Reviving a TV Series (Like Roseanne or Will & Grace) in a Few Not-So-Easy Steps

The execs who brought those shows back explain how they pulled it off

Murphy Brown, Last Man Standing and Will & Grace are all back in prime time.
Source: Getty Images

The strong ratings for this season’s returns of Roseanne and Will & Grace have prompted several rivals to revive other past-hit shows. “Right now, a lot of people are rushing to say, ‘Let’s dust this off, let’s remake that,’” says ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey. Already set for next season are Murphy Brown, which will return to CBS on Thursdays at 9:30 p.m., and Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing, which Fox resuscitated one year after ABC canceled it. Those will likely be followed by Mad About You; Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser recently closed deals with Sony Pictures Television to star in new episodes of the sitcom, though it hasn’t yet landed at an outlet.

However, the execs involved in many of these successful revivals said that networks should use caution when considering bringing back other classic shows. Nostalgia is “really helpful in terms of bringing people into the tent,” says Dungey. “But they don’t stay if they’re not feeling engaged and entertained, and that’s the most important lesson to take from this. It’s not just about putting a fan favorite back on the air; you need to be doing that with the right kind of creative talent behind it.”

That’s the mantra that Sara Gilbert and the Roseanne team followed this season. “It’s important to not just make something a reunion, but to have something feel like a story that organically picks up again with something to say,” says Gilbert, who portrays daughter Darlene, and is also an executive producer on the Roseanne revival.

“It’s important to not just make something a reunion, but to have something feel like a story that organically picks up again with something to say.”
Sara Gilbert, actress and executive producer on Roseanne

For NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt, working with the show’s original creative team is essential for a revival, as he did with Will & Grace creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan. “Only if they feel creatively energized to bring the show back in some form does it make any sense, as much as I might want it,” Greenblatt says. While NBC has also had talks about reviving The Office, “I have no idea if that will ever come to be. I think it would be great to bring it back, but only if [creator] Greg Daniels wants to do it, and sees a way to do it. And we haven’t gotten to that place yet.”

At Sony, which recently launched the Karate Kid revival Cobra Kai on YouTube Red (it was renewed for Season 2 just one week after its debut) and is shopping around Mad About You, “it’s always creative first. We would not reboot a series if the creative wasn’t there,” says Sony Pictures Television president Jeff Frost. When it came to reviving Mad About You, “the creative take we heard was just incredible.”

Another potential stumbling block for revivals is wooing back the series’ original stars. A series like Will & Grace or Roseanne, in which the entire cast returned, “is an anomaly,” says Greenblatt. “So you have to look at the approach, casting-wise, and decide whether it’s worth doing with new people, or with some new people and some returning people,” which is a tactic that didn’t work out for NBC when it aired Heroes Reborn in 2015. “Everything is its own specific case,” says Greenblatt, “and I don’t think we’re going to be doing a lot of this in the grand scheme of things.”

Dungey agrees. While she’s in “a number of conversations” about potentially reviving other former ABC shows, the network chief cautions that even after Roseanne’s triumphant return, “my strategy moving forward is not to bring back the schedule from 1992 and go from there.”

This story first appeared in the May 21, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Recommended articles