Reboots are all the rage — from “Roseanne” to “Full House” to “Will & Grace” — but series revivals do fans no favors.
For one year, “ER” was my life. As a friendless first-year college student, I needed something to do that wasn’t eating reduced-fat Jif from the jar and listening to Bing Crosby’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” so I purchased the pilot on iTunes. Over the next year, I tore through all 15 seasons.
I found “ER” moving, profound, light-years ahead of its time — in its ninth episode, which aired in 1994, John Carter (Noah Wyle) is forced to cope with the consequences of his transphobia — and, of course, real. The Steadicam aesthetic lent the show a pulse-pounding intensity; watching was a physical experience. The performances — from George Clooney to Julianna Margulies — turned characters on a page to humans.
Yet a few weeks ago, when NBC Entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt said at TCA that he had initiated a conversation with “ER” showrunner John Wells about reviving it, I was anything but overjoyed.
These days, television reboots are all the rage (Greenblatt also revealed he’s had revival talks with Aaron Sorkin of “The West Wing,” Greg Daniels of “The Office” and Tina Fey of “30 Rock”). Since “90210” returned to The CW in 2008, networks have revived everything from “Dallas” to “The X-Files” to “Prison Break” to “24” to “Full House” to “Will & Grace” to … you get the idea.
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I could attack this trend from a number of angles. Revivals are safe and unoriginal. They tend to be worse than the series that spawned them. Often, in this golden age of television, they prove woefully outdated. But to advance these arguments is to ignore the fundamental and inescapable problem with television revivals: No matter how much I miss “ER,” what’s dead just ought to stay dead.
My yearlong affair with “ER” has long been over, but its characters — who once seemed to be out there, leading parallel existences to my own — haven’t become any less lifelike to me. I imagine the continuance of their lives, away from the TV cameras, even though I no longer check in on them on a weekly basis. In my head, Abby and Luka are currently raising their son in Boston, having their typical dumb couple arguments and wishing “The T” was half as good a set piece as “The L.”
TV finales spark and, in some cases, actively encourage this sort of passive daydreaming, a rejection of the otherwise depressing idea that characters just cease to exist when the screen goes dark. It’s why the last episode of “Six Feet Under” devastated its fans. In the HBO series’ final moments, it showed the demise of every major character, denying viewers the comfort of implied futures.
To continue a series is to open the door to developments — perhaps the offing of a fan favorite character or the end of a central romance — that threaten, even ruin, these much-needed fantasies.
This sort of implicit erasure might not sound like a big deal, but it is. From our fantasies we form memories, derive meaning and enter into cultural dialogues (see: the ending of “The Sopranos” or the soon-to-be-erased finale of “Roseanne”). Through revision of series resolutions, revivals call into question everything viewers glean from their favorite shows. It’s like resuscitating a corpse “Pet Sematary” style: It’s upsetting, catastrophic and insulting to the mourning and the mourned.
So don’t get the crash cart. The last image “ER” ever broadcast was a shot of County General seen in its entirety for the first time, a shot that turned the hospital into a mammoth memorial to those who lived, died and worked within its walls. Let’s keep it that way.