If someone from 1995 accidentally teleported to the fall of 2015, they’d probably be weirded out by selfie sticks and the prices of a one-bedroom condo. But at play in the fields of our TV schedule, they’d feel right at home — and perhaps even a little sad or baffled that, with unlimited options, we haven’t come up with much that’s new in 20 years.
The good ol’ Muppets have a warmly anticipated (and satisfyingly funny) prime-time show premiering Tuesday. Fox is bringing back “The X-Files” in January to wild approval from fans. Similarly, David Lynch is, at last report, toiling away on a reboot of his 1990 series, “Twin Peaks,” for Showtime. Netflix (we’ll have to explain to our visitor what Netflix is) has reassembled the cast of “Full House” for an updated series called “Fuller House” — to astonishing huzzahs from those who grew up with the original (and let’s be frank, singularly mediocre) sitcom, which aired from 1987 to 1995.
We should feel embarrassed about all this, but it appears we aren’t.
While we can easily and proudly hold up a few wholly original, not-even-based-on-a-book TV shows from our era, the fact remains that almost nobody starts anymore with a blinking cursor and a blank screen. Nearly everything we hold dear at the moment is a reboot, remake, sequel, prequel or adaptation of something.
Deceased since 1982, the author Philip K. Dick has two shows on the fall schedule based on his stories — Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle” and Fox’s “Minority Report,” which is itself a reboot of a 2002 movie. Even HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” arguably TV’s best show right now, exists because of several thousand pages that were already treasured by readers.
It’s even less original to carp about how there’s nothing new under the sun.
Movies may bear the brunt of criticism about remake fever (with all the superheroes, TV-to-movie revamps and soon the seventh chapter of the now-Disney-owned “Star Wars”), but it’s the TV industry that especially thrives on delivering more of the same.
That means more episodes of shows you already like, more shows that closely resemble shows you liked before (or are spun off from those shows, as with the twin mini-empires of CBS’s “NCIS” and NBC’s “Chicago” dramas) and more stars of shows you liked who are now making a bid at starring in a show vaguely like the one that made them famous.
ABC’s “The Muppets” takes a head-on approach to letting the characters have a self-awareness of their business potential and personal burden as an indentured class of employee. Though no one ever says so in the short excerpt of the show shared with critics this summer, we find the Muppets in a state of commercial crisis. Kermit, as executive producer and de facto decision-maker, comes into a chaotic writers room filled with Muppets and announces that ABC (which is owned by Disney, which acquired the Muppets franchise in 2004) wants to develop a new show with them. (This project will evolve into a late-night talk show called “Up Late With Miss Piggy.”)
Because it’s shot in a mockumentary style, “The Muppets” comfortably turns into a riff on show business, Los Angeles and grown-up relationships. Fozzie Bear is dating a human woman, whose parents hold objections, rooted in stereotype, about how bears live in the woods. And, as Muppets fans the world over now know (and object to, at least on Twitter), Kermit and Miss Piggy are no longer a couple. She’s been seen on TMZ cavorting with the human actor Topher Grace; Kermit, perhaps predictably, has started dating another pig — a network publicist named Denise.
Kermit and Miss Piggy met with reporters and TV critics in August in Beverly Hills, California, to talk about all this. As I watched these iconic pieces of foam and felt interact with the press, I have never been more impressed by the unseen puppeteers below them, whose spontaneous sense of humor does the real work.
“To get back to prime time, it takes a while, you know,” Kermit said. “We’ve been owned by multiple people. … Like most Hollywood stars, we are wholly owned subsidiaries of some big company, and, you know, that gets strange.”
“Absolutely,” Miss Piggy said.
“But we’ve landed in the right place,” Kermit said, “and that’s what’s important.”
The Muppets have, in a sense, come full circle. Their first show, which ran from 1976 to 1981, was also a show within a show, chronicling the backstage mayhem of a weekly variety show in the tradition of “Laugh-In” and “Donny & Marie.” After the initial success of 1979’s “The Muppet Movie,” the big screen was less kind, pushing the Muppets into the category of beloved but spent franchise players.
