Reboot the Shark
But now is not the time to tear apart the followers of the shark. After all, I am on the record myself as believing in the life cycle of a TV series, and that's really what this whole shark-jumping phenomenon is all about.
Instead, this is the time for us to talk about the rare showrunner who has done the unthinkable: wrestle with the proverbial shark, swallow his pride, toss out all the elements of his show's premise that were unsalvagable, and haul his show back into relevance out of sheer force of will: The showrunner is J.J. Abrams, and the show is Alias.
When it debuted last fall, Alias was a breath of fresh air. A fun, action-packed, cliffhanger-filled action-spy-fantasy-drama-comedy-thingy, Alias was James Bond and Buffy mixed together. But as the first few episodes unfolded, it became clear that the premise just wasn't going to last. Even in a show that demanded not only that you suspend your disbelief, but take it out back, toss it in a shallow grave, and bury it, it stretched credulity to its limits.
For starters, the show was about a family of double agents. Double agents are a great source of spy-story tension; they're always one false move away from being exposed and executed. They're conflicted as they have to lead a double life, lying to so-called friends who they're actually working against. But there's a reason that there are more spy movies than TV shows -- after all, how can you keep up the charade indefinitely? At some point, even the most incompetent of spymasters has to realize that this particular set of agents never quite brings home the goods. And even the most competent of scriptwriters has to realize that the almost-found-out plot line gets old fast.
But Abrams' premise problems didn't end there. In putting the show's flashy pilot together, he had sown the seeds of his destruction in numerous ways. The show's protagonist, Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), had a pair of essentially superfluous friends who lived outside of the spy drama and had very little to do except get in her way. Sydney also had a third life, beyond her agent and counter-agent lives, as a graduate student.
Worse yet, Sydney was falling into a Moonlighting-esque romance with her CIA handler, Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan). The doomed workplace relationship, the star-crossed lovers... a nice plot if you can resolve it, but not one you can legitimately string along ad infinitum.
Now, most show-runners have a lot of ego invested in their series. Most of them are the shows' creators, or at the very least must take great responsibility for shepherding the show onto the air. And therein lies the root cause of many failed television series: a producer who loves his show too much to see its flaws and fix them. Or worse, a producer who understands his show's flaws but is too petrified that making changes will make matters worse, and who therefore is resigned to watch his show go down in flames, Viking-funeral style.
You can probably name your own shows who fit those categories. Let's take Ed, a former TeeVee favorite that's been summarily removed from most of our TiVo Season Passes. The show's producers, Rob Burnett and Jon Beckerman, showed great flexibility in drastically altering the show's premise, format, and pilot in order to get it on the air. Half-hour sitcom not working for you? Let's make it an hour-long dramedy. Ed running a bowling alley doesn't allow for enough plot points? Let's make him a lawyer. Anyone who remembers watching the first episode of Ed realizes how far those guys went to get the show on the air -- that show probably marks the first time in TV history that a series premiere began with a synopsis of the show's (nonexistent) previous episodes. All because the original pilot had been cut to ribbons before the series made it on the air.
But although surgery got Ed on the air, its premise wasn't built to last. The built-up romantic tension between Ed and his high-school crush, Carol? It originally seemed to look like a story arc, what with her breaking up with her longtime boyfriend and eventual gravitation toward a relationship with Ed. But rather than chart the arc of a normal, human relationship -- get together, go out for a while, move in together, get married, have kids -- the show plotted a more static course, playing the will-they-or-won't-they game, tossing in separate love affairs to keep them apart, the whole Dave and Maddie disease. Fortune favors the bold, boys. And these days, few viewers favor Ed.
Star Trek: Voyager started with a lame Gilligan's Island-in-space premise, of a ship shot to the far reaches of the galaxy. I understand the underlying point of the premise: it was meant to get Star Trek out of its rut by forcing the show's writers to eschew the Federation politics and retread alien villains that had made Trek to sterile. But fast-forward a couple of years, and the show had created its own, new retread-style villains, as well as using ridiculous plot devices to circumvent the rules of the show and drop in Klingons, Romulans, Borg, you name it.
So did the show's producers have the guts to admit their mistake, bring the Voyager crew home, and try to spin the show in a different direction? No, but they did bring on a blonde in a leather body suit, so there's something.
Yes, TV series do sometimes change in midstream. But it's usually done by casting -- either by firing a supporting character who isn't working out or being forced to replace an actor who has quit or died.
Which makes the boldness of J.J. Abrams' move on Alias all the more breathtaking. Abrams, in one single episode of the show (the one that that aired long, long after the Super Bowl was over -- and now one more song from Bon Jovi, plus Penn and Teller!) took his entire series premise apart without losing a single character from his cast.
A quick tally of some of Abrams' moves this season: The double-agent storyline is gutted; now our heroes work only for the CIA, not for the evil SD-6. Sydney and her forbidden love Vaughn are together. Sydney's useless friend Will now works for the CIA. Sydney's other useless friend Francie has been shot through the head and replaced by an evil twin, which is slightly less ridiculous than it sounds. Sydney's old boss, whom she hated but had to feign loyalty to, is now the show's ubervillain, and Sydney's contempt for him is out in the open. Sydney's former co-workers have now joined her at the CIA, working for the good guys. And that graduate school storyline? Sydney got her degree -- off-camera, of course.
Of course, the Alias fans are up in arms, because people always fear change. Some of the show's die-hard fans were freaking out even before the show had aired a single post-reboot episode, just based on their shock over the change in premise. People are strange and fans are stranger, but you've got to shake your head and wonder how someone could be so passionate about a person's work and yet so distrusting about the same person's judgment.
Of course, change is scary. It's scary for TV producers even more than it is for the fans of their TV shows. But wouldn't we be better off if more producers made the bold decision to pull over to the side of the road, pop the hood, and put out the fire before their show ended up as a careening pile of flaming wreckage on the Hollywood freeway?
J.J. Abrams would tell you we would. And he'd be right.
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