Call for Comments: Media Reboots, Revivals and Adaptations

From Mav: So we had a topic suggested by a listener, specifically Maximilian, who wrote our theme song (and was on our music of your youth episode). By the way, if it isn’t obvious, you can totally suggest topics for us to use. Anyway, Max requested we do an episode talking about the recent trend of rebooting existing media franchises. It seems like there is a near constant stream of these lately. This year alone we have Magnum PI, Charmed, and Sabrina. And last year we had One Day at a Time, Lost in Space, Dynasty, MacGyver, and Duck Tales. And then, on top of that, we have all the shows that have revivals in the original continuity years after off the air like Will and Grace, Roseanne/The Connors, That’s So Raven, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and Murphy Brown.  And that’s not to mention TV shows that become movies(Baywatch, and CHiPs)  or movies that become TV shows(Training Day, and Lethal Weapon).

But is this really a new thing? It’s obviously not. There’s a long history of moving adaptations from one medium to another. In particular, MASH comes to mind as a series based on a film (based on a book) that became wildly successful in its TV adaptation. And then, of course the reboot of Battlestar Galactica was leaps and bounds more popular than the original. And, while the original Doctor Who was certainly popular in Britain, it certainly wasn’t the worldwide success that it would become with the 2005 revival.

But it does feel like there’s even more of it these days.

A lot of the reason here, I think, goes back to our nostalgia show. But really, it’s more like the risk aversion that goes with the business end of production in the market. TV shows are expensive… and furthermore, there’s a lot more network competition than there used to be. Once upon a time, there were only 21 hours worth of prime time television to fill. In the days of three (or even four) primary television networks, taking chances was relatively lucrative. How do you think Manimal ever got on the air in the first place? Since TV viewers didn’t have many options, there was always the possibility that people might watch your show because there was nothing else on. After all, what the fuck are they supposed to do, go outside?

Things are different now. With far more viable networks on television AND the addition of streaming services, it’s simply possible to have a lot more television now than it used to be. And part of this is a good thing. In the 1950s, all TV characters were cowboys. Back in those 21 hour television days, there was a lot of “see what works and then do more” so you had an era where half of the shows on TV were westerns… followed by an era where half of the shows on TV were cop shows… then hospital shows… then lawyer shows. You get the idea. If something was working, then the networks gave us more of it… until we hated it and then they moved to the next thing. And we still do this. Right now, we use superhero shows. And vampires/witches.

At least in theory,  more networks should fix that problem. And for a while, they definitely tried to. One of my favorite books, Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised speaks to the ways in which the TV landscape started changing in the 90s, in large part due to original programming being offered by cable channels that weren’t subject to FCC regulation and commercial interruption. This is the emerging age of everything from Sex and the City, to Sopranos to The Wire and eventually got us to stuff like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. The prestige format of cable TV programming thus forced the networks to do their best to keep up. They largely failed, but it did at least drive them to try.

We’re in a different space now. With literally thousands of hours of TV to fill per week, it’s now way harder to find an audience. The good side is you can make a niche TV show. Things like Atlanta, GLOW and Transamerica could never have existed in a three network world. They don’t have the mass appeal to justify literally taking up 5% of the available programming time. Now they don’t have to. But the problem is with this many options, it’s hard for a show to establish itself outside of its very narrow target group. There’s so much TV, so no one can watch everything.

But TV is still a business. So what’s the solution? Give people what they want. Give them something you know has a built-in audience… or at least something that you think has a built-in audience. Innovation is hard. People don’t like to take risks, because if the audience doesn’t give it a chance, you’ve wasted a lot money. After all, if there was any justice in this world, Cop Rock would still be on the air. But it’s far easier to rehash a concept that you know can work than to try something new. And if you think the audience is already there, well, you might as well try to make a series out of Lost In Space, right?

And while we’re at it, toss in another few superhero shows… Inhumans? Sure! And maybe make a 47th Transformers movie. And if it starts doing poorly, fuck it… we’ll just reboot it and try it again. And honestly, it kind of works. Most of the reboot shows actually work out pretty well. Because, as we pointed out on the earlier episode, nostalgia sells pretty well right now. It appears to be our new version of the western. There’s probably a good reason for this. Mass media is usually about helping to make sense of our current cultural moment. A lot of the one we’re in right now is a response to anxiety about politics,

The problem with this is a lack of innovation. Reboots can only last for so long because sooner or later we’ll run out of things to be nostalgic about. We need new content now, if only so we have something to reboot in ten to twenty years.

