Making Lightning Strike Twice: Three Showrunners Discuss What It Takes To Make A TV Reboot Work

If you look at the slate of upcoming fall TV shows, it’s hard not to feel a sense of déjà vu. From major film franchises to sci-fi movies and cancelled series given second life, plenty of titles coming this season look familiar.

Fox alone is planning four reboots – Lethal Weapon, The Exorcist, 24: Legacy and the much anticipated Prison Break comeback; CBS has thrown its weight behind Peter Lenkov’s MacGyver re-telling; after a successful Full House spin-off, Netflix is bringing back the Gilmore Girls; and the CW is trying its hand at a remake of the 2000 thriller Frequency.

It’s easy to see why studios would rather put their eggs in the reboot basket than create original dramas. In the age of Peak TV, with hundreds of shows competing for a sliver of the spotlight, a familiar face is more likely to stand out, but the history of reboots on TV is a murky one and trying to reframe a story that’s already been told for the small screen doesn’t come without its risks.

We spoke to three showrunners — Matt Miller from Lethal Weapon, Peter Lenkov with MacGyver and Prison Break creator Paul Scheuring, all in charge of bringing this year’s most-hyped reboots to life this fall — about what it really takes to make a reboot work and how they plan to keep their respective series out of the discard pile this TV season.

Matt Miller – Lethal Weapon

When Matt Miller’s ABC drama Forever — the one about an immortal doctor working as a medical examiner for the NYPD — was abruptly cancelled after its premiere season, the showrunner was left wondering what to do next. Warner Bros., the studio he works with, floated him plenty of ideas, but most of those were comic book properties, something he had no interest in. The only project that caught the EP’s eye was Lethal Weapon, the buddy cop action comedy that launched Mel Gibson to superstardom and became one of the most successful franchises in film history.

“Of course they were like, ‘There’s a million reasons why you can’t do Lethal Weapon.’” Miller tells Uproxx. “I said ‘I get it. I’m just saying that’s one of the things you have that I think would be right to make into a TV series.’” He got the call a couple of days later greenlighting the show. “You’re immediately, like, so happy and excited and that’s followed by just terror,” Miller says.

Miller was tasked with giving a film that helped define an entire film genre the TV treatment. CBS would end up trying its hand at a buddy cop drama a year later with its ill-fated Rush Hour remake, a show that floundered in the ratings and found no love from critics.

I asked Miller if paying attention to the reboots that bomb is something that comes with the job of running a remake. “You look at them and try to learn why certain ones didn’t work and why certain ones do,” he says. “The ones that try to recreate the movie and rely so heavily on the title are the ones that don’t work as well. The ones that capture the soul of what the movie was and then forge their own path, those work.”

Miller says his series isn’t interested in being a carbon copy of the original film. He’s changed a few character details, focusing his story on the themes central to the first film, the one that had the most impact on him as a kid.

“It’s about a guy who’s a little afraid to live being partnered up with a guy who’s actively looking to die and that dynamic to me feels really rich,” Miller says. “Whether that show is called Lethal Weapon or anything, it’s an interesting character story to tell and I think if you have that, if you have something compelling or interesting, then the title is wonderful and it’s advantageous in a world with 400 shows out there trying to break through the clutter, but it’s not reliant on the title.”

But it’s not the storytelling that’s the most daunting part of bringing a film like Lethal Weapon to TV; it’s the characters and the actors who originally portrayed them. Lethal Weapon transformed Mel Gibson into a household name and paired him with Danny Glover, an accomplished actor in his own right. The pair’s comedic chemistry is what really made the movie work and attempting to recreate that is an impossible task.

Instead, Miller decided to write Danny Glover’s character with a specific actor in mind. “I wrote it for Damon Wayans,” Miller says. “I knew with Daman, you wouldn’t think about Danny Glover. He has such a different charisma. All you’re going to think about when you’re watching this is ‘Oh, that’s Damon Wayans.” You’re not going to think, ‘Oh, that’s Damon Wayans trying to play Danny Glover.’”

Finding Riggs was harder. “Everyone came in, consciously or not, they all did Mel Gibson imitations,” Miller said. Rectify’s Clayne Crawford stood out thanks to his slow Southern drawl, a trait the character needed to have after Miller rewrote his origins, and his disdain for everything L.A.

“The character for our version is from Texas and moves to L.A. for certain reasons, so we wanted him to play a bit as a fish out of water,” Miller says. “[Clayne] lived on a farm in Alabama. He hates L.A.; didn’t want anything to do with it and it was just perfect. There’s a different vibe and a different energy to the role.”

