Trends reappear as quickly as they disappear, and nostalgia remains our one true love. I dread the return of low-rise flared jeans, but those ’90s on 9 throwback jams keep me alive. One thing we’ll never give up: the same television shows.
Slated for fall TV season beginning this month, Murphy Brown (CBS), Magnum P.I. (CBS), The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Netflix’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch revival) and Charmed (CW) join other reboots Will & Grace, The Conners (Roseanne’s replacement), MacGyver (CBS), Hawaii Five-0 (CBS) and Dynasty (CW).
Wait, did we turn back time?
TV viewership is more fragmented than ever. With so much to choose from, networks struggle to get more than a few million to watch a single episode. Not counting football, the most popular scripted show from the five major networks during the 2017-18 season was Roseanne, ousting The Big Bang Theory, which is finally ending after this season, from the top spot. An average 21 million people watched the comeback sitcom, according to Forbes, but more on that later.
Of the almost 100 scripted shows from the big five networks last season, according to Deadline, more than half saw only about 2 million to 6 million viewers.
Compare that to ER’s most watched episode when a dashing George Clooney saved a drowning boy from a storm drain, which had 48 million people glued to their couches in 1995. However, only 16 million of us watched the finale in 2009.
Make your choice. This season, you can watch a new critically acclaimed show about vengeful robots. Or, you can look to the proven past.
Recommendation No. 1
It’s 2:21 a.m., and I couldn’t sleep. I was deep into a TV binge, probably on Season 11 or 12, or maybe even 13. Who can say?
Abbie (Maura Tierney) was pouting about something. I was getting really sick of the silly love triangle between Neela (Parminder Nagra), Ray (Shane West) and Tony (John Stamos). I really missed Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards). How did I get here?
Earlier this year, Hulu started streaming the Emmy-winning medical drama. After years of waiting, viewers could relive the delightful absurdity and drama of Chicago’s County General Hospital on a streaming service. The series ran from 1994 to 2009 and went through many questionable cast changes and ridiculous plot lines.
It was the first real TV show I watched as a ’90s kid. My mom and I watched every episode on Thursdays. I stopped when Dr. Romano, the show’s best villain, had his arm chopped off by a helicopter in Season 9. But my mom watched all 15 seasons.
So when she came to visit recently, I was just beginning my ER crusade. We had to watch a few episodes together, for old time’s sake. WhenDr. Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle) got his blood tested, my mom asked if I knew my blood type.
"B positive?" I said, hesitantly.
"Yep. You, me, your sister and your father are all B positive. That’s sort of rare," my mom replied. "You should donate blood."
I know, I know. But I had to finish all 250 hours of ER first.
• • •
With a daunting 400 scripted series presently airing, it’s no wonder we fall back on what we know. And reruns are huge moneymakers. For example, since entering syndication in 1995, Seinfeld made $3.1 billion, according to the Financial Times.
Reruns have always been part of our lives, as background noise, and a comforting presence. Before Tivo or Netflix, reruns also helped us catch up on shows we missed during first-run air times.
Now we have many ways to schedule TV on our own time. But as our rerun habits shift to streaming, cable networks such as TNT and USA, which relied on heavy rotation of old crime procedurals, are changing their syndication model and are insteadbuying the rights to movie franchises, like Harry Potter and Star Wars. Don’t worry, though. It’s written in scripture that a Law & Order episode must be playing at all times.
Recommendation No. 2
Cable networks hook you with endless reruns. I’ve lost plenty of weekends to some version of Cold Law: CSI Minds Beyond Murder Show. But don’t disregard their attempts at quality original programming. Most of those quirky procedurals don’t get much love from critics, however, viewers love ’em.
Recently, I asked some of my married friends what they were watching.
"We couldn’t decide so we just started watching Psych again."
