It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where the gritty reboot trend started, but you could do a lot worse than Batman Begins, 15 years ago this summer. Like most things that spiral out of control, it started out fine. Good, even. The entire Dark Knight trilogy breathed new life into the superhero genre and changed the way we think about what action movies can be. I have no major complaints with any of that. The problem was that its success led to a slew of imitators, and that led to a slew of other imitators, and then there we were last Christmas contemplating the notion of a gritty Scrooge in a bleak reimagining of A Christmas Carol FX. Why? Why did we need that? Who was clamoring for a smoldering deviant Scrooge with a jawline sharp enough to slice the Christmas turkey? It’s too much. It’s entirely too much. It has to stop. Death to the gritty reboot.
Not forever. I’ll concede that much. The reason Batman Begins worked was because it was new, a reset after things had gotten a little too loose in the franchise. (Please do watch The Dark Knight and Batman & Robin back-to-back someday, just for the ride.) But things are just hopelessly out of hand. The first season of HBO’s Perry Mason series opened with a dead baby and somehow got darker from there. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is getting a just-announced gritty hour-long reboot. Last fall, there were rumors floating around about a “what if Clueless but also possibly murder?” series being shopped to networks. A few years ago, there were multiple dark Wizard of Oz projects in the works, some of them, like the short-lived Emerald City, trying to capitalize on the Game of Thrones heat, others, like the Syfy one that never made it to air, making Dorothy a man and arming her to the teeth and sending her to the future, for reasons I would have loved to hear.
My favorite example of the unnecessary gritty reboot, though, is the Little Women one that was in development at The CW. Do you remember Gritty Little Women? I do. I will never forget it. And I doubt you will either after you read this description, which manages to squeeze the Holy Trinity of Dark Reimaginings — “gritty,” “dystopic,” and “unravel a conspiracy” — into a single sentence.
Little Women is described as a hyper-stylized, gritty adaptation of the 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott, in which disparate half-sisters Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy band together in order to survive the dystopic streets of Philadelphia and unravel a conspiracy that stretches far beyond anything they have ever imagined – all while trying not to kill each other in the process.
I like that it says “the dystopic streets of Philadelphia” and not “the streets of a dystopic Philadelphia,” because their version implies that the regular, present-day streets of Philadelphia are a dystopia, which is not entirely unfair. (Go Birds.) But more importantly, what is this? Why was Little Women almost turned into futuristic True Detective? Why can’t we just have some nice, normal things? Hell, even USA, once home to a smorgasbord of Blue Skies, Characters Welcome programming has switched gears to keep up, making shows like The Sinner, which, to be fair, is not a reboot and not as egregiously bleak for bleak’s sake, but still a far cry from hotshots in sunglasses solving crime at the beach.
And again, I ask, why? Why are we so hellbent on doing this? It is because we’ve all lost the plot a bit, to the point that we’ve started confusing serious and sad with quality, as though anything that doesn’t involve a dead body in a dystopia lacks the stakes to be quote-unquote prestige television? I think that’s part of it, mixed in with a general trend towards copying previous successes and squeezing every cent out of every piece of recognizable intellectual property we have. Whatever it is, there’s something masochistic about the whole endeavor, about the whole “it’s just like that thing you enjoyed but now everyone is really quite miserable” aspect of it. We’re getting perilously close to a gritty Looney Tunes reboot that kills off Wile E. Coyote in the cold open and features two troubled detectives trying to pin the murder on the Road Runner. I shouldn’t have typed that. I might have just given someone an idea.
It doesn’t have to be this way, either. We can still put new twists on old things without making everyone a hopelessly depressed and unshaven heap of loose skin. Look at HBO’s Watchmen series. That took a beloved story filled with beloved characters and gave it a present-day spin that was timely, and poignant, and at times flat-out silly. It was proof that you can do everything in one show, from making a comment on racial injustice to updating iconic characters to depicting a fart so powerful that it requires two separate captions.
We can do this. We have to do this. It doesn’t have to be forever. There’s room for a gritty reboot here and there, maybe a few years down the line. But it has to stop for now. Gritty Scrooge was my breaking point. I’m not ready for Gritty Fresh Prince, too.