New, not improved: 14 disastrous revamps

New, not improved: 14 disastrous revamps

 

1. New Coke

Pop-culture commentators should declare April 23rd a personal holiday, because that was the day in 1985 when the Coca-Cola company introduced a new formula for their flagship beverage, and gave people who write about modern media and consumerism a simple point of comparison for all bad ideas. The rollout of New Coke was legendarily misguided, based on the supposition that Coca-Cola's flagging sales were due to the younger generation's preference for sweeter sodas, and backed by blind taste tests that failed to take into account the power of marketing and brand loyalty. Before Coca-Cola announced the switch, its chief rival Pepsi was ready with a publicity campaign that claimed Coke was declaring defeat in the cola wars by becoming more Pepsi-like, and this conventional wisdom—paired with a revolt by long-time Coke drinkers—forced the company to own up to a mistake, and reintroduce the old formula as "Coca-Cola Classic" by the end of the year. New Coke was later renamed Coke II, then phased out entirely, although some claim—and not without merit—that the current Coke formula is essentially the same as the one for New Coke, since in all the commotion over the branding switch, the company quietly replaced cane sugar with the sweeter, more synthetic-tasting high-fructose corn syrup. In the end, the whole affair actually increased Coke's market share, but it's remembered as a PR fiasco, and an object lesson in how corporations can sometimes out-think themselves.

2. The New Cars

When Ric Ocasek declined to join his old bandmates Elliot Easton and Greg Hawkes in a Cars reunion tour, the old Cars recruited an odd replacement: power-pop iconoclast Todd Rundgren, whose voice and style is so distinctive that the makeshift supergroup could just as easily have been called The New Utopia—especially since Rundgren brought in his own drummer and bassist to replace the non-participating David Robinson and the late Ben Orr. The New Cars embarked on a world tour performing the original band's biggest hits, then released an album, It's Alive!, combining live recordings with a few new songs. The fresh material wasn't half-bad, but as for the old stuff? Well, to quote Rundgren on his commitment to the group: "It's an opportunity for me to pay my bills."

3. The new Knight Rider

They just had to mess with a good thing, didn't they? Instead of building on the original 1982 series' camp value, NBC tried to take the idea of a talking car and make an almost-but-not-quite-serious sequel. A quarter-century later, Michael Knight's sexy, hot-rodding son is tapped to take over the family business, which includes a convoluted cast of characters, a government lab (instead of a kick-ass semi), and a car voiced—badly—by Val Kilmer. NBC knows things are going badly, though: The first half of the first season, aired in late 2008, will be brushed under the rug—with several characters being written out—in order to focus more on the new Michael Knight. Too bad he's so damn annoying. If the entirety of season one even airs, it'll be a shocker.

4. Superman Returns

We live in the age of the superhero movie, when Hollywood studios are throwing hundreds of millions at every comic-book franchise they can find, no matter how obscure. So it was inevitable that the mightiest of superheroes could get another shot at glory, and that the new blockbuster wouldn't pick up where Superman IV: The Quest For Peace left off. How to do a proper reboot was a matter of debate: The project was kicked around for over a decade, most famously as a botched dream-team collaboration between director Tim Burton, screenwriter Kevin Smith, and Nicolas Cage as the Man Of Steel. Once it finally got off the ground with Superman Returns, it seemed like a sure bet, a heavily bankrolled production led by director Bryan Singer, who shepherded the X-Men series to big-screen glory. But rather than taking the character into new territory, like Christopher Nolan's grimly existential Batman movies, Singer and company made the mistake of trying to follow Richard Donner's 1978 Superman note for note. Singer even went so far as to cast wooden Christopher Reeve look-alike Brandon Routh in the title role, and Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane and Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor didn't make anyone forget Margot Kidder or Gene Hackman. No word yet on the inevitable re-reboot in 2016 or so, though sequel talk does occasionally, improbably pop up.

5. McDonald's "Deluxe" Line

Remember the Grilled Chicken Deluxe, with its delicious light mayonnaise and its female-empowerment marketing campaign? Or the Fish Fillet Deluxe, which was, uh, well, basically the same as a Filet-O-Fish, but with lettuce? No? Well, you aren't alone. McDonald's 1991 attempt to capture a more sophisticated market share with an "adult palate" cost them more than $100 million and was a total disaster, with most of its sandwiches (the Big Mac-lite McLean Deluxe and the crypto-Whopper Arch Deluxe) disappearing forever and the others being quietly subsumed into the dollar menu. Apparently, more sophisticated consumers simply don't eat at McDonalds—and those who do aren't looking for fancy, they're looking for cheap. The fact that it cost the company nine figures to realize this only proves that they could stand to have a 6-year-old child on their board of directors.

