to the time and place associated with it. Maybe we want to go back to childhood or adolescence or our twenties or thirties or fifties, because, on some level, we can’t accept that we’re a little bit grayer and closer to death, and this new thing acts as a time machine, removing us from the present for 22 or so minutes or two hours. Or maybe it’s about specific personal associations: the friends or relatives you used to bond with through movies and TV. It’s quite possible that I cut Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull too much slack because I saw it at the Ziegfeld Theater with my younger brother Jeremy, who saw all the original movies with me in their first runs when we were kids growing up in Dallas. When the lights went down, Jeremy said, “It’s nineteen years after the last one, and here we are again,” and smiled. Which was all well and good, except for the fact that a lot of people who paid good money to see the picture didn’t see it as a nostalgia bath. They wanted to be entertained.
I wish the best to any actor, writer, or director who attempts to return to past glories. It’s hard enough to make something new; building on an existing success years or decades after the fact must be even more daunting, because, in addition to all the other creative challenges, there is a preexisting world to honor and a constituency to satisfy. And I’ve entertained my own fantasies of pop-culture resurrection, of course. I’ve even had a lyrical dream about seeing a new Christmas episode of my favorite drama, Deadwood, the cancellation of which probably depressed me more than any other show’s. And I was sad to awaken from this dream. But last week, I think I might have finally buried this impulse toward hoping for new TV life. I was re-watching Deadwood at a friend’s house, and we had picked the third episode from the first season, the one right before Wild Bill Hickok gets killed; the prostitute Trixie was washing Al Swearengen’s nasty feet while he discoursed on the philosophical aftershocks of receiving a beating. The episode ended like so many Deadwood episodes, with a close-up of a character’s face as mixed emotions passed through his eyes, followed by a cut to black. I thought about how strange, beautiful, and perfect this show was; how far away we were from the moment when it was canceled six years before; how, if it were to continue, all the actors would have to be rehired, their costumes re-created, and that enormous working town set reconstructed; and how, in the end, none of it would feel quite right. The sets wouldn’t look the same. They’d probably be shooting on video instead of 35mm film, so the show would look different, by necessity. And the actors would have aged a half-decade. It might be brilliant anyway, but it would still feel like a glorified postscript, an encore, and unlike the existing three seasons, it wouldn’t be allowed to simply exist and be its own thing; it would suffer continual, probably unflattering comparisons to the original seasons. I decided to stop wishing for more Deadwood and just be grateful for the episodes that existed and for the cultural moment that produced them. Cut to black, roll credits.