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Classic TV Shows Keep Getting the Reboot

What's old is new again — but not for long, as networks churn out tired remakes of memorable series

I’m all for recycling. It’s good for the environment and saves resources. I just don’t want to see it on TV.

I’m not talking about watching video footage of bottles and cans being collected and crushed.

The recycling I have in mind is when old TV shows are repackaged and remade again as brand new ones. Take the current version of Hawaii Five-O, now in its third season on CBS. It’s a reboot of the original, long-running, crime-in-paradise series, which aired on, yes, CBS from 1968 to 1980.

I have no problem with reruns. I’m all for endlessly enjoying old episodes of Cheers or I Love Lucy in syndication. There’s nothing more comforting than watching familiar characters on a beloved sitcom crack the same old jokes and make the same old dumb mistakes. Every time that Louie (Danny DeVito) does his “Heh, heh, heh” evil chuckle on Taxi (1978-83), I giggle despite having heard it oodles before.

Rebooting is a different matter. It’s when the geniuses who make TV shows decide that there’s life to be squeezed yet out of, say, Charlie’s Angels or Melrose Place. They try to revive the shows with new casts and, often, new settings. It rarely works because 1) the show deserved to die in the first place and its time has passed, or 2) it was done to perfection the first time around, which explains why, despite trying repeatedly, attempts to remake The Rockford Files in recent years (the original with James Garner ran from 1974 to 1980) have all fallen by the wayside, never getting further than a pilot.

(MORE: Remembering Favorite Miniseries of 1970s and ’80s)

The latest show to come in for the remake treatment is Ironside. For those needing a refresher course, Ironside was an hourlong crime drama that ran on NBC from 1967 to 1975 and starred Raymond Burr, already a TV icon from his days as lawyer Perry Mason in the 1957-66 series of the same name. In Ironside, he played Robert T. Ironside, a police detective who, in an early example of diversity on TV, solved cases from his wheelchair.

News came this past week that NBC has ordered a pilot for a remake as a potential new series for next season. Playing Ironside this time around will be Blair Underwood, who rose to TV stardom as a young legal hotshot in L.A. Law, which he joined in 1987.

The Ironside pilot got the go-ahead from NBC programming executives not only because they think a new version might work, but because all of Hollywood has bought into the viability of projects that are, in the lingua franca of the industry, “pre-sold.”

This means that the project is a remake of an older movie or TV show, a spin-off or sequel or based on a best-selling book. Potential viewers already know and recognize the name — half the work of selling the show is already done.

Sometimes remakes and spinoffs are done well. The Star Trek franchise did it brilliantly by tweaking each new iteration of the show into a distinctive series that stood on its own. Thus, the original Star Trek (1966-69) was rebooted into four separate, successive series: Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-99), Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001); and Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-05). Each was different from the original and its predecessor and yet similar enough to hang on to established fans while wooing new ones.

When TNT decided to revive Dallas a year ago, it wove original cast members Larry Hagman, Linda Grey and Patrick Duffy from the 1978-91 series into storylines that also featured younger actors playing new family members at Southfork. Dallas redux scored with viewers, though ratings are down in the second season. (That may have a lot to with knowing there will be no more appearances by Hagman, who died in November.)

Plenty of reboot attempts fail dismally. ABC’s efforts to reinflate the human Barbie dolls that were Charlie’s Angels (1976-81) didn’t make it past midseason a year ago. Ditto for Knight Rider, Bionic Woman and Melrose Place, three shows that were no great shakes the first time around and proved even shakier upon revival. Just this past fall, NBC tried to reconfigure The Munsters, calling the new version of the 1964-66 sitcom Mockingbird Lane. The pilot aired on Halloween to mediocre ratings and the network didn’t pick it up as a series. My theory: No actor now can match Fred Gwynne’s benevolent Herman Munster.

(MORE: Downton Abbey: Can’t Anyone Keep a Secret?)

Why do most reboots fail? Because TV imitations are a pale form of flattery. Those of us who saw the originals the first time around like ’em just the way they were. We’re happy to watch old episodes again and again. Mary and the rest of the WJM crew on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) are about to attend Chuckles the Clown’s funeral? Count me in.

And younger audiences? They rightly want their own shows, their own characters and their own setups and jokes. Sure, everything old is new again and Mike & Molly is just a newfangled version of The Honeymooners, but at least it has a different title and characters.

More to the point, when there are such startlingly original and smart new shows on TV as Dexter, Breaking Bad, The Good Wife, Mad Men, Louie and plenty more, why go back to dig up old ones and try disguising their age with a new coat of paint?

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