Thanks to HBO, Showtime, Netflix, FX, Amazon, AMC, Hulu, and numerous other small-screen outlets, we’re now firmly ensconced in the age of “Peak TV,” a bountiful period of AAA-grade serialized dramas and comedies that have made “binge-watching” a cultural phenomenon and have threatened to steal the water-cooler spotlight away from their big-screen brethren. It’s a joyous era in which one must-see show after another is available at the press of a remote’s button—or a finger-swipe across a tablet or phone—and it’s been fostered by networks and streaming outlets’ support of creative artists’ original projects. Virtually every week, there’s some new, boundary-pushing show arriving to satiate couch potatoes’ insatiable appetites. And yet just as it’s reaching its apex, Peak TV—courtesy of the new, thoroughly underwhelming The X-Files, as well as the forthcoming updates to Full House, Gilmore Girls, Deadwood, Arrested Development, and Pee-Wee Herman—seems in danger of falling into the very rut it’s so far cannily avoided.
I speak of the Remake and its diabolical conjoined twin, the Revival, those most odious and corrupting of entertainment entities. 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.
And yet Peak TV is now increasingly harboring unhealthy interest in the Remake and the Revival, and thus of following in the misbegotten footsteps of Hollywood, which this year will saddle audiences with myriad do-overs or continuations of old properties. Having sat around gathering dust in studio vaults for years (if not decades), these aged franchises will now be unearthed for reclamation-project efforts built upon their established reputations—think Zoolander 2, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, Independence Day: Resurgence, Finding Dory, Ghostbusters, Bridget Jones’ Baby, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, Bad Santa 2, and Super Troopers 2. Who said Hollywood never saw a horse it didn’t want to viciously beat to death?
Peak TV was supposed to be different. It was built upon the idea that the way to attract eyeballs, and engender fervent loyalty, is by nurturing and championing all sorts of diverse, novel concepts. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Knick, The Walking Dead, Downton Abbey, The Americans, Jessica Jones, Game of Thrones, The Leftovers, Louie, Billions, Empire, American Crime, Bloodline, Black-ish, Narcos, The Flash, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Silicon Valley, Penny Dreadful, The Man in the High Castle, and countless other beloved binge-watchy series are so enthralling because they’re guided by distinctive artists (showrunners, directors, writers, actors) working in uncharted territory—or, at least, in traditional genres that they’ve warped in idiosyncratic ways. Even when Peak TV has tangentially embraced the Remake-Revival, most notably with FX’s Fargo, it’s done so in such an inspired reinvention-collage manner that the effect has been to shine a wholly illuminating angle on familiar material.
But now, we have the resurrected X-Files, whose first episode was so derivative, clunky and lethargic—at one point, I swear I caught David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder yawning during his umpteenth bit of exposition-for-newbies dialogue—that it not only set a rock-bottom tone for the rest of the six-episode run, but it threw into stark relief how blissfully free of nostalgic regurgitation Peak TV has up to this point been. It’s not that there’s no throwback pleasure to be had from spending time with UFO-loving Mulder and his scientific sidekick, Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully; in fact, the series’ third episode, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” was wink-wink funny enough to momentarily suggest that there might still be some life left in the series. And it’s true that, as one of the shows that set the template for ongoing mythology-based storytelling, The X-Files is fit for today’s serialized-TV format.
Yet there’s a reason that, after 10 seasons and two feature films, The X-Files went into extended hibernation beginning in 2008—it had run its course, completely. The same is even more true of Full House and Gilmore Girls, two shows whose return engagements are about as necessary as the reappearance of polio. And while it’s not quite true of David Milch’s beloved Deadwood—which was abruptly cancelled by HBO, without time for a proper send-off, in 2006—even that show has been dormant for so long that the now-apparently-greenlit TV-movie reunion is almost destined to feel like a too-little, too-late gesture. That’s because almost no ideas are worth perpetuating ad infinitum; doing so invariably turns them repetitive, and stale. Creatively speaking, movie franchises and TV series never have enough life in them to continue indefinitely—and if they choose to do so, the reason isn’t because they contain untapped potential, but because producers and studios recognize that fans’ wistfulness can be persistently mined for profit.
Even though Remake-Revivals are frequently guided by their original creators, the results (as with the shambolic Netflix-exclusive fourth season of Arrested Development in 2013) generally resemble, in quality, something like a late album from The Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd—the band is back together, but the magic is (mostly) gone. Though there are exceptions to this rule (most recently, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens), movies like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Tron: Legacy, Psycho 2, Texasville, Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights, Escape From L.A. or—*shudder*—Blues Brothers 2000 confirm that, when they come back, favorite characters and storylines usually aren’t as great as you remembered them. Because they’re older. And dimmer. And they’re stuck going through the same old motions. And saying the same old things. Except this time with more hey-remember-that! self-consciousness.
Remake-Revivals are, by and large, cynical products designed only to exploit past warm-and-fuzzy emotions for some ratings and buzz, not to provide the types of genuine edge-of-your-seat thrills and drama that so many fresh shows now deliver on a regular basis. It’s those types of unique endeavors that have begat our cup-runneth-over contemporary small-screen landscape—and which we must now carefully safeguard, lest we trade in our glorious Peak TV present for a future built according to the blueprints of the dreary Hollywood sequel machine.