The allure of the reset button

Though it remains one of my favourite 00’s movies (and likely, one of yours), I must admit that the ending of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind hasn’t aged well with me. Perhaps more accurately, I haven’t aged well with it. I’ve come to view its conclusion as optimistic to a fault: the idea that Joel and Clementine could reboot their relationship to square one despite knowing all the shit that’s gone down between them doesn’t sit well with me. It feels no less fantastical than the film’s sci-fi conceit of being able to erase the relationship in the first place.

And yet, there’s something amazingly enticing about that ending. We all get the feeling sometimes that our past is like a stone dragging us down, that the lessons we’ve learned from our mistakes never quite seem worth their weight. The idea that we have the power to ignore history or (even better) to reset it and do it all over is a childish fantasy, but there’s no denying its appeal. Eventually, though, we all come to terms with the reality that we simply can’t do that.

Unless you work in the entertainment industry, that is.

Last week’s two biggest entertainment stories last week both involve major corporations trying to reboot their creative assets, backtracking on directions that once seemed somewhat sound – in essence, grown men trying to achieve that misguided childish dream. And neither is really much of a surprise. Sure, the announcement that director Sam Raimi is being forced out of the Spider-Man franchise along with his entire cast and crew came suddenly, but there have been unconfirmed reports of creative tensions for a while now. And the pending return of Jay Leno to The Tonight Show was always a lingering possibility thanks to the disastrous ratings for his prime-time show and the disappointing numbers for Conan as host.

But there’s still a strangeness to both of these decisions. With Spider-Man 4, Raimi appears to have been fired because he wasn’t making the Spidey film that Sony wanted him to make. This makes sense on the surface, but in context it’s a bit odd: the undeniable awfulness of Spider-Man 3 was the result of Raimi listening too much to the studio, the best Spidey film (the second) had more of Raimi’s fingerprints on it than the others, and the most successful superhero films – in particular, The Dark Knight – have been the result of a studio trusting a director’s creative vision.

With villain choice apparently as the stumbling block (Raimi wanted the Vulture, Sony balked) the studio has instead decided to go back to square one, not only with a new creative team but actually reverting Peter Parker back to high school. There’s still a chance that this strategy may end up producing a great Spider-Man film (though given the studio’s focus on timeline over quality, we’ll see), but one can’t help but feel as if it’s too soon for such a return to the start of the plot. Keep in mind that by the time that this new film comes out, it will have been only 10 years since Spider-Man first hit theatres. Are we ready to quickly erase a decade of story?

But that condensed timeline from origin to reboot is noting compared to the madness happening at NBC. Some are tracing the late-night craziness back to NBC’s 2004 agreement to hand over The Tonight Show to Conan O’Brien in five years’ time, a decision made out of the fear that Conan would bolt and compete with the network. But the real fiasco began last year when in a similar state of fear – this time of losing Leno – the network initiated one of the most awful, ill-advised compromises ever: taking away an hour of prime-time each night for Leno, a decision that crippled local news broadcasts, handicapped Conan’s show and wrecked the network’s prime-time schedule.

So instead of just trying to fix part of that equation, the network is trying to reboot back to the beginning as best as possible. Their preferred solution, reportedly, was for Leno to take over 11:35-12:05, with Conan’s Tonight Show following with an hour-long broadcast and Jimmy Fallon taking up the end of the night. Conan, smartly, had none of this and issued a brilliantly-written statement of his discontent. Though the exit deal has not yet been finalized, observers expect Conan to walk from NBC with a healthy payout and his freedom. Leno will once again host The Tonight Show.

What bridges these two costly pop culture fiascoes – the latter easily being the more catastrophic – is the shared desire of their decision makers to reject history: to cut ties with the decisions they’ve made and to start building a new future, never mind the bodies left in their wake. The people involved on the ground level, from Conan and Raimi through to those that depend on them, are dead weight to be rid of in the cruelest corporate fashion. The deciders’ power and status have created a misguided sense of security and a twisted corporate philosophy: falsely insulated from their decisions, they think they’ve magically found the power to start from scratch, reject their commitments and press the magic reset button.

Will there be long-term consequences? Sadly, I’m not so sure. Does anyone doubt that a fourth Spider-Man– whenever it comes out – will make gangbusters of dollars with or without Sam Raimi? Does anyone doubt that Leno’s ratings will be higher than Conan’s were? The disturbing part of all of this is that when the dust settles and the smoke clears, both of these resets may have been (financially) the right decisions.

But I kind of hope not. After all, if  ordinary people can’t press the reset button – if we have to live with the consequences of our choices, one way or another – is it too much to hope the same for those of heightened status? Time will tell.

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