It’s going to be a long week for the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts. There’s the aftermath of the World Economic Forum, President Trump’s State of the Union address, the fallout from the State of the Union address, the fallout from the media controversies in the State of the Union coverage, and at least a few other stories that make one question the resiliency of the liberal international order. So to start the week, before things get heavy, it’s time for a very important post about something very silly.
Let’s talk about the recent trend of television revivals and why everyone’s take about them is wrong.
You may or may not be aware that a variety of old sitcoms are being revived. “Will & Grace” returned to the air in September after an 11-year hiatus. “Roseanne” is about to start a nine-episode run after being off the air for 21 years. Last month, there were reports that “Mad About You” was going to be revived. And last week, CBS announced “Murphy Brown” would be returning to television after a 20-year break. Beyond the networks, Netflix has revived “Arrested Development,” “Full House” and “The Gilmore Girls.”
Even before this recent surge, critics were growing sick of this trend:
Requiring little imagination because they prey so easily upon nostalgia, only to then dash fans’ hopes — and sully their own legacies — by failing to live up to their prior outings’ lofty standards, the Remake and the Revival are the enemy of surprise, the adversary of originality, the poison in the well of true inspiration. Often greeted warmly by diehards, and then cursed and vilified by those same aficionados once the euphoric bliss of anticipation has given way to the cold-hard disappointment of such reheated leftovers, they are a pox upon the pop-cultural landscape.
The recent revival renaissance has driven more critics around the bend:
Revivals are cited as an example of a bankrupt and unoriginal television landscape. To which I will respond: have you seen this chart?
FX Networks started trying to get a count of the number of scripted original television series a few years ago. The graph above is from their 2016 report, which Variety’s Maureen Ryan wrote up in December of that year:
According to FX Research, 455 scripted original programs aired on American television in 2016.
That all-time high is almost three dozen more than were released in 2015, the year FX president John Landgraf coined the term “Peak TV.” In the middle of 2015, some critics found it “moderately terrifying” that there might be 400 scripted shows that year. FX Research, which constantly updates its data, now says that 421 scripted programs arrived in 2015.
To take stock of this explosion, Variety asked FX Research to tabulate how many scripted shows there were in 2006, and they came up with 192. That means that over the course of a decade, the amount of scripted TV went up by 137%.
Earlier this month, Landgraf told Variety that there were 487 scripted shows in 2017 — a new record. There has been a surge in revivals, but that is because there has been a surge in every kind of scripted television programming. The number of these shows has more than doubled in the past eight years, much of it coming from streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.
With this kind of growth, it is not surprising to see a secular increase in all kinds of shows: adaptations from comic books, adaptations from comic strips, dramedies, gritty sci-fi, zombies, doctor dramas, maudlin dramas that don’t like Crock-Pots, brilliant and inventive comedies that defy definition and yes, revivals.
It’s not rocket science why these revivals are occurring. In a fragmented television landscape, a revived program from the pre-streaming era has the possibility to capture viewers looking for the televised equivalent of comfort food.
I get why critics don’t like this — they have to review all this stuff. But from the consumer’s perspective, it is a mistake to think that a “Will & Grace” comeback will somehow prevent another “Atlanta” from emerging. There isn’t a scarcity problem for television in 2018. And for all the laments about the lack of creativity, let me suggest that one of the most original hour of television last year came from a reboot of “Twin Peaks.”
An increase in quantity is hardly a guarantee of an increase in quality. It does offer the possibility, however, of a greater diversity of programming. It certainly does not augur badly for television creativity.