Netflix has been catching people by surprise pretty much as long as it’s been producing original content. Whether it’s unexpected resurrections like Arrested Development or Longmire or bold originals like BoJack Horseman or Sense8, one thing you can’t call the streaming giant is predictable. They cemented that reputation even further with the recent Full House sequel, Fuller House, which reunited most of the cast of the presumably beloved ’80s/’90s sitcom for further adventures of the Tanner family.
While Netflix has proven willing to bring back long-gone shows and recently cancelled cult classics both, it almost never takes the obvious route: Witness the lack of “Netflix Presents: Firefly, Season 2.” But if Netflix is opening the doors to disinterring classic sitcoms that have spent decades in syndicated nirvana, well, we’ve got a few suggestions.
1) WKRP in Cincinnati (1978–1982)
This classic series followed the misadventures of the DJs, reporters, and others who kept a struggling Cincinnati radio station on the air. WKRP racked up 10 Emmy nominations over the course of its four seasons and 90 episodes, but its most lasting legacy is the infamous Thanksgiving episode “Turkeys Away,” in which a misguided promotional stunt results in a blimp dropping turkeys onto a crowd of horrified onlookers. (Giving us both a Hindenberg joke and the immortal line “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”)
The shape of the music industry has so fundamentally changed over the ensuing three-plus decades, adapting WKRP into the modern world would certainly be a challenge. WKRP itself probably would have changed format a dozen times since its heyday, and most of the staff would be old enough to be retired at best, if not dead. Hell, it’s long odds that the station even survived to see the rise of Napster, satellite radio, and Spotify. Still, I’d love to think that, somewhere out there, Johnny Fever is still running a board during an obscure night shift, sneaking in the classics in between mandatory Bieber double-shots. But if not, well, we’ll always have Thanksgiving…
2) Family Ties (1982–1989)
Created by Gary David Goldberg (who went on to create a later entry on this list, Spin City), Family Ties was, along with long-running series like Cheers and The Cosby Show, one of the shows that defined the ’80s. The Keatons were that decade in cross-section: Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter-Birney as Steven and Elyse, the idealistic, ex-hippie parents; Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton, a staunch Young Republican with a Nixon poster on his wall; Justine Bateman as the ditzy, materialistic Mallory; and Tina Yothers as the other one.
The culture clashes on display in Family Ties have only gotten more dissonant in the decades since: The country is more divided than ever, and Reaganomics has given way to Donald Trump: Presidential Candidate. With the Republican Party currently tearing itself apart at the seams, where would Alex P. Keaton be in the midst of all the modern political madness? Would he be a Tea Party true believer or one of the conservative establishment frantically trying to stop the Trump train? Hell, maybe he lost the faith and started feeling the Bern. Either way, catching up with the Keatons in 2016 would be great fun, but it’s Alex we’re most curious about.
3) Night Court (1984–1992)
Cheers was by far the bigger of the two, but Night Court was always the ’80s workplace comedy I loved best. Set in the wee-hours shift of a Manhattan municipal court, Night Court brought all manner of madness before the bench of Judge Harry Stone (Harry Anderson), an unconventional optimist who loved magic and Mel Torme in equal measure. The crazies on the docket are only slightly more eccentric than the folks on staff, including lecherous prosecutor Dan Fielding (John Larroquette), good-natured but naive public defender Christine Sullivan (Markie Post), and that gold-hearted lunk of a bailiff, Bull (Richard Moll).
Unlike many of the shows on this list, it isn’t the many societal changes of the past few decades that would make a Night Court sequel fun. Instead, this would be a much-welcomed chance to catch up with the characters from the original. I have no doubt Judge Stone is still holding court—he never struck me as a “retirement” kind of guy—and it’d be enormously satisfying to see Dan still stuck in the same gig he hated 30 years ago. Like the aforementioned Cheers, the brilliance of the setting and concept is it invites an endless variety of nutty possibilities, and it’d be a blast to see modern comedy maestros such as Dan Harmon or Mitch Hurwitz pen an episode. It might be a real long shot, but I’ll keep holding out hope that Court will one day be back in session.
4) Small Wonder (1985–1989)
Sitcom history is chock-full of “high-concept” shows that marry the standard tropes and structures of the format with truly out-there premises, from Mork & Mindy to I Dream of Jeannie. One of the goofier examples from the ’80s was Small Wonder, in which a good-hearted engineer designs a robotic little girl named V.I.C.I. (Voice Input Child Identicant). The initial plan is for the cutting-edge V.I.C.I. to help disabled children, but engineer Ted instead smuggles the android girl home and begins posing her as an adopted daughter. Unfortunately, V.I.C.I. might look human, but she’s got the standard robot tells: no emotions, a monotone speaking voice, the tendency to short out and begin killing all humans. OK, maybe not that last one.
I can’t imagine there are many out there clamoring for a straightforward, irony-free continuation of Small Wonder, but that just makes the notion of a clever, post-modern sci-fi spin even more appealing to me. And part of the glory of Netflix’s programming decisions is that they often veer off in wholly unexpected directions. I mean, who saw Fuller House coming? Or the Gilmore Girls reunion? So Small Wonder is my longshot, my dark horse, my “what the hell are they thinking?” option. In my ideal Small Wonder sequel, V.I.C.I. is still operational and incognito after all these years, but the family that raised her is long gone, and some shady government organization is chasing her. How would V.I.C.I. have evolved over the years, and how would her Reagan-era programming have adapted to this era of smartphones and social media? We’re more connected to our machines than ever before, so the viewpoint of an android who’s spent the past three decades becoming steadily more human could be fascinating. Especially if Netflix does its usual unpredictable thing and gets somebody like Bryan Fuller to run the show.
5) The Larry Sanders Show (1992–1998)
Created by star Garry Shandling and Dennis Klein, The Larry Sanders Show earned three Primetime Emmy Awards, two Peabodys, five CableACE Awards, and enough other trophies to fill a supply closet over the course of its six-year run on HBO. Shandling starred as Sanders, the host of a late-night talk show, a narcissist who somehow balances out his own arrogance with abundant insecurities. As somebody who doesn’t particularly enjoy people, Larry’s probably the last person who should be hosting a chat show, but thankfully his neuroses are either shored up or just further complicated by co-host Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor) and producer extraordinaire Artie (Rip Torn). Damn near everybody who was anybody in Hollywood put in a cameo on the show at one point, including memorable appearances from Alec Baldwin and David Duchovny, to name just a couple.
The late-night landscape has changed dramatically since Larry Sanders went off the air in 1998, with both Leno and Letterman having handed the baton to their successors. With Shandling now gone, the show could never be the same, but a send-up of the late-night circus is timelier than ever.
Illustration by Max Fleishman