A Very Precise Taxonomy of the TV Reboot

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Photo: Netflix, HBO, Showtime, Warner Bros., FOX

We’ve all been around the block with TV revivals more than once now. The same questions pop up nearly every time, the same concerns, and the same hopes. Will it be as good as the original? Why are they bringing it back now? Will this tarnish my memory of a thing I once loved? And, of course, how are they gonna do this? Do they just pretend nothing’s happened and pick up where they left off? Does a character’s absence become a running joke? Or is it more of a reboot situation?

Now that enough of these shows have returned, we can start to see patterns in the way a revival can work, and the pitfalls and potential promises of various revival strategies. Ahead, we break down seven ways to bring a show back from the dead.

The two-hour fan-service reunion movie.
There’s a long tradition of “Christmas special” events like this in the U.K. TV world, and there have been a few notable major motion-picture versions of this idea in the U.S. — think Sex and the City, Serenity, Veronica Mars. With the current appetite for reunions, though, the revival movie seems likely to undergo a major boom. There are currently reunion movies in the works for the USA buddy-cop comedy Psych and the Netflix series Sense8, and suggestions about movie-length projects from shows as varied as Hey Arnold!, Deadwood, and Downton Abbey.

It makes sense. When there’s money to be made in a reunion movie but the major players are committed elsewhere, or when no one wants to dedicate that many resources to it, a one-off movie is a middle ground between “nothing” and going whole hog on a multi-episode order. It also solves some of the problems that come with a revival project — fan service is fun, and you can probably stretch it for 90 minutes or so. But you need more than inside jokes, nostalgia, and a few shipper satisfaction scenes to sustain a multi-episode story.

The old dog with new tricks.
This is the “hello, fellow kids” strategy of television revivals. It’s one of the riskiest options, but surely one of the most tempting. For this type of revivification, a beloved, well-known show comes back with the same cast, returning to the same characters. But something about its structure is reworked or reinvented; this is the “now we don’t have to follow network TV rules!” model for a revival. This is Gilmore Girls, which came back with four mini-movie-length installments rather than its tight 42-minute episodes, and it’s also Arrested Development, which took advantage of both episode-length flexibility and a new split-character narrative device.

The risk and possible reward come out of the same impulses. With freedom, you’d think, the show could be what it always wanted to be, unhindered by ad breaks or overbearing network notes or strict run times. Except, it turns out, giving someone carte blanche often leads to overly long, overly bulky shows.

The old dog with old tricks
For shows that don’t attempt the “hello, fellow kids” method, the next 30 Rock–inspired option is to “make it 1997 again through science or magic.” This is the Curb Your Enthusiasm choice, and it’s also the new Will & Grace format, both of which have not coincidentally returned to TV on the same platforms they used to inhabit. There’s obviously something appealing about this strategy: If the point is to bring back a much-loved property, after all, presumably what viewers want is exactly that — the same show, but new episodes.

In the moments when it succeeds, this is the model of revival that feels the most satisfying. It’s precisely what fans of the original seem to want. But there’s also something deeply uncanny about watching a show that was originally built in 1998 come back with nearly identical beats and rhythms. Is it actually the same old Will & Grace? Or is it an uncanny valley version of itself, constantly aware of its own death and resurrection?

The next generation.
For TV shows that were mostly about family life and relied heavily on a balance of adults and kids, the revival strategy usually involves a Cousin Oliver situation — bring it back, probably with a careful re-creation of the same narrative structure and tone, but bring in a new generation of kids to keep the balance the same. Here’s where you’ll find your Fuller Houses, your Girls Meet World, your Raven’s Homes.

The modernized reboot.
Close sibling to the straight revival, the TV reboot now takes up a significant chunk of what we call “new” programming every year. One of the most popular methods is rebooting with an eye toward aggressive modernization in terms of diversity behind and in front of the camera, topical content, and an updated political outlook. It’s familiar — think Battlestar (Starbuck’s a lady now!), this season’s attempt to reboot Dynasty with a more diverse cast, or the rumblings a few years back that a Hart to Hart reboot might star a gay couple.

The most successful modernized reboots are series that translate something fundamental about the original series, rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It remains to be seen, but Star Trek Discovery seems intent on hewing to early ideas about the ideology of Starfleet while also incorporating more serialization and a newer look. Maybe the best example of this model is Netflix’s One Day at a Time, which is shaped much like the classic sitcom and sticks to similar themes — non-nuclear family structures, struggles with money and parenting, intergenerational conflicts — while adapting those ideas for a contemporary audience.

The half-baked reboot.
Not all reboots are deliberate or thoughtful in their modern-day updating, and more than one has attempted to start over with a new cast, maybe some computers and smart phones thrown in there, and called it a day. Sometimes they’re fun-ish (Dallas, I suppose), and sometimes they can teeter over into silliness that’s not unappealing (MacGyver, if that’s your thing). But there’s little as depressing as a reboot that can’t commit to a real reckoning with the problems of the original, or that misreads what made the first iteration of a story appealing, or, most depressing, is just a pale shade of what came before (Charlie’s Angels, 24, Bionic Woman, Knight Rider, Wonder Woman, 90210, probably also the new X-Files).

Here’s the thing: A half-baked reboot isn’t always a disaster. Sometimes a remade version of an older show with a new cast and just a couple gentle tweaks can land pretty well (I’m thinking of Hawaii 5-O here, but also the new run of MST3K episodes). The list of failures is lengthy and harrowing, though, and the list of successes in this vein is much slimmer.

The glorious meta-commentary on the existential question of time passing and the nature of TV as a genre.
In this category of the TV revival, we have: Twin Peaks. I wouldn’t call this so much a “revival strategy” as it is a “are you David Lynch? No? Better try something else” strategy.

There are lots of other TV revivals in the works, and it’s fun to speculate about which strategy they’ll be employing. (Or if, like Twin Peaks, they’ll defy categorization.) Will the new L Word try to be a return to form, or will it feel more like a modernized reboot? What about Queer Eye? Or Roseanne?

The bigger questions, and the ones all of these revivals try to answer in various ways, are: What need should a revival fill? Is it mostly about letting us bathe in nostalgia? Is it about using old stories to fit new times? Is it about providing some quixotic sense of “satisfaction,” if we think the original “denied” us something? Different strategies suggest different answers to those questions. So when we all gather around the new Will & Grace or wonder about the new Roseanne, think to yourself: Why did they pick this strategy? Are we really interested in updating stories for a new age? Or are we trying to make it 1997 again, through nostalgia or melancholy?

TV Reboots: A Very Precise Taxonomy