A 2011 movie exhumation (also called “The Muppets”) benefited from the tender loving care of Muppet superfan Jason Segel, who co-wrote and co-starred in the film and lent the project a sincerity that works very well now when it comes to reboots. It’s an ineffable but mutual exchange between the people who make TV shows and movies and the fans who consume them — an implied understanding that something is cool again because it was never not cool.
There are many reasons that networks keep trying to breathe new life into old ideas. The most cynical reason is money, of course, but what if the real reason is something like love?
Right now we live in a popular-culture landscape that loves nothing more than to love. And to share that love. This is the culture that invented the hyperbolic concept of proclaiming even the most pedestrian experience (a movie, a concert, a new piece of clothing) as the Best. (Something.) Ever. (Such phrasing supplies, somewhat belatedly, the title of NBC’s weird new variety show, “Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris.”)
When everything is the best thing ever, and when it is easier than it has ever been to connect to fans who affirm that belief, then no reboot or remake seems out of the question, whether it’s “Full House” or “Fargo.”
For a long time — a few decades, perhaps, beginning with the ’60s — the most interesting pop-culture stuff (movies, TV, books, music) thrived on cynicism, skepticism, and a brooding attachment to themes of darkness and anxiety. There was little room for nostalgia (unless it was wry homage), and there was a kind of emotional default setting before a premiere date that instead of saying “This is gonna be awesome!” usually greeted the arrival of a new movie or TV show with “This seems like it’s gonna suck.”
This has been a huge cultural shift, both for people who make content and those who watch it. Perhaps it’s helpful to keep in mind that when “Star Wars” premiered in 1977, George Lucas went on vacation, hoping to avoid confirmation that he’d made a bomb. Love caught him off guard. Love caught us all off guard.
Now we work from an emotional default expectation of love. If something was on when you were a child — or a teen or a young adult — then you probably would say that you “love” it, it was the best ever, etc.
Of course, the downside of all this “love” is that it causes a certain amnesia about why a show was canceled in the first place. The people itching for the new “Twin Peaks” seem to have forgotten how many of us slinked away from it during its tedious second season. When Fox recently showed critics a long scene from the new “X-Files” — a scene in which, once more, Mulder is trying to convince Scully that he’s figured out the grand conspiracy — it played almost like parody. (I kept waiting for Scully to tell Mulder to eat a Snickers bar, that he’s not himself when he’s hungry.)
In other words, you have to be careful what you wish for. In the current pop-culture love fest, nobody is careful what they wish for. We want all of it, now. Ben Affleck as Batman. Carrie Fisher in her Princess Leia hair. Agent Dale Cooper ordering pie and coffee. A new “Supergirl,” a new “Minority Report,” a new everything.
Fans subsist on affirming one another in this love, causing great, noisy, orgiastic demand for the return of stories and characters who, in another era, would have faded into appropriate history. The new generation of entertainment journalists now pitch stories about shows that they expressly love (or occasionally love to hate), generating epic oral histories of both cult favorites and ratings/box-office smashes. Editors and book publishers have shown a preference for the mash note rather than the well-argued takedown. Who wants to read a grump, a crankypants, a critic? Here instead is your listicle with “19 Reasons Why They Need to Bring Back ‘Family Matters.'” Here is your complete oral history of “Saved by the Bell.”
The same is true at the networks. Sensing all this devout and sentimental love out there (and its tempting dollar potential) makes it that much easier to greenlight a reboot than to take a risk on something original. New is nice, but it’s a really hard sell in a culture crowded with superheroes of yore. How are fans supposed to recognize greatness in a show that’s not already based on a book, a comic, another show or the original movie?
It’s possible they’ve forgotten how. Until we learn to loathe again, we’ll be stuck with the stuff we’ve already loved to death.