Danger, Will Reboot: Reboots, Returns, & Nostalgia TV
Every year, inevitably, someone wonders if this is the season that overalls will make a comeback in the fashion world. They reference a pair they wore as a kid in the ’90s and mention seeing hipsters wearing them like augurs heralding a second coming.
And it’s happening. Overalls are once again running amok in the world. I even recently saw a teenager wearing a pair, meaning that they’re truly “cool.”
People love a throwback, and revivals in television trends are no different. Films have long rebooted franchises for a new generation. We’re seeing classics like Star Wars and Star Trek gain popularity more than ever. Jurassic World.Indiana Jones. They break the box office as people flock to the nearest theater to see what they’re beloved childhood heroes will do. It’s a commitment to nostalgia. It’s also a commitment to maintaining the hype of the original.
They break the box office as people flock to the nearest theater to see what they’re beloved childhood heroes will do.
Television too has always been a little obsessed with nostalgia. Doctor Who is a prime example. The 1963 show earned cult status after it was cancelled in 1989, and then it returned in 2005, becoming a tour de force in the sci-fi world and attracting a whole new generation of fans. The 50th anniversary special was even screened in theaters in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Knight Rider returned in 2008 in an attempt to revive the 1982, with KITT getting a 21st century upgrade.
That was then. Is it also now?
These reboots were just the beginning. Now, our reboots have a bit of a twist, one way or another. They’re often pitched as though they’re for a new age. Debra Messing noted of the Will & Grace return that it was in response to the cast reunion to encourage people to go out and vote, making the new seasons ones that seek to address today’s culture. Queer Eye revamped Queer Eye for the Straight Guy from simply being about five gay men going into others’ homes to revamp their wardrobe, cooking skills, and decor to really talking about emotions. Lost in Space on Netflix pulled the “lost” plot in the original series from the surrounding campiness and reshaped it into a plot-driven powerhouse.
The key is to create an emotional hook using nostalgia while also offering something new.
And it has to be one. Returns and revivals have to balance outperforming the original (in many ways to justify their existence) while also maintaining enough of their predecessors’ pizzazz to pull in older fans. A 2016 Forbes article breaks this down even further, detailing how millennials are especially susceptible to “nostalgia marketing: “The key is to create an emotional hook using nostalgia while also offering something new.”
Scholar Benjamin Robertson said the same of the new Star Wars film that “The Force Awakens had to somehow recapture the older generation of fans[…]while still maintaining the younger one, and create a means by which to draw in even more fans by way of this film as well as the endless sequels and spin-offs the world can now expect in perpetuity.”
First Off: Reboots vs. Returns
When I say “reboots,” I mean the series has been off air and has been brought back with a new cast. You know, shows like Queer Eye and Lost in Space.
“Returns,” at least in my mind, are shows that bring back the same cast. They’re super rare, and the most recent of these is Will & Grace.
Will & Grace
Let’s start with Will & Grace. The series was released in 1998, starring Eric McCormack (Will), Debra Messing (Grace), Sean Hayes (Jack), and Megan Mulally (Karen). The original run brought Will & Grace 16 Emmy’s over eight seasons.
When artifacts from the series were donated to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in 2014 (long before the return had gone into development), curator Dwight Blocker Bowers said ““Will & Grace used comedy to familiarize a mainstream audience with gay culture[…] It was daring and broke ground in the same way All in the Family did in the 1970s around issues of bigotry and tolerance,” according to an article from the Associated Press.
The show finished its original run in 2005 with 8.7 million viewers per episode, and it’s long been heralded as a means of normalizing LGBTQ+ culture. However, it also has been criticized for its whitewashing of it and for presenting stereotypical views of homosexuality.
Meanwhile, season nine of the show returned to NBC in 2017, earning the cast and crew another two Emmy Awards and garnering 8.85 million viewers. While this number is much lower than the starting 12.3 million of the first season, it’s also important to note that that could be due to the fact that others are watching online.
The show returned to much clamor, especially because the first episode directly confronted the Trump White House, and Will & Grace has received steady support since then.
“…there’s something refreshing about a show that doesn’t try to engineer an explanation for its comeback beyond, “The cast was available and the checks cleared.”
The return of the show certainly carries with it a high level of nostalgia. The “pilot” of the new season essentially erased the finale of the original run, in which Will and Grace were married to their respective spouses. In the new series, it’s all a dream. Now, they return to the same setting, updated for the 21st century.
A New York Times critic wrote of the return that, “I don’t know if there’s actually a pent-up demand for more “Will & Grace,” beyond the nostalgia the NBC publicity machine has heroically tried to manufacture. But there’s something refreshing about a show that doesn’t try to engineer an explanation for its comeback beyond, “The cast was available and the checks cleared.”
