If you could go back in time and change one thing, would you? It’s a common fantasy, and one frequently asked by pop culture. The theme has appeared in everything from THE TWILIGHT ZONE to GROUNDHOG DAY. In recent years, the time-loop or Butterfly Effect theme has played out in more and more TV shows including RUSSIAN DOLL, THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY, BLACK MIRROR, THE GOOD PLACE, and even the latest season of SHE-RA. Time and alternative realities are very much the current zeitgeist.
Curiously, these time-loop scenarios coincide with the recent phenomenon of rebooting America’s favorite shows and movies. SHE-RA, QUEER EYE, TALES OF THE CITY, SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT, ONE DAY AT A TIME, all of the Disney “live action” remakes, 007, and a slated modern-day remake of FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL are reboots that mostly harken back to Millennials’ childhoods and young adulthoods.
The sudden prevalence of twisted realities and reboots suggests a deep desire to correct the past. They insist on stronger representations of people of color and LGBTQ+ identities. Ultimately, in an era of rampant bigotry and unrest, reboots that help us rewrite the past might be able to help us make a more inclusive the future.
History on Repeat?
Superficially, the prevalence of TV and film reboots might look as though the art of screenwriting is dead. The reboots make it seem like writers are out of ideas, and there’s nothing new about time-loop alternative universes. (DOCTOR WHO has specialized in the regeneration theme since its inception. GROUNDHOG DAY will let Bill Murray continue to live as a cult icon!) Television shows are by nature alternative universes in which we can live out our fantasies. But all of these time-warps and reboots are serving an important cathartic role. Television is revisiting our favorite shows because we want to go back.
The popularity of time-warps in conjunction with the many reboots hints at the consumer’s desire for this kind of event. And the coincidence of these shows with the era of bigotry ushered in by the Trump election in 2016 points to the collective cultural trauma of living in an America that promotes fear, racism, and xenophobia. Much like the characters trapped in a repeating time-loop, we are trying to go back to fix things.
There are countless examples. SHE-RA, originally a HE-MAN show marketed for girls in the 1980s, has been transformed under Noelle Stevenson’s guidance. The reboot embraces body positivity, includes more LGBTQ+ characters and more characters of color. Other shows including TALES OF THE CITY and ONE DAY AT A TIME are similarly retroactively correcting a cultural history of exclusion. Both shows incorporate more queer characters, more characters of color, and a sensibility of progressive intersectional feminism. Even QUEER EYE, a reboot of the already ground-breaking original QUEER EYE FOR THE STRAIGHT GUY series, is more inclusive. Not only is the cast more diverse, the agenda has shifted from “fixing” straight men, to curbing toxic masculinity and introducing conservative communities to liberal queer people.
RUSSIAN DOLL & THE GOOD PLACE: How To Be A Better Person
Although there are many shows that fixate on alternative realities and parallel universes, two recent Netflix hits, RUSSIAN DOLL and THE GOOD PLACE, use alternative realities to explore the question: what does it mean to be a good person? In RUSSIAN DOLL strangers Nadia and Alan repeatedly die and wake up only to relive the last 24-48 hours of their lives before dying again. THE GOOD PLACE is equally existentially driven. The four lead characters relive their afterlives over and over, always learning how to be better people. In the words of Eleanor Shellstrop, played by Kristen Bell, “I’m not the best person in the world. I’m a trash bag.” But she’s a trash bag who wants to learn how to do better.
These two shows deploy the time-loop genre to reinforce the idea that the actions you take have moral and ethical consequences. Living out your life to the fullest degree requires that we think of how our actions affect other people. Both shows are irreverent, sarcastic, and somehow incredibly tender. Moreover, with diverse casting and a bent towards female empowerment, the shows prove that progressive liberal attitudes are still funny even as they call out misogyny and bigotry.
One Gay At A Time: Retrospective Diversity
While time-warps allow us to learn how to be better people, reboots are real-life instances of improving the past. ONE DAY AT A TIME reboots a 1970s sitcom about a single mom. The show adapted the original to highlight Latinx families in the United States. The reboot also has a canonical lesbian character. Similarly, TALES OF THE CITY and the SHE-RA reboot added more characters of color and LGBTQ+ characters.
As tired as some of us are of seeing Disney do cut-for-cut remakes of their classics, it has been exciting to see the company recognize the importance of diverse representation. While the MARY POPPINS remake failed to radically shift the agenda, the new LITTLE MERMAID might succeed. With Ariel slated to be played by Halle Bailey, Disney has taken a step towards inclusivity.
By retroactively overlaying diversity onto these frameworks, reboots answer the demand for better and more diverse representation in TV. But instead of developing new ideas, the reboots let us go back and “fix” the past.
Failed Reboots: ROSEANNE
There is one reboot that stands out as a nearly complete failure: ROSEANNE. The sole Trump-supporting lead character of a nearly all-white reboot was almost immediately killed off (for good reasons).
Ultimately, Roseanne’s universe was still popular, and the spin-off rebounded a little. However, among liberal circles the show hasn’t had the buzz or intense fandom that shows like ONE DAY AT A TIME earned. A universe in which Roseanne Barr can emulate a racist president by tweeting out more racism is not the parallel universe that we want. It’s far too close to the discomfiting world outside our door.
Want to Change the Future? Take Responsibility
Living in the Trump era is demoralizing and exhausting, especially for people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and people with disabilities. While reboots can’t fix our culture, and we can’t travel back in time over and over again until we “get it right,” we can take action to help other people. To draw from the common themes of these shows, we have the power to take action to help other people. And as a result, we can start to change our reality only when we take actions that prioritize diversity and respect. Can these time warps and reboots help us overcome the trauma of white supremacy and xenophobia? Maybe not. But they can at least give us some respite and inspire us to do better.