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From ‘Fuller House’ to ‘The X-Files,’ TV’s Obsession with Remakes Could End the “Golden Age”

From 'Fuller House' to 'The X-Files,' TV's Obsession with Remakes Could End the "Golden Age"

UPDATE: John Stamos confirmed Netflix’s 13-episode order of “Full House” revival “Fuller House” on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” last night, as networks double down on TV’s increasingly worrisome franchise fever. The multi-camera sitcom, which ran on ABC from 1987 to 1995 and became a mainstay of its beloved “TGIF” programming block, is something of a nostalgia piece among those who grew up alongside its ubiquitous syndication. But emerging details of Netflix’s remake suggest you really can’t go “House” again: Entertainment Weekly reports that the new series will focus on less-than-iconic original cast members Candace Cameron-Bure, Jodie Sweetin, and Andrea Barber, with producer Stamos relegated to guest star. Bob Saget, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Dave Coulier, and Lori Loughlin are currently in talks to appear.

The streaming service, which recently announced that its subscriber base has grown to 62 million and has added everything from independent fiction films (Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation“) and Oscar-nominated documentaries (“Virunga“) to its stable of popular original series (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black”), can certainly afford to gamble on millennials’ desire for a blast from the past. But, as evidenced by David Lynch’s departure from Showtime’s “Twin Peaks” reboot and hand-wringing over FOX’s planned “The X-Files” limited series, creative concerns from talent, critics, and ardent fans alike have begun to intrude on the optimism of the remake craze. Are audiences really desperate for another go-round of “Coach” or “Bewitched“? What’s the saturation point at which the latest “golden age of television” begins to resemble the tired, superhero-dependent world of Hollywood studio filmmaking? I asked the question back in December, and I fear that the point of no return may already have arrived. 

EARLIER: Of the new and returning television series I reviewed in 2014, perhaps 50 in all, the one I savaged most thoroughly may have been “Gracepoint.” While many critics admirably attempted to move beyond comparisons to “Broadchurch,” the terrific British original, I couldn’t forgive Fox’s dreadful remake. From David Tennant’s gruff detective and the details of the central mystery to the construction of individual scenes, the initial episodes of “Gracepoint” replicated “Broadchurch” almost exactly, and yet the American version managed to strip away the precise sense of place that made the British one so compelling.

Why, I found myself asking, does “Gracepoint” even exist?

READ MORE: “‘Gracepoint’ vs. ‘Broadchurch,’ or the Problem with Remakes”

Why TV Went ‘All In’ on Remakes
For executives desperate to unearth the next breakout hit, the answer is clear. Even excluding digital players such as Netflix and Amazon, the number of primetime scripted series and miniseries is predicted to exceed 350 during the 2014-2015 cycle, according to Variety, and preexisting properties promise to cut through the clutter by capitalizing on familiar brands and built-in audiences. For the viewer, though, the trend raises another question. Will television’s renewed commitment to remakes, reboots, spin-offs, and franchises spell the end of a “golden age”?

The proliferation of such projects indicates that Hollywood is prepared to double down on this strategy for the foreseeable future. In addition to adaptations from web series (“Broad City”), video games (“Halo: Nightfall”), nonfiction (“Masters of Sex”) and fiction (“Olive Kitteridge”), 2014 featured at least 12 debut and 11 returning scripted programs based to some degree on previous films and television series, from “About a Boy,” to “Girl Meets World.” In the first three months of 2015, joining their ranks will be “Marvel’s Agent Carter,” “12 Monkeys,” “Allegiance,” “Better Call Saul,” “The Slap,” “The Odd Couple,” “Secrets and Lies,” and “CSI: Cyber.” 

Of course, this phenomenon is nearly as old as the medium itself, and as recently as 2011 — around the time that revivals of “The Bionic Woman,” “Knight Rider,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Dallas,” “Melrose Place,” and “90210” all more or less flopped — The Atlantic’s Kevin Fallon described “TV’s History of Failed Remakes.” The difference is that the nostalgia in which preexisting properties now traffic is not for some prior golden age, but for this one, as if desperate to hold on to some magic which has not quite disappeared. 

That’s because, as Grantland’s Andy Greenwald writes in his critical appreciation of the year in television, the confluence of “critical prestige” and “popular acclaim” that thrust “Breaking Bad” into the zeitgeist is increasingly — perhaps vanishingly — rare. Indeed, this breed of long-term, much-admired watercooler fodder is nearly extinct: in 2015, “Parenthood,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Glee,” “Mad Men,” and “Justified” come to an end, and “The Good Wife” commences its final season. Greenwald correctly glimpses one possible future in the rise of the miniseries, the anthology, and the shortened season, but I’d argue that something else is afoot as well. To a significant extent, networks searching for the next big thing appear content to make the last big thing anew. 

Why TV’s Big Bet May Not Pay Off
While Hollywood cinema’s sequels and franchises chase the “sustained engagement” of television, as Mark Harris suggests, TV’s surfeit of preexisting properties reminds me, funnily enough, of the movies. Though each medium faces a distinct challenge — the movies want people to keep coming back via presold properties, while television wants people to concentrate in larger numbers — both have always applied the same method, which is to figure out what attracts audiences and do it over and over, ad infinitum.

The movies may be approaching the end of such a cycle, and if viewers suddenly tire of franchises, the cost of consecutive big-budget flops could force a restructuring on par with that of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But TV is struggling to find its own version of the current studio model for major theatrical releases. Remakes, reboots, and spin-offs are simply the most explicit evidence of the age-old desire to replicate success. As TOH!’s Terry Curtis Fox wrote in June, “networks are now in the franchise business… shows themselves are the brands that CBS, NBC, and ABC used to be.” The traditional broadcasters pioneered this model, but cable, premium, and digital outlets are getting into the game, too.

READ MORE: “Each TV Network Does Dramas Differently: Here’s How”

For now, at least, creative chaos reigns. But if the poor performance of “Gracepoint” satisfied my Schadenfreude — the Dec. 11 finale drew four million viewers, including a woeful 0.9 rating in the coveted 18-49 demo, after which Fox announced its cancellation — the decision to remake a beloved series so halfheartedly provoked a certain apprehension. I fear that, fifteen years on, we’ll look back at television in 2014 as Esquire did the films of 1999, with nostalgia for a revolution long since past. I fear that we’ll lament a medium dominated by “the next ‘True Detective,'” “the next ‘Scandal,'” “the next ‘Walking Dead,'” “the next ‘Game of Thrones,'” however excellent these series are in the first iteration.

In short, we’d do well to remember that no revolution lasts forever. The emerging obsession with remakes suggests that the industry has already begun to forget that the series by which this “golden age” will be defined — not only “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Mad Men,” but also perhaps “Transparent,” “Orange is the New Black,” “Arrested Development,” and “Six Feet Under” — captured our attention because we’d never seen anything like them, true originals all.

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