The Peaks and Pitfalls of Classic TV Reboots

When Netflix announced in 2011 that it was reviving Arrested Development, I couldn’t believe it. I was an obsessive fan, marveling at how it punched up, down, and sideways at everything from the nascent war in Iraq to the delusional Bluth family. But the long-awaited return left me cold. Schedule constraints meant characters were paired off in strange configurations that often fell flat, and I realized that the dysfunctional charm of the original was tied up in the chaotic times in which it was created.

I’ve since to come to realize that in keeping with its groundbreaking past, the revival of Arrested Development was a glimpse into the future of nostalgic TV. The rabid fan base, the breathless hype, the streaming services desperate to cut through the noise of a fractured media landscape—the show’s resurrection after nearly a decade off the air was a harbinger of things to come.

Success in this format requires more than merely bringing a fan favorite back from the dead. It’s a tricky balancing act that requires recreating the unique alchemy that made it a hit in the first place, while also bringing the story and characters forward in a way that feels authentic, like catching up with an old friend. These kinds of shows generally aren’t meant to be crowd-pleasing, broad-based hits; more often than not, they’re the TV equivalent of a beloved rock band’s greatest hits tour.

So when Showtime announced it was reviving Twin Peaks, I wondered what could possibly entice Lynch to return to its bizarre and bucolic world. My worst fear of fan service went out the window as, over the course of 18 hours, the inscrutable David Lynch delivered a wild and often heartbreaking story that both smashed itself apart and created something entirely new. With a bleak ending anchored by a single scream, Lynch, from whom we’ve come to expect the unexpected, turned the show’s fandom on its head and, in an echo of the show’s initial left-field success, made the series one of the most hotly debated pop culture events of the year

While Twin Peaks: The Return succeeded by revealing the folly of looking to the past, Will & Grace embraces the present in a way that feels connected to its roots. The original series broke new ground in its representation of contemporary life, and the 2017 revival feels fresh as it follows Will, Grace, Jack, and Karen as they navigate life in the age of Trump. They’re the same witty, lovable, conniving, and spoiled people they’ve always been, and the show makes them relevant again in a way that feels especially well-deserved.

Another revival with beloved and iconic main characters that hits the mark is The X-Files. The show quickly found its footing in the familiar rhythm of stand-alone “monster of the week” stories mixed in with heavier mythology episodes. Series creator Chris Carter, who trades off writing and directing duties with series vets like Glen and Darin Morgan, has found a through-line in William, Mulder and Scully’s long-lost son, that pushes the story forward while deepening characters and stories we’ve already spent decades with.

It’s that sense of time passing that’s missing in both Netflix’s Stranger Things and Fuller House. Stranger Things is compulsively watchable to anyone raised on a diet of 1980s sci-fi, but if it had made better use of Winona Ryder’s nervously raw performance as a single mom pushed nearly to the brink, it could have left the pastiche behind for something new. But that’s wishing a tiger could change its stripes; the show was a runaway success precisely because it served up nostalgia on a platter, which also happens to be the de facto motto of Fuller House. The Netflix revival of the TGIF staple is aimed squarely at fans of the low-grade hijinks and sitcom sentimentality of the original, and is a prime example of how these kinds of shows don’t need to be watched by everyone to be a hit. Netflix famously doesn’t release any kind of viewer ratings, so the fact that it’s headed for a fourth season is proof that if the fans show up, the shows will to.

And with pilot season in full swing, there’s no shortage of nostalgic TV on the horizon. Murphy Brown, Magnum P.I., and Cagney & Lacey are the latest shows to be dusted off for a second go-round, and it’ll be fascinating to see whether these once-popular series can pull off the toughest trick in show business—a comeback.