The past few months have brought exciting news for those of us who prefer to live in the past. Showtime is resurrecting Twin Peaks, the groundbreaking supernatural-soap-opera-murder-mystery of the early 90s with creator David Lynch and actors Kyle McLachlan and Sheryl Lee. And this week brought news that Peaks‘ spiritual successor The X-Files could also be returning with co-stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson after being off the air for over a decade.
When you consider the recent revivals of Arrested Development on Netflix and 24 in the form of Live Another Day (as well as plans to resume both NBC’s Heroes and Fox’s Prison Break), an amusing little trend reveals itself: television shows that whimpered out of existence without a proper finale are now returning to a hungry audience that has forgotten why it abandoned them all those years ago.
Perhaps, to paraphrase an old saying, distance–and nostalgia–make the heart grow fonder, but wasn’t there a reason these shows left the air in the first place? Will resurrecting a program with the promise of tying up loose ends and dangling plot threads actually result in anything resembling closure for its fan base, or is this is a classic case of bait-and-switch, promising a conclusion but hoping to string out an old franchise until everyone gets sick of it again?
Reviving old television shows is nothing new; The Twilight Zone, Charlie’s Angels, Battlestar Galactica, V, Dallas and Hawaii Five-O are just a few examples of shows that were ported into modern times. But this latest trend of bringing back shows whose main cast are still alive and attempting to continue the story where things left off is a new spin on a familiar trick.
The theory behind the more common practice–the reboot–is that you take a good idea that worked, bring it back to an audience that retains enthusiasm over its original inception, and spin the idea to reflect a more modern sensibility with a fresh-faced cast.
Of course, this almost never works.
Fans don’t typically embrace reboots; they fell in love with a formula and style that are impossible to replicate exactly without the original cast, behind-the-scenes talent, and storytelling culture that existed at the time, and they’re not particularly eager to retread old ground with new faces. At best, they’ll tune in to the first few eps before losing interest, claiming to prefer their version; at worst, they’ll curse your name over the Internet and send you bomb threats for releasing this blasphemy on a ungrateful public.
But so what, right? The basement dwelling hardcore fan base and all those old fogies who still remember 1973 are a minority of the larger audience. What about the young, hip kids that all the best advertising is tailored towards? Most likely, they have no recognition of the show’s prior existence–and therefore no more incentive to tune in than if it were original programming. On the off-chance they are aware of the show’s prior incarnation, they’re usually turned off by the notion of watching anything their parents tuned into back in the days of rabbit ears, three channels, and 19-inch television screens.
This intolerance for reboots is alive and well in movie theaters as well, where audiences collectively shrug to classic film or television revivals, whether it’s Get Smart, Bewitched, I Spy, or even more recent film franchises that have attempted to start over too soon, like Spider-Man. 21 Jump Street is one of the rare successes, but largely because the filmmakers decided to ignore the television show it was based on and just satirize the stupidity of reboots and adaptations with a wicked, metaphysical sense of humor.
The real trick with reboots is to make them as invisible as possible until your audience is acclimated to the new cast and conditioned to the new direction. In films, this is a little easier. Prequels or sequels with substantial gaps before or after the original films can be a way of nodding to prior continuity while telling a story that goes in a different direction with a new cast, as the Star Wars franchise has done and will soon do again with Disney.
There’s also the Bond Method, where you recast your lead actor and take the franchise in a completely different direction with a new style and tone, insisting all the while that this is the same character that was in the previous movie. That doesn’t always work, mind you, but audiences are more likely to follow a franchise that at least isn’t retreading familiar ground.
But these methods are trickier on television. When a show starts to run into trouble, it’s difficult to get out of the ditch. The very nature of the medium, which involves potentially hundreds of hours of gradually unfolding serialized storytelling with the same cast makes recasting a particular actor or changing the direction of the plot or the tone in a radical departure really tough to pull off without giving your audience whiplash. Whenever a character is killed off on TV, it’s usually because of contract negotiations more so than the necessity of the story, and covering that up and making it seem natural within the structure of the show is almost impossible to pull off convincingly.
Resuscitating a lapsed television franchise years after it left the air solves some of these problems. Starting in media res, years after the previous episodes, allows things to have happened off-screen that can help a returning show swerve into a successful second life. It also gives audiences time to forget about why they left the show in the first place. The trick, of course, is not waiting too long, which is why this plan for a return of Twin Peaks and The X-Files seems like pretty good timing, at least at first blush.
