Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Five Firm Rules of Classic TV Reunions

I’m looking forward to the return of The Gilmore Girls later this year. It’s one of my favorite post-Comfort TV era shows, and I am very happy for this chance to get reacquainted with its wonderfully smart and appealing characters.

It also got me thinking about how many classic television shows attempted a reunion movie or special with less than satisfying results. If the shows were successful the first time, why do these projects with so many built-in feel-good moments so often miss the mark?

As someone who has sat through more of these attempts than most, I think the problem is they violate one of five rules for a successful reunion. Rules I just made up. File this blog under the heading of good advice, delivered too late to make a difference.

1. Don’t Wait Too Long
The Patty Duke Show ran from 1963-1966. The Patty Duke Show: Still Rockin’ in Brooklyn Heights aired in 1999. Audiences who met Patty Lane as a feisty teenager now were seeing her again for the first time when she is old enough to join AARP. While it was heartening to see the entire cast back after 33 years, watching Eddie Applegate (as Patty’s high school boyfriend Richard) still pining for Patty at age 64 comes off more sad than nostalgic. 

This was also an issue with The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited (2004). Here the gap was 38 years, clearly too great a span for Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore to fall back into the urbane chemistry they shared as Rob and Laura Petrie, even with Carl Reiner providing the words as he did when he created the show.

2. Don’t Do It Too Soon, Either
The Waltons finished an impressive nine-year run in 1981. A Wedding on Walton’s Mountain aired eight months later, followed by two more 1982 revivals, Mother’s Day on Walton’s Mountain and A Day of Thanks on Walton’s Mountain. Fans didn’t even have time to miss the family before they were back together. 

3. Don’t Do It With Half Your Cast
Back in 1985 I’m sure many Comfort TV fans were excited about getting reacquainted with Jeannie and Major Nelson in I Dream of Jeannie: 15 Years Later…until they learned that this time Major Nelson would be played by Wayne Rogers. 

With a large enough cast you can still pull one of these off if just one person is missing: Eight is Enough: A Family Reunion worked with Mary Frann as Abby because the rest of the Bradfords were there. And Jennifer Runyon ably filled in for Susan Olsen in A Very Brady Christmas.   

But if the point of a reunion is to bring back the same actors in the same roles, there is certainly a tipping point on recasts and nonappearances that should not be crossed. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop The Return of the Beverly Hillbillies (1981), despite the absences of Irene Ryan, Max Baer Jr. and Raymond Bailey, or Back to The Streets of San Francisco (1992) when the only cast member back was Karl Malden.

4. Have a Good Reason for Reuniting
No classic TV show had a more ideal revival motive than Gilligan’s Island.
Rescue from Gilligan’s Island (1978) turned out to be dreadful, but that didn’t make it any less necessary given the unfinished business addressed. 

Too often the thinking behind these projects is just to get the cast back together, which could be accomplished at an autograph show for a lot less money. A reunion movie also requires an interesting script – preferably one that remembers what made the original series successful.

Examples? Too many to mention: The Father Knows Best Reunion (1977) comes to mind, in which half the film is seemingly spent picking up or dropping off people at the airport; Halloween With the New Addams Family (1977) drags even at 75 minutes, though it was a treat to see the original cast in color. And Return to Green Acres (1990) lobotomized one of the 1960s’ most brilliantly subversive series. 

5. Don’t Make Every Joke About Being Older
This trope is especially prevalent with westerns and action shows. You can set your watch by the scene where the hero needs extra effort to subdue hired muscle that he wouldn’t break a sweat over in his prime, and then you’ll get some variation on Danny Glover’s famous Lethal Weapon line, “I’m getting too old for this…”

That’s just one of the issues with The Wild, Wild West Revisited (1979), which too often crossed into camp. It also applies to The Return of the Man From UNCLE: The 15 Years Later Affair (1983), which was apparently written by someone who was paid by the word. 

