There are countless examples of pivots in TV comedy history, some the creative conceit of showrunners, others foisted on shows by circumstances outside their producers’ control (think of Steve Carell leaving The Office, and the way that show changed, for better and worse, in his absence). Pivots don’t always succeed, of course – for every series that altered its chemistry or core and succeeded, there are ten that flailed, spasmed, and death-spiraled into cancellation – but when they do work, it’s a marvel to behold, a credit to the creators, and an instructive lesson in the importance of preventing a series from becoming ossified and rote.
When we examine the current TV landscape, we see different hit shows using different pivots to their benefit. The best examples these days are The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and FX’s (soon to be FXX) Archer, both of which employed a significant and near-constant shift in their direction in order to maintain a fresh and engaging relationship with viewers.
Archer – the animated story of an overcocky (not a word, but one main character Sterling Archer would approve of) American James Bond type and his cross-the-borderline lunatic team of spies – was embraced by fans and critics when it premiered in 2009. But even the most sharply-written series like Archer is, and even one that can call back to countless running gags and lines like Archer can, will run out of steam with a static setting and straight-ahead expectations.
Creator Adam Reed understood his audience was looking for variation, and so by the third season, Archer was branching out into two-and-three-part episodes; in season four, there was a crossover episode with Fox’s Bob’s Burgers; and in season five – with the show temporarily renamed Archer Vice – Reed flipped the script: now, instead of the cast of characters fighting to stop crime, they were cocaine-selling criminals.
But the pivots didn’t end there. Archer’s sixth season in 2015 brought the story back to its pre-Archer Vice days with a return to their initial setup of a spy agency saving the world from disaster, but with different tweaks: this time, Archer’s on-and-off-again love interest Lana gave birth to their child, and Christian Slater was brought in as a bizarro version of himself to blur the line between fiction and reality. And for the most recent run of episodes, Reed used an array of pastiche to create something altogether different from anything that came before it: there were elements of the 1960s, 1940s, the Cold War and more. Fashion choices for characters made no sense in relation to the storyline, but Reed and his production team recognize fans of the show aren’t tuning in to nitpick continuity or historical accuracy.
More importantly, Reed’s willingness to shift the axis on which his series spins is as much about challenging himself as it is keeping storylines fresh for the audience. “It’s good to shake up the dynamic every once in awhile, even if characters are going to subvert it at their first opportunity,” he told The Guardian last March. He elaborated to IndieWire that same month:
I don’t think any writer wants to sit down and write the same story over and over. So that’s a big part of it. And then also the more stories you write, the fewer you haven’t written, if that makes sense. So I think by putting them in a new location with a new job, suddenly you have a lot more stories that you haven’t written.
Reed has secured three more seasons for Archer, but has spoken about continuing for a very long time. He hasn’t spoken at length about what we can expect when the eighth season arrives on FXX in April, but given the end of season seven – where Archer looks to have died, but is actually in a coma – as well as season eight trailers and the new title (Archer Dreamland), this latest edition will be a film noir version that places no limits on what the characters can do.
“We’re doing a departure from the norm,” Reed told IndieWire at a Comic-Con panel in July. “I think it’s the most different thing that we’ve done. It’s going to be even more serialized than we’ve done in the past. And also in French. So that’s been hard to write because I don’t speak French.”
Reed’s determination to not rely on what’s worked in the past also can be seen in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the comedy-musical-drama amalgam which just concluded its second season and has racked up Golden Globes and Emmy Awards in short order. The series centers around the character Rebecca Bunch, who follows an old flame from Manhattan to California in the hope of rekindling their romantic relationship. In the first season, the “crazy” part of her journey includes being diverted from her initial romantic target with a new relationship, then having it threatened by the torch she carries for the man she moved to Cali for.
When we’re introduced to her, Rebecca is “crazy” in the sense you’re head-over-heels in love with someone and pursue them with every fiber of your being. But in season two, Rebecca is a different kind of crazy – not so much the obsessed woman fixated on recapturing the first real connection she experienced, but rather, she’s an increasingly neurotic woman who has to develop that reestablished connection: she gets engaged to her first love, but begins experiencing doubt as to their future together; she fantasizes about a fling with her boss.
By the time the season ends, control of the future is out of her hands completely: she’s been jilted at the altar in favor of an unexpected rival for her fiance’s attentions and comes to terms with her daddy issues, putting her in a completely altered state that will play out totally differently when season three is aired. When season three begins, Rebecca’s crazy will be a scorned woman crazy, which we’ve yet to see. And this season-to-season arc has been mapped out all along by the show’s creators.
“The first season [was], ‘Oh, you’re in town? I’m in town! Weird!’” showrunner Aline Brosh McKenna told The A.V. Club earlier this month. “The second season was, ‘Oh, we slept together, you must love me.’ Then the third season is, what do you do when that dream that you’ve had—which you’ve embodied in a person in a not very healthy way—disappears? And often what they do is they focus all their hurt and upset and rage at their ex. She’s going to move more toward, ‘Screw him, I hate him, oh wait did he like one of my pictures on Instagram?’ The opposite of love is apathy or hatred. So the second she starts to turn on him it’s another manifestation of romantic obsession. I think in some sense we’re moving toward the most classic embodiment of the premise of the show.”
In each of the first three seasons of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, we’ve had the same group of characters in which to invest our emotions, but creator/star Rachel Bloom and McKenna have challenged the audience by placing the protagonist behind an evolving emotional prism in every season. The title of the show remains the same, but the interpretations of it are always shifting, and that active and intelligent spirit is what makes the show so much fun.
“A lot of sitcoms are designed to spit out copies of themselves,” McKenna told IndieWire last June. “I love a show that can do that, that is so well-constructed that they can make wonderful variations on a theme. That’s not something I’m very good at. When I did TV the first time, it wasn’t successful. I don’t know how to do stories that reboot every week. We see this show as Rebecca Bunch’s evolution, a progression. We want to change dynamics and veer off and try different things. We’re lucky to have a network that lets us do that, to zig and zag.”
Where Archer’s pivots have been more about the setting and structure of the series, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s pivots are more cerebral and emotional thus far. But both succeed spectacularly because, where some series have a lowest-common-denominator expectation for what their fan base can absorb and process, these shows reward viewers who eschew stasis and prefer to be presented with a deeper, smarter, more dynamic story that pivots with purpose and not as a desperate stab at staying afloat.
Adam Proteau writes about entertainment, culture and sports; his work has appeared in outlets including The Hockey News, ESPN.com, The Toronto Star, Playbill.com, The Canadian Press, and TheGlobeAndMail.com.