The hottest trend in TV this year was nostalgia.
During the 2016 calendar year, Fox brought back The X-Files with Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny, Netflix continued Full House‘s story with Fuller House and the streaming service also bequeathed fans with Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, a four-part event that let creator Amy Sherman-Palladino wrap things up the way she wanted to after contract negotiations meant the seventh and final season went on without her in 2007. All these shows, hits in the 1990s and early 2000s, returned to varying degrees of success.
The X-Files kicked off the year with six episodes, each one pretty much a case-of-the-week style outing except for the premiere and the finale, those tied into the show’s overarching mythology. Chris Carter, the show’s creator, returned to helm the new installments along with X-Files veterans James Wong, Darin Morgan and Glen Morgan. Looking at the viewership numbers, you can call the return of The X-Files a success. The first episode debuted to 16.2 million viewers, with DVR factored in, the premiere shot up to 21.5 million. Naturally things petered out by the time the finale aired at the end of February, which is to be expected, especially when you consider the content of the episodes.
As enjoyable as it was to see Duchovny and Anderson suit up as Mulder and Scully again, The X-Files revival was clunky and uneven. Instead of telling a cohesive story, Carter embarked on a greatest hits of sorts. There were wacky episodes—”Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” was one of the best—mixed with sloppy attempts to be topical with home-grown terrorism, and mythology-based outings that asked viewers to ignore years of story. With only six episodes, a focused story truly making The X-Files an event miniseries (perhaps with an infusion of new blood behind the scenes?) should’ve been what Carter and Co. did.
“We made our mark by telling a lot of different kinds of stories. It wasn’t all mythology. You could do that, you could take that kind of approach, even come back and do a series of sequels,” Carter told E! News after the finale, which ended on a big cliffhanger. “There are lots of different things we might do or we could have done, but we took our recipe and we told the kinds of stories that I think people expected us to tell. We explored the genre that we have explored thoroughly and originally in many ways.”
Fuller House followed in February to a ton of attention. It must have been a ratings success (Netflix doesn’t share numbers) because the streaming giant already dropped a second season this December. A sequel series more so than a straight up revival, Fuller House reunited all the show’s original stars, save for Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen, and the reunited players make sure you remember the Olsen twins’ headline-making absence. Everything old was, well, old again for Fuller House.
The show stuck to familiar stories and themes of the past, hardly updating for the 2016 culture. Sure, now there are jokes about smartphones and references to pop culture happenings (not to mention the countless Dancing With the Stars winks), but the show still played gay kisses for laughs while not featuring an LGBT main or even recurring character. Nostalgia—and winks at it—was the name of the game for Fuller House and if that’s your thing, well, Fuller House works for you. More of the same, just not really improving on what came before it.
The 2016 presidential election brought Will & Grace back to life via a YouTube video. The set was impeccably recreated and stars Debra Messing, Eric McCormack, Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes reunited with veteran director James Burrows and show co-creator Max Mutchnick for the election special. The stories and views generated by the reunion were enough to get NBC thinking about a limited series revival. Will & Grace‘s election return worked thanks to the reason it came back: the election. It was a welcome respite from the constant news of the contentious race for the White House while serving a purpose and asking citizens to vote.
The crown jewel of revivals, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, was bestowed on viewers in November. What made Gilmore Girls stand apart from the pack is the clear vision ASP presented. Gilmore Girls was brought back to tell a story, a specific story sparked by the death of Edward Herrmann, Richard Gilmore to GG fans.
“Ed had a big part of it, I will say, because it was such a shock to all of us, and no one got to say goodbye. I think that we were thinking is there was a reason to come back other than it would be fun to hang out, then it felt like suddenly there was story to tell,” Sherman-Palladino told E! News after Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life premiered. “I think it made it easier to make that journey into the Warner Bros. office and say, ‘What do you guys think about this?’
“A lot of it was prompted by Ed and also the fact that suddenly there was a Netflix. There was a place to go do something a little different and tell the story a little differently, which was really the only way we would do this,” she continued. “We were never interested in just doing a bunch of new episodes and a freestanding movie never felt quite right. So, we needed to find that form that felt right for us.”
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life took fans on journey with beloved characters, and in turn actually had said characters grow more than they had during the show’s original seven-season run. Gilmore Girls worked because the fan-service was there, but it wasn’t necessarily Gilmore Girls: The Greatest Hits. Sure, there were problems, like the completely unnecessary Stars Hollow musical and underutilized players (looking at you Liza Weil), but Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life was by far the most successful revival this year because it actually told a cohesive story, honored its past and continued into the future.
Don’t expect the revivals (and remakes for that matter, but that’s a whole other beast) to stop. Networks and streaming platforms will continue exploring this content well to cut through the noise. There’s more TV than ever, so outlets will be looking at old TV to be new TV in a vicious cycle. Whether or not they’ll be successful hinges on what path they follow. With that said, networks and streaming platforms looking to revive a property should look to this year’s hits and misses as examples.
Before bringing a show back, make sure there’s a reason to. Make sure whoever is doing it, whether it’s the original team or not, has a story to tell. Revivals, as we have seen from Arrested Development and Veronica Mars to Gilmore Girls and Fuller House, are a fickle beast.