Reboots, Remakes, and Revivals: Letting Endings Be

Stories are defined by a beginning, middle, and end. And endings are often one of the hardest things to get right. End a story well and it will stay with you forever. But end it badly and the entire experience turns sour. It could feel too expected or trite. Too neat. Too rushed. Not satisfying. Not resolved. Not final.

Today, in a moment filled with prequels, sequels, spin-offs, reboots, remakes, and revivals, it feels as though creators are avoiding the difficulty of coming up with a good finale altogether by just not… ending… anything. Whether it’s a cliffhanger that leaves the audience gasping or a post-credits sting that sets up the next installment, every ending is expected to leave the door open for more. And it’s this idea of when “more” is actually needed that feels so uncertain.

Obviously, there is a clear business situation to acknowledge. It’s easier to convince audiences to pay to spend time on a property they already know. And with so many beloved properties laying around, ripe for reinvention, why not just dust them off, give them a little 2018 makeover, declare them “good enough!” and make lots of money? That approach certainly seems more appealing than doing the work of inventing a new story from scratch.

Plus, there’s the nostalgia factor. There is a good reason tapping into childhood favorites works, particularly now. In a time of peak national anxiety, the familiar offers a stabilizing force. It’s the reason I always reached for Harry Potter during school exams or retreated into The West Wing during the toxic 2016 election cycle. But nostalgia can also be a minefield: to do it well is to capture the essence and spirit of the original without treading too hard on sacred ground. Expectations are always sky-high, and they’re almost always never met (see also: my rant on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child).

But, my biggest problem with reboot culture is this: To borrow from Chaim Gartenberg’s Verge piece about Cursed Child, “the implicit question of why [this story] should exist is never answered.” I will defend a creator’s right to explore more of these massive worlds they built or develop an existing character if they have a genuine desire to do so. But I also expect them to be able to justify why. Why this story? Why now? What motivated you, beyond the money, to tell it? Why should audiences care?

I believe stories should be told with intention. Studios are falling over themselves trying to create their own cinematic universes without caring about all the problems it creates: overstuffed plots, hordes of underdeveloped characters, hollow dialogue, meaningless CGI-filled scenes, and weak storytelling. All spectacle, no substance. It doesn’t feel that the majority of these stories are being continued out of any genuine love of the characters or the world. It’s purely mercenary.

However, this is not to say that all reboots or revivals are automatically terrible. Exciting potential does exist within the bones of pre-existing worlds. But the “why” question still deserves to be answered. For example, the recent news of a Buffy The Vampire Slayer “reboot” sparked immediate debate. The announcement positioned this project as “contemporary and [will] build on the mythology of the original” and will also feature “a black actress stepping into the role of Buffy.” From my perspective, there are two potential interpretations here: one of which actually could be quite good while the other makes me want to bang my head against the wall.

The notion of seeing a new story within the Buffyverse featuring a new slayer with a diverse lead and cast is immensely exciting. The concept of the slayer naturally lends itself to reinvention: “Into every generation a slayer is born. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness.” In 2018, what meaning does the concept of the slayer take on, and how would a black woman uniquely experience that meaning and that power?

Structurally too, the original series was deeply ambitious and groundbreaking. Between episodes, it fluctuated from drama to comedy, horror to romance, high school hallways to dreamscapes, and silent episodes to musical ones. It explored themes including friendship, family, love, loss, fear, death and, most importantly, life. The show transcended genre and became something special that had never quite existed on television before. So at a time when our ideas of what’s possible from serialized TV storytelling are being upended by things like Netflix, how might a new show challenge form and structure in a different way? That could genuinely be cool to explore.

However, if this turns out to be a complete reboot of the original Buffy The Vampire Slayer series featuring new actors literally stepping into the characters of Buffy, Willow, and Xander — keep it. I’m not interested. It’s so insulting to simply racebend existing roles for actors of color and call it “progressive” instead of inventing new, original roles they can fully own. It’s lazy to retread the same ground, the same beats, of a story that we’ve already seen. Will there be attempts to recreate the magic of “Hush” or “Once More With Feeling” or “The Body”? Will the new Buffy have the same character traits as Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy? If so, it’s been already done. If not, then why even bother calling her Buffy?

To me, Buffy’s story has been told. It ran from 1997 through 2003 and if I want to revisit that story, I’ll rewatch the series. No, the original wasn’t perfect. It had flaws. But it was complete. It ended. And if this reboot is expected to deliver on every fan-favorite moment we know and love from the original, whatever potential new narrative that could exist will never get the proper time and space to develop. It’s burdened with far too much weight and expectations from the original. But that weight doesn’t have to exist. They could respect that Buffy’s story ended and choose instead to build something new within the universe that she made us love.

As Buffy taught us, we should think hard about the consequences of raising something from the dead that should probably remain in its grave. If storytellers are constantly dredging up icons from the past, how is the next generation ever going to have their own pop cultural touchstone characters to identify with? Endings aren’t easy, nor should they be. But at some point, both audiences and creators need to recognize when to leave something be. Not everything needs, or deserves, an encore — especially when there are so many new stories just waiting to be told.