The Season Four Reboot: How Successful Are TV Series Reinventions?
The longer a TV show runs, the longer it has to find ways to keep audiences entertained. The more characters exist on screen, the more they need to evolve. But that's the catch; if a character is on screen for seven or more years, they need to develop in that time. If they're still the same person they were in season one, you'd argue that the show hadn't done enough to develop them. But change them beyond what made them so entertaining in the first place and you might find them a shadow of their former selves.
The same goes for the premise. A crime procedural, medical drama or sitcom might be able to maintain the same episodic flow year after year but anything with a more long-running narrative needs to evolve too. If nothing really changes, what is there to keep the audience hooked four or five years on? At the same time, if the premise is strong to start with, any change might result in audiences switching off.
Longer running shows tends to have a point in which they do a soft reboot. Supernatural had to switch up the premise of the oncoming apocalypse once that was resolved at the end of season five. While it certainly still entertains in its current thirteenth season, it was never as good as seasons two to five. Fellow supernatural series Angel flipped the whole Angel Investigations premise on its head, rebooting the core cast into running evil law firm Wolfram and Hart in season five. Even The X Files did a quasi reboot, bringing in John Doggett to replace Fox Mulder in seasons eight and nine after David Duchovny drastically reduced his role in the show and moved on.
But the most common 'reboot' period in a long-running TV show tends to happen around season four. At that point, the core story has often been told. Characters have evolved over three seasons beyond their original roles. Change is required to keep the current audience interested and its often the point when the premise can be shaken up to attract new viewers.
It's been happening for years. Doctor Who did the biggest shake up of any TV show ever when it replaced leading man William Hartnell with Patrick Troughton in its fourth series, creating with it the enduring premise of regeneration. And it worked, proving that a TV series can survive the loss of its leading star.
But in the last twenty years this has become more common. JJ Abrams did it with two of his most successful shows. The "we have to go back" cliff-hanger at the end of season three saw serial drama Lost flip the tired flashback premise that had dragged down its third season with flashforwards, the island based drama leading to the escape of the 'Oceanic Six' in season four. After complex family intrigues, new terrorist organisations and complex Rambaldi mythology, spy show Alias 'rebooted to its basic premise with Sidney Bristow and co recruited under new black ops unit APO, headed up by former villain Arvin Sloan. The weekly adventures failed to capture the heights of the previous three seasons and perhaps that is why the episodic nature of season four was largely abandoned in its fifth and final season in an attempt to capture the magic of previous years.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer had to revisit its premise after the characters graduated in style from Sunnydale High at the end of season three. The fourth season served as a mini-reboot of the premise, with Angel moving to his own spin-off series and the more adult university setting allowing for some more mature storytelling. While it still produced classics like Hush and Restless and made fan favourite Spike a series regular there was a notable shift in tone that came with the fourth season. Arguably the show - as great as it was in its remaining years - never quite recaptured the magic of those second and third seasons.
For Doctor Who and Lost, the series / season four reboot was a big success, giving both shows the adrenalin boost they needed to survive. Buffy The Vampire Slayer was perhaps more successful than Alias in its enduring quality and critical success. It's a fine balance between gaining new viewers and keeping the old happy, between doing something fresh and not doing something that detracts too far from what audiences' liked in the first place.
House chucked out the core supporting cast into recurring roles as Gregory House trained up a new batch of interns that didn't quite reach the magic of the originals but was perhaps to afraid to fully move on either, with the old band hanging around almost to the very end. On the other side, Homeland moved on from a principal character in Brody, his death at the end of season three turning the show into a quasi-CIA anthology series, with a new setting each year that reinvigorated the premise. It's just a shame that it took two years to get there; imagine how much more powerful the series would have been had Brody detonated the suicide bomb at the end of the first season?
Even Star Trek has tried to revive its core premise in its fourth seasons; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine brought in TNG's Worf and a stronger Klingon premise. Star Trek: Voyager added 'sexy Borg' crewmember Seven of Nine and Star Trek: Enterprise finally started to tell multi-episode prequel stories worthy of its premise in the fourth and final year.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine rose to new heights, the Dominion arc introduced at the end of season two reinvigorated further by the Klingon presence that tore up the rule book of what Star Trek had established. The fourth run of episodes was perhaps the strongest Star Trek: Voyager ever did, though it floundered come seasons six and seven. And Star Trek: Enterprise was certainly strongest in year four. Sadly it was too little too late for the series and the franchise as a whole, ending a continuous TV presence that had lasted eighteen years.
Year four is the year that many shows find themselves faced with the question of where to go next, where the opportunity to reinvent themselves is ripe with opportunity. These quasi-reboots are often the lifeline the shows' need to continue for many more years to come, assuming that change isn't too little, too late. They don't always herald a 'golden age' in the show's history, but they can shake things up enough to make it a success for many more years to come.