Or at least that’s my going theory. What’s yours? Do you think reboots work? Why or why not? What makes one good or bad? And what does our obsession with (or hatred of) them say about our current culture?

Authors:

20 Replies to “Call for Comments: Media Reboots, Revivals and Adaptations”

  1. I don’t feel like remakes are anything new. Look at “A Star is Born.” It was remade the first time in 1954, and then three more times since then. Look at West Side Story. It is a remake of something of a nearly 400 year old play.

    Honestly, I think remakes were always a thing. We are just seeing more today because more things in the past were successful. And more importantly, our ability to judge HOW successful something was in the past is much better than it was in previous decades.

    1. Absolutely. And I think that’s a key thing to remember. I think we mentioned (or will mention… you know time travel and previously recorded but not yet aired and all that) Maltese Falcon on next week’s show (again… I think… it might have been on a different show I was/will be on last weekend) and how the one that we think of as the classic is actually the SECOND version and it was remade again after that.

      Hell… I even often teach my students that Romeo and Juliet (the Shakespeare version) is actually a remake… it’s very much an adaptation of The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooks. The poem was popular in Shakespeare’s time, so he made a stage adaptation, the same way we make film adaptations of novels and comics today… and then the original was largely forgotten by everyone but scholars…

      And the “original” Brooks one was an adaptation in itself anyway.

    1. Ok so real thoughts:
      The more faithful an adaptation or reboot tries to be, the more it’s doomed to fail. Nothing is ever going to be better than the original at being itself. It’s when we add new critical/social commentary or interpretation or updates that adaptations/reboots thrive.

    2. Ach, I wasn’t done. This is especially true when we move mediums, as evident by the surplus of “the book was better” mentality. Especially when an adaptation makes the move from print to something visual (TV/movie), we EXPECT it to be exactly like it was in our heads and that’s never going to happen, but the adapted text has sort of colonized our imagination and made it so any attempt at faithful retelling is always going to fall short.

    3. Just breaking this up seems easier now. There’s also a kind of simulacra of media today, where everything’s a copy of a copy of a copy and no one’s quite sure what the original is so instead we have this echo chamber of copies screaming at each other insisting they’re the “real” version. Occasionally though, in the best adaptations, there’s an actual dialogue created between the adapted text and the adaptation.

    4. Final thing: gotta talk about hierarchy in the arts and how text is always “better” than visual/old is always better than new and successful adaptations uncomfortably prove that form can be separated from content and how “the original” is often only “better” because of the aforementioned colonized imagination and gatekeeping mentality.

    5. Hey Natalie, want to be on the show again if we talk about adaptations and reboots?

      Seriously, that’s what the calls for comments are… we’re just looking for people who WANT to talk about the subject and have good ideas to consider.

      I agree on the logic of trying to do a direct adaptation. When I mentioned the Romeo/us and Juliet thing in the comment to Michael Strauss above, that’s one of the things I was thinking of. Adapting means changing… to make it work. Romeo and Juliet, as most of us know it, takes place over 72 intense horny teenaged hours. But the Brooks poem has the characters slightly older and takes place over the course of several months. Shakespeare knew that it needed to be more intense in order to work for the stage and so he changed it.

      In the same way, as upset as people might get when Superhero X is moved from the comic to the big screen, and “oh no, they changed everything!” there really wouldn’t be much point in doing it exactly the same way. For one thing… the mediums are different. They work in different ways. But also, you already saw that old thing… the whole reason the artist (writer, director, actor, whatever) wants to make this new version is to put his own spin on it… add something new.

      As for the multiple versions thing… Platonic ideal texts and what I call in my dissertation, “truth copies” and whether or not they can even really exist in the modern way we make media to be perpetually adapted… that’s totally a conversation we can have…

      so yeah, wanna be on the show?

    6. Hmmm…
      You mentioned something that has me thinking. I think some reboots exist either because the author thinks they can tell the story in a better / more compelling way (Little Shop of Horrors, BSG, Romeo and Juliet) while others exist because the producer thinks they can make money from telling the story again (V, Nightmare on Elm Street, upcoming Final Fantasy VII remake).

      The latter often disappoints, though is rarely awful. The former seems to either be amazing or atrocious, with very little middle ground.

      I am almost tempted to try to categorize reboots / remakes / etc. based on which seemed to be the impetus for their existence (or arguably, the larger impetus since elements of both are probably involved in most projects).

