From Pokémon to the Handmaid's Tale sequel, why is everything these days a reboot?

The answer lies in the way we now consume TV

November 30, 2018
From a new Lion King film to Margaret Atwood’s forthcoming Handmaid’s Tale sequel, culture is awash with sequels, prequels, and reboots. What's going on? Photo: Prospect composite
From a new Lion King film to Margaret Atwood’s forthcoming Handmaid’s Tale sequel, culture is awash with sequels, prequels, and reboots. What's going on? Photo: Prospect composite

Margaret Atwood has revealed that she has written a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, which will be published in September 2019. The Testaments is set 15 years after her original dystopian work from 1985, and will be narrated by three as-yet unidentified female characters. “Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in,” the author said as the news was announced.

When I saw this, I grimaced. Of course The Handmaid’s Tale is getting a sequel. It doesn’t matter that the original book has one of the most perfectly ambiguous endings in modern fiction, and to fill in details of what happens after would be to completely diffuse its tension.

In the past couple of years, you see, Atwood’s sci fi novel set in a theocratic, anti-feminist future has been turned into a popular and award-winning TV drama (which has now departed from her original text in its second season, turning into what some critics have called torture porn). The author has been giving lots of interviewsin the last few months about what her original novel can tell us about the #MeToo era, and how the story was always about structural gender inequality taken to extremes—just like we can observe in the world today. The handmaid’s distinctive red robes and white bonnet has even become a popular costume for protests. Naturally, the flames of all of this global attention and visibility have to be stoked with a sequel.

Gilead isn’t the only fictional world to be getting new instalments. These days, there are sequels, prequels, and reboots as far as the eye can see, and updating existing worlds like this doesn’t always go well.

On the same day that Atwood’s news was announced, it was revealedthat Netflix are making a live action version of the 1990s Japanese anime series Cowboy Bebop. Gilmore Girls, Will & Grace, Charmed, DuckTales, Dynasty, Heathers, Miami Vice, Queer Eye, Roseanne, She’s Gotta Have It—these are all TV reboots that have either come back on to our screens recently or will debut in the next few months. Disney is systematically going back through all its old films and making new versions, often turning animated classics like The Lion King into live action films, or creating sequels like Mary Poppins Returns (out on 19 December, by the way).

What’s going on here? Has everyone run out of ideas for new stories? I think it all comes back to TV, and the huge shift in the way we consume it. I don’t think Atwood would be publishing a Gilead sequel if the Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale hadn’t had such an impact, and in turn that series would not have been made if it weren’t for the advent of high quality, prestige streaming television.

There are two factors at play: viewers now have more choice in what they watch than ever before, meaning that established networks are losing viewers to streaming services like Netflix, and at the same time those services have better data than ever on what people actually watch and for how long.

There’s a New Yorker piece about Netflix from 2014 that I think about all the time these days. In it, writer Ken Auletta reveals that Kevin Spacey had already approached several networks about his idea for a US House of Cards remake to lukewarm responses by the time Netflix executives heard about it. They spent a hundred million dollars to make two seasons without even requiring a pilot or any market testing, because they could see from their own data that Kevin Spacey films were popular with their viewers (probably not any more though, huh), as were films directed by David Fincher and the original British House of Cards adaptation. That was all they need to know—and in 2013 the show became the first non-traditionally originating show to win an Emmy. Shortly afterwards, Netflix stock hit an all-time high.

Familiarity breeds contempt, so the saying goes, but it’s also really good for sales. A lot of today’s reboots are intended for people in their 20s and 30s, bringing back childhood favourites from the 1990s in a new form to ensure they don’t cancel their monthly subscription. The Testaments is aimed beyond just that demographic, but it’s tapping into the same effect. Maybe you studied The Handmaid’s Tale at school or read it as an adult when it first came out. Either way, you’re highly likely to spend money on the follow up. We might not think that Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life was anything like as good as the original series, but the numbers don’t lie—a lot of people watched it.

It might be reassuring to think that if only the entertainment industry was less conservative, there would be a great flowering of original stories everywhere, but I have my doubts. There’s a new Gilead novel for the same reason that experimental poetry rarely tops the bestseller charts: people spend their money on things they are already mostly sure they will enjoy. The endless cycle of reboots forces us to confront the ugly truth that we like what we already know. Until we become demonstrably more adventurous in our tastes, they’ll just keep making more of the same.