Hope Lies on Television – Only Forward

 Following a lengthy sojourn Edwin Davies returns with a new “season” of Hope Lies On Television. What better place to begin than with the humble remake… 

Preface: The following article is about television shows that are remakes of other television shows. Since “remake” can be a somewhat amorphous term, I want to establish from the off what it means in context. When I use the word “remake,” I am specifically referring to a show which is based on a pre-existing series, one which may or may not update the premise of the original for the modern day, and where the original itself originated as a television show, rather than in another medium. So a series that is an adaptation of a pre-existing property that originated as a book or a film would not be considered because I am interested in examining the differences between the remake cultures in film and television, both of which engage in cannibalising the past to vastly different degrees of success.

On Friday the 26th of October, NBC will air Mockingbird Lane as a special one-off presentation for Halloween. The title may not be familiar to most people since it is, quite frankly, pretty dull, and because it rather conspicuously distances the show from what it actually is: a remake of the popular 1960s TV series The Munsters.

This is notable for a number of reasons, chief of which being that this is not just a remake of The Munsters, but a remake of The Munsters which has already failed. Developed by Bryan Fuller, best known for cultishly loved and highly distinct shows such as Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies, the show boasts a fairly high-profile cast which includes Eddie Izzard, Jerry O’Connell and Portia de Rossi, lavish production design and, based on the advertisements, Fuller’s trademark wit. Yet NBC decided to pass on the series. That they have subsequently decided to air the pilot at all is unusual since most failed pilots don’t tend to see the light of day (as anyone who has been hoping to one day see the Noah Baumbach-directed pilot for The Corrections can attest) and perhaps indicative of how desperate the network is to try to recoup what must have been a considerable expenditure. (There remains a slim chance that the show might get picked up if the pilot performs well enough in its one showing, but this approach is understandably not common practice because of the risks involved in spending so much money and only giving a show one shot to prove itself, as opposed to letting it find an audience over time.)

Most importantly, at least with regards to this article, Mockingbird Lane is the latest example of a curious trend in television that sets it apart from film: whilst remakes are central to the movie industry, with properties being constantly rehashed pretty much from the dawn of the medium, there are relatively few examples of television series being successfully remade. There are, of course, exceptions. The new version of Hawaii Five-0 is currently in its third season after debuting in 2010; Homeland, one of the most acclaimed shows on television, is based on an Israeli series; and the American version of The Office has remained a consistent mainstay of American comedy for almost a decade.

However, these examples underline that whilst there are plenty of examples of shows from other countries being remade for the American market, there are hardly any remakes of older American series enjoying anywhere near that level of success. This is particularly true of British sitcoms since The Office is the latest in a tradition of shows from the UK being adapted for American audiences; Steptoe and Son became Sanford and Son, Till Death Us Do Part became All In The Family, Man About The House became Three’s Company. In each case the remake outlasted the original in both episode numbers (not hard to do considering the vast differences between production cycles in American and British television) and years on the air.

This is counterintuitive since shows that had a history of airing in the United States should possess something that drives pretty much all cinematic remakes: name recognition. You would think that a remake of something like Charlie’s Angels, a series with plenty of name recognition and cultural cache, would have a much better chance of becoming a hit than an adaptation of a critically acclaimed British sitcom that the majority of Americans hadn’t heard of. Yet the 2011 version of Charlie’s Angels was cancelled after four episodes, whilst when The Office finishes next year it will have been on the air for nine seasons. Why are there so few successful remakes of American shows?

The first thing that needs to be considered is the differences between film and television as business models. Mainstream American cinema has increasingly become centred around a frontloaded release structure where films are expected to make as much money as possible on opening weekend (in some cases films can earn as much as half their final total within their first three days of release). It’s essentially a smash and grab system whereby studios release a film, hope that it does well enough to recoup the budget and act as a suitable advert for the DVD/Blu-ray release in three months, then they more or less forget about it and move on to the next film on their slate. It’s a system that perfectly suits remakes, which theoretically represent low-cost, high-return endeavours for studios. If they own the rights to a film with enough name recognition then all they need to do is make a relatively cheap new version, cut together a decent looking trailer and then reap the benefits on opening weekend.

This has proved particularly true of remakes of horror franchises like Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street, all of which followed the same pattern of big opening weekend followed by a swift decline before more or less being forgotten. Whatever the artistic merits (or lack thereof) of these remakes may be, each of them represents a calculated attempt to make films that succeed almost solely on name recognition, and it’s a system that has proved repeatedly successful because all it requires is for costs to be kept low and for the films to do well over a relatively short period of time. Quality is rarely a huge factor in this approach since these remakes don’t need to have any longevity.

Television operates on a model which is the antithesis of mainstream cinema since it is based on a need for long-term, sustained success. Whereas a film studio’s investment in a film is fairly concrete and determined by finite production schedules and marketing requirements, television is far less defined. A show might not make it to eleven episodes or it could run for eleven years, but in either case the investment of the network remains an open-ended one that requires the show to maintain a consistent level over long periods of time to justify renewal. The burn out then fade away approach categorically doesn’t work with television since, if a show has a huge first week then sheds viewers over the subsequent 21 that it might feasibly be on the air, it quickly becomes unprofitable for networks to keep investing in the production of the show.

