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It’s the Stealth Queer Storytelling That Redeems Some of TV’s Nostalgic Revivals

These three continuations have a lot more on their minds than being throwbacks.

CHUCKY -- "Little Little Lies" Episode 105 -- Pictured in this screengrab: (l-r) Jennifer Tilly as Tiffany, Fiona Dourif as Nica Pierce -- (Photo by: SYFY)

Jennifer Tilly and Fiona Dourif in “Chucky.” The two play… well, it’s complicated.

SYFY

Our age of reboots, revivals, and revisitations is beginning to take its toll. With every new announcement comes the ceremonial rolling of the eyes from critics — unless they happen to be a fan of the IP, in which case the news is greeted with frenzied excitement — and grumblings from fans. Not that either has stopped the slow march toward net zero on creativity.

But while many reboots are content to do nothing more than update the technology for a beloved property (looking at you, “MacGuyver”) and cash in on its name recognition, some are interested in exploring and questioning what made the original iteration so resonant while addressing its earlier failings. The prime example is Pop TV’s dearly beloved “One Day at a Time,” which took the original’s premise (single mom and kids struggling with divorce) and applied it to a Latinx family. Suddenly, an entirely new world of stories opened up, from gender fluidity to PTSD.

That’s the tack that HBO Max’s “And Just Like That” is taking, as well. Using the absence of Kim Cattrall’s Samantha to add more BIPOC characters, the new take on “Sex and the City” is actively interrogating its own initial shortcomings in presenting a lily-white depiction of New York City for six seasons.

That a prestige, legacy series on HBO, shepherded by producers who have long served as gatekeepers of the brand, should do this is not surprising. What is more surprising is when the seemingly most disposable series rebrands turn out to be the ones with the most articulate narratives about life today.

Perhaps no one really thought we needed a new iteration of “Saved by the Bell” or “Gossip Girl” other than showrunners Tracey Wigfield and Joshua Safran. And a TV adaptation of “Child’s Play” from the film’s creator Don Mancini seemed, at first glance, like another opportunity to cash in on a franchise that had run out of cinematic steam. But all three series quickly turned into compelling, literate television with a lot more on their minds than high-gloss, no-calorie entertainment.

“The first priority is always being funny,” Wigfield said. “But I’ve always felt, in anything I wrote, you have to know very clearly what you’re trying to say, and you have to have a real reason for what you’re trying to say right now. Why does this show have to exist?”

The premise of her take for Peacock on “Saved by the Bell” — that a low-income school is shut down and its students transferred to peppy, preppy Bayside for culture clashes — automatically brings with it both thorny issues about privilege, class, and race, as well as comedic ways to tell those stories. But Wigfield and her writers room also fleshed out their characters into casually three-dimensional people we rarely see represented on TV — from a trans bully to a female football player — and never in the original series.

SAVED BY THE BELL -- "The Gift" Episode 208 -- Pictured: (l-r) Belmont Csmeli as Jamie Spano, Josie Totah as Lexi Haddad-DeFabrizio, Alycia Pascual-Pena as Aisha Garcia -- (Photo by: Greg Gayne/Peacock)

Belmont Csmeli, Josie Totah, and Alycia Pascual on “Saved by the Bell”

Greg Gayne/Peacock

Safran, too, was motivated to tell stories on the HBO Max continuation that the original “Gossip Girl” didn’t touch. “A majority of the writers are queer,” he told IndieWire. “And because those are our stories, it wasn’t even an attempt to queer it up. It simply was, ‘Let’s talk about our stories.’”

That was a driving force among the “Saved by the Bell” writers as well, another reason why thoughtful, diverse staffing is integral to a series’ success.

“Very rarely would we start from a place of, ‘What issue do we want to talk about?’” Wigfield said. “Usually we’re looking for what is the funniest with these characters.” One story from the writers room that became a Season 2 plot point found two native Spanish speakers remembering scoring lower grades in high school Spanish class than nonnative speakers. “And as we talked about it more, it seemed like there was an interesting story in there,” Wigfield says. “And we get into, ‘Why does that happen? Who is picking the curriculum for these classes?’”

Chucky,” Mancini’s continuation of the “Child’s Play” series for Syfy (now streaming on Peacock), is less focused on the high school aspect of its characters’ lives and more on the teen trauma that is high school life. Like Safran’s new take on “Gossip Girl” (one he pitched as “‘Downton Abbey’ meets ‘Black Mirror’ meets ‘Big Little Lies’”), Mancini’s world is an often terrifying freefall into loss and horror that uses its title character as metaphorical commentary.

