Yes, The World Is Dark and Depressing
But Does Every Reboot Have to Be?
When I learned last week that The Powerpuff Girls one of the most delightful animated series of my youth was being turned into a live-action show for the CW, I was understandably skeptical. Then I learned that it was going to follow the girls, now in their twenties in a darker, edgier world, I finally realized the reboot world has finally jumped the shark. (I’m reluctant to say that for fear that they’ll then reboot Happy Days, set in a Milwaukee where segregation is everywhere, where the Fonz is a juvenile delinquent, and Chachi is a closeted homosexual.)
I know that in these days where hit shows are hard to find, every TV show and movie franchise seems to be an edgier reboot. But it doesn’t take a genius to see that in trying to give these often-decade old franchises some new lights, so many of the filmmakers and showrunners are losing the point of why they’re edgy in the first place. Everyone seems to believe that all of this seems to be at the feet of Christopher Nolan’s reimagining of Batman. (It’s not, but lets use that a jumping off point.) But what Nolan did in the trilogy was manage to show how 21st Century problems could be reflected inside a comic book series; there have been few better films of any kind that have dealt with the issues of vigilantism, terrorism and what we should do to stop it, and demagogues dealing with the issues of wealth disparity. Where most DC movies have failed since then is that they have concentrated entirely on atmosphere with no attention to deeper stories. (This may be the main reason the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been more successful than that of DC; among their many virtues is that they have never forgotten a sense of humor which had been notably absent from films such Man of Steel and Batman V. Superman.)
Indeed, this was why so many of the CW based DC shows worked in the first place; they were more obscure franchise, but they never stopped to have fun while they were at it. Now, however, so many of the reboots and reimagining we’ve been getting don’t even try to do anything beyond making things edgier. And if you’re going to that, you’d better have something at the bottom. In order to elucidate, let’s look at two very old franchises that have been rebooted; one that basically did everything right, and one that has just gone horribly wrong.
The quintessential example of a reboot where everything spun out of control was Riverdale. Now in its early days, I was willing to give it a fair amount of cheering. This was mainly due to the fact that the Archie Comics have always been the squarest and least interesting of any comic books in the entire history of the medium. Anything to make this world to have more than two dimensions could only hope. Perhaps I should have been warned when the Pilot started with Archie Andrew having an affair with a twentyish Miss Grundy and Cherry Blossom’s twin brother being murdered. But there did seem to be some imagination. Unfortunately very quickly, the show became a cross of the worst parts of Twin Peaks and Criminal Minds, with every season having to deal with another serial killer in the title town. The fact that so many of the characters were self-aware of just how insane things were in Riverdale didn’t make the show any more entertaining; instead, it just made you wonder why anybody was going to this high school and why anyone would want to live there. And the humor that percolated through every other show with some connection Greg Berlanti was completely absent. I abandoned the show halfway through the third season, and I probably stuck with it one season too long. What makes it even harder to grasp is that one of the spinoffs of this series Katy Keene was slightly less nuts but was a lot more entertaining, mainly because the darkness just wasn’t there. Why more people seemed to prefer the reboot of Sabrina frankly boggles the mind.
Going to the other end of the spectrum was last year’s reimagining of Perry Mason. The reason I think it worked so much better than even the original series was because the ‘classic’ version of Perry Mason was as formulaic a series as you could get — we knew practically nothing about Mason, and every show was a mystery proven that his client, who always seemed guilty, was innocent. I have a feeling that it really set the entire courtroom procedure from getting any kind of start at all. What HBO’s version did was go in the complete opposite direction of Riverdale — rather than set the show in the modern era, it took Perry back to the days when the first stories of him were being written in the 1930s. Mason didn’t even start out as an attorney; he was a private eye, a veteran of the Great War, and utterly cynical to the idea that there was justice in the world. This was an attitude that is completely believable for Depression-Era Los Angeles.
I’m not going to deny it was a very dark show — the series opened with a dead baby found with his eyes sewn shut, and the corruption and darkness only got more obvious from there. But what Perry Mason did — and did brilliantly, in my opinion — was take us into a world so dirty that it didn’t need someone who believed in his client’ innocence — Perry had doubts from the beginning — but showed just how false so many of the trademarks of the old shows world were. The prejudice, sexism and utter corruption of the system were so battered, that not even the trademark interrogations of the guilty party could make them confess. (The series beautifully played that out in the opening moments of the finale.) You could make great closing arguments, but you had to get dirty to cover your odds. (We learned in the denouement that one of the jurors had been bribed to hang it — even though it turned out that Mason had actually convinced two others of his client’s innocence.)
It also helped matter that the cast, from Matthew Rhys on down to Tatiana Maslany and Shea Whigham were brilliant to watch from beginning to end, and that it also premiered at a time when the world as a whole was starting to question the integrity of the police and judicial system. This Perry Mason fits our world. Archie Andrews and the rest of his milkshake drinkers do not.
The problem is that so many of the reboots that have come recently seem to be taking all the lessons of the latter show and none of the ones from a former. Nor does this seem likely to stop any time soon — just this past month, reboots of The Equalizer, Walker, Texas Ranger, and what must be the eighteenth version of the Superman story have all premiered. All this seems to do is leave less room for truly original programming and give more room for streaming and cable to add to their domination of original shows. (Though that’s not going to be a haven either: Gossip Girl is coming to HBO Max in the future.)
I realize it is futile to try and urge television and movies to stop mining old franchises — that’s where the money seems to be, for better or worse. (Mostly worse.) But at the very least, try to show some imagination when your rebooting something other than ending it with ‘for the new millennium.’ (And for God’s sake, please don’t take my idea for a new Happy Days seriously.)