Netflix's Nostalgia Trips are Squelching TV's Creativity

By Kate Knibbs on at

Netflix is apparently super close to inking a deal to reboot Full House, everyone’s favourite family-oriented sitcom about a grieving widower, his children, and his screw-up adult permanent house-guests leeching off his benevolence and remarkable property in San Francisco. And you know what? Uncles Jesse and Joey aren’t the only leeches in this situation. Netflix has cornered the market on milking '90s nostalgia, and the reboot fever it has inspired in the golden age of TV is bad for the art form and worse for our memories.

Just as the film industry has gravitated towards remakes and reboots because a known quantity is always a safer bet than the unknown, this ballooning roster of resurrected shows is happening because they have built-in audiences, not because the stories are especially compelling or the creators are especially passionate.

Netflix has already ordered reboots of Inspector Gadget and The Magic Schoolbus, so the reintroduction of Kimmy Gibbler into our lives isn’t unprecedented. Far from that, this Full House bid shows that Netflix is seeing how its competitors have recognised how potentially lucrative it can be to be nostalgia vultures, elbowing deeper into the wistful cesspool of sentimentality profiteering.

Netflix isn’t actually producing some of the most highly anticipated upcoming 90s reboots (no, not fucking Coach, though that’s a thing that’s happening). Fox is rebooting The X-Files and Showtime is reviving Twin Peaks, so those networks share some blame. But because Netflix offers a wide variety of older TV shows, like The X-Files and Twin Peaks, it gives these shows a second life and a new audience. And now that television executives realised that Netflix was essentially priming the pump for new decade of reboot material, it’s now open season on '90s TV retreads.

The weirdest thing about the remake fever is that it’s not even a very good scheme, financially. Remakes are considered fairly safe bets because they have that built-in audience, but more often than not, rebooted TV shows flop. So this is a fairly bizarre trend, one that prioritises the asset of a known entity than anything else. In 2009, a former NBC programmer cited how well film remakes do to explain why networks are obsessed with reboots. That thinking clearly holds true here— maybe, just maybe, the rebooted Full House could be like the Jaden Smith remake of The Karate Kid, which pulled in nearly $400/£268 million worldwide.

I’m not saying that these reboots will all be terrible, though I have an abiding fear that Chris Carter will somehow inject even more incomprehensible nonsense into the X-Files mythology and also that Skinner won’t be hot anymore. Some of them may be good! And in some cases, a reboot can be a chance to finish an incomplete story. But as an overall trend, they’re bad for the TV business because they peddle echoes of memories, not creativity.

That these reboots are lazy cash grabs is secondary to the most offensive thing about them, which is that they are reviving dead franchises to appease the fans, not to service the story. When you’re making art just to toss a bone to a nostalgic audience, your art is probably going to suck, and it may impact how people feel about the original content they loved in the first place. I have never seen a franchise revival that was actually good. I will go so far to say the Veronica Mars movie was decent. Other than that: the new Arrested Development was the definition of disappointing. The 2008 X-Files sequel was an anaemic throwaway. And don’t even fucking get me started on the TRAVESTY that is Sex and the City 2, which took a smart, often thoughtful sitcom about four imperfect friends and turned it into a garbage caricature about four awful, comically rich fools.

The bad thing about this is that the fan-service schlock isn’t just that it’s bad— it’s that it is crowding out the possible good. Television studios have finite resources. The more they pour into paying the Olsen twins to cameo on Full House 2.0: DJ Tanner’s Revenge or whatever, the less they have to take risks with original programming.

It’s not impossible to make a work of art that’s a reboot or remake. But it’s a lot harder. Because nostalgia propels these shows back into existence, there’s a certain expectation of fan service for reboots and remakes that doesn’t exist in original work. Sure, yes, The Office (US) was alchemic. But remember the remakes of Hawaii Five-O, Charlie’s Angels, Dallas, 90210, The Bionic Woman, Knight Rider, Get Smart, Love Boat, Melrose Place, or The Fugitive? That’s ten unambiguously rubbish remakes for one good one, and the good one was only good because it veered into its own unique thing.

Movie studios have relied way too heavily on remakes, sequels, and reboots, obsessing over franchising old ideas instead of emphasising new ones. There are execs who buck that trend, like Megan Ellison, but overall, television has become the new stomping ground for auteur showrunners who want creative control, like Jill Soloway, Louis C.K., and Matthew Weiner. This new fixation on ‘90s reboots is troubling because it hints that television studios are jumping on the dubious franchise-obsession gravy train instead of letting dead shows lie and nurturing new ideas.

Whenever I think of nostalgia, I think of Don Draper’s famous “Carousel” pitch during the first season finale of Mad Men (which, of course, you can watch on Netflix). Nostalgia is a potent emotion, as the ad man says. But it’s important to remember that in Mad Men, he’s evoking nostalgia in a sales pitch in order to sell people something. The emotion is secondary. It’s not about the beauty of memories. It’s about making money. It’s unlikely that Mad Men will get a reboot in the near future, since creator Matthew Weiner is famously protective of his work. And that’s a good thing. Most stories don’t need to be told twice, and they especially don’t need to be revived primarily to suck money from the sentimental.

Whatever happened to predictability? Apparently, it’s coming back with a vengeance.

Image via Much Music