Remember the poster for Six Feet Under‘s final season?
The show’s trademark hearse, riding into the sunset, with “Everything. Everyone. Everywhere. Ends.” beneath it? It was a bold statement, and one that not only restated the series’ theme, but also prepared viewers for both the conclusion to the series AND the main characters’ lives. Definitive. Stating that, like life, this here is a story that is coming to an end and we just have to accept that.
Or, y’know, not.
You see, Six Feet Under‘s commitment to a definitive conclusion was pretty metal back in 2004, but it’s even more metal now in an era of endless reboots and revivals. For many years, studios had been hesitant to bring back cancelled properties, even as fandoms rallied to save gone-too-soon classics like My So-Called Life, Arrested Development, or Firefly. It was a business decision. The internet and fandoms were young, and before niche platforms, it was hard to imagine a failed series generating enough interest a second time around to justify all the associated costs of bringing the band back together.
Then Netflix decided to make a name for itself by reviving Arrested Development. And while that season was largely a critical failure, the resurrection of the series generated enough viewer interest to show that there was a viable market in cancelled shows. DVD and streaming platforms had given additional life to dead properties, and so new generations were binging and falling in love with shows long after their failed first runs.
But then something interesting happened. Buzzfeed listicles and popular Jimmy Fallon skits revealed that Millennials loved nostalgia. LOVED IT. They longed for the lo-fi, Saved By The Bell jokes of their youth. And so Netflix, looking at their data, saw an opportunity to do more than just bring back recent, critically-beloved shows. Why not create new content for old properties that were already successful on their platform? And so, with enchanted monkey’s paw in hand, Fuller House was born.
Which brings us to the terrifying place we are now, of course. After the explosive success of the Fuller House revival, all the networks wanted a piece of the pie. Reaching deep into their libraries, they began reviving pretty much any nineties property that had a lasting pop cultural legacy. The X-Files? Gilmore Girls? Will & Grace? Twin Peaks? All greenlit, and with lead actors now happy to return to the career-defining roles they had shunned out of fear of being typecast. Meanwhile, the networks were thrilled to have scripted content that stood out in a flooded market place. Why try New Coke when the Original Recipe is sitting right there on the shelf?
And with Roseanne‘s over-performance last week (18.2 million viewers and 5.0 in the target demo), we’re about to see even more revived properties flooding the airwaves. Murphy Brown and Mad About You are on the way, and you can bet that pretty much every single eighties and nineties-era performer is getting a call this week from agents and studios desperate for eighties and nineties-era ratings. “Hey, Matthew Perry! Any interest in reviving Friends? Is that Markie Post? Wanna go back to Night Court? Tony Danza? Who IS the Boss?”
But what makes this bout of revivals so fascinating in comparison to the standard sequel and reboot cycle is that we’re reviving shows that came to logical (and often overdue) conclusions… and pretending they never ended. And so Dan Connor is no longer dead. Will and Grace never got married or had kids. Mulder and Scully are FBI agents again and just colleagues. Shows are undoing finales and rewriting endings to allow characters (via the original performers) to leap decades into the present more or less unchanged.
And while few are complaining in the delightful daze of nostalgia and the thrill of watching the undead shamble towards us, this decision undermines the trust an audience builds in storytellers to see a story through to its conclusion. Stories are supposed to have endings. Actions are supposed to have weight. Otherwise, the journey is sorta meaningless.
Of course there will be those who argue that these revivals don’t undo their narrative promises, and that Mulder and Scully bear the weight of their shared history fighting government conspiracies, or that the Connors have clearly been impacted by all that came before and up to Dan’s heart attack in the original series run. That all these shows are merely asking of us is to ignore the things we didn’t like, but remember the things we loved. Remember two FBI agents at the height of their sexual chemistry, but forget the meandering seasons of bloated mythology and phoned in performances. Remember Roseanne when it was a brilliant sitcom about Middle America and economic struggle, but not the obnoxious excesses of the final season, when the series started to reflect its out-of-touch lead performer.
But can we forget? Can we marry these characters – products of a specific time and circumstance – to our present moment? Can we buy Mulder and Scully, now in their fifties and with decades of personal and professional entanglements, as just colleagues? Can we believe in an elaborate governmental conspiracy regarding aliens when the current U.S. government is leaking secrets via inept tweets? Can we accept Roseanne Barr, a comedian some thirty odd years from the blue collar material that inspired her series, pretending to have any idea what Middle America is experiencing in 2018?
And are we willing to go back to something we already saw through to completion? Can we trust a journey that willingly undoes itself along the way? What’s the point, exactly?
And therein lies the friction at the heart of resurrected properties. Many of these shows are products of the time in which they are produced, and revisiting them is bound to lead to disappointment. These characters were brought back to provoke nostalgia and help us recapture what we felt when we first watched them at a simpler time in our lives — long before the breakdown of civil debate in the United States, widespread terrorism, global warming, technological alienation, massive debts, school shootings, gay marriage, social media privacy issues, trans rights, and Black Lives Matter.
Only everything has changed. And being wilfully ignorant of those changes is dangerous. Giving in to a desire to recapture a mythologized past is at the very heart of “Make America Great Again.”
It’s almost the emotional equivalent of having a deceased grandmother return. After that initial joy at being reconnected with a lost loved one fades, the questions begin. How would you comprehend her as an adult? What would your relationship look like now, with you older and more aware of her flaws and humanity?
And what of the issue? How does she feel about gay rights? Or your black boyfriend? Who would she have voted for in the 2016 election? And how would she comprehend global warming or terrorism? Or understand systemic injustice or white privilege?
Chances are most of her answers would lead to disappointment, and would make you realize how much you have changed, how much the world has changed, and, perhaps, how much your view of the past has been become skewed by nostalgia. That there is no going back because there is nothing to return to in the first place. “You can’t take a picture of this. It’s already gone.”
Everything. Everyone. Everywhere. Ends.
Except in Hollywood, I suppose.