Everything old is new again. Literally fucking everything. Pop culture has become an ever-tightening loop of remakes, reboots, rebirths, anything that can co-opt familiar stories into new productions. Apparently creativity comes easier when you use characters that have already been developed and a fanbase that already exists.
The past few months have brought two misbegotten rehashes of beloved television shows: The Muppets on ABC, and the Jem and the Holograms movie. The first was met with mixed reviews and is reportedly being retooled before it returns next year, while the other was roundly reviled and yanked from movie theaters after three agonizing weeks.
The Muppet Show, in its original permutation (1976-1981) as a vaudeville-styled variety show, appealed to both kids and grownups and drew guest stars ranging from Dolly Parton to Rudolf Nureyev to Steve Martin. The Muppets, by comparison, employs the “mockumentary” style used in The Office; it follows the backstage drama of a late-night talk show hosted by Miss Piggy and produced by Kermit the Frog. And instead of Debbie Harry performing with felt backup, there’s Reese Witherspoon making painfully unamusing small talk.
It’s unclear whom The Muppets was supposed to please. Kids aren’t interested in jokes about coffee orders, high-end sushi restaurants and online dating, and adults have heard all this shit already. And it also makes the lovable Muppets distinctly unlikeable. In their original incarnations, Kermit may have been meek and put-upon, but he always remained hopeful and never doubted his ability to get the show on the road. Piggy may have been vain and domineering, but she loved Kermit and wasn’t above using her karate skills to save him. In the modern take, Kermit the Frog is presented as a spineless, manipulative creep, while Miss Piggy is reduced to being a one-dimensional, egotistical bitch.
The 2015 live-action remake of Christy Marx’s 1984 animated show Jem and the Holograms also abandoned what made the original appealing. The original Jem was about Jerrica, a young woman who runs a record label and a charity while having a “secret” identity as a rock star. The Holograms is Jem’s all-girl band, as well as a reference to Synergy, the computer Jerrica uses to create her holographic stage disguise and concert effects.
In Jon Chu’s movie, Jerrica is recast as a shy teen that becomes a huge Internet star on the basis of a viral video. She’s signed to a record label, whose executives force her to adopt the “Jem” identity and separate her from her bandmates. No fierce lady CEO here, no philanthropy, no scientific ability—just an easily manipulated teenage girl who tinkers with her dad’s computer, gets signed to her boyfriend’s record label, and records songs that sound like Taylor Swift fronting a closet-bound Mumford & Sons. Hell, the Jem movie even cuts out the Misfits, a bunch of nasty broads who constantly attempt to thwart Jem as she rocks out and does good. It’s like making a Batman movie without the Joker or Catwoman, because the story is all about whether Bruce Wayne really wants to be Batman.
Every now and then, though, someone does get the reboot to fit. Cartoon Network recently introduced Wabbit, a take on Bugs Bunny and Looney Tunes that manages to honor the original while making a few updates. Rather than trying to force Bugs and his cronies into a sitcom format, Wabbit delivers a series of 10-15 minute shorts that usually involve Bugs taking down some overblown bully via his trademark surrealist methodology.
Are they as good as the original Looney Tunes? No, but at least they don’t make me feel like finding the person responsible and smacking them. Of course, the smartest return to a childhood classic has been Nickelodeon’s late-night revival of John Kricfalusi’s Ren & Stimpy. How have they changed the cartoon? They haven’t. It’s simply a rerun of the originals, in all their sick, splendid glory. True genius is best left alone.