The AV Club has an article after my own heart: “‘The Clown Show has been put on hiatus for retooling’: 20 cases of mutant TV.” 20 television shows that started as one thing and, through the power of retooling, became something else before they were through.
You will notice that there are very few recent shows on that list (The L Word is the only one from this decade). That’s because, as I’ve said before in this space, the open and undisguised retool is not as common as it used to be. Shows change just as much if not more, and I’m sure some of them change to suit network demands, but because of serialization, they can introduce changes in a way that seems more organic. New characters and premise changes come to Lost all the time, but we expect that. Whereas when an older show added new characters and changed the premise, it stuck out, because those shows promised us that nothing would ever change.
The other reason the big retool has gone away is that networks are quicker than they used to be to give up on struggling shows, particularly struggling shows that don’t have 30 Rock levels of acclaim or awards. Many of the shows on the AV Club’s list were shows that weren’t doing well after their first seasons, but the network agreed to give the producers another chance if they’d change a few things. Sometimes the changes made things better, sometimes worse. The article rightly mentions The John Larroquette Show as one of the worst retools; one of the greatest, darkest first seasons of the era was followed by a Seinfeld-ized second season. But as the creator, Don Reo, said at the time, that was the price he paid for keeping the show on the air, and keeping it on the air was his first responsibility as a producer (Chicago Sun-Times, 1993):
“I resisted,” said Reo, who won a Peabody Award and a Critics Circle Award during his years as a “MASH” writer and producer. “I was committed to my original concept. I had been working on versions of `Larroquette’ and a number of predecessors for 16 years. It was my dream to create an adult comedy with a dark point of view, about an intelligent man who hit bottom and began to work his way back into the world of the living.
“But in television, the name of the game is staying on the air. `Larroquette’ was not a hit last year. So to get a second season, we agreed to lighten and brighten the show. It’s a logical progression. John’s character has been sober for more than a year, so we can deal with the positive aspects of his recovery and do some fun stuff. I’m not ashamed of making a compromise to save the show. As an executive producer, I accept the change. But personally, I don’t prefer it.”
But the point is that there was a belief that it was sometimes better to tinker with an existing show than try to create a completely new one. Now the belief is the opposite: if a show isn’t doing well, a new show has a better chance of succeeding. I suspect that’s actually true. Strangely enough, when there were fewer channels, it was easier for a show to be “re-introduced” to the audience: a network could bring a show back with a new format, in a new time slot, bury the first season and present it almost as if it were new. Now there are more places to watch episodes, and viewers don’t just forget about the first season; the episodes are still out there, and the format change would actually be controversial among the viewers. The retool usually depends on the idea that the first season was so obscure that nobody will really care about the change.
Usually, I said; not always — some shows are retooled even though people actually did watch them. One show the list doesn’t include is Mork and Mindy, probably the most bizarre retool in television history: a huge top 10 hit in its first season, the network (and Robin Williams) nevertheless decided to overhaul the whole thing, adding younger characters and trying to orient the show to a younger, hipper audience. They killed off the show’s popularity and it struggled through a four-season run and several more retools.