Will TV Finales Stop Mattering?

Ever since NBC announced plans for a Will & Grace revival, fans have wondered exactly how the new episodes would deal with the events of the original series finale, which covered the next two decades in the lives of the characters, as Will and Grace each had kids and went through a period of estrangement from one another.

The answer, it turns out, is that the revival will simply ignore the finale. As creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick told EW, the revival will pretend all those events never happened:

“When the decision was made to bring the series back, we were like, well, we left them with kids, right?” adds executive producer/creator David Kohan. “And if they have children, then it has to be about them being parents, ‘cause presumably it would be a priority in their lives. And if it wasn’t a priority in their lives, then they’re still parents, they’re just bad parents, right? We frankly did not want to see them being either good parents or bad parents. We wanted them to be Will and Grace.”

Short of turning the new episodes into a period piece set during an earlier point of the series — which would foil Mutchnick and Kohan’s desire to have the characters comment on present-day America — this would seem to be the only way to make a revival work. The kids are actually much less of a problem (they’d be 10 or 11, and easy to write around) than the fact that the finale establishes Will and Grace weren’t on speaking terms until their children were college freshmen. You can’t tell new stories set in the present without violating the old continuity.

I’m dubious about revivals in general — every good TV show is a product of a specific time in the lives of the characters, the people making the show, and the people watching them, and when you change any or all of those times, they almost never feel right — but the contortions that both this one and ABC’s upcoming Roseanne sequel will have to go through to escape decisions made in their finales (like Roseanne killing off Dan) point out yet another pitfall of this trend.

Most of the best TV finales of all time — The Shield, Six Feet Under, Newhart, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, to name a few — are great precisely because they’re definitive. Life-goes-on finales (say, Cheers) can be wonderful, but usually the ones that stand out are the ones that bring the story to a full conclusion, whether death or simply resolving the premise. And most of those shows did that because they existed in a TV universe where years-later sequel seasons weren’t a consideration.

Nearly all the recent revivals have been creatively disappointing, and only a few have been even modest commercial successes. Yet networks are going to keep making these zombie TV shows because they’re familiar names and an easy way to cut through the Peak TV clutter. So even if those shows ended definitively — well or not — bells may have to be unrung for the sake of brand equity.

And this could lead to two unfortunate consequences. One is that future showrunners will be reluctant to wrap things up in a bow in their finales, just in case that Netflix money might roll in 10 or 15 years down the line, and finales will become less memorable in service of a theoretical future payday.

The other — as suggested by NPR’s Linda Holmes during our podcast discussion yesterday — is that this impulse will spread beyond just hedging bets for a possible revival, and become a regular tool in TV writers’ toolkits for any plot development that they later decide is inconvenient: Oh, remember that thing we did in last season’s finale? Forget it. In fact, forget everything we’ve done for the last year and a half while our ratings were slipping. Your favorite couple is back together with no explanation! All the dead have just risen!

Shows have done this in the past — most infamously on Dallas when the seemingly dead Bobby Ewing emerged from the shower, revealing that an entire season of the show had been a dream, annoying even the fans who were mad Bobby had died(*) — but it’s almost never handled gracefully. Worse, one of the things viewers tend to like most about ongoing series is getting to see characters and their relationships grow and change over time; a circumstance where showrunners feel it’s okay to just call a mulligan on any inconvenient storyline — even if it wasn’t a great idea to begin with — pulls out that foundation in favor of hitting the reset button in the most blatant way possible.

(*) This was the rare case of a plot twist that screwed up two different series, as spinoff Knots Landing had done several major stories inspired by reactions to Bobby’s death. The Knots writers were kept out of the loop on the shower gag, and were reportedly so upset about the mess his revival could have made of their show that they just stopped doing any crossover storylines, or acknowledging Bobby’s return to the land of the living.

Maybe this will go over well with fans, many of whom strongly disliked the darkness of the series finale. And comic books have been doing this stuff forever, though that owes more to the idea of many different writers handling characters over the decades, and new ones being frustrated by something a predecessor did. (Spider-Man was married for years; today, he’s written as someone who’s always been single.) But the fact that Will & Grace is going to have to contort itself like this simply as an excuse to have middle-aged versions of the title characters still behaving like they’re in their early 30s is yet another reminder of why these revivals are usually more trouble than they’re worth. (As Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life showed, not letting characters age emotionally tends to detract from the experience more than the fun added by seeing them doing the old stuff.)

Imagine if Alan Ball called up HBO one day and said, “I’ve got a great idea to do another season of Six Feet Under, but Nate’s still alive and he and Brenda are happily married!” Or if Shawn Ryan wanted to make new Shield episodes set in the present in which various dead or incarcerated characters were simply back on the Strike Team together. A Newhart revival where Dick is still running the inn and The Bob Newhart Show was the dream. New Dexter episodes where he never became a lumberjack…

…okay, so maybe some retcons aren’t such a bad idea.

What does everybody else think? Is it worth throwing out huge story developments in a revival just to bring back the classic versions of old characters?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast.