2023’s Best and Worst TV Revivals

And the ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s we’ve learned for bringing a show back from the dead
2023’s Best and Worst TV Revivals

As long as media companies think there’s value to be wrung out of their successful old properties, we’re going to have to live with reboots, remakes and revivals. But living with them doesn’t necessarily mean we have to watch them. 

This year started with a sequel to Night Court and ended (more or less) with a sequel to Frasier, with a whole pile of resurrected characters and settings in between. Herewith, a look back at the revival year that was, and some lessons future showrunners can carry forward into their revivals of Who’s The Boss?The Office and any other IP that still has any meat on its bones.

DO: Feel Free to Interpret the Assignment Loosely

The original version of The Wonder Years took some formal risks — though it started off in the late 1960s, it was narrated by the adult version of its protagonist, Kevin (Fred Savage in performance; Daniel Stern in voice-over) looking back from the present day. But despite the structural innovation, the show had about as simple a premise as a sitcom can: a kid grows up in relatively comfortable circumstances in an American suburb. 

When a new take on The Wonder Years premiered in 2021, the same held true: Dean Williams (Elisha “EJ” Williams) is growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, in the late 1960s, in a middle-class Black neighborhood, while adult Dean (Don Cheadle) narrates and commentates. Other than the time period, the only connection to the original series is that, when he’s overseas fighting in Vietnam, Dean’s brother Bruce (Spence Moore II) serves in the same company as a kid named Brian, who gets killed in action; fans of the original will know that Brian is older brother to Winnie (Danica McKellar), Kevin’s longtime crush, although we don’t even find this out until very late in the first season. 

In Season Two, this past summer, the show goes even further afield, temporarily relocating Dean and his father Bill (Dulé Hill) to New York City to tell stories about Dean broadening his horizons far from Montgomery. One of these involves Dean befriending queer neighbor Lonnie (Tituss Burgess), who’s moved from Alabama to work as a drag performer, and whose impact on Dean’s life gives the episode title, “One Small Step,” resonance beyond the moon landing, which also occurs in this episode.

The point: a good sequel (or sidequel) can stretch pretty far from its original inspiration, and even its original setting; maintaining the vibe can be enough.

DON’T: Assume We Care That Much About Our Favorite Characters’ Children

Several of this year’s sequel series took a “next generation” approach, picking up the story we know decades later and revolving around the children of lead characters from the original series from which the new shows spun off. Night Court brought us Abby Stone (Melissa Rauch), the judge daughter of original Night Court judge Harry (the late Harry Anderson); That ’90s Show brought Leia (Callie Haverda) — daughter to Eric (Topher Grace) and Donna (Laura Prepon) of That ’70s Show — back to her parents’ hometown of Point Place, Wisconsin, for a wild summer of grunge music and finding weed stashed all over her grandparents’ basement. And though the new Frasier was, at an early development phase, possibly going to revolve around Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and his brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce) running a theater together, when Pierce ultimately declined to return, the focus shifted to Frasier’s son Freddy (Jack Cutmore-Scott), an occasional guest character on both the original Frasier and on Cheers, from which Frasier spun off. 

Once we’ve all done the math and confirmed that, yes, these offspring are the right age to have been produced by the characters we used to know, it’s kind of a shrug? Aside from the premise of prosecutor-turned-public defender Dan Fielding (John Larroquette) returning to work with her, Judge Abby Stone could be Judge Abby Anybody and the connection to the original show could, Wonder Years-style, just be that they were in the same courtroom. That ’90s Show seems inordinately proud to have gotten back as many of the kid actors from That ’70s Show as it has, risking overshadowing the new kids. Frasier, at least, has put father and son together in every episode, but it’s often just for Freddy to supply the gruff disgust at Frasier that Frasier’s late father Martin (John Mahoney) formerly did. 

We can all wrap our minds around the idea that these characters continued living after their shows ended. We don’t need to see their kids doing the same stuff we’ve already watched their parents doing for hundreds of episodes.

DO: Commit to Your New Characters

Some will say it’s to the detriment of And Just Like That…, the sequel to Sex and the City, that it’s added multiple new friends, colleagues and sometime significant others for the three (of four) ladies who came back to the roles that made them famous in the late 1990s and early aughts. I disagree! Che (Sara Ramírez) has been a figure of fascination since they were introduced in the first season, and if realtor Seema (Sarita Choudhury), filmmaker Lisa (Nicole Ari Parker) and law professor Nya (Karen Pittman) haven’t been able to match Che’s magnetism, it’s just because none of the rest of them were conceived as sexy stealth villains. The second season gave all the new characters meaty material — with the exception of Nya, since Pittman’s schedule was reportedly dominated by the requirements of her role as news producer Mia on The Morning Show; it’s a major reason the show feels like its own entity and not mere bud off the original series. Our holdover trio also got plenty to work with, but the whole cast feels like an ensemble now in a way the first season couldn’t manage. 