This doesn’t mean these jokes don’t work when they’re done right: I Spy Returns (1994) was loaded with them but the partnership between Kelly and Scotty has aged with remarkable grace. And when the passage of time is acknowledged in a more poignant way, as in the eternal romance of Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty in Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge (1987), it can break your heart. 

Which reunions worked? Sounds like a great topic for a future blog. Let me hear your suggestions.


  1. I think the other important thing is remembering what made the original series what they were.

    You more than anyone else I know know the Dukes of Hazzard, since you wrote that companion book. The first reunion, while certainly the better of the two, missed that key element that people watched for: They wanted to see Rosco chasing the Duke boys and falling into a ditch.

    The second reunion movie they did was horribly written and full of stereotypes that I'm surprised the actors even wanted to do.

    I liked "Get Smart, Again!" growing up. And "CHiPs '99" was actually a pretty valid and fun update. "Dallas: J.R. Returns" was fantastic, and set up the younger generation of characters; "War of the Ewings" a few years later was terrible and focused ONLY on the older people, and didn't even bother to bring in Cliff Barnes.

    "Knight Rider 2000" was pretty cool at the time though it was missing a key component: The car. At least it had Hasselhoff and Edward Mulhare, and the new, red car was cool. I really liked "Return to Mayberry" a lot but I'm not sure how it's stood up.

    I feel that reunion movies officially jumped the shark, as it were, with the "Growing Pains" reunion films. You know it's trouble when the movie is about selling the family home that they moved away from in the series' final episode.

    I also think, sadly, that reunion movies aren't a thing because the studios figure they can make more money out of doing a season's worth of stories, which is why we're getting more X-Files and Prison Break that way, or things like Fuller House on Netflix. If we're going to, say, see Punky Brewster all grown up, we might as well get 13 episodes out of it, you know?

  2. Excellent column, David, and a terrific topic. I always wanted to see a proper conclusion to "Hogan's Heroes," which would be impossible now since they're all dead except for Robert Clary. They could have done it two different ways - either showing how the premise ends, or catching up with the characters after the war. Could have made two separate movies out of it!

    "The Fugitive" would have been interesting - would Dr. Kimble have made his second marriage work, or would the same thing have happened? :)

  3. Darleen Carr had a recurring role as Mike Stone's daughter Jean Stone on "The Streets of San Francisco." Ms. Carr also appeared in "Back to the Streets of San Francisco."

  4. I agree about that Patty Duke reunion. I taped it back in 1999 and still have it on tape, but I still have yet to watch it. I think a reunion would've been perfect in the 1980s, though that was a period when Ms. Duke was (mostly successfully) working through personal problems. I bought her autobio, CALL ME ANNA, back in the 80s and enjoyed reading it.

    I think I read that the Patty Duke reunion was also a proposed pilot for a continuation sitcom series. That leads me to a 6th rule for reunions: Movies (in character) or reunions (out of character) are usually great, but restarting a series is generally a bad idea.

    A VERY BRADY CHRISTMAS was a fantastic movie in the ratings (though critics may have hated it), but THE BRADYS was mostly terrible. The producers would've been much better off following the original plan of more movies (THE BRADYS plots of Bobby's injury while auto racing & Mike running for city council). THE BRADYS only had 2 episodes beyond those ideas, as the series died in only 6 episodes.

    To date all the Brady reunions have been out-of-character reunion shows, which is probably best due to Robert Reed's passing. I hate the idea (which Barry Williams supported at one time) of having the Bradys come back together in character after Mike Brady's passing. Audrey Meadows mentioned in her autobio LOVE ALICE that after Jackie Gleason died, someone suggested a HONEYMOONERS sketch with Alice returning from Ralph's funeral. She rightly (IMO) said "Ralph didn't die, Jackie did".

  5. The L.A. LAW reunion movie from 2002 (the series had ended in 1991) was terrific. The tone of the original was successfully preserved, and most if not all of the cast came back for it. It was also very funny.