What happens when a TV show outgrows its premise?

TV shows either have to evolve or die when they outlive their original premise. Change is vital to survival...

Television shows, network US television shows especially, tend to start off with an obvious hook. The ability to describe a premise in a single word or sentence is a valuable part of getting something on the air in the first place, and so it’s no wonder we get a slew of pilots every year with silly one-word descriptors and obvious, over-the-top characterizations.

But what happens when a show outlives that part, and evolves into something that doesn’t even resemble the original premise?

It happens more often than we may immediately realize, and it comes down to a number of factors. There are network notes soon after a show has premiered, but there’s also audience reaction, sometimes so strong that it demands change for series hoping to stay on television for any significant amount of time.

Series grow and evolve naturally because of their overall length as opposed to a film franchise (which, themselves, can change dramatically from one to the next), but it’s also an accepted fact that some go through this process more gracefully than others.

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Most seasoned TV watchers know that a pilot, while a decent indication of what a show is and can be, is nowhere near the finished product. People can be recast, ideas dropped or changed and characters completely cut out, but there are also many cases in which a show does all of this much further down the line.

The difference then, however, is that there’s an existing audience to appease and a reputation to maintain, and that’s where it gets tricky.

News recently hit that The Vampire Diaries would be shedding many of its original cast members – protagonist Nina Dobrev included – capping off a sixth season that’s seen the show rapidly recover from a creative slump that had seen interest increasingly decline over the last couple of years.

It was a show that started off with more of a definite identity than most – cash in on the popularity of The Twilight Saga (even though, yes, The Vampire Diaries books actually came out before Stephenie Meyers’ cash cow series) with an entire series in which a teenage girl can dither between two hunky suitors.

And that worked for a while, even if the show itself was actually far better than the synopsis during its first two seasons. Then something happened, and suddenly all we seemed to have left was the love triangle – stuck in a never-ending cycle of Elena picking one brother or the other. It was the reverse of the original problem, in that it devolved over time.

There was soon backlash from fans tuning in for the series’ many other virtues to go along with the stale arguments still going on between the different sides of the shipping war, and the writers were forced to go back to the drawing board before the new season aired. This resulted in season six not only getting rid of said love triangle, but also apparently scaling back Elena as a character.

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This had been coming for a while, the slightly unfortunate (or fortunate) side-effect of having brilliant supporting characters on any show. It’s another big problem a lot of shows face, too, when the main character is completely taken over by another in terms of audience popularity.

Some stick with their original idea, either out of preference or necessity, but others jump at the chance to shift their cast around to suit the appetite of an increasingly vocal fanbase.

It’s debatable whether this is necessarily something showrunners should do even when they’re able to. While there are plenty of people who would love Daryl to oust Rick as the main player on The Walking Dead, for example, doing so would also make it an entirely different series. It could be better, or it could be worse. It would just be different, and time can always be better spent developing what you already have.

Certain genres suffer from these issues more than others, with comedy and teen/YA dramas seemingly having to go through more face-lifts than any other.

Comedies airing on ABC, for example, are notorious for their one-word monikers tying them down to a particular, slightly ridiculous, idea – Trophy Wife, Selfie etc. Like it or not, a title is often the only thing a large portion of the desired audience have to go on, and by episode two or three the series themselves have often developed way beyond the boundaries of that initial box.

Selfie was a very sweet, admirably sincere romantic comedy that didn’t really stick to the initial “My Fair Lady in the internet age” premise beyond the first 10 minutes of its pilot. By this point, though, swathes of potential viewers had vowed to steer clear, and it became the latest quirky sitcom to disappear from the network before a single season was even finished airing.

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Some are slightly luckier. New Girl has a title and a premise that was pretty much built for a single season, but the show is still going, now barely recognizable from its first few episodes. It’s an ensemble show rather than the Zooey Deschanel vehicle it was in the beginning, and the ‘New’ of the title could only ever apply for a short time. Cougar Town also suffered from the same problem, leading to it being cancelled by ABC (before being picked up for TBS, then cancelled again).

Throughout The Vampire Diaries’ current season, too, it has been former supporting character Caroline Forbes who has taken up the mantel of hero (or chief villain – it’s that kind of show), getting the meatiest storylines, the most character development, and even a love story with one of the former hunky suitors.

It’s a great example of a show rolling with the punches, admitting defeat in one area that once so defined it and being better off in the long run. The noteworthy part is that it did it well into its sixth year, at a point when another series might have just resigned itself to treading water until cancellation came. The Vampire Diaries has been renewed for a seventh season, and has never been stronger.

Arrow may be going through a similar thing, with the show effectively killing its main character off for a multi-episode arc in which the sidekicks got to play hero. Now that he’s back, fans have started pushing back against Oliver Queen, and the great development for the supporting cast has meant that many of them would make just as capable main players. Hence the multiple spinoffs, I guess.

Doctor Who uniquely dodges this very issue by trading in a new protagonist every few seasons, keeping up with audience appetite and keeping things fresh whenever a new actor is cast.

Think what The Big Bang Theory might look like had the show not completely altered its path when adding love interests for the majority of its central characters – there’s a high chance it would still be ludicrously successful, but would the last few years of its run still have been so entertaining for long-time fans?

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Lost also recognized that it couldn’t stick with its flashback format for too long, switching to flash-forwards in season four and flash-sideways in season six.

Though changing things from the original idea for a series can often do nothing for the general perception brought on by an unfortunate title or initial advertising, sometimes sticking too strictly to a premise can be just as much of an issue. Shows like Smallville, for example, were always tied down to a particular format or setting, and the inability to throw out those boundaries can significantly hamper a series in its later years.

Smallville was set primarily in Metropolis between seasons six and ten, but could never fully abandon its roots for fear of making its title nonsensical. Then there was the “no tights, no flights” rule set ahead of season one, which led to a lot of frustrating backtracking and unnecessary compromise on costume when the show should really have had Clark Kent suit up long before the series’ final episode.

There are many that are largely immune to the problem – Game Of Thrones, for example, will probably never be swayed from its storyline – but that happens a lot more on cable than the wild west of network television. Netflix, of course, is the new player here, with shows like Daredevil or House Of Cards unable to change due to the platform’s strategy of releasing entire series in one chunk.

One of the problems is that network television almost never has the luxury of crafting meticulous long-term plans for multiple seasons, taking it year by year or even week by week in an effort to maintain quality while also staying on the air. It’s a balancing act and, while some shows are prone to sticking with what works until their time has played out, others are constantly changing in an attempt to settle into a groove – any groove.

But the brilliant thing about fiction told over a long period of time is that sometimes characters, relationships and plots can take on a life of their own, and series have to recognise this in order to keep going in a direction that doesn’t turn fans off. When a show outlives the life-span of its initial premise, writers have to go with it or risk simply running on the spot, shedding viewers in the process.

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