February 27, 2018

2018 Sitcom Revival Craze Isn't New But Criticism of Whitewashing Is

On February 22, 2018, Marketplace featured a show segment entitled "Explaining the craze in TV reboots".  Reboot is perhaps an inappropriate term; rather "revival" is likely a more accurate term.  You may listen to that segment HERE, or below.

Also be sure to read the Hollywood Reporter article written by Michael O'Connell who was interviewed in the Marketplace clip.  That story can be viewed at https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/new-economics-tvs-reboot-craze-1086797.

The Marketplace story discusses a recent (as of early 2018) wave of TV revivals either already on the air, or scheduled to be headed to the airwaves very soon.  For example, think of successful reboots already on the air, including "Fuller House" and "Will & Grace."  Indeed, "Will & Grace" currently ranks as NBC's No. 1 comedy of the season, and it trails only CBS' "Big Bang Theory" and "Young Sheldon" on the list of top comedies across TV.  Others, including "Roseanne" and "Murphy Brown," with the original casts still in place, are scheduled to air soon.

"Fuller House" was a revival of ABC's "Full House" with the original child cast now adults rather than children.  That show picks up with most of the original cast, only it was Netflix that took the risk of producing it rather than network television.  Now entering its fourth season, the numbers were solid enough for the streaming giant to continue.  The original trailer was available at the following link, but has since been removed from YouTube https://youtu.be/CXuGLswn2l0.

"Will & Grace" Cast Reunion as PSA for 2016 Election
"Will & Grace's" TV revival actually began as kind of a public service announcement (PSA) on YouTube encouraging viewers to vote in the 2016 election.  A mini-episode, if you will, featuring the original cast.  That video was originally on YouTube at https://youtu.be/dQZkt7SKtKk but has since been disabled. However, Hollywood Reporter has its own copy found at https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/will-grace-reunion-debra-messing-932915 if you wish to watch it.

That 10-minute PSA clip generated more than 7 million viewers in the first few weeks after it went on YouTube (and subsequently went viral on Facebook and other social platforms), suggesting the U.S.audience was still very much interested in seeing the original characters 11 years after the series finale in 2006.  The cast also seemed ready for a revival, and luckily the original set was still in storage (which was used for the 2016 YouTube #VoteHoney PSA), plus the creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan were also ready to revive the original series.

Eleven years after the finale of the original series required a little bit of creative license to revive the show in a believable manner.  The original series finale ended with Will and Grace partnered — Will with Vince, Grace with Leo — all raising children.  Grace had a daughter named Laila with husband Leo (Harry Connick Jr.) while Will was raising a son, Ben, with spouse Vincent (Bobby Cannavale).  But the revival began by acknowledging both Will's and Grace's separations, and Karen (who is known on the show for having substance abuse issues anyway) having and explaining what was a drug-induced hallucination.  The exact dialogue went as follows:

"I had the craziest dream," Karen says, describing the finale scenes. "Will was living with a swarthy man in uniform and Grace was married to a Jew doctor."

"Well, we were, but we're single now," Will replies.

"What happened to the children that you had that grew up and got married to each other?" Karen then asks, to which Will replies that it "never happened".

"Oh, what a relief," she replied, speaking for fans everywhere. "Nobody wants to see you two raise kids."

The revised "Will & Grace" sitcom was originally ordered by NBC for a limited, 16-episode run, but was subsequently renewed for another, 13-episode season.  NBC was evidently pleased enough with the ratings to renew it for another season.

Roseanne Revival Coming to ABC

The 1990's ABC sitcom Roseanne is another revival that will appear on ABC television starting on March 27, 2018.  Like the others, it will feature virtually all of the original cast.  A trailer is available by visiting https://youtu.be/X32lP33kyOs.

[Author P.S., May 29, 2018: ABC abruptly cancelled the Roseanne revival after the show's namesake star went on a racist Twitter rant.  While the show's performance was acceptable, ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey said in a statement: "Roseanne's Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show".  Disney CEO Bob Iger added on Twitter that "there was only one thing to do here, and that was the right thing."  Barr's talent agency also dropped her.]

Meanwhile, rival network CBS is going full steam ahead (at least for the 13 episodes which have been ordered and produced) with its revival of Murphy Brown, which is planned to run on Thursday evenings at 9:30 PM.  The trailer for that show was found at https://youtu.be/pGn-OXaBV68 but has also since been removed.

2018 Casts of Several Sitcom Revivals

Mixed Track Record of Success and Failure on Previous Reboots/Revivals

Reboots/revivals of one form or another have enjoyed periods of popularity with networks and producers.  There were numerous reboots/revivals of "The Brady Bunch" for example, including 1981's sitcom "The Brady Brides" which focused on Marsha's and Jan's newly-wed lives.  That was followed by several made-for-TV movies including 1988's "A Very Brady Christmas," 1995's "The Brady Bunch Movie" and 1996's "A Very Brady Sequel".  The latter two were movies shown in theaters, and although the characters were identical (played by new actors/actresses and caught in a time-warp), they succeeded because they were intended to be parodies of the original.  Not all revivals are parodies.

In 1980, "The Nude Bomb" (also known as The Return of Maxwell Smart) was a reboot of the late-sixties sitcom created by Mel Brooks "Get Smart" that starred Don Adams, though it was released in theaters initially, and didn't air on TV until 1982.  But another made-for-television revival in 1999 starring Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, and Barbara Feldon as Agent 99 entitled "Get Smart, Again!" was popular enough to prompt a new (but short-lived) TV series, which starred the two original cast members as well as actor Andy Dick.  A 2008 reboot film version starring actor Steve Carrell as Maxwell Smart and Anne Hathaway as Agent 99 hit the theaters, and received mixed reviews from film critics, but did reasonably well at the box office.  But the inescapable fact is that many of the popular gadgets featured in the original series no longer seem so revolutionary today.  For example, the shoe-telephone is now an antique relative to smartphones today, and the "cone of silence" seems like its from another era -- which it was.

