The attraction of reboots for TV networks, particularly in the modern peak-TV era of too many shows on too many platforms, is obvious. And why bother trying to get across the subtleties of your brand new drama when you can shortcut all that, and generate a few kilometres of digital comment into the bargain before the thing’s even aired, by simply saying, “Guys! We’re bringing back ‘Party of Five’?
The recent announcement that the drainingly emotive 90s orphan saga was to return, however, conformed to the new rules of reboots: it’s not enough to just bring a show back. Now you must reflect the times as you do it, by introducing issues that weren’t tackled in the dark, distant past when the original aired. So whereas Matthew Fox, Neve Campbell and the old cast played siblings bereft after their parents died in a road accident, Freeform’s new show will revolve around a Mexican-American family ripped apart when Mum and Dad are suddenly deported.
‘Will & Grace’ is another returning show that’s become more overtly political upon its return, with its comeback episode in 2017 taking the cast into the White House for a slew of Trump gags that were criticised for flattening the sitcom’s normally fizzy comic touch. A better-received instalment the following year, using Grace’s youth to contribute to the #MeToo debate, showed that woke reboots work better when their awareness of social issues is more thoughtfully woven into the characters’ lives, as it is in Netflix’s sitcom revival ‘One Day at a Time’.
In the 1970s it was bold for its depiction of a single mother; the modern take adds an assessment of the problems faced by the US Hispanic community, as well as a startlingly frank treatment of its main protagonist, played with vim and vulnerability by Justina Machado, struggling with anxiety and PTSD stemming from her tour of duty in Iraq.
Not all franchises lend themselves to a sensitive update, of course. It would be absurd to try to graft modern sensibilities on to ‘Miami Vice’, ‘Magnum PI’, ‘Hawaii Five-O’ or ‘MacGyver’, and so all four have recently come back with not much more ambition than to sweep up viewers lazily hankering for cheesy old glories.
Better to be honest about it, rather than fall into the trap of the half-hearted update: ‘Dynasty’ struggled to find a new identity for a new decade when it returned in 2017. Everyone was younger, there was some colour-blind casting and homosexuality was acknowledged to be a thing, but it still felt dated next to 21st-century equivalents such as ‘Riverdale’ or ‘Pretty Little Liars’.
Then last year, The CW ran into difficulties when it allowed its reanimation of Charmed to be hyped as featuring three Latina leads, which proved not to be the case — the disappointment of some viewers was doubtless intensified by comparisons between the new show and the predominantly white original.
All this heaps more pressure on perhaps the most keenly anticipated revival of them all. Last month, Showtime officially ordered a series that will constitute either a reboot of, or more accurately a sequel to, ‘The L Word’. When it originally ran in the 00s, its unapologetic focus on a group of Los Angeles homosexual women — at a time when it was rare to have one such character in a TV show, here was a series where there were hardly any who weren’t — made it a cultural milestone.
In 2019, though, news of its return immediately raised questions about whether ‘The L Word’ would broaden its view and improve its representation of bi and trans characters, and women of colour: television has progressed rapidly on all those fronts in the decade since ‘The L Word’ was last shown. If the sequel isn’t fully up to date, viewers will boot it out.