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With tiresome reboots, TV is stuck in a cycle of watch, rinse, repeat

Raymond Lee as Dr. Ben Song in NBC's reboot of "Quantum Leap."Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Argh. When I heard word of a Hulu comedy series called “Reboot,” I was all about it. This would be the epic I’d been waiting for, the biting “Veep”-like takedown of the bane of the TV world. Nasty jokes for the nasty recycling trend that has been sucking some of the life out of scripted TV? Yes please.

Alas, “Reboot,” which premiered this week, is not that show. It’s pretty good, but as a mild and meta satire of actors and as a workplace sitcom, not as a shiv to the heart of an adversary. From Steve Levitan of “Just Shoot Me” and “Modern Family,” it’s well-written, littered with light jokes about actors’ egos and with canny call-backs — including at least one call-back about call-backs. The characters arrive fully developed, and the cast, including Rachel Bloom and Paul Reiser, is tops. But, yeah: no torpedoes.


And so I am left with my fury. Because scripted television is in the midst of a pandemic that I wish would end. The infection rate is so high, I wouldn’t even try to count the cases, as they emerge with unpleasant regularity on broadcast, streaming, and cable lineups alike. Every season, it seems, the number of transmissions rises, a pox of sorts on a medium that, by contrast, reached a new level of excellence at the turn of the millennium.

I’m not here to criticize the specific series that are being brought back to life, dead but reanimated like the vampires in HBO’s planned “True Blood” redux. Some people were totally there for the recent version of “MacGyver,” I suppose, and that “Knight Rider” remake in 2008 did run for 13 episodes. I’m just sad that TV honchos are generally fixated on rehash over originality, hooked on the notion that somehow it’s a good thing to bring us more of what has gone by, from the heights of “In Treatment” to “Who’s the Boss” and “Fantasy Island.”


Paul Reiser and Rachel Bloom in Hulu's "Reboot."Michael Desmond/HULU

Some say it’s all about audiences’ nostalgia, about looking for the comfort of products that we knew before today’s unending feed of divisive and unsettling news events, before we fully understood the Earth was combusting, even before 9/11. You know, let’s revisit the days of “Lost in Space,” or “The Odd Couple,” or “Perry Mason,” or “Quantum Leap,” which returned to primetime this week with a new cast; let’s plug in a pacifier and self-soothe.

Like nostalgia, reboots of familiar titles also assuage our emotional discomfort with finality — as in, “Hey, look, that series finale wasn’t really finished, it was just a feint.” Very little on TV truly ends these days, as everything from “Sex and the City,” “The Sopranos,” and “Game of Thrones” to " Will & Grace,” “Twin Peaks,” and “24″ just keep returning in one form or another. Sequels, prequels, reinterpretations, revivals, movie spinoffs, they help us evade the sorrow of goodbyes. There’s no need to grieve the departure of almost every series that, after years in our dens and daily lives, “ends.”

I suppose the soothing plays a role in what is happening. But I don’t think TV outlets are rebooting primarily to speak to our needs. After all, we live in a time when almost all those original series are available to stream somewhere at any time. If I wanted to take a warm bath in “Dallas,” I’d watch the original on Amazon Freevee, not the TNT version that lasted from 2012-14. Also, a significant number of those rebooted series update the original concept, so that the laugh-riot that was “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” has become the dramatic soap opera “Bel-Air.” The reboots don’t always scratch the same itch as the original.


Deep down this incessant reusing has less to do with what we want, and more to do with an industry releasing shows that need to stand out in a crowded market. We are living in Peak TV, where many good series get lost in the crowd and fail to register on viewers.

Pre-existing titles need less of an introduction, since we’re aware of them already. We notice them when they appear in commercials and in seasonal TV previews. They’re presold, to some extent. All the numbers gnomes at the TV outlets are using the extensive data at their disposal to help serve us what, statistically, we already like. As in, “Hey boss, the numbers fully support bringing back ‘Full House.’”

We’re not even a complete century into the medium of television, and we’re already heading down a creative dead end. It’s time to stop perseverating, to keep moving forward and shake off this case of arrested development, to find the new “Arrested Development” instead of exhuming the old one.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him @MatthewGilbert.