On the XFL, X-Files and Reboots
When Deadspin recently published an article “The New XFL Is Dumb As Hell But Thank God It's Not Actually Real” I had to read it twice to understand if the article was being facetious or not. The XFL? This is the league famed for nicknames on Jerseys (He Hate Me, Tater, Chuckwagon) and teams with aggressive names like the Hitmen, Outlaws, and Demons, or with the liberal use of the letter X in team names like the X-treme or Maniax. The XFL was a joke, and years after it folded, its creator, WWE’s Vince McMahon admitted as much. So to hear it was being revived was like hearing that McDonalds was bringing back the McSpaghetti, yes I am familiar with it, but no, I have no desire to relive episode.
But this isn’t you father’s XFL. Rather, it is a new family friendly XFL. Compared to its original this is bizarrely conservative, everyone must stand for the national anthem, and no one is allowed to play if they have a criminal record. The league claims that there will be “fewer infractions” whatever that means, and will emphasize safe play. Perhaps McMahon thinks he can scoop up whatever group of people he may believe renounced their allegiance to the NFL for political reasons. Whatever his intention, and despite my aversion to watching it then or soon, he seems to have tapped into the current spirit of the age with its obsession with remakes, reboots, and revivals. I think this is important because something in the zeitgeist is clamoring, rather loudly, for more remakes and reboots or revivals. And while making what is old, new again isn’t new it is worth a look to see what this reality is reflecting back on us, the consumers.
There is no need to make needless distinctions, but a few might help. We can delineate these shows as remakes, such as Dynasty or Miami Vice, reboots such as The Twilight Zone and TRL to revivals such as Roseanne and the X-Files. The remake takes something that has been made and attempts to make it again with a new cast. Reboots similarly use a new cast but retell the origin story or create new episodes with an homage to the past. Revivals include the old cast, reunited as their old characters in new scenarios. What do all of these categories promise? Playing on old brand loyalties and a deliberately manipulated wistfulness for a bygone golden age.
Well placed remakes and reboots have always been a Hollywood staple. Some of the classics speak for themselves, from Cape Fear and Scarface to Jurassic World, the method is to take a well-known entity and play on knowledge of the characters or the association with pleasant memories. They have not all succeeded, in fact on average they are probably little more than moderately successful. Consider RoboCop, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Annie, live action Cinderella, Carrie, Psycho, Godzilla, The Fantastic 4, the Mummy and a handful of Incredible Hulks to name a few. Some of these movies suffered from trying to remake something that was so “underrated” that it brought no preexisting fan base, some seem to lack the magic of the original despite updated computer graphics or better casting or newer filming techniques. Television has less of a tradition from which to learn. X-Files seems to be well received in its limited return and the Gilmore Girls is a critical success. But the novelty alone might only take Will & Grace to a second season. But what might we think of these revisionary shows with new casts, old casts reunited or reimagined contexts? And why might studios continue to invest millions in these properties despite little past success? Looking at the bottom line, the company is using already purchased intellectual property. Rather than risk the unknown they settle on the slightly above mediocre average. This seems to be the safest economic play, risk aversion, and it's been going on for some time. In the not so distant past films like Batman went through lead actors like Star Trek went through starships, that is to say, with little regard for knowingly changing characters, story arcs and backstories. While remakes, etc. are not new there is a deluge right now with little clear rationale beyond, "everybody else is doing it". But as rebooted storylines with younger actors or remakes of nostalgic favorites continue to middling success we might ask why the studios seem to be scratching an only mild itch.
Maybe the driving impulse behind all of this is in economic theories like risk aversion. But maybe these studios are embracing the human impulse to gamble, hoping for a big win, despite the evidence.
It’s the same thing that makes casinos big business, the hope of a big pay day on little wagered.
For every failed reboot there are the rare examples of blockbuster success. After Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney gave Batman a crack, it was a smash success as a trilogy with Christian Bale. Unfortunately, for every Batman trilogy we have the new Karate Kid, Bad News Bears, or Land of the Lost.
The Power of Nostalgia
Sometimes movies aren’t direct remakes of another film, sometimes they are adaptations of television shows or games (see Battleship and the upcoming Rampage). When Land of the Lost with Will Ferrell was released in 2009 it seemed like a slam dunk for Sleestak loving children of the 1980’s. It reminded us of getting up early on Saturday mornings to our limited, but satisfying choices of television made just for us. It wasn’t quality television, but it was directed towards our demographic. Perhaps the film studio believed, even in an age of endless choices, that we wouldn’t mind if it was a good movie or not, after all, it was for us.
Land of the Lost is aired today on the aptly titled “Me TV” which brings us nostalgia by the truck load from I Love Lucy to Saved by the Bell. I understand the attraction to some old shows because they have not been replicated and remain timeless in re-watching. But the Greeks understood that nostalgia isn’t watching something old, or remade for artistic purposes, but rather for a feeling of home. The word nostalgia comes from the root words for homecoming and a dull pain, or ache. When nostalgia reigns we cease to look for standards of quality, but rather for feelings from the past. Maybe those were better days. Maybe those were days we would like to relive and redo. After all, if Spiderman can be rebooted so many times, why can’t we?
We are relying less on memories, but on facsimiles. We can take what you remember and upgrade it. We can package your desire to relive or redo 1997 and sell it to you all over again. Whoever said you can’t go home again may have been right, but we can offer you a new and improved home that replicates your old one.
Not everything from the past relies on nostalgia. In fact, the evidence seems to show that past success does not guarantee anything. Rebooting, remaking, and reviving can be cost effective in terms of intellectual property and their might be a tie in with devotees from the past, but nothing substitutes for quality. This is a lesson for the XFL, X-Files, and all of us who might be looking for a golden age in the past to the detriment of the actual content of the program.
But the XFL, or the next television cast that decides to un-retire for old time sake don’t affect us very much. This isn’t a diatribe against the all-seeing, all pervasive screens from miniature to cinematic. But it reflects back on us and might make us reconsider how we give up quality for nostalgia because we are needlessly tied to the past? How often do we grumble about the present because it isn’t up to par with what we’ve experienced in the past? It’s easy to reboot an old idea with less overhead and little imagination. It’s fun to gamble, too. But memories of past success are little help in the present.
With an endless stream of these film and television projects in the work (one website counted 126 by 2020) we might do well to remind ourselves that even what was good can become a historical idol.
Religious groups, social clubs and schools can all become slaves to a past that has standards we could never live up to. We idolize for nostalgia, but soon that pain for homecoming becomes unmanageable. Free yourselves from a past that might bind you or dig deeper for the shades of gray in the black and white memories. In the meantime, look forward to Dumbo, Ace Ventura or the Birds. But don’t discount the present and the reality of progress. There are few real "golden ages" and from technology to diversity we are capable, maybe, of doing better than we did the first time around. If the XFL can change, can’t we all?
Dan is the director of The League of Faithful Masks which produces the Virtue in the Wasteland podcast. He received his PhD in 2008 from the University of St. Andrews and was recently a professor of history and political thought as well as Assistant Dean at Concordia University, Irvine. He is the author of Monsters: Addiction, Hope, Ex-Girlfriends and Other Dangerous Things.