Like Will & Grace, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy presented the reality TV version of normalizing gay men. Five men would descend on a man’s house, shaping up his wardrobe, home, and kitchen, often to impress a girlfriend.
I remember watching the show with my parents and not really knowing too much about LGBTQ+ culture. I certainly didn’t know anyone in the community, so the idea of five gay men was indeed a novelty to me, but I didn’t necessarily get to hear more about what it is to be gay and what that means beyond being “fabulous.”
Of the 2004 Queer Eye, Fab Five member Carson Kressley says that it was very “‘Let’s see what the gays are about,’…”
However, the original holds a 100% viewer rating on Rotten Tomatoes (though this tool was not around for the original run, so it’s likely that this is to due to the rewatchers). It also won an Emmy for Oustanding Casting for a Reality Program for its first season.
Of the 2004 Queer Eye, Fab Five member Carson Kressley says that it was very “‘Let’s see what the gays are about,’ so it was kind of voyeuristic and now I hope we’re a little more advanced.”
The reboot has certainly brought more diversity to both the Fab Five. Where culture expert Jai Rodriguez was the only person of color in the crew, new culture expert Karamo Brown and fashion forward Tan France are both individuals of color. In season two, the Fab Five did a “make better” with its first woman, and the show as a whole seems to focus more on the emotional well-being of their clients rather than the outside aesthetics.
The new Fab Five have quickly become popular culture icons for their audiences. Many herald the show as heartwarming and a needed reminder to take care of oneself emotionally and physically. Others have still criticized it for the exclusive casting of cis-gendered males. One Indiewire critic wrote, “While it’s never good practice to assume someone’s identity, positioning five cisgender gay men as the standard-bearers of queerness in 2018 is regressive and reductive.”
Many herald the show as heartwarming and a needed reminder to take care of oneself emotionally and physically.
However, outside of this, Queer Eye has appeared several times outside of their regular run to much fervor from audiences, appearing on a special episode of Netflix’s Nailed It and a YouTube-publicized adventure to Yass, Australia. They recently brought home two Emmy’s: Outstanding Picture Editing for a Structured or Competition Reality Program and Outstanding Casting for a Reality Program. It also has an 86% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Okay, we get the point…
I could go on forever about reboots and returns. Lost in Space has been a particular favorite of mine, but who doesn’t love a good robot saying “Danger, Will Robinson” in monotone?
Nostalgia plays a huge role in all of these shows. Original viewers of both Will & Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy were very likely to flood back to see what these new adventures were about, given the popularity of the originals. The emotional hook was there, but each show offered an update. Both new iterations brought their respective casts to the 2010s version of society, and both also ask “how much has changed?”
No one necessarily asked for a Will & Grace return, as mentioned above, or even a Queer Eye reboot, but both shows are respected for what they were and what they did at the time. And, given the positive reviews, very few are mad to see their returns to television.
One Step Further
There’s comfort in the familiar, and it attracts people to see what they’ll do next. Even outside of the reboot/return paradigm (or perhaps as an extension of it) is the CW’s teen drama Riverdale, my favorite guilty pleasure.
I grew up reading the Archie comics, and seeing that Riverdale would bring Archie, Jughead, Betty, and Veronica to life was a huge draw. A New York Times critic wrote, “Riverdale is very conscious of its influences – too much so at times. It’s a blizzard of knowing references and characters talking about one another as characters.”
It’s exactly the same pattern: the characters and setting are the emotional hooks that bring Archie fans out in droves to watch this angsty, suspense-driven drama, but it’s the latter that keeps them. No one expected little comics-driven Archie Andrews to sleep with one of his teachers. Or for hamburger-hunting Jughead Jones to become part of a gang. But here they are.
And the brand keeps building. Just before Halloween, Netflix will release the first season of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, their spin on the comics of the same name and, in some ways, a reboot of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, but this adds a similar suspense-filled and horror-driven twist as that added to the Archie comics in Riverdale.
Nostalgia media brings us back to the past. It’s crazy how many reboots can happen where the things on television aren’t that different from years past. Doctor Who,Sabrina, Archie and the gang…how many Spider-Man reboots have their been in the last twenty years? (Answer: 3).
We’ll just keep trying to get the elements of these just right. We’ll also try to bring them to the screen for a new audience. I’m sure my parents probably watched a few episodes of Lost in Space when they were kids, and I’m sure they’re curious to see what the evil Dr. Smith is up to in the new Netflix series.
We love the past. Nostalgia colors our glasses rose…
We love the past. Nostalgia colors our glasses rose, and we remember late nights of Will & Grace reruns, tips from the OG Queer Eye, and days spent reading Archie after school. But we need the updates. We need to be more aware and more awake to push for an update, not just the same old song and dance.
And there are things that should just stay sacred. Otherwise the robot in Lost in Space might change Will Robinson’s last name to “reboot.”