Exploring the T.V. ‘Reboot’
Matt McMahon | Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Last week’s season five premiere episode of the FX animated comedy “Archer” blew up the show’s central premise. Without discussing any specific spoilers for those who have not seen it, the episode refreshed the series by changing the entire environment in which the characters will exist.
It also established a crazy, new storyline that will likely play out over the course of the season (you can visit The Observer’s new website for weekly coverage of “Archer” the night of/morning after each episode airs). Many are labeling this move by show-creator Adam Reed as a “reboot” for the series, and the show refers to the upcoming string of episodes as “Archer Vice.”
Similarly, this winter television season marks the return of “Community,” with once-fired, original creator Dan Harmon, who will deal with a “reboot” of his own. While it’s currently unknown how the shows will pro ceed—and if the concepts will work or not—there is something inherently exciting, or at least intriguing, about shake-ups of this kind, or any other, in already-developed TV series.
You could point to any number of long-running shows — and even a lot of shorter ones — that have had at least small arcs that upended their regular dynamics. The Michael Scott Paper Company arc in the US version of “The Office” forced some of Dunder Mifflin’s key employees out of the office and into a delicate position of uncertainty — and occurred at a pivotal point in the show’s fifth season.
Yet, whether or not they are executed well, the shake-ups can usually reliably spark interest, or re-interest, in viewers. When “Two and a Half Men” had to supplant Charlie Sheen’s Charlie Harper, how the writers would handle replacing the main character inspired much speculation and transformed the season nine premiere into not just another episode, but a must-watch television event.
Moves of this nature come about for several differing reasons and often occur in varying degrees of intensity. Like in the case of “Two and a Half Men,” cast members jumping ship plagued the affable “That 70s Show” when both lead Topher Grace and regular Ashton Kutcher left to pursue movie careers. The final two seasons are oft regarded poorly, but the sheer absurdity of character replacement done always left me with some appreciation for the show over its last two years.
In its fourth season, Fox’s medical drama “House” features a similarly styled “reboot,” but was the result of more organic storytelling. The first half of the season has Dr. Gregory House selecting a new diagnostics team in a “Bachelor” or “Survivor” reality-show-aped competition.
Still, in other examples, a show adapts as its audience, and actors alike, mature through the series’ life. This includes “Boy Meets World,” which began as family themed—with the classic 90s lesson learning at most episodes’ conclusions—and gradually became more of a teenaged “Friends” hangout sitcom once the characters attended college.
Then there are the less natural circumstances that might force a TV series into a “reboot” of sorts. Network pressure from executives can become a major factor in an underperforming show—or in popular shows the channel may be banking on to succeed. In the air of the former, NBC sitcom “Up All Night” went through extensive re-working at the hands of the station’s higher-ups.
The maligned show was repurposed many times, switching from being shot single-camera to multi-camera, abandoning its workplace setting for a behind-the-scenes looks at daytime television and losing the mother of the baby in the show that’s keeping the lead couple “Up All Night” to begin with, all in hopes to save it from ratings hell. One bizarre pitch, that unfortunately did not materialized, posed there be a portal to connect the single-cam and multi-cam worlds of the show, with which only the baby could see and interact.
In a just as absurd—but actually seen through—shake-up, a lack of viewership and general lack of interest allowed CBS’s “’Til Death” to attempt some of the most surreal plot points over the course of its miracle fourth season. Knowing it stood no chance of a fifth season, the show transformed from a traditional sitcom to a weird, post-modern experiment. Perhaps the strangest in which, secondary character Doug becomes convinced that he is living in a sitcom; he correctly argues, in a bit of meta genius from the show, that his wife has been recast a number of times, he cannot actually curse, and the “cameras” all “cut away” before he can have sex. He winds up going to a therapy clinic for like-minded individuals, led by ”Blossom” and “The Big Bang Theory” star Mayim Bialik.
So, what makes the idea of changing the premise of an already defined television show so reliably interesting? In the final two examples it’s fairly clear that much of the enjoyment comes from watching the leftfield train wrecks of premise unfold. Something so unlikely is happening in these instances that it would be a shame to miss them, even when knowing the attempt at salvation won’t work. Here the audience is disjointed from emotional investment, though, tuning in purely to marvel at the wild audaciousness of concept. Even a fan would have to admit the “Two and a Half Men” season nine premiere, perhaps predictably, was farcical and phoned-in.
But what about the shows that “reboot” in more reasonable, controlled manners? For the lengthy, child-to-teen geared series, such as “That 70s Show” and “Boy Meets World,” the audience has grown up along with the characters—a slightly archaic sentiment today—sharing experiences and creating emotional ties to the cast. A big enough shake-up can mirror a situation the viewer might experience; or, at least, the viewer has become so invested in the show’s universe that they will genuinely be affected by the changes and uncertainty.
Likewise, on “House,” the show ably created a sense of stakes, reinvigorating what may have become stale or routine. While the audience is familiar with the remaining characters or setting, the “reboot” gives the show fresh blood. Additionally, and more practically, “reboots” provide a second jumping-in point for new audience members who have not tracked the show since the beginning. Those previously acquainted reap the rewards of following the series’ change ups through, and newcomers get a logical point to join the action.
So, maybe the source of excitement cannot be pinpointed to any one school of reasoning. Nevertheless, the innate appeal of the “reboot” permeates all styles and forms of television, and excitement surely lies in not knowing exactly what might happen next.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.