Miller’s more interested in forging a new path for these characters than revamping them, something he knows audience will either love or hate.

“There’s this old Hollywood story about Rain Man,” Miller said. “Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know. But with Rain Man, they gave the original script to Sydney Pollack to direct. He read it and he was like, ‘I don’t get this. It’s about two guys in a car.’ And they gave the same script to Barry Levinson and he said, ‘I love this. It’s about two guys in a car.’ I think for me, that’s what Lethal Weapon is. It’s about these two guys in a car. Granted that car’s going 90 mph down the PCH and a surfboard probably comes crashing through someone’s windshield, but the idea is to make it be a character show about these two broken guys.”

Peter Lenkov – MacGyver

After finding unprecedented success bringing back Hawaii Five-O for CBS, Peter Lenkov earned the unofficial title of “Reboot King” for the network. He doesn’t like that moniker, but his track record is pretty hard to ignore. Five-O is now in its seventh season and it remains a strong property for CBS who’s struggled recently when it comes to remakes — see the Bradley Cooper vehicle Limitless and that doomed aforementioned Rush Hour remake.

Lenkov’s ability to bring a show back to life for a new audience is why CBS came to him after shooting MacGyver’s pilot, asking for his help. “They got to a place where they felt like they could use some input and I came aboard,” Lenkov says. When things weren’t working with the initial script, the showrunner convinced CBS to let him do some rewrites and shoot a second pilot.

“What worked for me was the casting of Lucas [Till] and George [Eads],” Lenkov explains. “That was really strong. Their relationship was very critical to what could be the basis of the show and I just wanted to build the show around that. The original pilot really wasn’t that. I got to write a new script and jettison everything that was in this original pilot except for this great casting duo.”

Some studios might balk at a showrunner wanting to not only rework a pilot, but reframe an entire series. But Lenkov has already proven he knows what he’s doing. His knack for honing in on what audiences love about classic TV shows is part of what’s made Five-O a mainstay for CBS.

“I honor the original source material,” Lenkov says when asked the secret to making a reboot stick. “Whether you knew [Five-O] or not, I think it feels like a very genuine and honest reboot. It doesn’t feel like somebody just took the name and slapped it on a show for marketing purposes. A lot of times reboots are made for the wrong reasons. I only wanted to get involved in Five-O because I felt a connect to that material as I do with MacGyver.”

One challenge showrunners face when bringing back a beloved series like MacGyver is the same thing studios look at when considering recreating the show to begin with: the loyalty of the vehicle’s fan base.

Lenkov’s dealt with critics before, but when faced with a fandom more skeptical than excited about a MacGyver reboot, he says the only thing he can do is stick to his game plan — and block out some of the noise. “A lot of people come to this with feelings and preconceived ideas of whether they’re going to like it or not because of the original show,’ he admits. “I find it very tough. Overcoming the skeptics — don’t get me wrong, I like being the underdog — but what I learned from [Hawaii Five-O] is there are a lot of people that are going to have an opinion and my job is to sway them and get them to tune in after that first episode. To show them that there’s a reason for this show to exist.”

It’s a task made even more difficult by the new Peak TV landscape. MacGyver isn’t just competing with other reboots and new original series this fall, it’s also competing against itself. Hardcore fans can easily find streaming platforms that host old episodes of the original series if they want to revisit the resourceful, ingenious agent.

Lenkov and the writers have a difficult assignment: Stay true to the original while bringing something fresh to hook a new audience. It’s why they’ve changed the format of the show. As Lenkov explains, his MacGyver isn’t a “lone wolf” who interacts with a handful of characters a season. Instead, characters who may have been background noise in the original are in the forefront of this reboot. The show focuses on relationships and the audience gets a new look at this iconic character through the eyes of his friends and family.

Another way the show has managed to modernize itself is through technology. You might still see MacGyver wielding a Swiss Army knife or using rubber bands and chewing gum to get out of a sticky situation, but he’s also retooling technology.

“The idea of MacGyver living in a world where you can fix anything or do anything with an app and how you take that skill set and translate it to today and how does he repurpose technology — things like that are fun things that make it stand out from the original,” Lenkov says.

Most showrunners helming reboots talk about walking that fine line between paying homage and forging new ground. For some it comes in the storytelling, for others the action. Lenkov knows the viewers tuning into MacGyver are there for the explosions, the car chases, the spy gadgets — he describes each episode as a once-a-week “summer blockbuster” — but what he’s invested in for this remake are character studies.

