Showrunners from 'Pretty Little Liars,' 'The Leftovers,' and more discuss how living in the age of reboots affects how they end their shows
In 2007, The Sopranos ended its six-season run by abruptly cutting to black. In 2010, the Lost series finale killed, well, everyone. And although both conclusions spawned heated debate among fans, there was one thing viewers knew without a doubt: Their favorite show was over.
Fast-forward to 2017, when canceled might as well mean “to be continued.” In the past year, reboot fever has ushered in the small-screen return of The X-Files, 24, Prison Break, Gilmore Girls, Full House, and One Day at a Time (with no fewer than 20 other remakes currently in the works — including the recently announced return of Will & Grace). Showrunners point to everything from nostalgia to streaming to money (rebooting is cheaper than developing originals) to explain the trend. “There’s so much competition out there that having some kind of brand name is really attractive to studios and distributors,” says Jeff Franklin, executive producer of both Full House and Netflix’s Fuller House.
“It’s the same reason people keep on remaking the same movie properties,” says Bones executive producer Jonathan Collier, whose Fox series wraps this year. “They [have] a place in the culture. They’re not rebooting shows that lasted one season; they’re rebooting the ones with really good DNA.”
Which makes sense, except that plenty of shows with really good DNA haven’t jumped on the revival train. So is it a bold ending (cutting to black or annihilating all your characters) that prevents a reboot? And if the answer is yes, will we start to see less risk taking, nevermore to witness show enders that take our breath away and never give it back?
For Teen Wolf showrunner Jeff Davis, who’s currently crafting his series finale for MTV, the possibility of a rebirth is a factor. “One of the things it does is keep you from killing off a lot of characters,” he says. “So the series-ending episode where you blow up the entire world and kill off half your main characters isn’t the smartest thing to do anymore.” He concedes the artistic risk there, though: “I do worry that it makes finales less impactful — you don’t want to give a half-assed ending. You want a story to feel like it finishes.” So if the very definition of finale is “the last piece” or “the concluding part,” what happens when finales lose their sense of finality?
“You might not see endings like [The Sopranos] for a while in this age of revivals,” Davis says. “You might not see creatives making daring decisions like that. What we might be doing is playing it a little safe, and if we play it safe…your ending doesn’t feel like an ending.”
Damon Lindelof, the man who intentionally ended Lost in a way that makes it difficult to bring back, recently decided on a different sort of fate for his HBO series The Leftovers. This time around, he’s working in a world he believes could be revisited in some form in the future. “There are quotation marks around the word ending now,” Lindelof says. “It’s possible to make a great ending and still leave the door open for a continued version of that story as long as it’s ancillary to the [one] you already told and not more of the same.”
And perhaps counterintuitively, that can be liberating for a showrunner. Pretty Little Liars’ I. Marlene King says she was able to have the best of both worlds: She wrote her ending without thinking about the future, all the while letting the promise of a future help her cope with the present. “We were all happy the show was ending; it feels like the right time,” King says of her long-running Freeform series, which finales this summer. “But knowing there’s a world where we can all come back together again…made it a lot easier to say goodbye.”
Which begs the question: If nothing ever really means goodbye, is it only a matter of time until we’re reviving revivals?
“Based on what’s happened with Full House, I think that we will definitely leave the door open to come back 20 years from now and do Fullest House,” Franklin says with a laugh. “I think seeing Uncle Jesse at age 79 would be awesome.”