In 2006, Psych opened with heck of a premise. Part buddy comedy, part crime show, the USA hourlong series sounded incredibly stupid. Some witty dude (James Roday) with clever observational skills tricks the police into thinking he’s got psychic powers. Naturally, he helps solves crimes, with his reluctant bestie (Dule Hill) next to him. These clever sleuths delighted us for eight seasons.
The show, currently streaming on Amazon Prime, doesn’t take itself too seriously, which makes it perfect for almost everyone. Fans loved it so much that they got a Psych movie last year. Roday, who will star in ABC’s new cry-fest drama A Million Little Things, hinted at the possibility of another movie at the Television Critics Association event last month. Could Shawn and Gus be back? I have a premonition they will.
• • •
With consumer control in mind, the CW partnered exclusively with Netflix. Its shows start streaming eight days after the season finale so viewers can use the summer to catch up. Few people watched Riverdale’s premiere season in 2016, but thanks to that Netflix deal, its second season saw a 147 percent increase, according toCW president Mark Pedowitz.
The CW added competitive Sunday nights to its calendar, when you can watch the Charmed revival starring a new family trio of witches starting Oct. 14. The Aaron Spelling original aired on the WB for eight seasons and is currently streaming on Netflix. However, original sisters Shannen Doherty, Holly Marie Combs and Alyssa Milano aren’t happy about this nostalgia trip.
In a statement, Combs said, "I will never understand what is fierce, funny or feminist in creating a show that basically says the original actresses are too old to do a job they did 12 years ago."
Recommendation No. 3
You know what show you’ll never be able to re-create? Friends. Its unoriginal setup made household names out of its six relatively unknown actors back in 1994. Most of them have said they don’t want to do a reboot, probably because they’re making bank from its nonstop rerun rotation, including on Nick at Nite.
I was raised on Nickelodeon’s nighttime marathon of classic shows. I wrinkled my nose like Elizabeth Montgomery; at recess I tossed my hat in the air like Mary Tyler Moore. New generations fell in love with these timeless shows and charming characters.
But #kidsthesedays are falling asleep to such classics as Two and a Half Men, George Lopez and Friends. How will they ever get a Vitameatavegamin reference? (I Love Lucy is streaming on Amazon Prime, Hulu and CBS All Access, by the way.)
Netflix has all 10 seasons of Friends so now we can watch Rachel, Ross, Monica, Phoebe, Joey and Chandler commercial-free. That’s all we really want from our mindless TV. And ashow about 20-somethings hanging out is just that.
• • •
Networks are also now trying to woo back beloved actors to relaunch old shows. And you can thank Full House. The family sitcom, which premiered on ABC in 1987 to terrible reviews, gained extreme popularity with viewers. The reboot, Fuller House, stars most of its original cast, and critics were not nice when it premiered in 2016.
Tim Surette of TV.com wrote, "Fuller House is sugary garbage that might drive you to madness if you watch enough of it, which is to say it honors its predecessor ... incredibly well."
Three seasons later, fans are still watching. Netflix never releases audience numbers, so we speculate success on season renewals.
In contrast, ABC’s most recent reboot, Roseanne, had great reviews when it premiered a year after Full House, and shot straight to the top of the Nielsen ratings. The blue-collar sitcom struggled in its final seasons, and eventually was canceled in 1997. Still, we were all suspicious, yet excited, for last fall’s reboot with all the old actors. There was a twist, naturally. Roseanne the character would be a Donald Trump supporter. Critics were split about the relaunch, but the most-watched show was renewed.
However, after the fallout from a racist tweet by the show’s star, ABC quickly canceled Roseanne. The network needed to fill that Tuesday night time slot, and hoped it could still have a successful franchise. But the alphabet network is being tight-lipped about the new spinoff — The Conners — starring everyone except Roseanne Barr.
Recommendation No. 4
The longevity of a show can depend on how it holds up as society shifts. Shows can fail the test of time, and turn #problematic.
