Night of the Living Shoulder Camcorder

In the Age of the Reboot, only one thing is certain: everything you have ever known and loved will be remade again. Next up on the reverse chopping block is Roseanne, a reboot of which will debut later this spring.  I mostly recall Roseanne as filler programming in between The Price is Right at 10am and the early-afternoon Power Rangers block, but what little I’ve actually seen of it is actually not that bad. So you can be rest assured that, somehow, the producers will find a way to take a winning formula and make it really lame, as they did with Girl Meets World and the Twilight Zone and a few dozen other desperate rehashes.

But of all the reboots currently sloshing around the economic basin these days, none is more interesting to me than the “reboot” of Circuit City, a once-legendary chain of electronics and appliance stores that went bankrupt almost a decade ago. Circuit City is, like your ob’t blogger, a native of Richmond, Virginia, where it started its life as Wards Company, hocking televisions and other nascent electronics in the late 50s. Times being what they were, Wards eventually expanded to offer most of the consumer electronics market, including portable CD players for $114, which at the time seemed like a really good idea.

I can remember going sometimes to a big-box Circuit City outlet when I was a child, and most of what I remember is how markedly boring a place it was. Electronics stores are, for children, like crack houses for crack addicts: they’re the place where you’re supposed to go get your fix, be it crack rocks or blinking, stimulating electronic gratification. But Circuit City was never really all that fun: they had a bunch of dull big-screen televisions and some video cameras and, late in the game, laptops and maybe some tablets…but there was always an empty, kind of desperate quality to them, like the JC Penney’s outlets you sometimes find still attached to dying malls. Ghostly. Uncomfortably quiet. I can remember standing around at a Circuit City once while my father dickered over a washing machine or a microwave or something, watching a short clip of Jurassic Park played on loop endlessly on a bank of crummy televisions . They couldn’t even play the whole damn movie. How cheap can you get when you can’t spring for the full license of Jurassic Park?

So it is weird to see it making a comeback. A great many people lost their jobs when it shuttered nine years ago, and that was bad—but overall Circuit City’s demise seemed entirely appropriate, its being a weird sort of dusty relic of late-20th century electronica. For goodness’s sake, it was called Circuit City—circuit! As if people were buying ham radios instead of modern television sets. It’s like naming your kid “Jeeves:” if you’ve got the wrong title, there’s really only one career option for you.

But in the end it is less interesting to think of what Circuit City may become—which probably isn’t all that much—and more interesting to think of where we’ve been since it last left us. 2009 is not, in cosmic or even Gregorian terms, that far away from 2018. Yet still, consider the technological differences between then and now: the smartphone revolution has been fully realized, driverless cars are on the cusp of ubiquity, “augmented reality” is a thing, 3D printing is increasingly a practical reality.

It is striking how quickly things change. It is of course possible for a business to come back from the dead after a decade off. Yet it is an odd thing that anyone would want to bring back Circuit City, a company that, on its deathbed, was little more than a second-rate Best Buy with an outmoded reputation. And even before it officially launches, the Circuit City reboot looks to be almost comically inept: the company promises to be “in more household then ever before,” it assures potential customers, “We understand the struggles of online shopping” (Really? What are they, exactly?), and it heralds: “For the new breed of American workers who we call the ‘millennials’, we will offer 24/7 Customer Service, including live chat, phone support and lifetime free tech support.” This is just kind of inexplicable. Phone support for millennials—there’s something to get the old liquid capital flowing!

No industry, it seems, is safe from the Reboot Curse; media and consumer electronics both will fall to it. It will be fascinating to watch Circuit City relaunch and almost certainly re-fail; it will be the whole history of the store played out again in miniature. The lesson, as always, will be: don’t try and recreate something that’s past its time (particularly if it went down in flames the first time around). Now, I would be interested in seeing a remake of Kay-Bee Toys. But I won’t keep my fingers crossed.

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