Culture Trips

Arrested development: why can’t millennial nostalgia reboots get it right? | US television

For about five seconds in Paramount’s revival of iCarly, the Nickelodeon tween show that ran from 2007 until 2012, there’s a glimpse of the self-aware resuscitation that could have been. In one of the final scenes of the premiere, the twentysomething former webcaster Carly Shay, a role reprised by a now 28-year-old Miranda Cosgrove, once again stands in front of the camera – this time, an iPhone, filming the intro to her rebooted web series iCarly, which drew thousands of fictional young teenage fans on a show which once attracted 11.2 million live viewers. “Welcome to the new iCarly,” she says. “This is still iCarly, but it’s grown up now.”

Reboots in Hollywood often deservedly invoke eye rolls, especially ones that bait viewers with nostalgia for beloved teenage fare, but the prospect of a “new iCarly” offered a potentially fruitful angle: as one of mainstream pop culture’s first influencer characters – iCarly was an early simulacrum of good-natured, chemistry-fueled YouTube channels – Carly offered a template rich for adaptation for content-saturated 2021, both for the presumably still online character and the fans who followed her. How has she navigated the long trail of viral fame as a high schooler? Did she carry her following to Instagram? Now what?

But the new iCarly doesn’t go that way; both the show and Carly’s new web series stick to content for an audience frozen in the first series. The new iCarly’s first live stream, in which she smothers a faux skincare routine on her adult brother’s face while he’s dressed as an infant, applies a sheen of late 2010s content to a bit from the original show without any update to its humor (it somehow still draws 50k live viewers). Much of the iCarly reboot has this tinny, unsettling feel – a show with adult characters in semi-adult situations (cocktail parties, dinner dates, solo apartments) whose shticks, comic rhythms and two-gear caricatures remain stuck in bland PG-13 territory. There’s an uncanny detachedness to the three episodes released so far, as Carly forays into single life as a livestreamer in 2021. If the original audience has matured beyond iCarly’s punchless lines and sexless romantic entanglements, and the tone’s target demographic will probably have no knowledge of or allegiance to a resuscitated web show, then who is this reboot for?

It’s a question that has faced a wave of similarly zombified programs that tug on millennial nostalgia for childhood comforts. Earlier this year, Peacock’s new Punky Brewster, a renewal of the 80s kids’ sitcom in which the original star, Soleil Moon Frye, plays a single mom, struck a similarly placeless tone. Netflix’s Fuller House was a derivative take on the already formulaic Full House. There was a collective “thanks but no thanks” to Paramount’s eerie CGI reboot of the 90s kids classic The Rugrats, which seems to aim for its original audience now with, assumedly, children of their own. Only last year’s Saved By the Bell spin-off on Peacock, helmed by the longtime 30 Rock writer Tracey Wigfield, achieved the rare self-awareness to poke fun at its original stock characters while shifting the show’s focus and humor to a younger generation.

The murkily aimed but well-financed revivals of 80s and 90s TV staples is now, predictably, coming for the beloved favorites of 2000s preteens – fans probably not old enough to have kids of their own, thus making decisions to keep the content PG even more baffling. Raven’s Home, a Disney Channel spin-off of its 2000s staple That’s So Raven, updates Raven’s (Raven Symoné) story to that of a single mother, but still hews to the original show’s preteen boundaries. Jamie Lynn Spears, the star of the Nickelodeon show Zoey 101, has discussed a not-yet-confirmed reboot aimed at “young adults” that would do “justice for the fans that were 10 and 12 when it first aired, while also bringing in the new generation of fans”.

That balancing act – pleasing original, matured fans while holding to the bounds of the original network – proved too difficult for the eagerly anticipated revival of Disney’s Lizzie McGuire, which was scrapped by Disney Plus after network heads disagreed with the adult tone and content for the now-30-year-old character, a vision supported by the original showrunner, Terri Minsky, and star Hilary Duff.

“I’d be doing a disservice to everyone by limiting the realities of a 30-year-old’s journey to live under the ceiling of a PG rating,” Duff wrote on Instagram in February 2020, as the network halted production after filming two episodes. “It’s important to me that just as her experience as a preteen/teenager navigating life were authentic, her next chapters are equally as real and relatable.”

The one 2000s reboot that does seem nimble enough to adapt to both new audiences and avid fans is HBO Max’s new Gossip Girl, premiering on 8 July, whose early promos tout the same who’s who glamour and glossy melodrama as the CW original along with more sexual fluidity, class consciousness and a not white, straight cast.

The Gen Z-wrapped Gossip Girl appears, judging from promos and significant hype, to approach the ideal for a recent revival – a familiar, enticing hook that caters to matured sensibilities with the openness to court new, underserved audiences. None of those considerations mark the new iCarly – a show I certainly didn’t expect to be perfection, but one I hoped would, given the prescience of its original premise, be interesting, or at least fun.

But the old seams of the original – the laugh track, the corny lessons, bits and gags masquerading as characters – do not translate to a character who is supposed to be a 26-year-old woman, let alone one savvy enough to carry a following online. Who is the new iCarly for? Carly the webcaster turned livestreamer would be well-versed in the taste and demands of her ever-shifting audience – a curiosity I wish the show, and the inevitable resuscitations of late millennial nostalgia hooks to follow, would take seriously, no matter the sunniness of the original.

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