It’s not just a cliche: Everything old is indeed new again on TV, particularly this upcoming season.
Fox is leading the drive, with three upcoming shows based on existing titles: “The Exorcist,” a new take on an old horror franchise; “Lethal Weapon,” a remake of the 1980s buddy comedy, and “Prison Break,” which is a continuation of that original series (expected in early 2017). CBS is also on the bandwagon, with new takes on “MacGyver” and “Training Day.”
The networks went through a similar exercise last year, and the results were mixed. At Fox, “Minority Report” was a dud, but the return of “The X-Files” was a massive ratings hit. CBS’ “Rush Hour” was a miss, but a new version of “The Odd Couple” is picking up steam.
Just as sequel and franchise mania envelops the film biz, it’s easy to knock TV for its constant desire to ride the wayback machine. After all, most of TV’s reboots, remakes and revisits fail miserably.
But that’s the nature of the TV business — most shows fail miserably. At least you’ve heard of the remakes and reboots that fizzled. Plenty of shows without familiar titles come and go without even a whimper.
In other words, get used to it. There are enough successful remakes out there (CBS’ “Hawaii Five-O,” Netflix’s “Fuller House,” FX’s “Fargo”) to justify programmers’ desire to raid old libraries for new shows. And the real reason they’re doing it remains clear: In an age of “Peak TV” and 500 original scripted series, it’s better to try and sell a familiar intellectual property than one audiences have never heard of. (Guaranteed you’ve heard of “MacGyver,” but not “Pure Genius.” Both are new CBS shows airing this fall. One is a remake. One is not.)
Fox TV Group chairman Dana Walden defended her network’s appetite for reboots and remakes to reporters this summer: “In a market that’s so competitive, taking a recognizable title has three marketing objectives: You want to build awareness. You need people to know about your show, you want to build intent to view that show. And you do that through your marketing materials. Then you want to link shows to your network, so that when they see the good materials and become aware of your show, they know where to find it. Recognizable titles help us majorly in one those three objectives, but then the shows have to win their way onto a schedule.”
But fear not: There is hope for series that may seem like money grabs. Below are some of the major types of remakes/reboots/reimagined shows to keep an eye out for this season, along with examples of entries that have worked in the past.
TV Series Remakes
TV remakes are in many ways the most unusual. If a show is fondly remembered and worked well the first time, why do it again with new actors and place settings? But just as the film world can’t help but update old titles for new audiences (even with the risk of backlash, as unfortunately happened with the recent “Ghostbusters”), TV is now doing the same thing. A good idea is a good idea, and if a portion of the audience never saw the original, well, then it’s new to them.
Past Examples That Worked: CBS’ “Hawaii Five-O” is probably the best recent example of a complete remake that remained true to the original while also updating the story (and characters) for a modern crowd. Also, The CW’s “Beauty and the Beast” and CBS’ new take on “The Odd Couple” gained traction with audiences.
What’s Coming This Fall: Next up from “Hawaii Five-O” executive producer Peter Lenkov is his new take on “MacGyver” for CBS.
How New Shows Can Succeed: Earlier this summer, we asked Lenkov for his formula (“Hawaii Five-O,” after all, is going into its seventh season.) For one thing, he made sure the original characters that existed in the 1970s original returned, but sometimes in a different form. He also sprinkled the show with Easter eggs, including actors and locales from the original. For his remake of “MacGyver,” he followed a similar template. “I really wanted to root it, and I wanted to keep the soul. I wanted to feel like this show’s carrying the torch of MacGyver. This thing, it exists. Even though it’s a reboot it really is honoring that original show.”
Old Titles, Completely New Takes
Style of Remake: Some of our favorite shows are the surprises: series born from unexpected inspiration. Who would have ever thought a cheesy 1970s sci-fi series would become the basis for one of the best dramas to be made in the 2000s? Or that a Michael J. Fox comedy from the ’80s would make for moody teen drama fare? The titles and basic premises may technically be the same, but the actual execution is a different matter.
Past Examples That Worked: “Battlestar Galactica,” “Teen Wolf,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”
What’s Coming This Fall: “Westworld” (HBO), “Van Helsing” (Syfy)
How New Shows Can Succeed: The shows that have really found their way in this category are the fresh takes on old concepts; shows that defied our expectations and proved the power of their basic premises. In fact, it might be that the more preposterous the source material, the more liberated a creator might feel to try new things. The most preposterous source material might be exactly the sort of fodder that a talented creator would find valuable. What we’ve seen of HBO’s “Westworld,” for example, is a world of difference from the original 1973 Michael Crichton film. It’s also one of the most fascinating and challenging new shows of the fall because showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy were able to find their own spin on the material. For the other shows in this category to succeed, they’ll need to do just that.
Style of Remake: Perhaps the most popular form of all remakes, TV has always been a fertile ground for film adaptations. Beloved cinematic properties are adapted for the small screen, and rather than continuing the adventures started in the movie, these series reboot the same story with the same characters. Sometimes there are additions and tweaks in order to fit a serialized (or more modern) format, but the most iconic aspects of the films are preserved.
Past Examples That Worked: “M.A.S.H.,” “Fame,” “Parenthood,” “Hannibal”
What’s Coming This Fall: “Lethal Weapon” (Fox), “Frequency” (The CW), “Training Day” (CBS), “Shooter” (USA)
How New Shows Can Succeed: The key to success, it seems, is honoring the essence of the original film more than holding firm to exact dialogue, plot points or story arcs. Yes, the characters’ names are the same, as are many of the situations, but that doesn’t mean performances should be imitations or famous sequences have to be recreated. “Lethal Weapon,” for instance, would be well-advised not to recreate Riggs based on the Mel Gibson model. No one can do what Gibson did, especially today, and Clayne Crawford certainly has his own talents to emphasize. Same goes for “Training Day,” as Bill Paxton is a far different actor (in almost every way) than Denzel Washington. The new CBS procedural needs to tackle police corruption from the inside, examining the moral quandaries associated with skirting the line between cop and criminal. “Shooter” has a little more leeway, considering Antoine Fuqua’s 2007 action flick isn’t exactly considered a classic. Still, it shouldn’t be afraid to have a little fun with its sharpshooter. As for “Frequency,” well, it might be best to forget the Dennis Quaid drama that inspired it. With a father/daughter relationship rather than father/son, it looks like it’s already trying.
These remakes imagine what would happen if the timeline of the primary series were extended, either bringing the original characters into a new adventure after a period of time away or creating a new generation (sometimes even related to the original ones) to follow a similar formula.
Past Examples That Worked: The shows that successfully picked up where they left off include “The X-Files,” “Arrested Development” (even hopping networks from Fox to Netflix), “Stargate SG-1” (picking up a year after the events in the film) “Degrassi: Next Generation” and “Degrassi: Next Class,” the always groovy “Ash vs. Evil Dead” and the prequel series “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.” Other examples include “90210,” “Girl Meets World” and “Fuller House,” the latter of which not only ushered in a new generation of Tanners, but also used a gender flip on the old formula of three pals struggling to parent an entire household. “Dragnet” was an early example, as the police series initially ran for eight years (between 1951 and 1959) before returning with a new, color version between 1967 and 1970. Jack Webb starred in both as Sgt. Joe Friday.
What’s Coming This Fall: In late November, “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life” (Netflix) brings us back to Stars Hollow to see what Rory, Lorelai and the rest of the gang are up to now. In midseason, keep an eye out for “Prison Break” (F0x), David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” sequel (Showtime), “Star Trek: Discovery” (CBS All Access) and “Taken” (NBC), which picks up where the first film stops. Over on Fox, “24: Legacy” is set in the same universe as the Kiefer Sutherland series, but doesn’t actually feature any returning characters (except hints of Chloe’s possible return).
How New Shows Can Succeed: Continuity with the characters is key, and that includes keeping the same actors and even writers who can re-create the appropriate voices and tone from the original series. Also, when bringing in the new generation, it’s important that they are not only connected to the older characters somehow (through blood, profession, location, etc) but that they are simultaneously relevant to the current viewers.