The election of President Trump, plus the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have invigorated cultural reckoning about the role of popular culture plays in creating the conditions for inequity and exploitation. From critiques on TV copaganda (Grady 2021), to re-examinations of interviews infused with racism and sexism (Goldstein 2021), to increasing awareness of the overwhelming whiteness of TV (Lockett 2016), popular culture is a space where we are looking back, re-evaluating and reconsidering the past through new eyes. There is a cultural consensus that mistakes have been made and there is a desire to “fix” the past. This is particularly evident in TV reboots, which are both of their moment and explore nostalgia and the past.
Reboots seem to be dominating scripted TV these days. Netflix has rebooted Full House (1987-1995), Heartbreak High (1994-1999), That ‘70s Show (1998-2006), Gilmore Girls (2000-2007), and many more. While US broadcast networks are attempting to recapture their glory days with reboots of Roseanne (1988-1998), Murphy Brown (1988-1998), The X-Files (1993-2002) and Will & Grace (1998-2006). Despite proclamations that we are in the era of “peak reboot” (Adalian 2018), reboots are not distinctly a product of the Trump or peak TV eras. For as long as there has been scripted TV content, producers and studios have been trying to capitalise on existing intellectual property through adaptations, reboots, or spin-offs. However, reboots do offer the opportunity to revisit the past with the context and best thinking of the present. As I have argued in my work on the Roseanne reboot, “Reboots operate around two key pleasures. First, there is the pleasure of revisiting and/or re-imagining characters that are ‘known’ to audiences. Whether continuations or remakes, reboots are invested in the audience’s desire to see familiar characters. Second, there is the desire to ‘fix’ and/or recuperate an earlier series.” (2018)
Many recent reboots have been celebrated and ridiculed as “woke” (Ellis 2018; Seale 2019), owing their increased diversity (often from none to some) and their engagement with contemporary concerns. These “progressive” remakes and revivals employ diverse casts, are overtly political, and are explicitly engaged in correcting the mistakes of their predecessor. In our recent chapter in American Television during a Television Presidency (2022), myself and Martin Zeller-Jacques suggest moving beyond the “woke reboot,” because focusing on “wokeness” provides only a partial picture of this phenomenon, and that decidedly “unwoke” reboots such as Roseanne (2018) and Fuller House (2016-2020) attempt a form of recuperation similar to overtly progressive texts such as One Day at a Time (2017-2020), Charmed (2018-2022) and Roswell: New Mexico (2019-2022). In reviving and/or redeveloping established series in response to life in Trump’s America, each of these series attempt to recuperate its earlier version. Some perform their recuperation by updating the original’s gender and racial politics, while others invoke the nostalgic appeal of the original text’s values, which they construct as missing from or a solution to our current moment.
There have been and continue to be so many reboots on our television screens or in production that any list would be almost immediately out of date. However, recent high-profile reboots include remakes where old settings, characters and premises are re-imagined such as One Day at a Time, Heartbreak High (2022-present) and Gossip Girl (2021-2023), as well as revivals of show where the same cast and/or setting returns, like, Murphy Brown (2018), Roseanne and The L Word: Generation Q (2019-present). In our chapter “You Can’t Go Home Again: The Recuperative Reboot and the Trump Era Sitcom” myself and Martin Zeller-Jacques contend that despite the many differences between recent reboots, they are ultimately grappling with the same questions and are united by the kind of recuperative politics they perform.
Through our examination of two rather different examples of recent reboots, One Day at a Time and Roseanne, we consider the limits of recuperation and the limits of reboots themselves. Despite the large number of rebooted series currently circulating, very few have remained on the air beyond their first seasons and others have been under constant threat of cancellation. While many reboots have been sold as urgent responses in the moment, that will tell us what went wrong or what needs to go right, they have consistently struggled with relevancy. For instance, the Roseanne reboot is, at least partially, about the waning centrality of the white working class in American culture, which is one issue upon which many argued the 2016 election hinged. We consider how One Day at a Time and Roseanne explore questions that U.S. television has been asking throughout most of its history: what does the American family look like? And what is the social value and function of various American families? Whether liberal or conservative leaning, there is often a flattening of social difference and class stratification in the name of creating characters and families that are considered “relatable.”
It seems likely that television producers will continue to reboot established old TV shows, investing in active fan cultures, leveraging media buzz and hype cycles, and attempting to capitalise on the nostalgia of niche audiences. More TV distribution outlets means more demand for content, and TV series with an established audience still seem like a safer bet than newer, untested content. But is this obsession with fixing the past, just a distraction from the cultural concerns of today? Or does the lens of the past enable us to see the problems of today more clearly?
Jessica Ford is a Lecturer in Screen and Cultural Studies and an early career researcher in the Gender Research Network at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Her research examines women and feminism on TV and she has published on Orange is the New Black, Girls, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Better Things in peer-reviewed journals, academic anthologies and journalistic outlets.
Adalian, Joseph. “Why Network TV’s Obsession With Reboots Isn’t a Bad Thing,” Vulture, February 1, 2018, https://www.vulture.com/2018/02/network-tv-reboot-obsession-roseanne-murphy-brown.html
Ellis, Emma Grey. “TV Reboots Are Having a Great Awokening. It Sucks,” Wired, December 12, 2018, https://www.wired.com/story/tv-reboots-are-having-a-great-awokening-it-sucks/
Ford, Jessica. “Rebooting Roseanne: Feminist Voice across Decades.” M/C Journal, 21, no. 5, (2018): https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1472.
Ford, Jessica and Martin Zeller-Jacques. (2022) “You Can’t Go Home Again: The Recuperative Reboot and the Trump Era Sitcom.” American Television During a Television Presidency, edited by Karen McNally. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, pp. 275-290.
Goldstein, Jessica M. “‘Reading the story today makes me cringe’: Female stars and the media machine of the early 2000s.” The Washington Post, March 2, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/britney-spears-lindsay-lohan-magazine-media-2000s/2021/03/02/46b4bf1c-76c5-11eb-9537-496158cc5fd9_story.html
Grady, Constance. “How 70 years of cop shows taught us to valorize the police.” Vox, April 12, 2021. https://www.vox.com/culture/22375412/police-show-procedurals-hollywood-history-dragnet-keystone-cops-brooklyn-nine-nine-wire-blue-bloods
Lockett, Dee. “All of the Times Black People Have Had to Endure Living in Stars Hollow, in One Genius Tumblr.” Vulture, 30 November 2016. https://www.vulture.com/2016/11/gilmore-girls-lack-of-representation-gilmore-blacks-tumblr.html
Seale, Jack. “From Party of Five to The L Word: how TV reboots got woke.” The Guardian, February 14, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/feb/14/from-party-of-five-to-the-l-word-how-tv-reboots-got-woke.