6. Son Of The Pink Panther

Writer-director-producer Blake Edwards resorted to drastic measures to keep his Pink Panther franchise afloat without Peter Sellers, a famously difficult actor seemingly intent on slaughtering Edwards' cash cow. Failed attempts to keep the dough rolling in minus Sellers began with 1968's disastrous (and Edwards-free) Inspector Clouseau, which found the otherwise estimable Alan Arkin stumbling around in Sellers' outsized shoes. It was followed by 1983's even more misguided Curse Of The Pink Panther, which featured Blossom dad Ted Wass embarrassing himself as a Clouseau-like stooge on the trail of Sellers' missing detective. Curse's high-profile failure somehow didn't keep Edwards from once again trying to revive the franchise by experimenting with Roberto Benigni as Sellers' illegitimate son in 1993's wildly unsuccessful Son Of The Pink Panther. Yes, Edwards' attempts to revive the Pink Panther franchise would seem pathetic and deluded if he hadn't inexplicably succeeded with a 2006 reboot with Steve Martin as Inspector Clouseau. In spite of bad buzz and terrible ads, the 2006 Pink Panther was successful enough to spawn an upcoming sequel… so there was some method to Edwards' madness after all.

7. Big Star, In Space

Of all the cult bands that reunited in the wake of the Pixies' success, Big Star seemed like the one that most deserved a second chance. Third/Sister Lovers is a masterful album, but it's basically the sound of Alex Chilton's mind falling apart in the studio. (Admittedly, the occasional Jody Stephens string arrangement makes it more elegant.) Chilton's solo career is underrated—1979's universally reviled Like Flies On Sherbert is actually pretty rocking—but a chance to finally make music as a respected grand master of power-pop, with his missing bandmates filled in by members of the Posies, no less, should have led to sharpened craft and good things overall. And 2005's In Space actually starts off respectably. Then track five blows it all to hell: "Love Revolution" is an endless jokey piss-take on funk, with seemingly no purpose but to once and for all prove that white people shouldn't be allowed near any combination of rhythm guitars and '60s free-love slogans. Unfunny sarcasm or dated sincerity? Impossible to tell, and it hardly matters. In Space never recovers; by the time Chilton indulges his fascination with baroque opera and transcribes one "Aria Largo" impeccably and pointlessly, it's all over. Worse yet, In Space came out just as Katrina hit; no one was sure whether Chilton was dead or alive, and whether he'd gone out on this as his final act. He survived and, unfortunately, so did Big Star 2.0.

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8. The New Monkees

Imagine The Young Ones redone for Saturday-morning television. Then imagine something quite a bit worse. Zany with a capital "boring," The New Monkees had all the sugar-addled wit of a 5-year-old who can't stop laughing at his own jokes. Factor in an album's worth of unmemorable '80s pop, and leads with the combined screen presence of last week's TV Guide, and there's no mystery over why this revamp lasted a mere 13 episodes in 1985. The real mystery is how the original Monkees lasted as long as it did; that show was every bit as calculated and nearly as frenetic, but the first Fabricated Four had one crucial advantage: They were actually fun to watch.

9. Marvel Comics' "New Universe"

The idea of creating new and self-contained "pocket universes" within a comics company's shared continuity isn't necessarily bad. Since the "New Universe" crashed and burned in 1989, Marvel and DC have both done it a few times. But this experiment (meant to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Marvel Comics) failed because Marvel handed the creative reins over to people who weren't exactly superstars of the medium. The New Universe had a good concept—it was supposed to be "the world outside your window," a reality just like our own, except with brand-new superheroes—but the conceit was abandoned after a couple of issues, and the writing didn't set the world afire. Almost as if to prove how bad the New Universe was, Marvel rebooted it again 20 years later, this time with a decent writer, Warren Ellis, in charge, but with only a single title (not counting some subtitle changes and one-offs) and a largely incoherent narrative. Typical of Marvel, this new New Universe turned into a jumbled mish-mash that readers lost interest in quickly.