DON’T: Ditch Virtually All Your Old Characters

Not to pick on Frasier more than I already did with each episode of its freshman season, but the fact that Frasier is basically the only regular character who made it into his new namesake series is a problem: It’s too much to change all at once. (Yes, Freddy technically crossed over too, but in the first place he was only at recurring guest status in the original series, and in the second, he was played by Trevor Einhorn for most of the original Frasier run, so there’s no continuity there.) 

You don’t have to take my word on this: take Ken Levine’s. A writer on countless sitcoms including Cheers and the original Frasier, Levine used last week’s episode of his podcast, Hollywood & Levine, to explain why the new show doesn’t work — the connections between Frasier and all the new characters, including Freddy, are too loose. There’s no one to push back against Frasier when he’s being ridiculous. If you couldn’t quite put your finger on what was missing, maybe the season (series?) finale made it clear when Roz (Peri Gilpin) arrived for her holiday visit. The way she put Frasier in his place in a very short scene highlighted how none of the regular characters either have the standing to speak to Frasier that way, or just don’t care to. I understand that this show’s producers would probably say they made the best show they could with the people who were available to do it. I would say maybe they should have noted how many people didn’t want to come back and taken it as a sign that the show shouldn’t happen.

DO: Make Comedy Out of Dark Subjects

Party Down, which returned in February for its third season more than a decade after its second, sets its premiere at a party for Kyle (Ryan Hansen) on the eve of his anointment as the newest superhero in a seemingly unstoppable movie franchise. By the closing credits, an offensive video of Kyle has leaked, he’s been fired from the movie and COVID is about to shut down all parties just as Party Down catering company manager Ron (Ken Marino) has bought the company. Later episodes deal with the dangerous allure of vlogging notoriety, the unspoken pain child stars carry and a phony party put on to trick deadbeat dads out of evading their legally mandated responsibilities. On paper, it looks grim; through the season, however, the show feels urgently contemporary and bracingly vital. This is why you bring back a show that’s been dormant for multiple presidential administrations: to say something about the horrors we all live with, and say it in the funniest way possible.

DON’T: Stress Us Out

When you think back on the 1997 feature film The Full Monty, you probably only remember the dancing: montages of men learning exotic dance choreography, sometimes furtively; trying to change their physiques before a big fundraising performance; hitting each other with belts when they actually try to disrobe. You might not remember that an early plot point involves two laid-off steelworkers interrupting a third as he tries to die by suicide in his car — a scene that, amazingly, did elicit shocked laughter from this viewer when I watched it earlier this year. 

When FX on Hulu brought the lads back for a limited series this summer, things in Sheffield have somehow gotten even worse. Gaz (Robert Carlyle) has had a child, but they’re basically estranged. Dave (Mark Addy) and his wife Jean (Lesley Sharp) have secure employment at the local high school, but it’s actively falling apart. And the best chance Gaz has to change his financial situation is to accept a £10,000 payment to kill a famous dog — which is, amazingly, not even the worst canine threat in alleged comedies that I’ve seen in the past year.

It’s one thing to introduce viewers to characters in bleak situations when the context is a film. Either they’re going to work it out, or we will have only spent a couple of hours squirming through their travails. Eight episodes of misery is too much.

DO: Put Things Right That Were Wrong

I had somewhat mixed feelings about the new season of Clone High, Max’s animated series about genetically engineered reproductions of dead world leaders and activists, though ultimately felt that it found its footing by the season’s later episodes. What I can endorse unreservedly is that its creators, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, took the opportunity of a second season to bring their concept in line with mid-2020s sensibilities. The first season, back in 2002, was primarily a spoof of teen TV dramas like Beverly Hills, 90210 and Dawson’s Creek that just happened to feature clones of Joan of Arc (voice of Nicole Sullivan) and Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte); but a second would have to reflect not only a broader swath of characters but a whole new group of comedians of color to voice them. Hence the addition of Harriet Tubman (Ayo Edebiri) and Confucius (Kelvin Yu), among others; hence the recast of Cleopatra from white performer Christa Miller to Iranian-American comedian Mitra Jouhari; and hence the choice to keep Gandhi (voiced by Michael McDonald in the first season) frozen in a meat locker while his classmates were thawed out to return to their classes. It’s a different world; it’s laudable to make different choices.

DON’T: Bother Fixing What Isn’t Broken

The 11th season of Adult Swim’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force aired in 2015. When the 12th premiered in November, it was with an episode in which Master Shake (voice of Dana Snyder) gets addicted to the world in his VR headset, where he has incredible abs and the local creatures fulfill his every desire, including butt-crack maintenance. In other words, these anthropomorphized fast-food characters — milkshake Master Shake, French fry order Frylock (Carey Means) and literal meat wad Meatwad (Dave Willis) — are still doing the stupidest things imaginable in their ramshackle New Jersey house. They’ve just upgraded their home entertainment system so they can do it faster and in higher definition. 

Great news for everyone who thought the only thing really wrong with the show was that it wasn’t on, and didn’t need it to come back with a whole new story about Meatwad’s daughter.

Scroll down for the next article
Forgot Password?