LOS ANGELES – A new streaming service is trying to drum up enthusiasm by promising to reunite six beloved "friends" who last flirted and fought their way into our hearts more than 15 years ago. But don't reserve a table at Central Perk just yet.
Peacock is bragging about bringing back "Saved by the Bell," the 1989-93 sitcom so tone deaf about teenage life that it made "Welcome Back, Kotter" seem like a documentary. The NBCU-owned newcomer, which launches in April, is also working on the further adventures of "Punky Brewster" and yet another reboot of "Battlestar Galactica."
Executives would obviously rather be promoting the return of Ross and Rachel, but these days programmers are eager to recycle any familiar titles they can get their hands on.
This week alone offers the updated versions of "The Soup," "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and a TV adaptation of "High Fidelity." ABC announced last month that it plans to bring back both "Thirtysomething" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."
Either Hollywood is running low on fresh ideas or viewers have an unprecedented appetite for nostalgia. The gatekeepers are betting on the latter.
"In the climate we're living in, it feels like this show is the warm hug everybody needs right now," said Loren Ruch, senior vice president of production for HGTV, at the Television Critics Association press tour. HGTV has tapped Jesse Tyler Ferguson of "Modern Family" as the new host of "Extreme Makeover," which last aired as a regular series in 2012. "And who would you rather get a good warm hug from than Jesse and his team?"
Part of the strategy is that time-tested titles will help attract viewers bombarded with a staggering number of options. More than 500 scripted series debuted last year. The upcoming addition of new competitors like Peacock and HBO Max in 2020 is certain to blow that record out of the water.
"In a marketplace where it is very hard to launch new shows, having built-in familiarity is great," said Heather Olander, an NBCU senior vice president who greenlit reboots of "Temptation Island" and "The Biggest Loser" for USA Network.
To a certain extent, the strategy has worked. Many shows that got rebooted during the past five years — "MacGyver," "Charmed," "Lost in Space," 'The Twilight Zone," "Queer Eye," "Dynasty," "American Idol" — have done well enough in the ratings to remain on the air. Others, like "24: Legacy," "Ironside" and "Murphy Brown," were barely out of the starting gate when viewers were put out of their misery.
"As you can imagine, the bar is very high," said HBO Max's head of original content, Sarah Aubrey, who is developing a new version of "Gossip Girl" with the soap's original creators, Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage. "I think one of the benefits of having the original creators involved is that they are very clear on what the essential elements of the show are and are not. But they're also really excited to bring a modern lens to it 10 years later."
Same old, same old
That formula almost worked for "Will & Grace." Viewers were initially thrilled to see what the old gang was up to after an 11-year hiatus. But it soon became apparent that not much had changed. The new episodes became hard to distinguish from the classic reruns. Interest faded; the series wraps up (again) later this year.
On the other hand, the revival of "Roseanne" — later retitled "The Conners" — remains a solid hit for ABC, in large part because the firing of Roseanne Barr forced the show to focus on her daughters, braving a frontier of fresh, and often funny, challenges.
Some of the best reboots have avoided the temptation of cast reunions altogether.
Freeform's "Party of Five" has relocated from San Francisco to Los Angeles, where the Acosta kids are struggling to keep their household and family restaurant from falling apart after their parents are deported to Mexico. The siblings share some of the personality traits of the Salinger children growing up in the '90s. But, at best, they're cousins twice removed.
"I'm not interested in people who say, 'I can't find the original in this show.' I didn't reboot the show to give them the exact same thing," said writer and producer Amy Lippman, a driving force on both "Party" versions. "We had the opportunity to reboot the show over and over and over again, but the reasons were never good enough because I thought we did it OK the first time around. The reason you do it now is to say to the audience, 'There are qualities in the original that are present here, but it's a new story and a new family. But it's told by the same people. If you liked it then, I guarantee there's something to watch in this one.' "
"One Day at Time," which kicks off its fourth season next month, also decided to return with a Latino family. There are obvious cultural adaptations — grandma Rita Moreno occasionally throwing a tantrum in Spanish — but the series also reflects other issues that weren't addressed during its 1975-84 run. Justina Machado's character, for example, struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder from her time in the Army.
Reflecting the times
But the show's chief adviser is wary of making too much of the differences between the two incarnations.
"This is just another version of that show as we did it at another time," said Norman Lear, who is also enjoying success these days with ABC's live re-enactments of some of his other classic sitcoms, including "All in the Family." "I never sat down to cure America of its problems. We just reflect them. I think that's what television and theater does. It reflects the problem and then we get up, walk out and talk about it and live our lives perhaps just a hair differently as a result."
In "High Fidelity," which premieres Friday on Hulu, the main character, played by John Cusack in the 2000 movie, is now being tackled by Zoë Kravitz. Producers hope the gender swap will help distinguish the series from both the film and Nick Hornby's novel.
"I didn't want to redo it without making this change," said series' co-writer Veronica West. "We watch a lot of romantic comedies with female leads and their problems always seem to be that they can't find the right man or they're desperate to get married or they're self-destructive in some way. But when a man is the lead, the problems are internal. It was interesting for us to tell this from a woman's point of view and let her issues with romance really just be about learning how to figure herself out and not being about finding Mr. Right."
Of course, all the rules about making radical changes could go out the window if Hollywood ever arranged that "Friends" reunion. Fans would be thrilled to hear Phoebe still performing "Smelly Cat" — at least for a little while.
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431• @nealjustin