From 'Get Smart' to 'The Love Boat,' remakes have rarely succeeded on the small screen
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With revamps of classic series Hawaii Five-O, Charlie’s Angels, Dallas, and 90210 all set to air this upcoming TV season, it’s fair to say that programming execs have been bit by the nostalgia bug. Last week, it was announced that a remake of the ‘60s sitcom Bewitched could join that crowd, with CBS ordering a script for a pilot based on the magical housewife and her harried husband’s now-famous domestic hijinx. It’s a curious move, not only because an attempt to take Bewitched to the big-screen flopped in 2005 (with Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell as the leads), but because TV remakes in general have an abysmal track record on TV.
Sleek, hip, and expensive relaunches of The Bionic Woman (which in 1978 starred an indestructible Lindsay Wagner) and Knight Rider (the ‘80s series in which a pre-Baywatch David Hasselhoff talks to his crime-fighting car) were high-profile disappointments for NBC in 2007 and 2008, respectively. The one-two punch of failure would be the cautionary tale against remaking TV classics—had attempts at reviving Get Smart, Love Boat, and Melrose Place (among others) not tanked spectacularly before them. Given the graveyard of TV remakes haunting Hollywood, why do networks keep churning them out?
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For starters, there’s the ever-important buzz that follows the initial announcement of these projects. From the inevitable “good idea or bad idea” debate to the numerous unsolicited casting suggestions, a TV remake instantly garners more press and attention than any other new series. With a crowded slate of freshman shows jockeying for those few breakout slots each season, that early chatter can be invaluable to a network. Look, for example, to the magnifying glass placed on every leaked video, casting scoop, and—most importantly—wardrobe detail in this fall’s planned Wonder Woman reboot. A mass-internet evisceration of star Adrianne Palicki in costume as the titular superhero may have led to its eventual demise, as the show did not get picked up this fall. On the flip side, endless interviews with the stars and creators of NBC’s new Charlie’s Angels series, about how this version of the crimefighting drama will differ from the ‘70s version, has garnered the show more press ink than perhaps any other series this fall. The topic of conversation—what’s going to change in the new version—is built into the remake’s very existence.
TV remakes need to retain viewers once the initial hype fades; movies, on the other hand, don't need audiences to come back for 22 weeks of repeat viewingsThere’s also the presumed fanbase that follows a recognizable brand or franchise. With cutthroat competition for every audience demographic, networks are eager to capitalize on whatever built-in audience it imagines there to be for a TV series that it’s considering. These remakes of classic shows are pre-sold concepts. From Melrose Place to Dallas , these series had rabid fan bases and legendary status. The original fans may have aged, but will likely tune in for nostalgic reasons. New viewers could be drawn in based on the reputation of the original, and the opportunity to join the pop culture conversation surrounding the franchise. It’s largely the same reason why studios are constantly green-lighting further installments of beloved movie franchises. It’s also why Hollywood has mined TV’s greatest hits, from Charlie’s Angels to Get Smart to The Flintstones, for movie adaptations.
Yet unlike film reboots and updates, which are often successful, these TV versions are routine failures. Hawaii Five-O can be considered successful, though its ratings are not on par with what CBS had projected, and 2007’s revival of Battlestar Galactica was certainly critically respected, if only watched by a small, passionate few. One reason these remakes work on the big screen is that initial intrigue that was mentioned earlier. Often the TV reboots are hot commodities when they premiere in the fall, debuting to big ratings. But the curiosity wanes as viewers realize it’s not the same viewing experience as watching David Hasselhoff in Knight Rider or lacks the campiness of the original
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So the current onslaught of TV reboots have their work cut out for them. It seems that no matter what approach shows in this genre go with—a straightforward remake, a stylized modernization, picking up where the original left off—they fizzle out quickly. The Charlie’s Angels pilot has been making rounds with critics, who are lukewarm on the decidedly more aggressive version of the ‘70s classic. A short teaser for TNT’s Dallas reboot was similarly divisive, with some wondering how well the dated family politics that make up the backbone of the drama will hold up. And as for the planned Bewitch revival? The jury’s still out on whether a sitcom that was so inextricably of its time will need anything short of a magical twitch of the nose to make it successful.