“One of the big debates we had in house was in the second episode, the plot doesn’t start until really about 10 minutes into the show because we’re spending so much time with our characters,” Lenkov says. “I kept saying, that’s what people are going to be tuning in for. They could go elsewhere if they just want plot of the week, but I think they’ll really enjoy our characters and family and tune in. That’s really why people watch TV today — strong characters. I don’t think people are watching Narcos because of the innovative plot turns in the cocaine world. I think they’re turning in for those great performances.”

Paul Scheuring – Prison Break

Paul Scheuring’s return to Prison Break — Fox’s breakout drama about a pair of brothers working to escape a maximum facility and clear their family name — doesn’t fit into the traditional reboot mold. Most of the other showrunners championing their respective remakes are taking properties and stories they loved — usually as children or at least in their relative youth — and re-imagining them for a new audience.

For Scheuring, Prison Break’s upcoming fifth (possibly final) season is a way to take back control of a narrative he created and drove for two seasons before giving up the reigns and watching it slowly fade in the ratings. The drama’s first two seasons — arguably its best — were largely Scheuring’s doing. Before government conspiracy theories and relatives coming back from the dead began to cloud the original plot — and isolate even the most loyal of fans — Prison Break was pioneering. It was a story we hadn’t seen before with real grit and an impressive, still unknown cast.

“For me personally, when you have that single conceived idea like Prison Break or other serialized shows — back in the old 22 episodes a year network model, all of a sudden you’re running four seasons long, you’ve got 80 episodes of narrative that you’ve got to put together, you start to flop your wings a little bit and it becomes disingenuous,” Scheuring says. “The audience, they want tight, well-structured shows where there’s no lag or stalling tactics or unnecessary episodes. One of the reasons I stepped away was because, at that point, we had 44 episodes which burned a lot of TV.”

But thanks to the new climate of TV, Scheuring was able to pitch a nine-episode, self-contained season he hopes will satisfy fans of the series. The show came at the perfect time. Its star Wentworth Miller was enjoying a resurgence in his own career, and showing interest in returning to the character that launched him to fame. Producers at Fox saw fan interest in the show grow thanks to streaming platforms like Netflix hosting the entire series.

Scheuring had to figure out where the show ended — he hadn’t watched the final season. When he learned the fate of his main character — Michael Scofield dies thanks to a rare brain disorder after marrying Sara Tancredi and having a son that he never meets — Scheuring knew what direction the new season should take. “Clearly the story would have to explain how he could still be alive,” Scheuring says. “It’s a story about a man ‘rising from the dead,’ but the emotional core would have to be him getting back to his wife and to this son he’s never met before.”

That story was familiar to the showrunner. “That’s essentially the story of The Odyssey,” he says. “I thought, ‘Well, now that would be cool, if we could do this nine episode, self-contained TV version of The Odyssey with Michael as Odysseus.”

The reboot of Prison Break is coming at a time when so many networks are banking on nostalgia to help them rise from the Peak TV heap of 400 shows a year. For the Fox drama, which ended seven years ago, the amount of time that’s passed between the final season and this new limited run may be the ultimate factor in whether it’s successful in the live ratings.

“There’s a certain nostalgia for various shows and characters across the spectrum,” Scheuring says. “If you find that sweet spot where people still care, where they’ve perhaps forgotten some of their disappointments from before… It’s like in the case of Star Wars, if you watched that last George Lucas version, everybody wanted to jump off a cliff. But enough time has lapsed so that when they were like, ‘Yeah, we should do Star Wars again,’ J.J. [Abrams] was able to come back and do that really nice version of it. I think we’re in the same kind of sweet spot for Prison Break. It’s been gone for seven or eight years and people were ready for some more of it.”

Scheuring’s job is different from his fellow showrunners helming reboots this year. He doesn’t have to launch a new series or even justify why the show’s being made. His main charge is to answer questions and give his characters satisfying endings.

He plans on doing that but who knows? If all goes well, maybe this won’t be the “final” season after all.

“This is designed to be a self-contained story in that sense there’s not some cliffhanger that’s disingenuous to it,” Scheuring says. “All the questions that fans have about this season will be answered, but certainly you can look around and find those Easter eggs and say, ‘Wait, what about that?’”

After all, in television “The End” doesn’t always mean the end, especially this year.