With its resurrection of Upstairs, Downstairs, PBS has ventured into a realm not often associated with its rarefied air. The revival show is usually a halfhearted attempt to make a quick buck off viewer nostalgia. If they’re lucky, fans of the original show might get a quick cameo from an old cast member, who’s around just long enough to hand off the reins to a new cast we care nothing about. Hint: These shows usually have a “The New” somewhere in the title.
But by most accounts, “The New” Upstairs, Downstairs transcends any marketing scheme origins, and manages to be a fully realized continuation of the revered series that premiered 40 years ago. We’ve collected some of the more notable attempts — some good, some bad, some putrid — to bring an old series back from the grave, with the hope that maybe future programmers can learn and do better:
Still the Beaver (1984-85) The New Leave It to Beaver (1986-89)
Leave It to Beaver is weaved so indelibly into the fabric of the ideal 1950s American family that it’s almost impossible to picture those characters in the garish, me-me-me decade of the ’80s. But CBS gave it a shot with a 1983 TV movie called Still the Beaver, which did make some concessions to the changing times. Ward has passed away, the Beav is divorced, and the theme song now has electric guitars. By and large, though, the movie featured the same wholesome vibe and corny jokes that people loved about the original. The Beav and his two boys lived with June Cleaver, and all of the old gang, including Wally, Eddie Haskell and Lumpy, still lived in the neighborhood. The movie led to a series on the then-upstart Disney Channel before being picked up by TBS and renamed The New Leave It to Beaver.
Mission: Impossible (1988-90)
Here’s one update that wasn’t half bad. It had Peter Graves returning as Mr. Phelps, heading a new team of secret operatives. Among them was Phil Morris (later Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld) as Grant Collier, the son of Barney Collier, who just so happened to be played by Greg Morris, Phil’s real-life father. Three seasons is a good run for any revival show, and this ABC version even has a website dedicated to getting the studio to release it on DVD. By any measure, this incarnation was certainly more respectful to the original CBS series than the Tom Cruise-led movie franchise, which turned the beloved Mr. Phelps (played by Jon Voight) into a villain!
The Bradys (1990)
Second to only The Brady Bunch Hour in its rank among odd, hopeless Brady Bunch-related shows, this nearly unwatchable mix of trademark Brady-style high jinks with adult drama — complete with laugh track! — only made it five episodes before CBS came to its senses. Keeping with Brady tradition, a member of the original cast, this time Maureen McCormick, sits this one out. I do have to give the producers points, though, for following through on the character arcs established in 1981′s The Brady Brides. I mean, you’d hate for all that Brady Bunch canon to get muddled, right?
The New WKRP in Cincinnati (1991-93)
So, you’re going to resurrect a sitcom about the cool burnouts at a big-city radio station, which featured terrific characters like Dr. Johnny Fever, Venus Flytrap and the gorgeous Jennifer Marlowe, and the only three characters you manage to bring back are Mr. Carlson, Les and Herb? That sorta summed up the “let’s go with what we’ve got” attitude of this syndicated revival, which picked up about 10 years after the original series left CBS. Not much besides the faces had changed: Mr. Carlson was still the bumbling station owner, Herb Tarlek was still the skeezy salesman and Les Nessman still didn’t have walls around his desk. None of the new cast, which included Mykelti Williamson, Tawny Kitaen, French Stewart, and a guy named Lightfield Lewis, made much of an impression. Old cast members dropped by frequently, but still, no turkey drop classics here.
Get Smart (1995)
In what world would minimizing Don Adams in order to capitalize on the talents of Andy Dick make sense? Answer: The world of FOX in 1995, where this regrettable revival — which premiered 25 years after the original NBC series ended — ran for seven episodes before getting nuked. Dick played Zach Smart, son of Maxwell and Agent 99. His dad, now the head of CONTROL, pairs his offspring with the severe but beautiful Agent 66 (Elaine Hendrix). Barbara Feldon showed up to reprise her role as Agent 99, who is now in politics but apparently still doesn’t go by her real name. Would you believe this actually got made?
How can something be timeless and dated at the same time? Well, you can take the concept of FOX’s ’90s sensation Beverly Hills, 90210 — beautiful, privileged teens getting into beautiful, privileged-teens shenanigans — depoof the hair, add some jaded cynicism, and you’ve got yourself a series. Bring back original stars Jennie Garth and Shannen Doherty, then completely forget about them a few episodes later (Jason Priestley also directed an episode), and let it fly. It’s worked for the CW going on three seasons now, but the new series has never established quite the cultural cache of its predecessor. Then again, the original didn’t have all the MTV copycats it created to contend with. After so many versions of The Real World, The Hills, My Super Sweet 16, The City and whatever the Kardashians are up to this week, it’s hard for the new 90210 to stand out. But hey, at least it’s fared better than “The New” Melrose Place.
Here are some other revivals that sought to capitalize on past successes:
Dragnet ’67 (1967-70)
The New Avengers (1978)
Bret Maverick (1981-82)
What’s Happening Now (1985-88)
Kung Fu: The Legend Continues (1992-96)
Burke’s Law (1994)
Fame L.A. (1997-98)
Knight Rider (2008)