The one where … TV’s tired revivals like Friends reunited cover the same old ground

<span>Photograph: Terence Patrick/AP</span>
Photograph: Terence Patrick/AP

They’ll be there for you. Again. Cue handclaps, haircuts and fountain-dancing. Yes, last Thursday was a case of Friends reunited – not ye olde alumni hook-up website but the long-awaited reunion of the Central Perk six, toothsome stars of the definitive 90s sitcom.

The quip-smart sextet, reportedly paid $2.5m apiece to indulge viewers’ nostalgia and say “pivot!” a few times for the two-hour HBO special, were joined by an A-list all-star cast – some welcome (Gaga! Malala!), some less welcome (is there no cultural event that James Corden won’t gatecrash?) and some bafflingly random (David Beckham! Justin Bieber in a potato costume!).

Cue copious clips, much misty-eyed reminiscing, smelly cats, an insultingly brief Gunther cameo and a merciless character assassination of Marcel the monkey. It made for an irresistible, occasionally even tear-jerking trip down memory lane. Certainly more moving than some of the ensemble’s Botox-frozen faces.

The following evening, viewers were issued another return ticket. Writer Robert Popper’s popular homegrown sitcom Friday Night Dinner took over Channel 4 for anniversary special 10 Years and a Lovely Bit of Squirrel. The belly laughs were bittersweet, since the retrospective also acted as a tribute to late actor Paul Ritter, who died of a brain tumour last month.

You might think that’s quite enough nostalgia for one week. But to paraphrase Chandler Bing back when he was funny, could you be any more wrong? Tonight is BBC drama Call The Midwife’s turn for its own 10th birthday celebration – called (what else?) Special Delivery. Expect wimples, baby dimples and plenty of hot towels.

A hat-trick of nostalgic specials in four nights can’t be coincidence. As any pattern-spotting pundit knows, three is a trend. So why is TV suddenly so obsessed with looking backwards?

As so often nowadays, we can blame the pesky pandemic. Last year’s production shutdown created yawning holes in the TV schedules which still haven’t been refilled. Gaps are being plugged with clip shows and cobbled-together compilations. It’s a perennial gripe that there are too many repeats on the box. Right now, it’s true.

Admittedly, we lapped them up during lockdown. They were undemanding comfort-viewing. The Friends reunion was like catching up with old, well, friends. Revisiting our favourites and sharing memories on social media has been a reminder of happier times, before curves were flattened, herds acquired immunity, hands were sanitised and selves were isolated. During a tumultuous 15 months, TV’s raiding of the store cupboard has provided solace and safety, warmth and familiarity.

Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You from 2020.
Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You from 2020. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

Yet still the old stagers keep coming. Autumn’s two tentpole revivals are set to be Seattle psychiatry sitcom Frasier (surely those tossed salads and scrambled eggs will be well past their sell-by date?) and designer shoe showcase Sex and the City (although without Kim Cattrall’s Samantha, it could be all city and no sex). These will be joined by returns for Dexter, Gossip Girl and Battlestar Galactica, among far too many others. TV listings are about to give viewers a serious sense of déjà vu.

Some of these were in the pipeline long before we’d heard of Wuhan’s wet markets. The broadcast industry’s insistence on reunions, reboots and revivals speaks of a paucity of creative confidence and an over-reliance on established intellectual properties. TV is fixated on its own past. Relucant to take risks, it falls back on the tried, tested and all too often tired.

As we emerge blinking from lockdown, it’s time to put aside retro-mania and for TV to look forward again. What have been the five best programmes of the pandemic era? I’d suggest Mare of Easttown, I May Destroy You, Normal People, It’s A Sin and Small Axe. All entirely new creations, even if the latter two were set in the recent past. Oldies might occasionally be goldies but you can’t beat the giddy thrill of the bold and new.

Please, TV commissioners, enough archive-digging and corpse-exhuming. Make it stop before Eldorado or Noel’s House Party make a comeback. Not now, Mr Blobby. Not ever.