The Reboot Will Be Televised

“Star Trek: Picard,” “And Just Like That…,” “Bel-Air,” “Reboot”: even within our age of the reboot, old stories offer new insights.

Each new reboot of an older TV series provokes a predictable progression of emotions from its would-be viewers: the rolling of eyes; the sarcastic quip about the lack of necessity of yet another remake; and—slowly but surely—ambivalent resignation. Ultimately, audiences seem to tune in anyway, curious to see whether the reboot will measure up to its promises of nostalgia, or result in a painful-yet-entertaining dumpster fire of anachronism and outdatedness.

These negative reactions and the reboot media that initiate their feeling have whole discourses devoted to their unraveling. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick famously termed the kind of knee-jerk pessimism one might experience upon learning of the rebooting of a beloved media text “paranoia”; Fredric Jameson notoriously named the pervasive lack of originality made hypervisible by the increasingly popular reboot “pastiche.” TV theory and criticism are, however explicitly or implicitly, indebted to these terms. Yet TV writing often suffers from a theoretical hangover or bind: one in which the reading of, say, the TV reboot, feels predetermined, automatic, foreclosed.

Opening up a conversation about television reboots beyond this paradigm is the goal of this Public Books collection of essays on “reboot TV.” If we theorize the reboot form outside of these earlier definitions—the derivative, the unimaginative, or the nostalgic—how might reboot TV contribute to our understandings of history, identity, and self? How do reboots reflect both individual and collective fantasies of renegotiation and reimagination, as well as more difficult feelings like renunciation, denial, and disavowal? What kinds of motivations, if any, separate a reboot from other analogous media forms such as the adaptation or the remake? What is, or can be (or should, or shouldn’t be) contained within the category of reboot TV?

The essays in this special cluster seek to answer some of these questions, grappling with the different terminologies, affordances, and problems that reboots often present. Rebecca Wanzo’s essay on the Star Trek universe goes beyond the typical intertextual relationship between an original and its reboot to explore the “reboot-within-a-reboot” that is Star Trek: Picard. Rather than providing pure nostalgia, Wanzo notes how Picard instead “fixes” nostalgia, using the reboot to revise attachments to older versions of utopia in favor of a future where conflict exists to work through and toward a better humanity.

In taking the reboot seriously, this collection yields questions and answers about television’s past and future.

Brandy Monk-Payton interrogates the rarity of rebooting series originally produced or led by Black casts. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reboot, titled Bel-Air, is one exception. Monk-Payton proposes the concept of “refreshing” rather than “rebooting” to account for Bel-Air’s remediation of Black televisual aesthetics. Specifically, it is a remediation that simultaneously recalls the ’90s Black urban culture of the original while also capitalizing on that very culture to connote feelings of authenticity and to uncritically celebrate merit and prestige at the cost of originality and experimentation.

In his essay on And Just Like That…, Michel Ghanem explores an unexpected affect that this Sex and the City reboot induces: cringe. Ghanem argues that And Just Like That’s emergent “wokeness” evokes feelings of second-hand embarrassment in the viewer that are reminiscent of the original’s propensity for sexual comedy and physical shock. In its present iteration, this cringe affect/effect helps infuse the privileged and cosmopolitan milieu that served as the backdrop of the original Sex and the City with the post-2020 political climate that informs And Just Like That’s sudden attention to politics of race, gender, sexuality, and class.

Finally, Maddie Ullrich’s essay on the short-lived Hulu series Reboot investigates what happens when the self-reflexivity of the reboot form reveals undesirable histories and repressed memories, rather than a past remembered with rose-colored glasses. Can TV that is truly self-reflexive–taking a hard, honest (and sometimes teasing) look back on television’s past for its omissions, inaccuracies, and misrepresentations–survive in today’s precarious television environment?

These authors turn an eye of critical curiosity to the ubiquity of reboots in the contemporary television landscape. In taking the reboot seriously, then, this collection yields questions and answers about television’s past and future that will be of interest to TV scholars, critics, and fans alike.


The Bingewatch: Lesbian Drama

By Sarah Kessler
This series was commissioned by Madeline Ullrich and Sarah Kessler. Feature image: collage of stills from Bel-Air, And Just Like That…, Star Trek: Picard, and Reboot, via IMDB.