10. The XFL

Sometimes the failure of a new idea can be deeply satisfying, proving that standards haven't slipped as low as we'd feared. When the World Wrestling Federation's Vince McMahon founded the XFL in conjunction with the suddenly sports-deprived NBC, the promise of a "cooler" kind of football—with harder hits, fewer rules, sexier cheerleaders, and more trash-talking—seemed to signal the triumph of vulgarity and fan-driven initiatives in American popular culture. Instead, the XFL creators quickly learned that some NFL rules were in place for a reason (for example: limiting pass-interference penalties leads to low-scoring games), and viewers quickly realized that all the "total access" sideline coverage NBC offered didn't distract from the amateurish, dull on-field product. After impressive early ratings, XFL viewership dropped off precipitously, and the league folded after one season. Sometimes, when it comes to radical change in old favorites, We Hate It.

11. The Munsters Today

The Addams Family and The Munsters thrived in the monochrome world of '60s television. Considering the show's debt to Universal's classic monster movies of the '30s, it's fitting that The Munsters was filmed in glorious black and white. (Besides, Fred Gwynne's green makeup looked downright creepy in color, as evidenced by the failed 1981 TV movie The Munsters' Revenge.) The 1988 revamp The Munsters Today made the mistake of bringing that other mysterious and ooky family back to life in living color, via a hokey plot twist that found the original Munsters awakening after 20 years in suspended animation following one of Grandpa's more ambitious experiments. The Munsters Today lasted three years in syndication in spite of a cringe-inducing opening sequence that updated the iconic opening theme with shots of the monster family boogying and singing the exposition-tastic new lyrics "We're the Munsters / We're the Munsters / We went to sleep 20 years ago, and we woke up with a brand new show / We're the Munsters / We're The Munsters Today!"

12. Bionic Woman

It should've been a slam-dunk. Having already proven his knack for re-inventing decades-old campy sci-fi properties with a healthy dose of the megrims, producer David Eick (who, along with Ronald D. Moore, gave us the new Battlestar Galactica) decided to bring his magic to the '70s goofiness that was The Bionic Woman. The new version debuted in fall 2007 with better special effects, a darker tone, and ringers in the form of Miguel Ferrer and recurring guest star Katee Sackhoff, but it flopped critically and in the ratings, due to its lack of coherent plotting, passable dialogue, or a compelling lead. The writers' strike cut off the series mid-season, but it was a mercy killing.

13. Son Of Fletch/Fletch Reflected

The uneven Fletch books don't really resemble the Chevy Chase movies at all. At their best (1976's Confess, Fletch and 1985's Fletch Won), Gregory McDonald combines impeccably laconic dialogue with a minimum of fatty connective tissue; at his worst, the old didactic ex-journalist in him slips out to lecture readers about inflation, media integrity, et al. Still, two near-perfect specimens of comic noir justify the series. So why introduce a son? McDonald had always aged Fletch realistically in his books, and presumably thought keeping him on the run in his retirement was inappropriate, so enter Jack Faoni, Fletch's illegitimate son, who survived two books before McDonald killed the whole series. Fletch Reflected is no joke: Jack is just as promiscuous, smart-alecky, and journalistically gifted as his dad. So what's the point? The late McDonald always had a weak spot for family sentimentality, and introducing a pretty much dead-similar father and son didn't just make his plotting slacker, it was an excuse for familial dynamics he was never good at exploring in the first place.

14. Nü-metal

Okay, so nü-metal wasn't a total disaster. A few good bands emerged from the scene, though most of the best of them (Disturbed, System Of A Down, Slipknot) never really fit the look or sound of the genre. And nü-metal did make room for otherwise uncategorizable bands like Rammstein. But by and large, this bastard art form that emerged in the California '90s blended the worst elements of grunge, rap, and white-boy funk into a tasteless mélange that was metal, but rarely heavy. So thoroughly did nü-metal dominate the heavy-music scene that it did more damage to metal than any other subgenre since the hair-metal days of the '80s. It also criminally slowed the growth of a number of promising movements of the day, including stoner rock, sludge, and drone metal. And worse, it wasn't even necessary; Rick Rubin did a better job of blending metal and hip-hop a decade before Ross Robinson got around to it. Add in nü-metal making millionaires out of bands like Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Staind, and you've got the worst product repositioning since New Coke.