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On the New ‘Murphy Brown’ and Other TV Remakes: Everything Old Is New Again
September 3, 2018  | By Alex Strachan  | 2 comments

If it’s true that imitation is the sincerest form of television, as the late Fred Allen famously said, the new fall season looks like a most sincere season indeed.

As an industry, television bats a better average rebooting old TV shows than it does movies, for obvious reasons. For every M*A*S*H* and Odd Couple — and I’m really raiding the vault to find those — there are a dozen 9 to 5s, Diners, Dirty Dancings, and Shafts. Remember Mother Juggs and Speed? Exactly.

The movie industry keeps trying to revive its own, with mixed results. And while it’s hard to believe moviegoers were agitating for a remake of Papillon, TV is different, because it’s something we watch — for the most part — in the comfort of our homes, and we have fond memories of what we enjoyed in the past. So it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine there will be a willing audience — at first, anyway — for remakes of Murphy Brown (top) and Magnum, P.I. And as the relatively recent successes of Will & Grace (right), MacGyver, and Roseanne — before Roseanne Barr discovered Twitter, that is — suggest, there is always room for more.

Aside from the obvious reasons — a known quantity, familiar characters, a recognizable title, no need to expend screen time on backstory — remakes pose less financial risk to the network and producing studio than something new and fresh out of the box.

TV, too, has the advantage of tapping original cast members to reprise their roles, as the audience is older, more mature and broader than the generally young audience that still pays to see movies in the theater. So while Hawaii Five-0 and MacGyver worked with new, younger cast members, there’s no doubt Will & Grace and Roseanne benefitted from bringing back the original cast. You could argue it was the only reason for their respective success, and the sole reason ABC is bringing back a newly retooled Roseanne in rebooted form, with the original cast members save one.

As the new Murphy Brown shows, there’s another, even more cogent reason TV plays the remake game than the movie industry does. The themes, issues, social concerns, and social context that drove screenwriter Diane English’s politically driven satire from 1988-’98 — nearly 250 episodes, spread over ten seasons — are suddenly relevant again today, right now, this very minute. No one could have seen that happening, least of all Candice Bergen, politically active in her personal life, and who now thinks nothing of coming back to the grind of weekly television, despite being in her 70s. There is every chance the rebooted Murphy Brown will follow in the success trail blazed by the rebooted Will & Grace. It’s obvious to say, but obviousness doesn’t make it any less valid: The time is right.

All remakes, whether movies or TV, pose a nostalgia problem for audiences and viewers who recall the original. Often, the viewer can’t help but remember the original, and how much better it was in every way.

That’s different, though, when the original cast and producers are involved, especially so when they’re doing it for reasons other than money. (To answer the obvious question, yes, Diane English is returning, together with Bergen.) As parent network CBS noted in its official statement at the time, Murphy Brown is returning to “a world of cable news, social media, fake news and a very different political and cultural climate.”

Though not that different a political and cultural climate: the post-Nixon-Watergate era is still post-Nixon and post-Watergate, even though it may seem at times as though we’re collectively living through a bad rerun.

A reboot of an iconic ‘90s sitcom is also a known quantity: No one is going to tune into Murphy Brown expecting a playful romp in the sun like Magnum, P.I. (left), just as no one is going to tune into Magnum, P.I. expecting a claustrophobic, politically minded sitcom set in a TV world full of strident, willful politicos.

TV itself has changed, too. The days when cineastes and ardent moviegoers would complain that the small screen “TV-izes” content and sanitizes anything even remotely controversial went out the day HBO proved the small screen can be just as realistic and hard-hitting as anything seen at the cinema. Even more so now. The new, platinum age of television is pushing the very boundaries of filmed storytelling. Just look at this year’s nominees for outstanding drama at the Primetime Emmys (Sept. 17, NBC), if you doubt that.

Of course, TV is a business, as network executives keep reminding us. And nothing succeeds quite like excess. Two years ago, almost to the day, one industry insider website named 17 TV remakes and revivals that were in the works. Earlier this year, that same site named 52 TV shows poised to make a comeback — three times as many, in just two years.

Remakes don’t necessarily mean the industry is creatively bankrupt, NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt insisted to TV writers at last year’s semi-annual meeting of the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills, Calif., mere weeks before his network’s re-launch of Will & Grace.

“I think when you’re putting on 30 to 40 original series a year,” Greenblatt said, “if there’s a great old idea to bring back, I’m totally comfortable with that.”

Then NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke, now the head of Amazon Studios — yes, that Amazon — told critics that she was constantly being pitched remakes during her tenure at NBC.

“I’ve batted back a lot of re-dos,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot fail. We hear them in an hour form. We hear them in a half-hour form. It’s very specific to, ‘Why now?’ (With Will & Grace, left) we thought people want to be with this group of people. It’s nostalgic for us to remember, these are your friends that you grew up with. You care about the same things. The country is gathering together having the very same conversations about the world right now. They’re hilarious, entertaining. It’s so hard to find that chemistry.

“So to me, it was a no-brainer. I had no doubts.

“There are many others I wasn’t going to make a reboot of, just for the title familiarity. We know that falls flat on its face.”

Will & Grace returns Oct. 4. NBC has ordered a third season as well, to air in 2019, which will boost the series’ shelf life to 11 seasons. (The original aired for eight seasons, from Sept. 1998 to May 2006. The premiere episode of the revival, which aired last year, was titled, "Eleven Years Later.")

Magnum, P.I.’s revival launches Sept. 24, a week to the day after the Emmys. The resurrected Murphy Brown comes to life four days later, on Sept. 27. MacGyver returns on Sept. 28.

It’s no accident that many of these remakes hail from CBS, a network which enjoyed — let’s face it, largely unanticipated — success with its Hawaii Five-0 reboot nearly a decade ago, in 2010. (Hawaii Five-0, right, is back Sept. 28.)

CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl, asked if CBS would ever consider rebooting an old CBS property like Barnaby Jones or White Shadow, told critics last summer to never say never.

“I don’t think I’d rule anything out,” she said. But I think to bring back a show now, as we’ve seen with some of our other reboots, there has to be a clear vision of something that differentiates the (reboot), that makes it new and fresh.“

CBS just this past week announced that this season of The Big Bang Theory will be its last. Perhaps they should just keep it going, possibly with new cast members, to save them the trouble of rebooting it 11 years, or two decades, from now.

As Confucius — a noted TV fan — famously said, by three methods we may learn wisdom.

“First, by reflection, which is noblest. Second, by imitation, which is easiest. And third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

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Odd,too that Les Moonves is getting the boot while Murphy gets the reboot. Les came on board CBS in 1995,while Murphy 01 still had some gas in the tank. Somehow,I don't expect Moonves will be coming back.
Sep 7, 2018   |  Reply
Just please, please, when you come back Murphy--- leave the laugh track back in the
90's. Nothing will redeem reviving a laugh track.
Sep 4, 2018   |  Reply
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