In what might be my favorite headline ever written, the A.V. Club's review of "Fuller House" reads, "Netflix's 'Fuller House' is like a porn parody without the porn."
I think about this headline, and the review's central criticism, quite often. While the author likes TV's recent boom of nostalgia-driven reboots, he considers the nostalgia of "Fuller House" to be so contrived and heavy-handed that it "borders on the obscene" — a gratuitous betrayal of the very sincerity that drove its predecessor, "Full House."
That review was written two years ago. TV's nostalgia boom has intensified since then. We've gotten revived versions of "Twin Peaks," "Gilmore Girls," "Will & Grace" and most recently, "Roseanne," which wrangled an astounding 18.1 million viewers last week for its first new episode in more than 20 years. (YouTube even graced us with a new "Karate Kid" series starring Ralph Macchio himself — which, let's be honest, is the most unnecessary reboot of all time.) TV viewers' collective appetite for reboots has never been more insatiable.
When these shows began popping up, I thought the cause was simple: Netflix/Hulu/Amazon/etc. provide such an astounding amount of content that literally any show could get made. "South Park" hilariously highlighted this idea in one episode when Cartman calls Netflix. Cartman's call is sent to a bustling room full of telephone operators who begin each call with, "Netflix. You're greenlit."
"Would you like a pilot, or just go straight to an order of six episodes?" the operator asks, without knowing anything about the TV show Cartman's pitching.
These days, though, streaming services aren't the only ones being so generous with revivals. NBC is now airing the new "Will & Grace," and ABC is airing "Roseanne." "Murphy Brown" is coming back to CBS. If that weren't enough, there's also been buzz about a potential reboot of "The Office." Major networks are joining the action and drawing huge audiences because of it. It's no longer about streaming services needing any kind of content. Currently, it's about viewers really, really wanting a specific kind of nostalgia-driven content.
To me, this is where things get interesting. This boom can't just be about nostalgia generally. Netflix, Hulu and the like all provide everyone's favorite bygone TV shows. If folks simply wanted something familiar, this abundance of old episodes would be more than enough.
Why, exactly, do today's viewers crave seeing their old favorite characters in such new yet predictably familiar situations — especially when these revivals usually pale in comparison to their source material? It's not like we don't have other worthy alternatives. Streaming services have provided more original, nonrevival material than ever before. I thought our current era of abudance would be the very one to make reboots unnecessary. What is breeding our bottomless hunger for new-old shows?
The answer, I think, has more to do with the nature of fandom than just simple nostalgia. Nostalgia plays a part in fandom, and vice versa, but they aren't synonymous terms.
Trying to make sense of our current phenomenon, my thoughts turn to an old episode of "Futurama" called "Where No Fan Has Gone Before." This may seem like a roundabout way to make a point, but stick with me here.
In this episode, a godlike, ethereal being of pure energy named Melllvar kidnaps the principal cast members of "Star Trek: The Original Series" (who are all still alive in the year 3000, albeit as disembodied heads). As it turns out, Melllvar is a total Trekkie and bestows the "Star Trek" cast with new bodies and eternal youth. Great for them, right? Well, not exactly: Melllvar dooms them to live forever in a half-rate Star Trek convention he created. At one point, he even makes the cast recite his awfully written Star Trek fan script.
Yes, Melllvar is a being of seemingly infinite power, yet even he can't recreate that original "Star Trek" magic.
This "Futurama" episode was hilarious when it first aired 16 years ago but feels especially insightful in the context of fandom circa 2018 — and, perhaps, helps us understand why we can't get enough of "Roseanne" and "Gilmore Girls." At the episode's end, the "Star Trek" cast attempts escape, and Melllvar tries to kill them in a fit of rage. One character asks Melllvar, "If they mean that much to you, why do you want to kill them?"
Melllvar finally lets his guard down, answering, "Because I don't know what I'd do without them."
Nostalgia is about missing the past. Fandom is about retrofitting the past to exist in the present, even when we probably shouldn't.
Basically, we're all Melllvar these days. A TV show's continuation, even if it's ill-advised and poorly executed, is still preferable to the alternative: a thing we loved existing only in the past, unchanged by time and circumstance, as life inevitably changes and ages the rest of us.
Maybe these TV reboots aren't about making time stand still. Maybe they are simply society's weird way of acknowledging its own mortality.