TV: Retools Are Out -

TV: Retools Are Out


The news that Betty White will appear in the season premiere of Community is a fun bit of overkill, though I don’t see it boosting the show’s ratings all that much; as a commenter points out, she didn’t boost The Middle — a more popular show than Community — above its normal level. (Guest stars are great, but they rarely goose the show’s viewership levels unless they’re very famous people who rarely appear on scripted TV, e.g. Britney Spears on How I Met Your Mother.) The thing about Community is that gimmicky guest stars appear to be the only big change it’s making for the second season — and since they had Jack Black in season one, that’s not actually a change.

This is one thing that has changed in my TV viewing lifetime: it’s more common than it ever was for a struggling show to get a renewal without being retooled. There have always been shows that got picked up again despite low ratings. But even a decade ago, the normal price for that pickup would have been some obvious changes: new characters, new sets, maybe even a different premise. People who grew up in the ’80s might, for example, remember Perfect Strangers and how after its first full season, several characters were dropped (including one whose actress came back as a different character), and the first episode of the new season introduced a bunch of new characters, a new job for the heroes, a new place for them to work, a better apartment for them to live in. Not to mention an almost completely new title sequence. The retool was the price a “bubble” show paid for being renewed: the idea was that the show had potential, but the ratings demonstrated that it wasn’t living up to that potential, so the network and producers would try a bunch of new things to increase the ratings. Sometimes it would work and make the show better, sometimes it would make it worse, but few shows would return unchanged unless they had a bunch of Emmy awards to back them up.

This is much rarer than it used to be. If you look at the “bubble” shows that are coming back next season — or came back this previous season — most of them have been permitted to go on more or less as they did before. Cougar Town isn’t even changing its title, which almost everybody seems to hate; Chuck always survives intact. These shows may make subtle cosmetic changes, or tonal changes (like the second season of Friday Night Lights tried to take some network notes about making it more melodramatic) or changes that follow naturally from the story arcs the writers have set up, but you rarely see the new season start over with a passel of unfamiliar characters and a fundamentally altered premise.

Like everything else that happens in entertainment, this has its ups and downs. The “up” is that while shows might not hang on as long, they get to be themselves for as long as they survive. Cougar Town might be more popular if they shrunk the cast, brought in a studio audience (something that would probably improve it anyway; except Matthew Perry in Mr. Sunshine I’ve rarely seen someone whose timing was as off as Cox’s in this format), gave Jules a new and funnier job, or the other things that bubble shows used to try in their second seasons. But fans of the show that it has become — and it did end its first season as a smart and entertaining show — would be disappointed. Now it may be doubtful that it will last beyond two seasons, but if it does, those two seasons will be what the show was supposed to be; fans won’t have to talk about it the way they talk about, say, Michael Mann’s Crime Story, where there’s one season of gold and one season of retooled dross.

The “down” is that networks and producers alike sort of let some shows amble on without trying to address their core problems. This may arguably be an “up” as well, since a lot of times retooling just makes things worse. But sometimes it doesn’t, and anyway, it’s not always a bad thing for a show to try something new after doing 22 episodes based on its original premise. But also, the author of the blog Inessentials suggested that in the absence of retooling, networks take more time with the show at the pilot stage, to make sure it fits the network brand. (His example was Burn Notice, where USA retooled it at the script stage to move the location from drab New Jersey to sexy Florida.) I think that’s true, and I don’t think that’s a good thing, really. Pilots are down payments on potential; it sometimes makes sense for a network to pick up a pilot that isn’t perfect, on the basis that it has something that can be developed. This only works if both the executives and writers are prepared to make big changes once they find out what is and isn’t connecting with the audience.

In other words, if Cougar Town fails to get better ratings in its second season, it will be canceled despite having the core of a potentially popular show (including a lead that the audience still likes). Maybe it would make more sense for ABC to keep the core of it and try to build it into something more popular, rather than keeping it on for a year and then replacing it with something else.

But, again, this begs the question of whether it’s better to have seven years of something else, rather than two years of the original. I guess everyone has his or her own personal answer to that question.

Finally, though it’s in no way related to the theme of this post, this is still my favourite Betty White moment, and one that hasn’t been discussed much amidst all the White-mania.

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TV: Retools Are Out

  1. Jaime, when will the Betty White backlash start?

  2. Since our earlier conversation, I've been wondering about what may have caused the shift in strategy that leaves fewer shows getting retooled. Is there an increased fear among executives about online backlash? Are execs too busy dealing with the newest corporate merger? My best guess is that more executives are coming from areas (e.g., reality tv, homogenized cable channels) that require different strategies. E.g., for reality competitions: find a basic concept, promote it too death, run it into the ground, find the next thing. Thus they have fewer strong opinions about what these shows need (no one comparable to what, say, Harvey Weinstein did at Miramax, who had strong opinions on how every sort of film should work). Perhaps (parallel to the publishing industries, where there seems to be fewer editors who see it as their responsibility to make serious edits to the books they publish) there is just a general shift in how network execs view their jobs.

    One example of a recent retool is interesting. After the wonderful but strike-shortened premier season of "Life" on NBC, it was brought back with some marked changes. 1. Downplay the long arcs and play up the murder-of-the-week format. 2. Have lots of big episodes (earthquake!). 3. Bring in a male police captain (Donal Logue) as a love interest for the female lead. 4. Create a new, brighter, more open set. I'm sure there are more aspects that I'm forgetting, but it was clear that they were pushing the show toward a more standard procedural, and taking a few pages from The Closer's playbook. The retooling didn't work, it generated a weaker (but not terrible) second season, and confirmed for NBC that it just doesn't know how to do procedurals like CBS. So NBC would rather let a show find its voice by trusting the writers and producers to find their own footing (like on "Parks and Recreation") rather than do the retooling themselves. It's almost as if television executives (perhaps influenced by fan obsession of Joss Whedon and others) have bought into a kind of auteur theory that leaves them doing fewer overhauls.

  3. The worst retool in my memory is Buck Rogers, which went from a rather humorous, sexy, and exotic exploration of the galaxy, to a bland "star trek" plot line with boring exploration vessel, non-Mel Torme Twiggy voice, and a "Hawk" sidekick who looked like he just got out of a bad Halloween party.

    Relatively successful retool: Facts of Life? From big gang of rather faceless schoolgirls, including Molly Ringwald, to a more targeted cast of four plus?

  4. The Happy Days retool sprang to mind, especially when you were talking about Cougar Town and shows that perish early but with their original premise intact, and, IMO, that retool not only saved the show in terms of ratings, but creatively as well. While I liked the first season, by the end of the second season, the gentleness of the whole thing had started to become a little, well, dull. It was nice, and while I smiled a lot during those shows, I got more laugh-out-loud moments during the third season. The show didn't start to go downhill, creatively at least, until they turned Fonzie from the hero of the show to, really, just a notch or two below a superhero. (Yes, it went downhill when Fonzie jumped the shark.)