In their era, these were two of the best shows on television, and the possibility that they could come back, reclaim past glories and bring about closure to less than satisfying finales is particularly attractive to older audiences who watched these shows while they were airing. For the younger generation, these shows hold an almost cult identity in the pop culture landscape that most older shows can’t claim, which is perhaps a little ironic considering that these were mainstream hits when they were on the air all those years ago.
New fans have discovered the shows on streaming services like Netflix or reruns on cable networks, slowly rebuilding an audience that is hungry for new content. And although it’s been twenty-five years since Twin Peaks left the air and thirteen years since the X-Files bowed out, many of the cast and creative minds behind the original show are still around, involved in the industry, and at least somewhat well-known on other shows or in films.
But what’s the ultimate goal in bringing back these shows? Is it to give us one last hurrah and close the book on these franchises with a satisfying conclusion, or is it an attempt to artificially extend the lives of shows that were drawn out too long in the first place?
In the case of Twin Peaks, the aftermath of Laura Palmer’s murder mystery resulted in increasingly asinine subplots about secondary characters, meandering and directionless motivations, and a campy foe in Windom Earle; The X-Files retained its momentum for spooky conspiracy theories and freaks of the week through five excellent seasons and a pretty good film, but after revealing the nuts-and-bolts plan for an alien colonization the show pretty much sat around waiting for something to happen, resorting to super soldiers, a miracle baby and two seasons without David Duchovny.
Peaks at least went out on a bit of a high note, giving us a glimpse of the trippy Black Lodge and infecting Special Agent Dale Cooper with the same sinister force that had possessed Leland Palmer (though the less said about the incoherent Fire Walk With Me film, the better).
Files brought Mulder back only to find him guilty in a show trial set up by the military (now being run by alien super soldiers), forcing him and Scully to go on the lam. That wouldn’t have been such a bad place to pick up from, except that the dull, limp film, I Want to Believe, released several years after the show’s end, walked that plot development backwards with some lazy handwaving, assigning Mulder and Scully advisory status within the FBI and revealing they’d both spent the past few years waiting around for the world to end.
While reports of the new Twin Peaks suggest the goal is to tell a complete story in a limited miniseries that will wrap up the show, the plan for The X-Files is currently a little more hazy. Originally, a third and final film was supposed to wrap up the alien colonization story, but after I Want to Believe‘s disappointing B.O. haul, that isn’t looking too likely. The X-Files was always something that worked better on television anyway, where subplots and mysteries could fester over time, reappearing unexpectedly and develop a labyrinthine level of complexity amidst more audience-friendly done-in-ones that focused on non-extraterrestrial threats that went bump in the night.
I would love to see The X-Files return in a limited miniseries along the lines of the proposed Twin Peaks model, but I’m skeptical they’re moving in that direction. The X-Files has a hook that theoretically could sustain itself over multiple actors and generations: paranormal phenomena investigated by two FBI agents–a believer and a skeptic–who must contend with monsters, aliens and a government that wants to keep it all secret.
That’s a pitch that practically prints money, and the bean-counters at Fox will want to keep it churning along as long as possible. But truthfully, that pitch isn’t the whole story or the sole reason for the Files‘ enduring popularity. There’s something integral about the relationship of Mulder and Scully–and in particular Duchovny and Anderson–that turned the show into a true phenomenon in a way that even successful rip-offs like Fringe, Grimm and Supernatural couldn’t replicate.
Of the two shows, I’m a bigger fan of The X-Files, but I’m more optimistic about the chances of Twin Peaks to deliver a better encore performance. Peaks only had two seasons, so there’s less baggage to carry over and most of the worst plotlines got wrapped up by the end of the show. And we left the show on a great cliffhanger: an evil Dale Cooper who might not reveal his villainy for years to come. There’s also something particularly interesting about the premise of revisiting this small, quirky mountain town after twenty-five years and seeing how radically (or not) it has changed along with the rest of the world.
Also, unlike The X-Files which really focused on Mulder’s very personal crusade to discover the truth, Peaks was a true ensemble show that was as much about Dale Cooper as it was about anyone else: Audrey and Benjamin Horne, Leland and Laura Palmer, Sheriff Truman, or Shelly Johnson. In some ways, it’s more adaptable to new characters and a new wave of offspring, especially with its themes of screwed up families, centuries-old evils, and generational discord.
Regardless, I’m pulling for both shows to find their groove again and remind old-timers and youngsters alike why they were a cut above their imitators. But barring that, I just really want to see a crossover episode featuring a cross-dressing Mulder on the lam from the government who discovers the Black Lodge and must contend with a possessed agent Dale Cooper. Seriously, what do I have to do to make that happen?