In life, you rarely get a second chance to do something right — so goes the shopworn cliché. Contemporary Hollywood is a different matter. If a property was even glancingly popular in the 1980s or ’90s, it seems, it’s either in the process of being resuscitated or has been already. “Reboot” is one of those coinages that burrows into the lexicon without ever being fully explained (at least to me), but it has clearly supplanted “remake,” migrating over from the language of computing such that you now imagine the entertainment industry pulling every last item from its junk drawer and plugging it in to see if it still works. So startlingly large is the number of rebooted series that the phenomenon has even inspired an original show: Hulu’s very funny “Reboot,” about a fictional garbage ’80s sitcom being brought back to life.
Hollywood’s dependence on old intellectual property has been a source of hand-wringing for at least the past two decades, but a majority of those complaints have centered on the film world and its parade of blockbusters. It’s on television and streaming services, though, that all this grasping at the familiar has really reached an apotheosis, with three recent shows yielding some of the strangest gambits yet.
One of them is distinguished by the threadbare rationale for its existence. Gen Xers like me sacrificed untold I.Q. points on the shoals of ’80s television, but even I look at the new incarnation of “Night Court” — among the less-remembered of NBC’s classic Thursday sitcoms, about a Manhattan judge who was also an accomplished magician — and marvel at its pointlessness. The original, which ran between 1984 and 1992, felt like a supersize sketch show and depicted weirdos and reprobates dragged before the court after hours, a parade of old-timey jokes about winos, flashers and sex workers. Later I would have occasion to learn firsthand that there is no such magical judge to slap you on the wrist and send you on your way when you get arrested at night.
The labored premise of NBC’s hit new version puts us right back where we started: The now-deceased Judge Harry Stone (played by the great Harry Anderson in the original) has been replaced on the bench by his daughter. The show strikes a sort of nonaggression pact with the audience: It won’t be funny, but neither will it challenge or rearrange any of the psychological furniture of the original. Its selling point is stasis. When Dan Fielding — John Larroquette, returning from the original — finds himself “surprised” by fake snakes exploding from a box, an old Harry Stone gag, even he seems vaguely disappointed. Whom exactly is this show for? What is the point of making it about Stone’s daughter, rather than any judge in any night court? How do you generate nostalgia for something that wasn’t especially missed? This is the reboot at its most indecipherable, a miasma of reflexive nostalgia and boardroom guesswork.
HBO Max’s new “Velma” operates on the opposite logic: It interrogates and deconstructs its source material so aggressively that it often turns abrasive. The program is an animated spinoff from the “Scooby-Doo” franchise — first produced for television in 1969 and then in various forms since, with a talking Great Dane and a group of young detectives traveling around in a van solving mysteries (Arthur Conan Doyle meets “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”) and unmasking ornery criminals who curse about how they “would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids” (a Watergate-era mantra). This isn’t an especially offensive premise, which makes it difficult to understand the level of contempt “Velma” seems to have for it.
One simple explanation may be that “Velma” sits in a lineage of dorm-room pop-culture deconstruction that became popular, during the 1990s, among a generation seized by the misapprehension that it was the first to discover irony. (This was my generation; in my early 20s, I briefly thought I was a genius for recognizing subtext in the cartoon “He-Man” that was actually just text.) The core of this aesthetic position is condescension — a belief that you, the astute modern viewer, are equipped with a sophisticated grasp of the medium, and the world, that eluded the credulous rubes who came before you. Programs that pander to this fantasy often skew mean, and “Velma” is meaner than most. There are some funny jokes, and Mindy Kaling voices the lead role with dyspeptic panache, but the series on the whole oozes molten hostility: It is viciously satirical, festooned with disturbing imagery, full of slapdash violence and kneejerk nihilism. Within its first two episodes, the original characters Fred and Daphne appear as a possibly psychopathic man-child and a glamorous drug dealer. Scooby-Doo makes no appearance at all. There are needling remarks about television’s checkered history of minority representation, and the showrunners seem to treat their reconception of Velma — making the character South Asian and moving her to the center of the story — as an act of bold subversion, but it’s not clear “Scooby-Doo” is a cultural monument of such gravity as to make those choices particularly brave. “Velma” mostly just wants to bite the hand that feeds it.
Netflix’s reboot of “That ’70s Show” makes some rational sense, at least. The original sitcom chronicled the escapades of a group of cheerfully stoned and horny Wisconsin teenagers across the Carter administration. Its reincarnation, “That ’90s Show,” follows a parallel cabal of stoned and horny Clinton-era teenagers, who through some tortured story machinations end up pursuing their indolence in the very same Wisconsin basement, under the watch of the very same authority figures. All this is tactically coherent: It revives a cozy period piece while also capitalizing on the current youth vogue for all things ’90s.
Unfortunately, the subtle warping of the space-time continuum is by orders of magnitude the most interesting thing about the show. Like so many family reunions, the overarching vibe is one of obligation. The pilot features a large swath of the original cast, but no one radiates much happiness at being back. Saddest of all is the return of Kurtwood Smith and Debra Jo Rupp as the roost-ruling adults. Unlike the younger actors reprising their roles, these two never get to leave; their characters are now tasked with spending their golden years still wisecracking at a bunch of teenagers.
The logic of the television industry suggests that so many reboots exist for the simple reason that they stand a high chance of being popular, using a familiar idea to cut through a glut of programming. Distant number-crunching concludes that some substantial segment of NBC’s prime-time viewers, a demographic whose median age is around 60, may sooner revisit “Night Court” than sample something more novel; excellent Nielsen ratings bear that out. Judging by Netflix’s rush to reboot everything from “Full House” to “Lost in Space,” streaming services’ internal data must say similar things.
These shows face a clear creative bind. The reboot that changes nothing will be uncanny and lifeless; the one that thinks itself more clever than its predecessor will turn out cynical and sour. Either way, the market will keep serving them to us. So often, on TV as in apps, research and algorithms seem to manifest our lowest impulses as an audience, even the ones we would rather not have — say, a weakness for stupefying predictability, a smug feeling of superiority or a comforting retreat into fuzzy-blanket familiarity. They know what makes us click, even when the answer isn’t pretty.
Source photographs: Patrick Wymore/Netflix; Robert Sebree/20th Century Fox Film Corp., via Everett Collection.
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