The other night I was watching ABC’s The Muppets with my wife, who is a bit younger than me, and doesn’t have the memories of The Muppet Show and Muppet movies of the ‘80s that I do. She laughed when it was funny and rolled her eyes when silent groans were required. And I suppose I did too, and I’ve enjoyed the show, three episodes in. But there’s also something very sad about this reboot of the franchise. Not for the show, or its production, which cleverly takes us behind the scenes of the Muppet universe in faux documentary style. But rather, the sadness was mine, because somewhere five-year-old me was aghast at the adult version of a children’s classic. Kermit was drinking. Fozzie was dating. Ms. Piggy was…ok, totally unchanged. And in an entertainment era where no franchise can escape a reboot pitch, the revisiting of memories past has altered our once-static television mythologies. Now a series finale is meaningless, and where narratives used to have definitive beginnings and endings, the contemporary TV landscape has made its canon malleable.
TV reboots are not new for an industry rich in talent but handcuffed by corporate ideology. How else can you explain Chicago Fire, Chicago PD, and this season’s addition, Chicago DMV? Series need to guarantee, or at least give the illusion of a guarantee, that they will be successful and profitable. Typically, the industry has leaned towards recycling. Medical, legal, and forensic science serials are churned out every pilot season. Sitcoms still have wacky neighbors and hetero coupling, even if the studio audience and ratings have all but disappeared. Late night is full of penises, mostly white men telling the same jokes about being white men. Recycling is born of fear, because in TV ‘new and revolutionary’ doesn’t come along all that often and when it does it’s either by mistake (Empire) or on HBO. But while the idea is not new, the employment of their methodology has changed.
We’re used to remakes, and enduring Matthew Perry cringing for a paycheck on The Odd Couple. But revisiting a past series, and continuing its narrative, is a new premise, at least on a large scale. In recent memory, we have seen or will see The X-Files, Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210, The Muppet Show, Boy Meets World, Full House, Arrested Development, Sex and the City, Heroes, Coach, Wet Hot American Summer, Twin Peaks, Xena: Princess Warrior, and Cop Rock rebooted. Well, not Cop Rock. Not yet. Not until someone can find Steven Bochco.
No TV property can escape the greed for easy ratings. Even Fear of the Walking Dead is a reboot of sorts, reimagining the early days of The Walking Dead universe. And while season one is a mixed bag at best, it certainly lacks the bold vision and ambition of its parent series. Why be ambitious when you can be simple-minded? Which begs the further question: If The X-Files or Xena are successful, what does TV reanimate next? Do we return to Lost and find out what the afterlife is like on another island, say Fiji? Is House, M.D. addicted to Adderall and working as an on-campus physician at UMass-Amherst? Was Tommy Westphall’s dream in St. Elsewhere actually part of another kid’s dream? Are Ross and Rachel divorced? Is Jerry dead? Is Tony Soprano?
The trend of sequels, prequels, and reboots is not unique to TV. We’re about to endure the return of the Star Wars franchise. Harper Lee’s publishers saw an aging icon and dollar signs and brought back the seminal characters from Too Kill a Mockingbird back to life in the unfortunate Go Set a Watchman. Meat Loaf revisits Bat Out of Hell whenever he needs an infusion of nostalgia-driven cash. But while I can understand nostalgia, the genius and gift of art is that it’s always there for us to revisit on our own schedule and accord.
I’ve read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Cat’s Cradle over and over so many times that I’ve worn out the pages. I’ve listened to the Silver Jews’ Bright Flight at least once a week for as long as I’ve owned the album. Once a year, I find a repertory cinema playing The Godfather or Pulp Fiction or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and revel in both the genius of the films and my memories of first watching them. And while revisiting television was once reserved for syndication—and then home video—digital technology has allowed me to rewatch my favourite series, like Lost, Friday Night Lights, or West Wing whenever I feel the need to immerse myself in their universes. To visit old friends. To be held safely in the nostalgic warmth of familiarity and television acumen. But to alter the anchored narratives of those series would mess with an already weary mind.
Unfortunately, TV doesn’t use the reboot trend to satiate the lingering the TV junkie’s appetite for series that died too soon. Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini, Jason Segal, James Franco et al. will not suit up for Freaks and Geeks and Their Freak-Geek Kids. There will be no season two of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The surf is not up for more John from Cincinnati. Instead, TV tests the reboot waters with mid-range nostalgia like Boy Meets World and cult hits like The X-Files, before venturing into more seminal TV fare. Somewhere Mark Linn-Baker and Bronson Pinchot are dusting off their “Dance of Joy” shoes. Somewhere, Jaleel White is hopeful. Make no mistake; the reboot is the new spin-off. And no TV series is safe. Except for Viva Laughlin. Probably. The spin-off had too many variables that could lead to failure. The reboot is a safer root, as it just offers what was previously successful with minor twists.
In the meantime, I won’t close myself off to these reboots. I’m as curious as anyone. Which is why networks will churn them out. Because even the most ardent fan of a series’ mythology can’t resist a dalliance with the unanswered, the unsaid, the unproduced. So I’ll watch The Muppets, even if it messes with my past, and answers questions no one asked like, What’s a Muppet prostitute look like? and Is Muppet-human sex bestiality? I’ll dig in. I’m a consumer. I’ll be the Statler to ABC’s Waldorf. But, in the meantime, I really have to know: Where the hell are “Pigs in Space”?