TV’s Prequel-Mania

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“The past is with us all, whether we like it or not.” So says Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova), an elf soldier in Amazon Prime Video’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.”

He’s talking about the threat of evil in Middle-earth, which — like a good action hero — he correctly suspects is rising again. But he could just as well be describing current-day TV. “The Rings of Power,” a series that takes place thousands of years before the “Lord of the Rings” movies, is just the latest, priciest example of today’s prequel-mania. On TV, the past is everywhere.

HBO’s “House of the Dragon” recently took wing as a bloody story of royal succession set generations before “Game of Thrones.” August saw the finale of the “Breaking Bad” prequel, “Better Call Saul,” which will contend at the Emmys on Monday. “Fear the Walking Dead” explored the early days of a zombie apocalypse. “Star Wars” re-revisited its past in “Obi-Wan Kenobi.” The show creator Taylor Sheridan has followed his hit “Yellowstone” with “1883”; “1923” is next, and the calendar has plenty of years left.

Why is TV so aggressively turning back the clock? It’s hard to go broke giving people more of what they once liked, of course. And the content boom on streaming TV makes rehashing familiar franchises more attractive. When viewers are paralyzed by choice among hundreds of series, it’s easier to stand out with a brand people already know.

Past TV sequels and spinoffs generally moved forward in time: It was “AfterMASH,” not “BeforeMASH.” Prequels, on the other hand, often double back to continue stories that definitively ended, as many contemporary dramas do. The final cut to black of “The Sopranos” didn’t keep its creator, David Chase, from time-traveling to Satriale’s Pork Store in the movie “The Many Saints of Newark.”

Like any spinoff, a prequel can be a cash grab, but it doesn’t have to be creatively bankrupt. At best, returning to characters whose destinies we already know can allow a series to focus less on the what of the story and more on the why.

This was what made “Better Call Saul” (which time-jumped into sequel mode in its final episodes) a true original even as it followed one of TV’s greatest dramas. Knowing that Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) would become a sleazy drug lawyer made his minutely observed downfall no less fascinating, and the series balanced his story with the parallel moral arc of the new character Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), as she grew entangled in his life and schemes.

“Saul” was less special, though, when it focused on fleshing out minor backstory points for “Breaking Bad” superfans. As the “Star Wars” movie prequels showed us, with their blather about “midi-chlorians” (the eensy-weensy life-forms linked to the Force), just because you can answer a question doesn’t mean you should.

As a critic and viewer, I like a well-executed prequel (and I hope Seehorn finally brings home an Emmy for “Saul”). But I’ll admit to getting exhausted with TV’s attempts to wring more life out of existing intellectual property. No prequel this year has thrilled me like the original, out-of-the-blue, not-based-on-a-previous-anything “Severance.”

Still, audiences keep turning up. And I wonder if the complication and uncertainty of life is a part of prequels’ appeal. The horizon is full of question marks — global, political and personal. We’re overwhelmed with choice and with the unknown. With a prequel, you know — at least in broad strokes — what’s coming.

That can be a kind of comfort. Maybe prequels satisfy the same urge we felt in our earliest days as audiences, asking for one more read from a well-worn book at bedtime: Tell me a story where I know how it turns out.

For more

  • Here are 40 shows to watch this fall.

  • My fellow critic Margaret Lyons and I talked about which ones we’re most looking forward to.

FALL CULTURE PREVIEW

As autumn arrives, so does a new season of cultural offerings. This fall brings new chapters of familiar stories (a revival of “1776,” a “Black Panther” sequel), as well as fresh productions (the legal drama “Reasonable Doubt” and a David Bowie documentary). Here’s more of what’s coming:

Movies: Jon Hamm stars in “Confess, Fletch”; Dwayne Johnson is the latest DC Comics character on the big screen, Black Adam; Ana de Armas plays Marilyn Monroe; and 156 other films.

Viola Davis stars in “The Woman King,” a battle epic about a troop of female warriors in West Africa. The film’s director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, says she wanted to “showcase these women in the way they deserve.”

And our critics considered the state of democracy, onscreen and off.

TV: A reboot of “Quantum Leap,” and new seasons of “Abbott Elementary” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Ken Burns examines American inaction during the Holocaust.

Pop and jazz music: Adele will be live, and Taylor Swift will release her fifth album in two years. Kid Cudi is back, as are the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Classical music: The reopening of David Geffen Hall and the premiere of “The Hours” at the Met.

Theater: Tom Stoppard reckons with his Jewish roots in “Leopoldstadt,” his most autobiographical play. Among more than 60 other plays are “Prince Hamlet” and “Some Like It Hot.” (The Times asked 10 artists: Are men in dresses still funny?) And taking the stage this season are Samuel L. Jackson and other established Black actors.

Art: Our critics’ picks include an exhibit of Machine Dazzle’s “models of excess” at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, a bounty of Latin American and Latino art and the reopening of Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts.

Dance: New York City Ballet celebrates the 10th anniversary of its fall fashion gala, and 53 other events. Gisèle Vienne’s “Crowd,” an evening-length production about a rave, complete with techno soundtrack, premieres in the U.S.

Architecture: A museum in Egypt, an airport in India and a prairie landscape in Houston are some of the designs that aim to transcend the crises of the moment.

Travel: There should be fewer frustrations than there were this summer, and airfares should be lower (but not prepandemic cheap).

Loaded Baked Frittata

My go-to frittata consists of eggs and whatever odds and ends are languishing in the fridge. This catchall method works just fine. But, for something a little nicer, I recently whipped up Genevieve Ko’s loaded baked frittata with goat cheese, bacon, spinach and sweet peppers. Yes, a few minutes of sautéing made it slightly more involved than just throwing last night’s roasted eggplant into the pan. But it was also better. The combination of melty goat cheese and crisp bacon is a classic for a reason, and all the vegetables lightened the mix. It was wonderful hot from the oven, and the cold leftovers, stuffed into sandwiches with mayo and hot sauce, make for easy lunches as we move out of summer, and into September’s hectic clutches.

REAL ESTATE

What you get for $2.5 million: a converted church in Rifton, N.Y.; a floating home in Seattle; or a Tudor Revival in Kenilworth, Ill.

The hunt: She wanted to split the difference between beach and city. Which home did she choose? Play our game.

Close by: Two sets of in-laws moved in together — down the hall from their children.

In bloom: Clover lawns are a money- and water-saving alternative to grass.

Cooling off: Hot coffee may be slipping as a drink of choice.

Dirty flights: Who’s to blame for messy planes?

Casual updos: Hair claw clips, a ’90s staple, are back.

Working out: Barefoot weight lifting can strengthen your feet, but it has risks.

GAME OF THE WEEKEND

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Dallas Cowboys, N.F.L.: The Cowboys haven’t been to a conference championship game since the mid-1990s. In that time, Tom Brady has been to … well, a lot of them. The 45-year-old quarterback led the league in passing yards and touchdowns last season, and even retirement couldn’t keep him off the field this season. 8:20 p.m. Eastern on Sunday, NBC

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Thanks for spending part of your weekend with The Times.

P.S. The morning after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, more Wordle players than usual tried QUEEN as their first guess.

Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Ashley Wu contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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