So I watched the most recent episode of Zoey 101 over the weekend. Despite the whole Jamie Lynn factor, this is not as painful as it sounds. Nickelodeon’s half-hour comedies for kids and “tweens” have been somewhat eclipsed by the Disney Channel’s, but Nick probably still turns out a better product; they haven’t come up with anything as good as The Adventures of Pete & Pete or Clarissa Explains it All, but they’re well-produced, decently written, and don’t have screamy overacting like the Disney Channel shows. Zoey, whose current and final season was produced before Jamie Lynn Spears’ famous, er, announcement, may remind Canadians of a watered-down version of Gordon Korman’s “Bruno and Boots,” since it’s set at a boarding school (formerly an all-boys’ boarding school that has just gone co-ed, letting in Jamie Lynn and other girls including a genius science nerd who’s a cross between Elmer Drimsdale and Steve Urkel). It’s a typical production of Amanda Bynes mastermind Dan Schneider. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about; what I wanted to talk about was the fact that the episode I watched, one of the last episodes if not the last (I’m not sure if there are any others) was… a clip show. Does anybody do those any more?
Wikipedia has a helpful list of shows that have done clip-show episodes, and very few of them are of recent vintage. Scrubs did one in 2007, “My Night to Remember.” Otherwise, it hardly ever happens now. The reason is not exactly hard to understand. With more channels, and therefore more competition for viewers, a show can ill afford to do anything that would make some viewers change the channel. Once upon a time, a successful show could do a clip show because there were only two other channels, and it was likely that if the viewer had already made the choice to watch this kind of show, they would rather see some old-favourite scenes (which they might not have seen before anyway, if the clips were old enough) than switch to something different. Now there are more choices, which means it’s entirely possible that another channel will be showing a fresh, new episode in a similar style. Or, since that wasn’t very clear: if a sitcom on ABC is only up against another, less popular sitcom on CBS and a drama on NBC, then people will stay with a clip show because there’s nothing else that is similar and as good. Today, there might be something else that that viewer would rather watch than a bunch of clips and characters sitting around reminiscing.
Also, of course, there’s the fact that DVDs make it easier for viewers to catch up on the other episodes. The Simpsons did clip shows on a semi-regular basis from 1993 through 2002 (by far the best was 1996’s “The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular,” which used still drawings, rarely-seen Tracey Ullman shorts and outtakes, meaning that most of the material actually was new to the viewers). But now that the first 10 seasons are out on DVD, a clip show would be an even worse idea than it was before, because between syndication and DVDs, many of the viewers have seen every episode. They can’t even show the bits that aren’t shown in syndication, because the DVDs have them. So though Fox demanded that the show produce clip shows — and actually at one point was asking for three or four clip shows a year — they appear to have backed off on those demands in recent years. It’s just pointless to do a clip show when your audience has probably memorized all the old episodes; you’re going to lose the viewers that way, because fewer people will stick around in the hope of seeing scenes they haven’t seen before. They have seen them. All of them.
Instead of doing clip shows, shows today save money (which was the purpose of clip shows in the first place: if you’ve gone over budget this season, balance things out with a clip show) with things like “bottle” shows — episodes that take place on a limited number of sets and don’t use many guest actors — which, come to think of it, is how shows used to save money before clip shows became common. (In the days when shows produced 30-38 episodes a year, they didn’t do clip episodes; they just did a few episodes a year on the cheap.)
There are a few other reasons for doing clip shows other than saving money. Shows still run clips together as an “extra” episode, not part of the regular season order, usually to celebrate a milestone or bring the audience up to speed on stuff that’s happened. (Soap used to start each season off with an hour-long special where somebody flashes back to everything that occurred last season, including one episode with Bea Arthur as an angel. Honest.) Sometimes a clip show will be produced as kind of a second pilot to re-launch a show that’s been brought back from the dead, like WKRP in Cincinnati, which returned from hiatus with a clip show collecting all the best bits from its little-seen first eight episodes. And The Dick Van Dyke Show didn’t have time to produce a series finale, so they cobbled together highlights from the first four seasons and added a framing device to wrap up the show in a semi-satisfying way (Rob finishes his memoirs of everything that’s happened in the series, and sells the story to Alan Brady as a TV sitcom. Meta!).
There are actually one or two shows that have gone the ultimate clip-show route and just re-run entire episodes with a “flashback” introduction. Bewitched and Happy Days are two shows that, not having time to produce a new Christmas episode, filmed an introduction where the characters reminisce about what happened last Christmas. I actually think that would be something networks might consider trying again — not disguising reruns as new episodes, but doing new introductions for the episodes that do get rerun, luring audiences in with a bit of fresh material.
And finally, there’s the question of how to do the framing scenes of a clip show. Most of them — okay, nearly all of them — fall into two categories: the family sits around and reminisces about stuff that has happened, or somebody from the outside comes in and asks about all the weird stuff that goes on at this house/workplace/school. (The Zoey clip show, for those keeping track, used the latter format, with prospective students asking what goes on at this school.) My favourite off-the-beaten track clip show device: the Duckman clip show, where an insane TV critic voiced by Ben Stiller kidnaps Duckman and forces him to watch scenes from his life to prove what a corrupting influence he is on America. “What kind of people,” Duckman muses at the end, “would have me kidnapped and tortured for the sake of a sleazy, creatively bankrupt clip show?” Then the executive producer credits roll.