I know I’ve talked before about how shows promise to “get back to their roots” and how this doesn’t really work most of the time. But I had to come back to the issue after reading that My Name is Earl promises to “get back to the list” (that is, to the original formula of having most episodes revolve around an item from Earl’s list) after the disaster of last season’s prison, coma and marriage storylines.
Many shows start out with a formula that will be the basis for most of the episodes; they set up a gimmick in the pilot, and then the other episodes of the first season are essentially remakes of the pilot. Then as the show goes on, the writers start to move away from the formula, because they’re tired of making the same episode over and over, and there’s a danger of the audience becoming restless. (There can be other reasons, too; the action show Hardcastle and McCormick started out with an Earl’s-list type gimmick of the characters tracking down a list of bad guys who got set free on technicalities, but this formula was mostly abandoned because the network got complaints about the way this formula was glorifying vigilante justice.) When you see a show with a very rigid formula, it will probably move away from that formula unless the show is a murder mystery or something else that requires the formula to be followed more or less to the letter. (Pushing Daisies appears to be sticking to the murder-mystery formula in its new episodes this season, but then, it is a mystery and you can’t really do an episode without one, at least not yet.)
But if the show runs into trouble after trying to get away from the formula, there will be pressure on the producers to return to the formula — or, more cynically, the producers will focus on “getting back to our roots” as an excuse to ignore what’s really wrong with the show. (Many of Earl‘s best episodes didn’t have much to do with the list anyway, so I don’t think that’s the biggest problem with the most recent season. The problem was that the writing sucked and the characters have become insane freaks, neither of which problems can be solved just by doing a bunch of “list” episodes.) But does it work? And is it even possible? Some of you may remember how the final season of Buffy started out with a lot of fanfare about “going back to the beginning,” which included not only returning the show to a high school setting, but going back to a monster-of-the-week format after the soapy excesses of the sixth season. This lasted only a few weeks before the show devolved into a soapy mess of unresolved story arcs and endless buildup to a big climax that never really materialized. Going “back to the beginning” just wasn’t really possible; the soapy format was ingrained in the show’s writing, and overwhelmed any attempt to bring back the old style.
Also, when a show tries to go back to its original format, it often gets things a little bit wrong. The recent episodes of King of the Hill are a result of Mike Judge trying to get back to what the show was doing in its early years when it was a big hit, but it’s never felt quite right: many of the early episodes were about Hank’s good ol’ boy values triumphing over big-city villains, and that’s what nearly all of the new episodes are about, but the early episodes added a sense of irony to that formula that kept the show from just being a straightforward us-vs-them story. When a show tries to bring back its early formula, it can wind up feeling like an imitation of itself.
But there must be shows that tried to bring back the original formula/format and succeeded in doing so. Any examples?