“I wanted to do a YA thing with Chucky because I wanted to bring the franchise back to its roots, where Chucky is interacting with a kid,” Mancini said of centering his franchise-embracing world in a Hackensack, New Jersey, high school. “But making them specifically 14 years old was interesting because you’re starting to take your first steps into adulthood, but you’re still enough of a kid where you’re plausibly vulnerable to a supernaturally possessed killer doll. It’s a delicate thing,” he added dryly.

The biggest shift in this iteration of the story — in which a serial killer with a working knowledge of voodoo has transported his soul into a Good Guy doll and is on a mission to corrupt innocents — is that the gay teen who finds Chucky at a yard sale becomes complicit in Chucky’s murderous spree. “I realized if I [wrote Jake as a gay character], it would be an interesting way to address bullying, and that can be a metaphor for the series,” Mancini said.

CHUCKY -- "An Affair to Dismember" Episode 108 -- Pictured in this screengrab: Björgvin Arnarson as Devon Evans -- (Photo by: SYFY/USA Network)

Zackary Arthur and Björgvin Arnarson in “Chucky”

SYFY/USA Network

In all three series, queer characters are treated matter of factly in a way that would have been unthinkable just 10 years ago. “Saved by the Bell” features not just a trans character, but a trans character who has her own E! Reality series and spent a large part of Season 1 as a bully, giving trans actress Josie Totah a delicious, meme-inspiring arc. Season 2 finds her embarking on a romance with a longtime cis male friend — a plot that more “adult” series rarely address in any meaningful way — and classmate Aisha entering into a same-sex flirtation without the internal conflict that previous series would have adopted.

For Mancini, the YA tropes powering “Chucky” were also an excuse to treat a burgeoning relationship between two teen boys with the same casualness with which it would be portrayed by two cis, heterosexual characters. And certainly the woke, socially engaged high schoolers of “Gossip Girl” are as quick to acknowledge their privilege as they are to casually invoke it in pursuit of their desires.

But while “Gossip Girl” 2.0 boasts a dizzying array of young talent as the students of Constance Billard, Safran points out that, as per the OG, the adults here are truly the big bads. In fact, the eponymous chronicler of Manhattan’s elite in this incarnation is a disgruntled teacher, who resuscitates the brand to try to force her students in line. But also true of the adults this time around is that they are a conduit to telling stories that the younger characters wouldn’t be able to. The latter half of Season 1 revealed that influencer Julien’s father, musician Davis, was a serial sexual assaulter, something that swiftly got Julien herself canceled. And Max Wolfe’s parents Gideon (Todd Almond) and Roy (John Benjamin Hickey) serve as a counterpart to their son’s more casual attitude towards gender and sexuality.

“Even Max’s dads tell a story about femme phobia and the queer community,” Safran said, calling it “one of the most important stories” he’s ever written. “And that story isn’t based on anything; it was created to look at the old binaries. Max lives a very binary-free life, where he’s fluid and there’s no judgment and he grew up in a house that enabled him to be that way. But it wasn’t like that for his parents.”

Gossip Girl HBO Max

John Benjamin Hickey and Todd Almond on “Gossip Girl”

HBO Max

The adults on “Saved by the Bell” and “Chucky” exist (if they are allowed to live) in a very different sphere. But both shows are also concerned with maximizing the stories they are telling, whether to land a laugh or to set up another gruesome death.

Mancini laughingly confessed that some fans of the franchise may be furious at revelations in “Chucky.” “We have all these other queer elements going on,” he says, pointing to Chucky’s possession of a cis female, as well as Tiffany’s romantic relationship with her/Chucky. “So Chucky is inhabiting a woman’s body, and what does that mean?” Mancini said. “I couldn’t resist making Chucky canonically fluid. The teen romance is just one of several queer elements.”

All three series benefit from a choice to use high school as a storytelling device to dig into uncomfortable issues within the confines of genre shows. The teen comedy is actually a Trojan horse story about class, one of the last American taboos; the soap opera thoughtfully tracks a couple’s relationship status as one of them comes out as bisexual; the horror comedy willfully centers a queer romance while grappling with both bullying and the loss of a parent. The kids may not always be all right, but the shows definitely are.

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