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The Neverending Story: Has TV’s Reboot Obsession Gone Too Far?

The onslaught of revivals, prequels, sequels and more shows no signs of slowing down. But TV and film creators are taking a bigger gamble than they think by revisiting familiar — and beloved — stories

Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) of 'Deadwood,' Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) of 'The Sopranos,' and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) of 'Breaking Bad' are all getting do-overs.

Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) of 'Deadwood,' Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) of 'The Sopranos,' and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) of 'Breaking Bad' are all getting do-overs.

Shutterstock (2); AMC

What is dead may never die.

This is a religious oath recited often by the people of the Iron Islands on Game of Thrones. It is also increasingly the guiding ethos of Hollywood development, where any familiar title, no matter how sacrosanct it might have once seemed, is ripe for a sequel, a prequel, a reboot or all of the above. This includes Game of Thrones itself, which is due to end next year but has a prequel in active development, and several other potential spinoffs waiting in the wings if that one works out OK.

Showbiz has been gripped with Zombie TV fever for years. Revivals and remakes are seen as an easy way to cut through the clutter of a universe with hundreds of original scripted shows airing each year: Oh look, here’s Will and Grace are swapping banter like they always did, Roseanne and Jackie arguing in the kitchen (until a few too many racist tweets). Sometimes, these continuations turn out to be great, like large chunks of Twin Peaks: The Return. At others, they can be flawed in ways that make the audience reconsider the original show’s legacy. (Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, for instance, had a lot of fans asking if Rory was always so awful, or had just become that way as an adult.)

Last Monday, production officially began on the Deadwood reunion movie that’s been promised in some form literally since HBO canceled the show back in 2006. That came a few weeks after the news that a sequel to creator David Milch’s other masterpiece, NYPD Blue, was in the works (without Milch’s involvement), focusing on Andy Sipowicz’s now-adult son Theo (while killing off Andy himself). And the following night, The Albuquerque Journal broke the news that a Breaking Bad movie was in the works — which reports suggest will focus on what happened to Jesse Pinkman after the events of the series finale. Vince Gilligan (who already returned to the Heisenberg-verse with the prequel series Better Call Saul) is reportedly writing and producing it, though it’s not clear whether he’ll direct, nor even if it’s meant to be a theatrical production or — like the trio of Rick Grimes films that AMC announced moments after Andrew Lincoln left The Walking Dead — made for television.

Back in 2012, I wrote a book called The Revolution Was Televised, using the behind-the-scenes stories of 12 different groundbreaking dramas to illustrate the transformation in television this century on the road to Peak TV. By now, half of those shows (including Deadwood, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 24, Battlestar Galactica and Breaking Bad) have been revived in some form or other, multiple times in some cases. Even The Sopranos has a prequel film in development, The Many Saints of Newark, whose title and Sixties setting suggests it will revolve around Christopher Moltisanti’s dad. This is, again, the way television has been trending for some time. But it feels like we’ve gone through the looking glass, where the surprising thing now is when a beloved show doesn’t eventually return to life in some form.

It’s not hard to see why both content consumers and content creators remain hungry for this. With so many shows and movies to choose from, decision paralysis can set in, and it’s just easier to settle on a familiar title, particularly if it comes with familiar faces. We love these stories and these characters, and are often glad to spend more time with them, even if they’re not what they were at their or their shows’ peak. NYPD Blue holds a very sacred place in my personal and professional lives, and my enthusiasm for this Theo Sipowicz idea is tepid at best, but I’m also going to watch every minute of it to see which other characters and references from the original series appear.

The studios look at Andy or Jesse or Jack Bauer as intellectual property to be extended and exploited as long as possible (case in point: Disney just announced plans for a prequel series to Rogue One, which was already a prequel to the first Star Wars film), but there’s also a sense of creators being unable to let go of their greatest works, even if they end up just working in the margins of the story they already told. A Year in the Life was Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s attempt to tell the stories she couldn’t when she quit before the original show’s final season. (Part of the reunion’s problem is that those stories said very different things about the characters than they would have a decade prior.) Milch has been trying to wrap up the story of all the Deadwood citizens ever since HBO canceled the show before he was ready. Twin Peaks‘ ABC run ended on a cliffhanger that took a quarter century to resolve.

But we’re also seeing close-ended masterpieces — iconic stories that were great in large part because they had a beginning, middle and end — getting the brand extension treatment. Walter White’s story was told masterfully and definitively, but Gilligan and friends have continued exploring the lives of Saul, Mike, Gus and now Jesse before and after the events of Breaking Bad. Whatever you believe happened when The Sopranos cut to black in that ice cream parlor, Tony Soprano’s tale was clearly finished.

Should the very best shows of all time be placed under glass when they’re done, so that we can admire what they were without someone — whether the original creative team or a corporate executive browsing through library titles — being allowed to continually change and add to what’s there? It’s complicated. Better Call Saul initially seemed like a terrible idea — even Gilligan has admitted he plunged forward with it despite not knowing what exactly the show would be, because he was afraid to take a breather after the success of Breaking Bad. Yet in time, the show (particularly the half focused on Jimmy/Saul himself) has come to rival — and, in the minds of some viewers, surpass — its parent series. And if there’s a flaw to be found in that final BB season, it’s that Jesse became relatively marginalized after previous years had elevated him nearly to equal narrative status with Walt; this movie idea feels as much of a chance for Gilligan to right a wrong as Milch and company finally returning to the Deadwood thoroughfare. When Matt Zoller Seitz and I interviewed David Chase at length for our upcoming Sopranos book, his answers were those of a man who felt satisfied that the original series was a closed unit, while also being fiercely protective of its legacy. He declined to discuss The Many Saints of Newark, but however much it ultimately features Tony’s parents or uncle, it both seems like it will be its own thing, as well as a good enough idea that Chase would risk associating it with his most beloved and hallowed work.

There is, unfortunately, no hard and fast rule for this kind of thing, even when it comes to the Hall of Famers. Most classic television is a product of a specific time in the lives of the characters, the creators and the audience, but some shows like Twin Peaks are able to transcend eras for all three. You can’t even say definitively that it’s OK so long as the original creator is involved. That way lies the Star Wars prequels and special editions, or the Gilmore Girls sequel.

In an ideal world, all of these people would go on to create wholly new works that surprise and delight us as much as the ones they keep returning to, but that can be dicey as well. Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore follow-ups Bunheads and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel have been terrific, while Milch followed the cancellation of Deadwood with the inscrutable John From Cincinnati and the uneven but occasionally brilliant Luck. Chase spent years developing an HBO miniseries about the early days of the movie business but couldn’t get it made, where he could get a studio to greenlight this Sopranos-adjacent project.

Ultimately, you have to hope that all these sequels and prequels and spinoffs are able to even occasionally recreate the magic of the original, and that they don’t retroactively taint your feelings about what came before. What is dead may never die, but let’s hope it doesn’t kill your memories in the bargain.

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