modest proposals

Rebooting Forgotten TV Shows Is a Great Idea

Jewel Staite in The L.A. Complex.
Jewel Staite in The L.A. Complex. Photo: The CW

On Wednesday, Deadline reported that the CW is developing a reboot of The L.A. Complex, a long-canceled show almost no one has ever heard of. Don’t be surprised if you haven’t, either: It ran for two seasons that were squashed together in the summer of 2012, it got little promotional push, and although critics loved the show, it was a Canadian CTV co-production that nobody seemed to know what to do with. Toward the end of that summer, the CW burned off two episodes at a time, and when it was canceled, its admittedly few fans were sad but unsurprised.

In an ideal world, a lot more TV reboots would be for shows like The L.A. Complex. It was a failure by almost every measure relating to financial success and cultural penetration, but The L.A. Complex was a fantastic little show, full of guts and humor and insight. It’s a great idea for a reboot precisely because of its untapped potential, and because the premise was solidly within the CW’s wheelhouse both then and now: The protagonists are a group of hopeful, wannabe celebrity 20-somethings all trying to make it in various L.A. entertainment industries and — here’s the TV-premise gold of it — they know one another because they live in the same cheap, week-to-week rental apartment complex.

A show with that logline could’ve been terrible. But the original L.A. Complex was fun, fascinating, and didn’t get the traction it deserved. Although some of its stories were more convincing than others, many mined the specific toxicities of fame industries for tension that felt illuminating. Its story line about a young rap hopeful became a messy, wrenching dive into homophobia and fragile masculinity, especially of the kind in black communities. The show’s best plotline came in season two, where one of the central characters, Nick, got hired to write for a TV comedy along with his rival Sabrina, who became the only female writer. It was a story about the horrible, dysfunctional pressures of representation and tribalism in male-dominated spaces, with a special focus on the self-reinforcing myth of meritocracy undergirding writers rooms. In other words, it would read as stunningly of-the-moment today; in 2012, conversations about representation in writers rooms still felt so marginal that I doubt much of The L.A. Complex’s audience had the context to see that story for the radical one it was.

In my preferred vision of a new L.A. Complex, the show would revive the same premise and even some of the same stories, but with new characters and a perspective adjusted to the current tensions in Hollywood. In spite of the clear relevance of those original ideas, it should not be a preserved-in-amber revival of the original. A reboot would be in keeping with the new Queer Eye, for instance, a show that’s informed by and respectful of the original series, but not precious about its legacy or the formulas of the original. Or, in a similar vein, the new Netflix version of Norman Lear’s One Day at a Time, which retains the core premise of the original but also changes fundamental aspects of its characters’ identities to better speak to what life is like in 2018. I’m hopeful about the CW’s upcoming Charmed reboot for similar reasons: Rather than attempt to revive old characters or squash itself into a limited prequel space, it’s confident about the power of new witches, battling the evils of the world as it is right now.

Still, I wish more reboots happened for shows that need a do-over. Hollywood should be rebooting odd misfires, ideas that gelled too late in the game, great premises that were stuck with terrible titles, and well-conceived shows that were sent into the battle of network scheduling as sacrificial lambs against a competing network’s powerhouse series. Reboots should be for TV shows that felt like glorious failed experiments when they first aired, that took big swings and didn’t catch on because they seemed too weird. Beyond L.A. Complex, I’m thinking specifically of shows like Terriers, Trophy Wife, Lone Star, Wonderfalls, and Better Off Ted. (And yes, there are concepts for which I will always be Charlie Brown with the football. If you revive Smash, I will watch it.)

This isn’t just because these shows deserve a second chance — they do — but also because the model of the old TV property made new again favors reboots over revivals. A reboot forces the show’s audience and creators to put some distance between the original and its adaptation, and that comes with an expectation of reconstruction and renovation that’s at odds with a revival’s “bring everything back exactly as it was” mentality. That’s not to say that a revival cannot create similar distance. But at least so far, they often don’t. (Or if they do, they make you wish they never existed, like the revived Arrested Development.)

Because they are well-known icons returning after a long time away, revivals of popular series have become a strange kind of cultural comfort blanket. For many of the biggest-name revivals — Will & Grace, Roseanne, Murphy Brown — we seem intent on raising long-dead characters so we can make them respond to the apocalyptic urgency of the present. They are Rip van Winkles, shows that slept for years and now, having awoken, are being forced to reckon with The World Today. Much of network TV’s most pointed and explicitly political discourse right now is coming from the perspective of characters originally written to respond to another time; they’ve become yardsticks from the past that we can hold up to measure the extremity of now. These revivals are like a rhetorical device turned narrative exercise, with the added appeal of a superhero-esque hope that some buried fictional legend will return to save us all. It’s hard to grapple with the sense of a daily national emergency, but digging our fictional lovies out of the boxes in our cultural attic is an odd, defensive, and backward-looking way to cope.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we will all suddenly come to our senses if we revive Archie Bunker, make him watch cable news, and then have him turn to the camera and say something like, “Sure, I’m a little racist … but that guy is cuckoo!” I doubt it, though. I like the new Murphy Brown quite a bit, I was fascinated by Roseanne when it aired, and I will keep watching Last Man Standing, but I would so much rather those resources went to more innovative narratives of the now, either by investing in new ideas or by finding ways to reinvigorate gone-too-soon shows. It’s a great idea to bring back The L.A. Complex, but why not others too? Why not bring back MTV’s Sweet/Vicious, a show that was contemporary and small enough that it could be revived almost exactly as it was without ever brushing up against the sad, pandering politics of nostalgia?

Or, and stay with me on this: Maybe all those resources could go toward a reboot of NBC’s glorious, bizarre, unfinished modern Bible retelling, Kings. I know, it’s a long shot. But that show had more to give! For now, at least The L.A. Complex may finally get its due. And maybe, eventually, we’ll be in a place where we want to see new stories again, or at least old stories that’ve been overhauled, rather than perpetually turning back to beloved characters from the past to understand the strangeness of today.

Rebooting Forgotten TV Shows Is a Great Idea