But do we care? I sure didn’t when I launched into Desperate Housewives on Hulu after immediately finishing the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale. I needed some soapy feminism after screaming at Offred.
We welcomed four suburban women into our homes in 2004, which was a banner year for ABC with Lost, Grey’s Anatomy and Boston Legal. It was Twin Peaks meets Sex and the City and viewers — 21.3 million watched that first night — and critics were pleased.
The housewives played the antihero trope well before Walter White and Don Draper. The drama skillfully shifted from romantic high jinks to a juicy thriller.
I’m just about to start its last season, again. I wish Susan (Teri Hatcher) wasn’t always defined by men. I wish Carlos hadn’t been such a cringe-worthy misogynist. I wish the female cast wasn’t pit against each other in the press. And I really, really wish Betty Applewhite’s sons — Wisteria Lane’s first black family — hadn’t been terrifying murderers.
Despite its issues, Desperate Housewives is one of those guilty pleasures that can’t be replicated — or rebooted. Its finale was as tidy as Bree Van de Camp’s home, giving each family a picture-perfect ending.
But one day, I wish to find my own Tom Scavo (Doug Savant).
• • •
Viewers might have lost their minds if Carrie and Big didn’t end up together. If Sam really left his true love — the bar — behind. When you watch a live show, you’re taking the risk that there might not be an ending. It could get canceled on a cliffhanger. I’m still not over My So-Called Life’s ending. But we can’t let the fear of striking out keep us from playing the game, right?!
That’s why when beginning a show, it’s comforting to find one with an ending.
When you talk about series finales, we have to bring up M.A.S.H. It’s the most watched, with 105.9 million people watching in 1983. A mere 103.4 million viewers watched this year’s Super Bowl.
But what if that ending is frustrating? Why didn’t Kevin marry Winnie? Everyone expected all the answers from Lost. Michael C. Hall’s Dexter probably got the worst ending out there, becoming a lumberjack after a lifetime slicing human bodies.
They may have finished on sour notes, but fans hold those shows close. We know the ending isn’t the best part. It’s the journey, you guys.
Recommendation No. 5
So where were you when everything went black?
It was an ending that divided fans, but even if you haven’t watched the HBO series, it’s not like that information spoils anything.
Ushering in the white guy antihero trend, Tony Soprano quickly became our favorite mafioso in 1999. Well, not mine. My parents wouldn’t let their 12-year-old watch it, "because they said the f-word a lot — in a great New Jersey accent," said my dad.
It’s his favorite show, so as his youngest daughter napped in the other room, I asked him to send me his review:
"I appreciated how hard Tony struggled with his two lives. During my generation, the father’s role in his family evolved quite a bit. No longer could dads get away with being the breadwinner and having everything else taken care of by their wives. We had to switch hats during the car ride home and be an involved parent. From changing diapers to having heart-to-hearts with daughters, dads were now sharing the parenting load.
"In most professions, the transition from work to home was manageable. But in Tony’s case, he had to bust heads (or worse, much worse) over a late loan payment and then come home and discipline his own disrespectful kids with sensitivity and understanding.
"As a dad of our times, I really felt how hard that was for him. James Gandolfini was simply amazing. I’ve seen a whole lot of family TV shows and I, of course, have always focused on the father character. From Beaver Cleaver’s dad all the way through Dan Conner of Roseanne, no father character was ever as well conceived or portrayed as Tony."
All six seasons of The Sopranos are streaming on HBO Go/Now and Amazon Prime.
• • •
Familiarity is easy. It’s your favorite dish at every restaurant. It’s your favorite band’s farewell tour.
With so much to watch, we don’t really care what other people like. We’re just not watching the same stuff anymore. And it’s kind of lonely. So now that networks are bringing back all our old favorites again, maybe we’ll begin to.
Or not. Let’s just take the hint and watch the originals. After all, we’ve got our time-traveling TV devices.
Contact Brittany Volk at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @bevolk.