For his essay “Travels in Hyperreality,” the Italian author Umberto Eco journeyed across America to sample our peculiar national product: facsimiles. He visited a full-scale model of Lyndon Johnson’s Oval Office, wax museums, a “wild river” in Disneyland stocked with animatronic fauna, “instances in which the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake.”
Eco died in 2016, which is a shame, because I feel like he would have watched the hell out of “A Very Brady Renovation.”
The HGTV series, which begins Sept. 9, came about by kismet and a canny read of the current pop-cultural addiction to nostalgia. In 2018, the North Hollywood house that was used for exterior shots of the family home on “The Brady Bunch” went on the market. Executives at HGTV had a brainstorm: buy it and, cameras rolling, restore it to precisely how it looked on the 1969–’74 sitcom.
The hitch: The house you remember — the kitchen where the housekeeper Alice made pork chops, the entry where Carol Brady would greet her husband Mike after work — never existed.
Or rather, it existed the way most houses on sitcoms do, in your mind’s eye. It was a collection of separate sets on a soundstage, edited with exterior footage to synthesize the illusion of a warm, groovy midcentury home. Mike Brady may have been an architect, but TV supplied the home’s modular parts, and your brain completed the assembly.
So like Disney Imagineers or Las Vegas casino designers, HGTV set out to build something realer than real. They would rip up the house’s actual, disappointingly conventional interior, enlarge it (by 2000 square feet, they say) and make a physical manifestation of something that never existed.
“A Very Brady Renovation” feels like the logical progression of, and the perfect metaphor for, the reboot and revival craze that has brought us “Fuller House” and “Twin Peaks: The Return,” that exhumed “Veronica Mars” and “Murphy Brown.” The vast mechanism of TV and streaming has become a “Star Trek” replicator of pop culture. If I want to see Jean-Luc Picard on my TV again: Make it so!
“The Brady Bunch” is the perfect show to reboot this way, because it has made a posthumous art of reproducing itself. Long before “Friends” liberated $100 million from Netflix’s pockets, it was the Patient Zero of TV nostalgia, extending its five-season life through reruns, spinoffs, TV movies, theatrical movies, cartoons, a variety show, memes (“Sure, Jan”) and not a few tell-alls and documentaries. Its memory surpassed its actual existence.
And memory is what HGTV is selling here — well, memory and its own brand. “A Very Brady Renovation” casts the hosts of no less than five of the network’s shows: “Good Bones,” “Restored by the Fords,” “Flea Market Flip,” “Hidden Potential” and, of course, “Property Brothers,” whose charismatic and ubiquitous Jonathan and Drew Scott anchor the 90-minute first episode.
They’re joined by the six original Brady sibs, Christopher Knight (Peter), Mike Lookinland (Bobby), Maureen McCormick (Marcia), Susan Olsen (Cindy), Eve Plumb (Jan) and Barry Williams (Greg). (The older stars Ann B. Davis, Florence Henderson and Robert Reed have all died.)
The show drives eagerly onto Memory Lane and floors the accelerator. The show’s theme song is, of course, a parody of the original show’s. (“That’s the way we remade the Brady house!”)
The rebuild of the entryway stairs is accompanied by clips of Marcia walking down the steps and the family posing on them. A demolition scene is scored with “Sunshine Day.” Re-creating the decorative tchotchkes leads, of course, to footage of the legendary “don’t play ball in the house!” basketball disaster.
For all the milking of memories and stagey-seeming “behind-the-scenes” moments, the opening episode is a treat for TV and set-design nerds, getting deep into the weeds about the art of scouring the internet and secondhand outlets to find the precise piece of turn-of-the-’70s kitsch.
The crew studies photos of the original set posted to boards as if reconstructing a crime scene. For certain hard-to-find pieces, like a chef’s-kiss-perfect set of plastic grapes, the production crowdsources contributions from the HGTV audience. “Thanks, America!” a voice-over tells us. “The Brady house really is your house!”
It really is ours, even if HGTV holds the deed. (HGTV is keeping the house and giving away a six-night stay in an audience contest.) You can imagine a version of America in which the rebuilt-as-it-never-was Brady house becomes a modern-day Monticello, a cultural monument for an era in which phantom memories of TV spaces seem as real and emotionally binding as spaces we encounter every day with our meat bodies.
It’s not just fans who are susceptible to this pull. As the cast members drive up at the end of the first episode to see the house, whose facade and landscaping has been overhauled to mimic the B-roll shot in the sitcom, someone exclaims, “It’s just like on TV!”
Of course, as the members of the cast note, they only know that the same way we do, by having seen it on TV. They did their work on a soundstage far from there. They’re coming home to somewhere they’ve never been.
That surreality of trying to recapture a thing that’s passed — that maybe never really existed the way we recall it — is the subject of another bizarre artifact of summer 2019 TV.
“BH90210,” the kinda-sorta-meta reunion of “Beverly Hills, 90210” on Fox, is determined not to be just another reboot. So instead it attempts to be just about everything else. It is arch comedy; it is sentimental nostalgia; it is satirical; it is sincere; it is Hollywood story and middle-age story and sexcapade and horror story.
It is, above all, a commentary on, and example of, the strangeness and sadness of trying to force the past back to life.
What it is literally is a spoof about most of the teen soap’s original cast, playing versions of themselves, pitching a reboot of their show. (The death of Luke Perry is mentioned in the first episode and hangs over the series as a reminder of all that you cannot get back.)
TV has explored the pathos of onetime stars trying to recapture fame before, most excellently in HBO’s “The Comeback” and Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman.” This franchise — which actually was rebooted as “90210” in 2008 and parodied in 2000 by “Grosse Pointe,” from the original series’s creator, Darren Star — seems to have hit on this angle as a way to reboot itself without rebooting itself.
Some of the “characters” have moved on happily, like Gabrielle Carteris, now an actor’s union president (as in real life). Others are lost in career doldrums, like Tori Spelling — daughter of the TV mega-mogul Aaron Spelling, who produced “90210” — who’s been mining her home life for reality TV (another real-life reference).
Spelling gets most into the spirit of self-deflating comedy, playing a manic, loopy version of herself. The show occasionally spoofs its fans (we meet a creepy superfan who bought a dress from Spelling’s wardrobe) but more often services them with callbacks to the show’s plot and its backstage drama. (A running gag about Shannen Doherty’s saintly charity work, for instance, plays off the tabloid stories of on-set feuds a generation ago.)
“BH90210” is best and most saucy when the cast members comment on how weird the whole enterprise is. The fourth episode gets at this, as the cast finishes an awkward table read for the fictional reboot. “It feels so anticlimactic,” Carteris says. “And retro,” Jason Priestley adds. “It makes me want to draw a warm bath,” Jennie Garth says, “and slit my wrists.”
But then the show pulls clumsily back, into slapstick, a paternity scandal, a subplot about a celebrity stalker. It’s too guarded to meet its ambitions and too ambitious to be a disposable goof: It needs to be either 50 percent better or 50 percent worse. As it is, it’s like attending a 30-year reunion where, as soon as someone gets close to unearthing an old hurt, the host nervously asks who wants more margaritas.
The party, after all, has to go on. Today’s TV has thoroughly disproved the old F. Scott Fitzgerald chestnut about there being no second acts in American lives. But these series underscore a different line of his — the one about us beating on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into prime time’s past.
James Poniewozik is the chief television critic. He writes reviews and essays with an emphasis on television as it reflects a changing culture and politics. He previously spent 16 years with Time magazine as a columnist and critic. @poniewozik