Reboot mania takes over as TV networks struggle to woo viewers

The influx of rebooted sitcoms may seem like desperation or a lack of creativity, but it appears to be a winning formula for networks and viewers.

Roseanne is latest reboot on offer and plenty more nostalgic remakes on the way

Roseanne Barr, left, and John Goodman appear in a scene from the reboot of Roseanne premiering on Tuesday evening, more than 20 years after the series wrapped. (Adam Rose/ABC via Associated Press)

The plaid couch dominating the living room, with its colourful afghan hanging over the back, is a sign we could be back in the 1990s, watching Roseanne Barr play the loudmouth matriarch of the blue-collar Conner family on the small screen. 

But the dialogue of the new reboot of ABC's Roseanne proves this version is firmly entrenched in 2018 — and its politics. 

"What's up, deplorable?" Jackie, sporting a T-shirt with Nasty Woman written across it, says to her sister, in one episode. Others deal with declined credit cards, the lack of jobs, and the high cost of prescription drugs. 

Roseanne is the latest reboot fighting for viewers' attention by treading the line between familiarity and reinventing the show for a modern audience with too many channels to choose from. 

It doesn't hurt that the full original cast has signed on, including both actresses who played daughter Becky. Several high-profile former guest stars will also make appearances. 

Murphy Brown originally aired from Nov. 14, 1988, to May 18, 1998, for a total of 247 episodes. The program starred Candice Bergen, centre, as the titular character. (CBS)

Roseanne fan Sarah Lashbrook certainly doesn't need any convincing to tune in. 

"There are so many reboots out there and I roll my eyes at some of them," Lashbrook said.

"But a show like this that just takes everyday situations that have happened throughout generations and that are still happening now ... I think that right now, in this day and age, it's something that we need to see again." 

A trend that's here to stay

Aside from Roseanne, CBS recently announced it will bring back Murphy Brown, the sitcom centred on a feisty broadcast journalist, played by Candice Bergen, and her reporting team at the fictional FYI weekly news show.

Production on the 13-episode run begins in the summer, with most of the program's original cast back in their roles. 

The same network has also ordered remakes of two hit shows from the 1980s: Magnum P.I. and Cagney & Lacey. Netflix is bringing back Sabrina the Teenage Witch and CW has ordered a pilot to revive the sisterly witch tale, Charmed.

It may seem like desperation or a lack of creativity but it's also simple economics, according to Michael Schneider of IndieWire, a website for filmmakers and moviegoers.

"The batting average is probably better for these reboots than it is for any other kinds of shows," Schneider said. "That's why you're just going to keep seeing more and more."

Eric McCormack, second from right, called reuniting with the rest of the Will & Grace cast 'a magic carpet ride' while speaking in Los Angeles. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Recent success stories include the revived Will & Grace. The first episode pulled in more than 10 million viewers and made the show NBC's top comedy this season.

"We knew we could be these characters again," said Eric McCormack, the Canadian actor who portrays Will Truman on the show. Speaking at the Paley Center for Media's Los Angeles festival, he acknowledged feeling pressure to succeed.

"I feel like this [reboot] has been a magic carpet ride."

'You've got to cut through the clutter'

Reboots such as Fuller House, The X-Files, and the very popular 2010 remake of Hawaii Five-0 that convinced traditional broadcast networks that there's a hunger for the familiar. 

"You've got to cut through the clutter," Schneider said. "We've got more channels now. We've got more streaming services and they all want to make noise. The quickest way to make noise is to bring back something that we all loved in our youth."

Both David Duchovny, left, as Fox Mulder and Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully, returned to star in FOX's new version of The X-Files.' (Ed Araquel/FOX via Associated Press)

Networks save on marketing costs because the shows they're bringing back are already so familiar. It's an upside that counters the higher salaries they need to fork out to convince stars to reprise old roles.

Then there's the cost of paying a show's original writers and creators, who at times have nothing to do with the second rendition of an old classic. 

Rachel Langer, who was on the writing team for a reboot of ReBoot, a Canadian computer-animated classic from the 90s, said writers need to make sure the contracts they sign take into account any and all future adaptations across various mediums. 

"If you have made the right kind of deal, you're able to make a living from something you made a long time ago and [see] it come back and be revised and renewed and refreshed," said Langer, who is based in Vancouver.

How old hits stay fresh 

The struggle is keeping a reboot fresh, without tampering with the nostalgia. 

Some shows opt to tackle the current political climate head on, as Roseanne and Will & Grace have done. Others remake their scenarios taking the news cycle into account, such as the remake of Party of Five, which will focus on a family of deported immigrant parents. 

A sneak peek at an animated version of Corner Gas's character Brent,played by Brent Butt, was unveiled late last year. (Corner Gas/YouTube)

One of Canada's most successful television sitcoms, Corner Gas, is instead changing its format and going animated when it returns on April 2.

"This is almost like the unleashing of Corner Gas to let it be the cartoon it always was in my mind," said creator and star Brent Butt.

"It just felt like Corner Gas but with a fresh new vibe to it." 

About the Author

Salimah Shivji

Journalist

Salimah Shivji is a journalist with the national arts and entertainment unit.