After School Special

Natasha Marshall explores the idea of the television remake and why the exploits of our favourite childhood TV characters still fascinate us today.

Remakes in the film industry have come and gone in waves over the past few decades. Their popularity rises and falls over time but they never fully go away. They work because there is already an existing target audience for the production and the possibility of opening the door to a new generation of fans. It’s no surprise then that with the success of remakes in cinema, this trend has spilt over to television. In television, we get remakes and ‘reboots’. A reboot allows for more creative freedom than a remake. For a remake, you are re-telling an existing story with the same characters. A reboot, however, can be loosely associated with the original production. With Chilling Adventures of Sabrina due to premiere on October 26th on Netflix, let’s take a look back at what exactly these teen sitcoms and dramas were doing in the 90s that caused them to still have an appeal almost two decades later.

The most obvious reason for their appeal is nostalgia. This ties back to the already existing target audience. Like any generation passionate about the decade they sprang from, 90s kids are no different. Shows Like Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Kenan and Kel, despite being surreal and over the top, were actually completely relatable. As members of that generation, we the audience could relate to the struggle of high school, the peer pressure, and the feeling of entrapment by authority. Why it still works today when we go back and watch it again is because we understand and side with the authoritative figure, be it a parent or guardian, or even a school principal. Now we can relate to both sides. We understand the rules and restrictions but also know what it’s like to be a sixteen-year-old who thinks they have it all figured out. The decisions these teenagers make in these shows, although they may be over the top, hold a sense of nostalgic realism to us.

Watching these shows back now is actually fascinating, as we see how life lessons are dished out all the while being adorably cloaked in some crazy storylines and over the top scenes. Harping back to Sabrina The Teenage Witch, each episode is essentially the same set up as the next. Sabrina takes an interest in something new, her aunts warn her off in hope of protecting her, and she disregards their advice. She then gets herself in trouble and has to run back to her aunts and beg for them to get her out of whatever situation she has gotten herself into. The shows taught us that for all our actions there are consequences.

Perhaps my favourite example of this though is the 90s show Are You Afraid of the Dark? This show stands in a category of its own. The only other successful tween/teen horror show of the 90s was Goosebumps. Goosebumps, however, contained a level of humour that Are You Afraid of the Dark shunned. Are You Afraid of the Dark?’s narrative structure even differed from those of its fellow teen shows by not having the adults in the show being the authoritative figures, but by depicting them as being unaware of the goings on around them. The show played more along the lines of Urban Legends in its plot devices, while still covertly dishing out valuable lessons. Examples of this are contained in such episodes as ‘The Tale of the Lonely Ghost’ in which, by facing her fears under peer pressure, our protagonist brings closure for a hapless character. Or hidden within the narrative of ‘The Tale of the Super Specs‘ lies a potent allegory of the dangers of experimenting with drugs.

One last aspect I want to touch on, that again in hindsight really stands out to me now is the family dynamic in these shows. While we had shows that held your stereotypical family structures such as Family Matters and Home Improvement, many of the 90s shows contained an array of different family lifestyles. Sabrina was being raised by her two aunts, Will Smith was shipped off by his mother to be raised by his uncle and his family in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Sister, Sister combined adoption, separation and reuniting in its run, and Full House gave us a look at the life of being a widowed parent. It’s not something that was ever overly drawn on but looking back, these shows catered to all family dynamics, thus normalising all types of family life for its audience members, whose home lives may have felt or been different from that of their peers.

The relatability of these TV shows is paramount; the characters, both young and old, the lessons to be learned, these are all bound up in a healthy dose of nostalgia which is the perfect recipe for a remarkable television reboot – a recipe that seems to be here to stay.