2017's TV Reboot Obsession Actually Had One Unexpected Upside

Chris Haston/NBC; Showtime; Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO

Peak TV has, in many ways, reinvigorated the creative landscape: Binge culture has revolutionized the way we consume television, and many series are now regarded with the same reverence usually reserved for prestige films. That's paved the way for a lot of truly exceptional storytelling, but it's also unearthed a precarious trend: The inability to let things go. Re-examine the 2017 TV slate and you'll find a rash of aging titles. Long-dead shows like Star Trek, Twin Peaks, and Dynasty all found new life in the last year, while programs like Big Little Lies and 13 Reasons Why — both originally billed as mini-series — received widely contested renewals. Even true crime, which has been a steady presence since the water cooler triumph of Making A Murderer in 2015, has, quite literally, been done to death. You can only retread a cold case so many times before it stales. So what's behind TV's continued tendency to renew, reboot, and revive familiar stories? Are we eternally nostalgic, or have we simply run out of ideas?

At its root, it seems to be a numbers game. According to FX chief John Landgraf — TV's designated sage — as of August, 342 scripted programs had aired across broadcast, cable, and streaming services in 2017, putting the industry on track to reach a landmark 500 by year's end. That's up from 455 in 2016 and 216 in 2010, per IndieWire, meaning that if things stay on pace, that tally will have nearly tripled within a 10-year span. That makes for a TV market that's as oversaturated as it is insatiable. Platforms are under constant pressure to reel in viewers, but even as they race to up supply, the demand often outweighs their output. Even Netflix, the veritable golden child of television, can lose traction within the time it takes to marathon their latest season. One lazy weekend and it's onto the newest show du jour.

In the era of Peak TV, attention is currency, and networks are betting safer, not bigger. From the inevitable debate over whether or not reboots are warranted to the endless stream of requests, gripes, and suggestions that soon follow, familiar titles garner more buzz on name recognition alone. Just look to the flood of reactions that have poured in within the 24 hours since news dropped of a potential Office reboot. Ultimately, the follow through is only part of the strategy at work here; people will talk either way.

For executives, that cuts ad dollars; for viewers, it cuts effort. Whether or not you watched the source material for the reboot in question, it's likely you have at least a general sense of who the characters are, the kind of stories they might tell, if they'd appeal to your sensibilities, and all of those other discerning factors that usually determine which series you choose to spend your time on. And if done well, reboots can pull double the weight: attracting fan bases both new and previously established, and reigniting interest in old episodes that might still be turning profits.

But there's also something to be said about timing. As a culture, we're in constant conversation with art: revising, reevaluating, reinventing. So it makes sense that some of 2017's best television has been defined by some variation of "re-" too. The Handmaid's Tale repurposed an '80s-born dystopia as an urgent plea for female autonomy; both Alias Grace and The Keepers reclaimed the voices of women long lost to time; and Big Little Lies revitalized an underappreciated 2014 novel that bands women together against misogyny and violence. In a year bookended by women speaking up for themselves and speaking out against their abusers, that feels much more than relevant — it feels required.

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It's in instances like these, in which we can gain a deeper understanding of our present by revisiting our past, that our obsession with old stories becomes clearest. Of course, not all re-whatevers are created equal. Will & Grace, once a pioneering force for gay representation, has since regressed to a harmless but hopelessly dated sitcom, and last year's X-Files revival nearly tarnished a decade's worth of good TV. Time will tell if Big Little Lies and 13 Reasons Why can deliver the second seasons they claim they can, but ultimately, it won't matter: Executives will continue to greenlight familiar properties, and audiences will continue to consume them. All we can hope for is that, in the midst of it, we find those few, magical series that renew our faith in storytelling and make it worth the while. 2017 may be the year we refused to let TV shows die, but it's also the one in which we brought several truly special, forgotten stories back to life.