By Katriena Knights
In last month’s post, I talked about how TV shows maintain a long-term status quo, often keeping characters mostly static. This time, I’m going to talk about shows that have attempted to break this pattern, and how they did it wrong—and how a few of them have done it right. Hopefully this will give you some ideas about how to use this kind of development in your writing.
The way I see TV, three major forces determine the status quo of an individual show. These are the show’s genre, its formula, and its initial premise. For example, in Hart to Hart, the protagonists were a husband and wife team, so the status quo would demand that they remain happily married. In Remington Steele, the protagonists were constantly flirting with falling into a relationship, so to have them finally cross that line and become a couple would disturb the status quo. These were both mystery shows, so the genre demanded that there be—you guessed it—a mystery to solve, preferably a murder. The formula was also determined more or less by the genre, but the pattern for a mystery show can differ slightly from show to show as long as there’s a case introduced at the beginning and a solution provided at the end.
Doing it Wrong
As a general rule, changing up the status quo too much in a TV show is going to lose you your audience. Moonlighting tried it in the 80s and really mucked it up, to the point where loss of ratings after a couple in a show consummates their relationship became referred to as “the Moonlighting Effect.” After that disaster, most shows with a couple whose relationship relied on sexual tension didn’t dare let them get together on a permanent basis.
However, I think what drove the ratings loss in Moonlighting wasn’t the change in the relationship, per se. It was the effect it had on the show’s formula. It wasn’t about the mystery cases anymore. Suddenly it became about almost nothing but the central relationship. It had, in effect, changed genre.
Remington Steele saw a major ratings drop-off before the creators decide to let Remington and Laura consummate their relationship, to the point where the show was cancelled. Viewer protest brought it back for a fifth season, but it wasn’t the same show after that. Literally. The fifth season revolved almost entirely around the relationship rather than around individual mystery cases. But why did the fourth season see a drop-off? I watched this full series straight through recently, and the fourth season has a marked change in tone. The episodes are darker, the cases are darker, and a lot of the lighthearted banter just isn’t there anymore. This, in my mind, was a much more deadly disruption of the status quo than any change in the main characters’ relationship. I kept watching because I had all the DVDs, but I could totally see why viewers at the time might have switched channels. The creators had broken their contract by no longer meeting viewer expectations.
Doing it Right
In recent years, we’ve seen Bones and Castle, two shows very similar to Remington Steele and Moonlighting, shift the status quo with their main characters without seeing their viewers exit in droves. I believe this is because they’ve both kept the shows focused on the original premise and let the relationships play second fiddle. This is as it should be with this type of show. We have yet to see how things will play out in the upcoming season, with both shows ending on relationship-related cliffhangers, but so far they’ve provided good examples of how to shift one part of the status quo and make it work by keeping everything else intact.
In the book world, a few examples come to mind where this same kind of shift has occurred. One series where I think it wasn’t done particularly well is the Anita Blake series by Laurel K. Hamilton. The changes in Anita came at the cost of a change in the focus of the entire series. The books became much more sexually charged and much more focused on the relationships than on the mysteries and conflict that drove the first third or so of the series. It didn’t happen gradually, but instead was quite abrupt. I know this lost her a good many readers, although plenty have hung on for the ride.
By contrast, JD Robb has handled a few shifts in her …In Death series without losing the focus of the books, which is on the suspense/mystery elements. Eve’s building relationship and eventual marriage to Roarke, as well as other changes in their relationship and her character, are significant, but they never move to the forefront to take over the main story arc. In these books, we know exactly what we’re going to get when we pick one up, and we’re never disappointed.
In the end, it’s all about reader (or viewer) expectations and how well you satisfy them. You can play with the expectations so you surprise them from time to time, but never pull the rug out from under them. They may never forgive you.
Katriena Knights spends more time watching TV than is generally recommended. She is the author of about twenty published novels, mostly paranormal romance genres. Her semi-erotic urban fantasy-ish book Necromancing Nim has just been released in paperback from Samhain Publishing. Feel free to follow her sporadically updated blog at katrienaknights.blogspot.com or her spasmodically updated Twitter at twitter.com/crazywritinfool.