This makes television both a more and less forgiving arena than film, since whilst shows are often given longer to determine whether or not they can become a success, those that are cancelled often never have the opportunity to become the best that they can be. At least something like the Friday the 13th remake, terrible as it was, was a complete work.

As such, quality is a greater factor in a remake on television than it necessarily is in film. Whilst it is unlikely that the people behind cinematic remakes set out to make bad films, the parameters for success are often so low that the release of a sub-standard product is less of an issue. Again, all that needs to happen is that the film makes as much money as possible in a very short space of time. Whether or not it’s good is immaterial because word of mouth rarely plays a deciding factor in their success. For television it is essential that a remake be of at least a basic level of quality to ensure that people tune in week to week, and ideally be good enough that people will recommend it to others, building the audience over time.

This is the main reason why Hawaii Five-O has bucked the trend of failed television remakes. Whilst it’s far from a great show, it’s a solidly put together procedural that knows how to take advantage of its winning cast and great locations. More importantly, it doesn’t really lean too heavily on its status as a remake, apart from the requisite things that people associate with the original such as its iconic theme tune and the phrase, “Book ‘em, Danno.” Executive producers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, much as they did on J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, take the elements that people are familiar with and treat them as embellishments to their own story. They didn’t get bogged down in recreating the show that existed before, but instead made their own show using a familiar name.

This approach touches upon what I consider to be the key reason why remakes are more central to cinema than they are to television, which is that fans of television do not venerate its past, or at least not to the extent that film does. There’s a certain myopic tendency amongst both critics and audiences to view 1999 – the year of The Sopranos, in other words – as the year that television finally started producing great shows. Whilst the quality of the shows produced in the last decade or so lends some credence to that idea, it ignores the fact that there were literally hundreds of great dramas and comedies produced in the five decades before The Sopranos debuted. (This is also in part down to the way in which television criticism only truly came of age with the growth of the Internet, meaning that there is just far less analysis of, for example, Homicide: Life on The Streets than there is for The Wire. This is probably an issue deserving of a separate discussion, though.)

This wariness about the Dark Ages of television tends to mean that even people who consider themselves serious television fans often don’t bother to check out older shows in the way that even casual film fans will check out old films. In their defence, the amount of time it takes to watch the entirety of a series – especially old ones which may have over 30 episodes per season – is a big and time consuming undertaking, especially when you consider that even the best TV shows ever made have their share of bad episodes. It doesn’t help, as Noel Murray pointed out in this great piece for the A.V. Club, that there are increasingly fewer opportunities for people to see many of the old great shows since many of them just aren’t being shown anywhere or are unlikely to get released on DVD/Blu-ray, which cuts people off from a huge swathe of television history. This further hurts the potential name recognition for a show since a large number of people in the coveted 18-49 age bracket won’t have had a chance to see them in the first place, reducing the enthusiasm for remakes amongst the very audience the networks cherish.

Even the shows that have huge name recognition because they are shown in syndication or are widely available on DVD present a huge problem, since the name recognition often transcends the show and attaches itself to the members of its cast. In short, people become so attached to the idea that an actor is the very embodiment of the character they played that it’s hard to imagine anyone else stepping into that role. This is often the case with certain film characters – it’s hard to imagine anyone remaking Raiders of the Lost Ark with someone else playing Indiana Jones, for example – but is generally more common in television because of the sheer amount of time an actor spends playing a specific character. People spend years developing a relationship with characters whose mannerisms and appearance are ingrained in those who play them.

Even in cases where the premise of a show is easily replicable, it would be nothing short of commercial suicide to try to find a new cast to replace those that people are so familiar with. Cheers has been off the air for nearly twenty years, yet every actor on that show is still indelibly associated with the characters they played. Even though the basic idea behind Columbo is one that could be easily done again – and, in the form of Luther, kind of already has, albeit in a much bleaker and more violent form – but how could anyone possibly hope to step into Peter Falk’s rumpled raincoat and not look inadequate by comparison? The shows that have the quality that makes cinematic remakes so successful – name recognition and a broad awareness amongst a huge audience – are also those least likely to be remade successfully since they would lack some essential essence that people associate with the original: the people who brought it to life. It’s no coincidence that one of the only other remake of a once popular show currently airing, the new version of Dallas, is actually a reboot that brought back some of the key players from the original series, rather than try to find someone to replace Larry Hagman.

Bringing it back to Hawaii Five-O, it seems hardly surprising that that remake worked since the original was in some ways so anonymous, a show without much terribly distinctive about it, that it didn’t have to worry about overcoming its own legacy. History can often be a burden for a remake in television since it heaps so much expectation upon a new version, expectation which must be met not once, but over and over again until the show establishes itself or until it gets cancelled. No wonder the one weekend mentality behind most film remakes is so successful; it just seems so much easier.

Edwin is the editor of A Mighty Fine Blog, and can also be found on Twitter.

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