The enormous popularity of original television content like Breaking Bad says a lot about the contemporary audience; that we’re willing to explore new genres and give confronting narratives a go, that we don’t necessarily need to be familiar with each character archetype depicted onscreen to find things to enjoy, that we’re maybe a little bit smarter than you give us credit for. I know that may sound strained. We are the same culture that felt the need for an Entourage movie, and still find ways to excuse Chris Brown. But we don’t deserve a Beverly Hills Cop-spinoff tv series, a Saved By The Bell cast reunion broadcast or another Ninja Turtles remake. There are better ways to spend a writer’s time.
The process of churning out something that once generated publicity and popular acclaim for a second run is hardly revolutionary, and it’s fair to say we’ve all gotten used to it over time. And there have been those diamonds in the rough that actually stood within their own artistic integrity; the American version of The Office has had over ten times the run of it’s UK counterpart; Doctor Who has been revamped countless times and is still ridiculously popular. But for every success there’s a thousand missteps, and unfortunately this remaking frenzy has only gotten more ridiculous of late. Television is arguably the medium most addicted to the remake machine, churning out rehash after rehash of ‘classics’ every season, and the upcoming new fall releases include another Sherlock Holmes update, a Dallas re-imagining, and even another incarnation of Bewitched in the works.
There’s plenty of reasons for this; paranoia (that constant phobia of failure that drives studios to cling to former success stories), xenophobia (that US or other western audiences will not ‘understand’ the original foreign series thus a ‘westernized’ remake is necessary), and money (self-explanatory). But somewhere within there, the reasoning usually tends to go out the window as studios scramble to encapsulate the success or popularity of the original piece. But how does a remake justify its worth against the original, particularly in television, where a show needs to do more than attract an audience once but maintain it for the long haul? When measuring success, money is often the obvious talking-point; remakes make money, they say. But look at the last few years of television and you’ll see a shift in popularity away from the tired formulas of previous successful shows to original and innovative ideas.
It’s important to remember that a television show makes its profit from a regular, popular broadcast, therefore viewers need to commit to watching ongoing episodes, not just one. Whilst many movie remakes do make copious amounts of money, they can sell tickets based on hype value, something that usually wears its welcome after a few badly reviewed episodes of a new show. Especially looking at the trends in television, the most popular and culturally talked-about shows mostly consist of original ideas — Breaking Bad, Mad Men — or ballsy, genre-bending adaptiations — Game of Thrones, True Blood — whereas many formerly-popular remade shows such as Melrose Place, Knight Rider, and Charlie’s Angels all proved to be big budget investments that failed dismally. Even the across-the-pond style remakes of shows that were previously successful in their home countries such as The IT Crowd, Skins and Kath & Kim were both critical and commercial flops. This point needs to sink into money-obsessed Hollywood; original ideas can turn a profit, particularly in the television world, where viewers can make or break a show.
Another mistake remakes tend to make is the assumption that just because the idea was originally popular, it’s all anyone wants to see this time around. The best remakes, that actually stand up for themselves apart from their predecessors, are the ones that are almost completely removed from their original imagining. Homeland, originally an Israeli series called Prisoners Of War, is so deep rooted in American social psychology and paranoia that it is both topical and effective for its primarily Western audience. Battlestar Galactica was originally a b-grade ripoff of Star Wars, but the re-imagined series was something much more relevant — a dissection of politics and paranoia in a post September 11 universe (it also remains the only show to ever have a United Nations summit held in its honor). These remakes are barely recognisable from the shadows of their first incarnations, and by distancing themselves they’re both better works and much more interesting.
The other problem with this reliance remakes have on their predecessors is that studios tend to assume everyone actually liked the original. But it’s not enough to rely solely on nostalgia when remaking a film or TV series, because trends, taste and relevance change; case in point, The Love Boat. The original series was huge at the time and after 20 years it was deemed necessary to remake the series. However, it was the shows central campiness (steeped in its 80s sensibilities) that made it popular and by sticking to that, it was a complete misfire for contemporary audiences, cancelled a month after airing. There’s no guarantee any film will be popular (though it does help if Ryan Gosling is involved) but relying solely on the original’s specific popularity is uninspired and unintelligent. Writers and studios should treat a remake as a chance to improve and find new alternatives to the original series characteristics, not just replicate them.