How endless reboots are ruining TV
On the unfortunate death of the series finale
Death isn't necessarily a bad thing. All things have to end — even good things. It's a natural part of the lifecycle of everyone and everything. In fact, it's that basic, undeniable finitude that gives many things value.
Television shows seem to have forgotten that lesson.
These days, cancelled shows are gaining second lives faster than you can say "cheap ratings booster." Arrested Development is streaming on Netflix. Community, most recently on Yahoo, has had more lives than most cats. Hulu gave The Mindy Project a second chance. The X-Files is slated on FOX for January. Even The Muppets has been revived in a cynical attempt to boost ABC's ratings. Tonight's premiere of the 13-episode Heroes Reborn, a reboot of NBC's once-popular Heroes, which ran from 2006 to 2010, is just the latest example of a series from the primetime graveyard wandering zombie-like back onto our screens.
None of this is particular surprising. Last season brought us more than 350 scripted shows. This year will see around 400. There are only so many new ideas. Many studios are mining the past, and audiences' nostalgia, for reliably bankable material.
The results, thus far, have been generally disappointing. Arrested Development's convoluted fourth season was a disaster, due somewhat to overwriting, but mostly because the cast, now famous, was too busy to film together, which was glaringly obvious in the final product. With each season (and new network), Community feels like more of a shell of its former self. And on and on.
It's hard not to see these reboots for what they are: flagrant attempts by studios to cash in on our nostalgia. After all, it's an easy way to stand out in the most crowded year television has ever seen, and what studio is going to pass up an easy buck?
I should say: Reboots aren't always bad. Last year's rehash of 24 was just as exciting as the original. The forthcoming Twin Peaks revival feels like vindication for a show that ended before its story was told. But these examples are few and far between.
And if a series finale is never final, we lose our sense of finality. It's like publishing a novel with a beginning, middle, and end, and then telling everyone a few years later, "Actually that wasn't the ending at all. Buy my new book to find out what really happens." If this mindset catches on, more and more of our stories may never end. If finality becomes simply an option, rather than an expectation, shows could drag on longer than The Big Bang Theory. Or worse,The Big Bang Theory itself may never end.
One reason why LOST and the The Sopranos dwindled in their mid-to-late seasons was because the showrunners didn't know how many seasons they'd be renewed for. With no definite end in sight, the writers had to keep the story moving, without going anywhere. Taken to its extreme, this is just terrible. Imagine if AMC, seeing Breaking Bad's success, asked Vince Gilligan to just keep the show going open-ended forever. Or if they had told him, when ending the show, not to offer audiences a definitive finale, in case they wanted more seasons later on.
That's one reason why the anthology model works so well. Each season of True Detective or American Horror Story is an entirely new show, one that is wrapped up by season's end. Audiences like the finishability of these anthologies. We crave endings — and with stories that begin and end in a single season, we know we'll get finality, and fast.
"All good things must end" is a good adage. It also no longer seems to be reliably true for television. Perhaps a more accurate saying for TV is "All good things must stop being good because they will drag on indefinitely or be revived at any time after their cancellation."
What, you say? That bit of wisdom is too overlong, convoluted, and painfully unnecessary? Well so are these rebooted TV shows.