For as long as there have been classics, people have been paying tribute or adding to them. Shakespeare has been reimagined so many times and almost all the Greek epic poems or plays soon got sequels from new writers, if they weren’t already an addendum to or reimagining of a previous piece. Basically, there has always been, and will always be a hunger for more of the stories we love. As such, a current media landscape dominated by nostalgia, long running franchises and reboots is hardly a new thing.
The truth here is that film and TV are relatively young mediums, and we’re only just reaching the point in their life cycle where returning to the well is becoming an ubiquitous thing, especially in TV. And unlike reimaginings of Shakespeare plays, in the cases of most television classics they’re recent enough for many of the key creatives to still be alive and active, meaning we’re seeing a glut of stars and creators returning to the characters that made their careers. From The X Files to Fuller House, Will and Grace to Roseanne, many long dormant properties are coming back and this is only the beginning.
It’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, streaming services mean that TV shows cut down in their prime can be revived, sometimes years after the fact (please save Hannibal), but on the other hand shows that had their time, had an impressive run and were considered classics are returning. When a series ended on its own terms after many seasons, do we really need more?
Recently I’ve been re-watching a lot of Arrested Development and Community. The two shows have a lot in common; both were clever cult hits that struggled in the ratings, both were unceremoniously cancelled and both were later revived by streaming services in victory lap runs generally considered to not hit the heights of their respective heydays. Nonetheless, both shows are still technically alive; Arrested Development has a fifth season coming this year and Community remains in active talks for a movie.
The other day I did a bit of an experiment with both shows; after watching a classic episode from an early season, I put on one from the revival. I turned off the first episode of Arrested Development’s fourth season after five minutes and laughed maybe once in the episode I chose from Community’s sixth. The contrast was stark and unflattering; neither show, in the end, was near its creative prime.
And yet, I’m still excited for more.
Part of this comes down to nostalgia; re-watching both shows instantly transports me back to the place I was in my life when I first discovered them, and that’s a potent thing, but unlike a belated sequel to a beloved film, a TV revival offers something a more. An actor friend of mine once said that TV was a preferred medium for him because it gave actors the chance to develop a character over an extended period of time, which, in turn, means that we build a relationship with them. Over several years and sometimes hundreds of episodes, we get to know and love the ensemble of a given favourite show and as such going back always feels like revisiting old friends. There is something inherently comforting in re-watching favourites, a reminder that no matter how far you have come in life, hours of entertainment with the fictional people you love are still there for you to go back to at any time. And if you follow a TV show for years it becomes more than just an instantaneous time portal; sometimes the lives and growth of these characters over an extended period of time can parallel your own, and so the attachments we forge become something more personal than that of recalling a single special moment.
In the case of a beloved film that we watch over and over pleasure comes from the familiar, from knowing every line, shot and beat. In TV it’s different; when there are so many episodes we often forget certain gems and while there are always favourites we go back to, the process of a true re-watch often yields a thrill of rediscovery, or a new appreciation for things we didn’t like the first time. It’s comfort food with the added bonus of a potential for new flavours. Seen through that light, how can we not get excited at the prospect of spending more time with these old friends?
Of course, it comes with an element of risk. In 2013 I was so excited for the final season of Skins, a show that meant a huge amount to me as a teenager. This last run would revisit characters from the early seasons (Skins changed cast every two years), picking up on them in their young adult lives. This, to me, was thrilling; the characters of Skins were so special to people of my generation because they were teenagers at the same time as us, sharing (albeit heightened) similar experiences, heartbreaks and woes to what we were all going through. The prospect of seeing those beloved characters living lives that reflected our own years later? The power of that can’t be understated.
And for the first few minutes it worked; I remember seeing Effie and her friends hanging out and drinking wine on the roof of their shitty apartment between work and uni, seeing my own life reflected back at me in a way I hadn’t since the early years of the show. It really was like seeing an old friend, a friend who I could still relate to because we were in similar places in our respective lives years after we last saw each other. There was a unique and special feeling that while I had been growing and changing, these characters had too.
But then, of course, Skins fell victim to its own worst impulses. It went for unrealistic, sensationalised drama over the power of relatability and as such I stopped watching the final season before the end of its six-episode run. I felt betrayed and angry. I wished Skins had not come back at all.
And yet, if you told me today there would be a new season revisiting those characters, I don’t know that I could promise you that I wouldn’t be watching.
As more and more shows are revived, I find myself speculating on what else could come back and, in the process, start to wonder if I’m going to see more of the TV show that has possibly had the biggest influence on me, that show being Scrubs. Scrubs was the first show I ever fell in love with and it shaped my style and sensibilities like no other; it taught me how to blend pathos, humour and relatability but it also taught me that sometimes it’s better to quit while you’re ahead. The first four seasons of Scrubs are TV classics (three is the best), and after that it descended into cartoony, unfunny tripe. Scrubs did manage to regain some quality in its eighth season, building up to a TV finale that I still think might be the best of all time, one that balanced the melancholy of saying goodbye with an assurance that life, for these characters and for ourselves, will go on. It was perfect but then they had to go and fuck it all up with a ninth season that sold itself as a reboot but did very little to let go of the past.
And yet, now, years later, despite knowing that Scrubs had the perfect ending and ruined it with an unnecessary addendum, I still want more. I want to see my friends again. I want to laugh with JD, Turk, Elliot and Dr Cox. I want to see where they are in life and if the fantasies JD had in the season eight finale did come true or if, true to Scrubs form, something more complex happened. I want this despite knowing that I don’t need it, despite knowing that there is no reason to believe a 2018 Scrubs reboot could recapture any of that early magic if it couldn’t do it in 2010, despite knowing that the season eight ending was so good because, at the time, it was an ending as is still considered the real finale by the vast majority of viewers.
TV characters often feel real because of the sheer amount of time we spend with them, because we see them weekly, because we stick with them through the good and bad, through the classic episodes, the forgettable filler, the jump-the-shark moments and the emotional goodbyes. We forge an attachment to them that can become a yearning to see them again, a yearning that means we ignore the fact that nine times out of ten it’s better to leave the stories we loved behind so as to keep on loving them.
The problem with connections like this is that they create a weight of expectation that belated revivals can scarcely live up to. Harry Potter, Skins, Scrubs and so many more now all have an asterisk hanging over them, that footnote of “yeah they were really good except for the unnecessary follow-up”. Even if we can turn a blind eye to the Cursed Childs and Scrubs season nines of the world it doesn’t mean they’re not there, a constant warning that it’s always better to say goodbye when saying goodbye still hurts, rather than when we don’t care anymore.
If a Scrubs reboot happened I would watch it. I would watch it despite knowing that I shouldn’t, because I’m only human. Likewise I will of course watch Arrested Development and the Community movie and any other reboots of old favourites that come my way. But, if you gave me the choice? I would rather they never happen at all.
Writing words about writing words.