Similarly, "I Dream of Jeannie... Fifteen Years Later" aired as a made-for-TV movie in 1985 and another named "I Still Dream of Jeannie" ran in 1991.  Actress Barbara Eden starred in both, but Tony Nelson initially played by actor Larry Hagman (who was under contract to star in the prime-time soap "Dallas") was played by different actors.  As a result, neither the "Get Smart" of "I Dream of Jeannie" revivals were huge ratings successes.

Finally, how many revivals of Gilligan's Island can realistically be remembered?  Most of the original cast (excluding actress Tina Louise who played the character/actress Ginger Grant on the original series, but was notably absent from virtually all of the reunions) were in each of the made-for-TV movies including "Rescue from Gilligan's Island", "The Castaways on Gilligan's Island" and even "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island" not to mention a couple of animated cartoon versions of the sitcom which was more popular in syndication than it ever was in its initial broadcast run.  Each ended pretty much as they began: rescued only to be lost again on an uncharted island - again.

For television, revivals/reboots usually rely on bringing much of the original audiences, although not always with the same casts.  Some featured original actor/actress cameos (for example, Ann B. Davis, who played housekeeper Alice Nelson in the original sitcom made cameo appearances, as did actress Florence Henderson who played Carol Brady in the originals (both actresses have since passed away), while others only briefly reunite the original casts (or many of them; some had to be replaced since the original talent are deceased).  For example, 2012's first-episode reboot of "Dallas" featured many of the original cast members, even featuring actor Larry Hagman who played J.R. Ewing, although he passed away shortly after the first episode of the reboot aired.

Other prior revivals/reboots have been re-imagined with completely new casts and story lines.  One famous reboot flop was 2007's unsuccessful reboot of "The Bionic Woman" which (briefly) ran on NBC.  That featured actress Michelle Ryan as the main character Jamie Somers.  But instead of Jamie being a schoolteacher and former professional tennis player, the new Jamie was a bartender raising her younger sister on her own, and her bionic powers were not implemented by secretive Government researchers, but her boyfriend.  Only 8 episodes of the reboot aired on TV, as a strike by the Writers Guild of America interrupted production.  The series suffered from poor ratings after an initially-promising premier episode, likely attributed to audience curiosity who ended up very disappointed at how dark the new series was compared to the original.

Actress Lindsay Wagner, the original actress who starred as Jamie Somers in 'The Bionic Woman' back in the 1970's, also played no part in the new, rebooted series.  Ms. Wagner said, "On a technical level, it was very good, but I don't think they understood the show. It was steeped in that old-school thinking. It was like a lot of things today, angry and dark."

More recent revivals (distinct from reboots) are using all or much of the original casts that made the initial shows successful.  Although a complicated rights and remuneration can bedevil many revivals or reboots (such as the soaps noted in a previous post, see http://hgm.sstrumello.com/2013/04/can-soaps-left-for-dead-see-new-life.html for that), when original producers are involved, those issues may be slightly less complicated if the producers are onboard with the idea of reviving the show and they own content rights for the original programs.

The TV revival/reboot craze currently going on is not without criticism, although not because the revivals or the shows aren't any good, but because they claim it is whitewashing.  Though they may make us feel nostalgic, they also come at a cost, because diversity is often nixed in favor of the all-white casts of the past.  From the 1980's to 2017, the number of characters of color with speaking roles has nearly quadrupled, up from about 8% in the 1980's to about 30% today.  According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, non-whites are still under-represented on television, although they are better represented in 2018 than at any point in the past.

Are Current Reboots/Revivals Whitewashing?

On February 12, 2018, the New York City NPR station WNYC and Public Radio International (PRI)'s program "The Takeaway" addressed this not-too-minor issue in an episode entitled "TV Reboots and Revivals Bring Nostalgia — And Whitewashing" and it discussed the implications of that.  That was worth listening to below, or by visiting https://www.wnyc.org/story/tv-reboots-and-revivals-bring-nostalgia-and-whitewashing/.

Of course, all-white casts have long dominated U.S. popular culture in spite of growing diversity, and recent gains made by non-white players recently won't necessarily erase generations of U.S. pop culture.  As noted by Michael O'Connell in the Marketplace interview above, the current reboot wave has much more to do with the fact that not much else seems to be working right now from an entertainment business perspective, rather than any sort of systematic effort to erase the gains of non-white programming.  Indeed, although white supremacy has gained visibility since the electoral college victory by Donald J. Trump, as trackers of hate groups note, those groups still remain relatively small in spite of their recent increased visibility (see the Anti-Defamation League's write-up HERE and Southern Poverty Law Center's write-up HERE for more background) lately.  The entertainment industry has no motivation other than profit.

Whether the current popularity of reboots and revivals enables all to succeed remains to be seen; so far, the revivals' success features an unconventional family involving three white men as heads of household and another featuring gay white men with female companions.  Soon, another will star a female investigative journalist and news anchor for a fictional TV news magazine and recovered alcoholic who speaks her mind freely, and finally a blue-collar, working class white family living in rural America.  Only the latter series is even remotely consistent with the Alt-Right.

However, if trips down memory lane work out financially, TV history certainly has a lot to mine, although not necessarily with the same casts and producers.  In the end, Hollywood will be watching how financially successful the latest reboots turn out to be.  If history provides any clues, there will likely be a mixture of success and failure, just as did prior periods of sitcom reboots/revivals.

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