Critic's Notebook: TV's Next Fresh Ideas Might Lie in Its Past

It's been years, in some cases decades, since these series wrapped, but their rich premises are as timely and resonant as ever — and ripe for reimagining.
Courtesy of HBO
Jeffrrey Tambor, Jerry Seinfeld and Garry Shandling on 'The Larry Sanders Show'

I'm not a big fan of TV reboots. But I'm definitely open to a series from the past being reimagined. I see a big difference between the two approaches, despite the terminology being used in many confusing ways. The first often involves the same actors and is based on a combination of nostalgia, greed and lack of creative imagination. The second tweaks the original concept to create something different and new. Battlestar Galactica might be the prime example of a series being reimagined, with Westworld a fresher example. Will & Grace, Roseanne and Twin Peaks are examples of reboots — series that have been "restarted" or "revived."

With that in mind, here are five (plus) series I'd love to see reimagined, either because their premises are underutilized in the modern content market or because the original series missed a golden opportunity to get something right.

1. The Courtship of Eddie's Father. Yes, really (the TV series, not the movie). Obviously, it would have to be updated and taken seriously (not played as comedy). Getting a mom for Eddie wouldn't need to be the end goal, but he could still manipulate his dad's dates for comic effect. But at the core of the series, which premiered in 1969, was an idea that was ahead of its time in many respects: Tom Corbett (played wonderfully by Bill Bixby) was a widower raising his small son, Eddie (Brandon Cruz), while trying to maintain a career. When the original worked, it was because of Bixby's modern-father vibe. Tom wanted to be present and do right by Eddie and, in turn, Eddie noticed when his dad succeeded and the areas where he fell short. It's a concept ripe to be reimagined in a modern setting with modern issues, even though you can see the parallels in recent series like the excellent Gilmore Girls. But Tom wasn't trying to be Eddie's best friend, and I think there are a lot of single-dad issues that set the concept apart. Sadly, preconceived notions about fathers still exist in 2018, but for many people with kids in preschool or middle school, single dads are a familiar sight, and the show's premise will resonate.

2. Northern Exposure. I loved this series. Creators and writers Joshua Brand and John Falsey are legends (St. Elsewhere, I'll Fly Away — and Brand is currently working on The Americans), so if given the opportunity, they'd be the best ones to revamp their original idea. A classic fish-out-of-water tale that had loads of tolerable quirk, the series ran on CBS from 1990 to 1995 and remains pretty perfect as is. But I'd bet that Brand and Falsey could keep it set in Alaska (where Rob Morrow's Dr. Joel Fleischman, a die-hard New Yorker, was forced to work to pay back the state for underwriting his education), while changing up the actors, keeping some of the concepts and modernizing others. Quirk is hard to pull off, but when it works, especially in a remote small-town setting, there's a real warmth to it. Northern Exposure made you want to live in Cicely, Alaska, even as Joel wanted to leave (and then didn't). I would watch the hell out of a new variation on this, just as I've enjoyed watching original episodes. They're not mutually exclusive.

3. The Larry Sanders Show. Well, you couldn't really call it The Larry Sanders Show — or you could and just say the hell with it. This is a fantasy scenario, so I'm not going to get hung up on whether using the original title would bother me or not. But some new version of this classic TV series could really be welcome in 2018, not only because we're drowning in late-night shows right now, but because a searing, behind-the-scenes look at the industry, with stars willing to do cameos as themselves, would fill an empty niche (and a hole in my heart). Weirdly, if Stephen Colbert weren't already doing a show as himself, he'd be perfect here. But it would also work with any number of comedians and could benefit from a gender flip in the lead. And yes, you don't need to tell me the original was perfect. Like Northern Exposure, this is a series I have no problem rewatching on DVD when the urge hits. Both of them hold up. Both are classics. And neither show's premise is anywhere to be found on TV right now.

4. My So-Called Life/James at 16. Television has no shortage of similar, more modern coming-of-age series (and over the years, everything from Everybody Hates Chris to The Goldbergs has worked as a replacement for The Wonder Years). But I wonder if a less comedic look at teenage life (rather than another stab at Heathers or Glee) would expand the genre in ways that, say, the recently canceled Everything Sucks! did not. Or even Skins, for that matter. This genre is thick with variations. I think The End of the F***ing World is also damned near perfect and in no need of a second iteration. But what about a series that sticks with the emotional tidal wave and modern-era problems that teenagers are facing and doesn't flinch by undercutting the darker parts with comedy. No, I'm not suggesting something like 13 Reasons Why. I'm suggesting something way better. I only include the way-early (from 1977-78) James at 15 (and then 16, before being canceled outright) because of what it tried to do with taboo teenage subjects like sex and birth control — it was one of the first series that saw such topics as intriguing and important. As clips from the series make clear, it's not that it hasn’t aged well so much as that it wasn't done very well in the first place, certainly not by current standards. But James and especially My So-Called Life were essentially earnest explorations of teen experience. An LGBT+ lead would work particularly well for a reimagined version of My So-Called Life. The revamped show could also tackle depression, anxiety, body issues, bullying, technology, grade pressure, future fear and changing perceptions on a host of embedded social issues with an approach that's more heavily dramatic than that of the original. A lot of current series are touching on these issues, but not in straightforward dramatic fashion. Some opt for sensationalism (13 Reasons Why), and there's an almost across-the-board need to undercut with comedy (and worse, snark) to make the serious elements more palatable. A reimagined series done well could leapfrog the others.

5. Vinyl/Roadies/Love Monkey. I include these three together because they're all about music — the love and the passion of it. The first two were both stupendous failures with fantastic premises. The third was a great show, but CBS didn't have anything similar to surround it with, and it died an early death. As a music fan, the fact that Vinyl had so much potential and then squandered it is particularly depressing. I really wanted that series to work. And it absolutely could have. Before Vinyl was canceled, I wrote about what needed to be done to save it. The necessary changes were extensive. For starters, get rid of the stupid murder plotline, and get rid of Bobby Cannavale doing coke every five minutes (but I stand by the fact that he killed it in the role for the first few episodes before the writing left him out on a limb). Vinyl was a mess, but the idea of being at 1973 New York's intersection of so many emerging musical styles with a rebranding record label looking to tap into the best of the best — that was a brilliant concept. Roadies was another frustrating failure on so many levels, a great idea poorly executed, and the frustration lingers, particularly because Cameron Crowe's involvement made it seem like a slam dunk. It wasn't. But hell yes, someone please do a fictional series about roadies. Love Monkey, a decade earlier, was basically the story of an A&R man trying to turn up hidden musical gems, but the series also wanted to be an anti-romantic comedy (which star Tom Cavanagh pulled off). That series, which came from a "guy-lit" novel about stunted adolescence, would be the easiest series to reimagine.

In the meantime, since this is all just wishing into the wind, I may have to content myself with the fact the new Disney streaming service in 2019 is planning a female-led version of High Fidelity. I'm worried that it will be more rom-com than music manifesto (the best part of the book and the movie), but in the meantime, it's a start.

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