This week marked the television “upfronts,” an annual ritual at which networks try to make their upcoming fall schedules look as enticing as possible—not to the press, who are incidentally invited, and certainly not to the viewing public, but to advertisers. This means that networks have to put forward statistics skewed any number of ways to indicate they’re actually the ones with the biggest piece of a shrinking pie—and they have to make their new shows look as broadly appealing as possible to entice advertisers.
But making this year’s crop of new series look as broad as possible did not seem like a challenge. The broadcast networks, faced with existential threats, are simultaneously pretending nothing is wrong and digging further into nostalgia. If you thought Fuller House was the depths of nostalgia on TV, you’ve seen nothing yet.
CBS, which put on a triumphant presentation touting itself as America’s most popular network, has a fall schedule that’s by far the most backward-looking. Two shows in its Monday comedy block are built around icons of the 2000s—The King of Queens star Kevin James (on familiar-looking Kevin Can Wait) and Friends star Matt LeBlanc (on Man With a Plan, about the shocking concept of a stay-at-home dad). The network also has new series based on the Denzel Washington movie Training Day (cast with the races of the lead characters reversed), the action series MacGyver, and the life of Dr. Phil McGraw. The sole sign of innovation came in the form of CBS’s forthcoming streaming service… which is to launch with a reboot of Star Trek and a spinoff of The Good Wife.
Some of these shows might well be great, as might Fox’s shows based on The Exorcist and Lethal Weapon or its 24: Legacy (which updates the franchise with a new star, Straight Outta Compton‘s Corey Hawkins). Fans certainly flock to Dick Wolf’s Chicago franchise, which expands to a fourth weekly hour with Chicago Justice. (This one isn’t a nostalgic property, but it does suggest a network afraid of the unknown.) And ABC seems high on Designated Survivor, a series that brings back to TV Kiefer Sutherland, the star of the original 24. But it’s hard not to feel as though TV learned too many lessons from the success of The X-Files reboot and too few from the even greater success of sui generis soap opera Empire.
It’s really challenging to create a hit show under any circumstances, and tougher still to do so with the challenges imposed by broadcast TV—which has to break for ads, and appeal to advertisers. But there’s searching for a hit by plumbing familiar properties, and there’s giving up on the possibility of making a wholly original project. This isn’t just aesthetic snobbery—relying on projects from the past often means you’re beholden to a past era’s standards, as with CBS’s slate of new fall shows, all of which star white men. (24: Legacy, happily, breaks with this trend.)
Nostalgia, in its various forms, has a worthy place on the dial, but once it comes to take over the entire broadcast schedule, it presents the possibility of a death spiral. If we’re reusing decade-old stars and concepts in 2016, what will we have to reuse a decade from now?