    7. Natalie: That’s not locked in stone yet. Sometime this week… between today and Saturday, probably in the evening. Depends on when people are available.

      Michael Strauss: are you also interested?

  2. You hit a lot of the points I would make, (perceived low risk due to built in audience, nostalgia wave, competition) so cutting out the business angle and looking at it from more of a creator or viewer perspective, I think part of it is a sense of a desire to keep the Intellectual Property alive and share it with a new generation. Just like how music and fashion trends see resurgences, if something spoke to you as a child there’s a call to pay it forward. “When I was a kid, son, He-Man was my world. I’d watch it everyday and my friends would-” “Yeah but it was a little boring.” He-Man boring, he thinks. Hmm. If it was anime style maybe… Maybe then he’d love it the way I did.
    Reboots also allow creators or fans within the industry to make something work that originally had potential but didn’t land with audiences. Dardevil movie versus Netflix show is a prime example in my opinion. As far as revivals, it can be an opportunity to see to unfinished business, unresolved plot lines die hard fans have been stewing about for years. In these cases I am a huge fan of revivals, because even if they are not hits they at least provide closure. I’m looking at X-Files and Twin Peaks, although with Twin Peaks there’s never really closure. But any remake, reboot or revival that is made without the original creatives or without a grounded, creavtive trajectory is doomed to fail with audiences and critics alike. Bringing something back solely because it might make money is a trend that needs to go away, but revisiting something that brings the same joy, energy and message to its fandom and a new generation, that’s a trend that should be applauded.
    I will say this, the King Arthur and Robin Hood legends have endured for centuries, and things like Star Wars, Batman, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings will endure too, as long as we continue to bring them to the forefront in a way that is relevant and engaging.
    If only someone got Michael Bay away from Transformers early enough the franchise wouldn’t have suffered. I really can’t take another two hours mentally screaming ‘Stop doing it wrong! You’re making things worse, not better! Can we get an actual fan with talent in here?!’

  3. You hit a lot of the points I would make, (perceived low risk due to built in audience, nostalgia wave, competition) so cutting out the business angle and looking at it from more of a creator or viewer perspective, I think part of it is a sense of a desire to keep the Intellectual Property alive and share it with a new generation. Just like how music and fashion trends see resurgences, if something spoke to you as a child there’s a call to pay it forward. “When I was a kid, son, He-Man was my world. I’d watch it everyday and my friends would-” “Yeah but it was a little boring.” He-Man boring, he thinks. Hmm. If it was anime style maybe… Maybe then he’d love it the way I did.
    Reboots also allow creators or fans within the industry to make something work that originally had potential but didn’t land with audiences. Dardevil movie versus Netflix show is a prime example in my opinion. As far as revivals, it can be an opportunity to see to unfinished business, unresolved plot lines die hard fans have been stewing about for years. In these cases I am a huge fan of revivals, because even if they are not hits they at least provide closure. I’m looking at X-Files and Twin Peaks, although with Twin Peaks there’s never really closure. But any remake, reboot or revival that is made without the original creatives or without a grounded, creavtive trajectory is doomed to fail with audiences and critics alike. Bringing something back solely because it might make money is a trend that needs to go away, but revisiting something that brings the same joy, energy and message to its fandom and a new generation, that’s a trend that should be applauded.
    I will say this, the King Arthur and Robin Hood legends have endured for centuries, and things like Star Wars, Batman, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings will endure too, as long as we continue to bring them to the forefront in a way that is relevant and engaging.
    If only someone got Michael Bay away from Transformers early enough the franchise wouldn’t have suffered. I really can’t take another two hours mentally screaming ‘Stop doing it wrong! You’re making things worse, not better! Can we get an actual fan with talent in here?!’

    1. yes, we did mention that a bit back during the nostalgia episode I think. There’s a thing we do where we want to expose new generations to the things we love “look kids. More ghostbusters!” Because we don’t necessarily understand that they have things they already love “why’s there no paw patrol in this ghostbusters movie?”

    2. There’s a reverse of that I’ve seen which works very well, which are these little tone and homage Easter eggs that insert nostalgia into something current. The 2012 Ninja Turtles (already a reboot but anyways) had an episode that was 100% a callback to Big Trouble in Little China, even including James Hong in a Lo-Pan ripoff. And then Stranger Things last season ending an episode like the xenomorph trap in Aliens, down to the humming of a tracker. Perhaps this is a more effective route to pass on classic movie and TV concepts without assuming today’s youth will care?

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