Long-running TV shows shifting focus to relationships and characters' personal lives

I noticed something recently–I only have a small sample because I don’t watch that many TV shows, but aside from Doctor Who (which is a special case), it’s been 3 for 3 in some of my other favorite shows.

Why is it that, when a show with a particular schtick runs for a while, it begins to devolve into “relationship of the week,” even when the show itself isn’t really focused on that? Cases in point:

  1. CSI (the original one): I’ve watched this since it premiered. It used to be about the crimes. The characters were practically interchangeable–they had their quirks and they were appealing, but it didn’t really matter who they were, beyond their jobs as CSIs. I tuned in ever week to see what clever crime was going to be featured and how the team would use their sci-fi CSI technology to solve it. But over the last few years, it’s become more and more focused on the CSIs themselves, their personal lives, and their interactions. Now, instead of the crimes happening independently of the CSIs, they often happen to them, or to people close to them.

  2. House: Originally, the show was about a brilliant but damaged diagnostician who could solve the cases nobody else could solve. He had his boss and his three “ducklings” and they healed people (usually after almost killing them first). But then the whole things with House and Cuddy started, the ducklings started pairing up, Thirteen got the Disease of the Week, Wilson got the Disease of the Week, and the show shifted much more to being about the characters’ relationships.

  3. Big Bang Theory: Show about a group of male nerds and their non-nerdy platonic female friend, who were confused about each other’s worlds. Showed a lot of nerdy pastimes and other nerd humor. But then Amy and Bernadette showed up (both of whom are nerds, but it seems like you’re not allowed to be in the “nerd” camp and the “female” camp–you have to pick one or the other, and they all went for the latter), and now the show is basically Friends with High IQs.

For somebody who likes smart, different shows and doesn’t particularly like the whole relationship thing (my idea of a great TV-show relationship was Furillo and Davenport in Hill Street Blues–it was there, but it didn’t take over the show) I’m finding this phenomenon very frustrating as my favorite shows mature.

What do you guys think? Are there other shows that are doing this too? Is it just a natural result of the evolution process of any show, or are there shows that manage to avoid it despite long runs? Not just the relationships, but also the increased focus of the show on the characters’ personal lives as opposed to whatever the point of the show was (police work, law, etc.)

I’ll admit my viewership in the last few years was kind of spotty, but it seems to me that Law & Order: Original Recipe stayed fairly true to investigations and prosecutions until the end. Even when Van Buren had to deal with cancer in the final season, I don’t think it got overwhelming.

I think “MAS*H” did that in a big way. The early series was part screwball comedy / part anti-war propaganda, but by the end of the series the focus was much more on the interpersonal relations between the main characters, so much so that Margaret Houlihan went from complete nemesis to everyone’s best friend.

The biggest turning points were the replacement characters. Trapper (a partner in crime to Hawkeye) was replaced by BJ (a much more intensely overt friend), Blake (incompetent, befuddled) was replaced by Potter (experienced and skilled), and Frank (particularly villainous and moronic) replaced by Winchester (intelligent and generally well-meaning if pompous). The result was a group that worked together better instead of against each other. It was a very different show at the end than the way it started out.

Formula starts to look formulaic after a while, especially by the writers and actors who are closer to it, so they mix things up a bit. As they do, new story ideas open up and they find new confidence to run with it. Soon they lose sight of their beginnings and become a different kind of show.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing, most of the time, there are many shows that became even more popular after the shift, and more than a few that didn’t change and adapt when they probably ought to have.

As I recall, there was a brief period in the middle of its run when they started playing up the characters’ personal lives. For a season or so there was a bunch of stuff about Briscoe’s daughter, Curtis and his wife’s MS and him having an affair, Jamie’s family life, and probably some stuff I’m forgetting. With the next cast rotation, though, they dropped that stuff and went back to only bringing up the character’s personal lives in brief asides and offhand remarks.

I think that arc also describes every long mystery series I’ve ever read - Inspector Lynley, Wexford, Richard Jury, Patricia Cornwell, whatever. In my mind that usually detracts from what makes it entertaining, but on TV at least there have been exceptions…I certainly wanted Mulder and Scully to hook up.

I remember seeing one of the extras on the DVDs Larry Linville really distanced himself from his character, to the point that I wouldn’t be surprised if he was bugging the writers to put some humanity into Frank. In any case writers want to make the characters three dimensional, which means not so one note stupid or evil.
On the other hand, Seinfeld seemed to mostly avoid this trap.

MASH *got a stylistic reboot. It went from being a farce to being straight-up comedy. Partly that was due to the Vietnam War ending, and the relevance of the farce. I think the actors wanted more personal storylines as well, though. The episodes where MAJ Houlihan’s character evolved were well-done, I thought, and some of the best of the show. It still lasted several years longer than it needed to, I think.

This is one of my all-time favorite shows. It’s one of the few whodunnits that stands up to repeated viewings, and I think the lack of personal lives of the characters was part of that. They weren’t stick figures, though. We knew a whole lot about them, as things naturally came up in conversations, they just didn’t have extended scenes outside the context of solving the cases. Compare it to Dragnet, where, aside from one was married and the other was not, we knew virtually nothing about the two detectives.

But yeah, storylines do get more personal. I think actors demand it because they like doing drama more than they like being a cog in a police procedural, and if giving a popular actor a few emotive scenes is a way to keep someone on the rolls, the writers do it.

IIRC, the more dramatic storylines of* L&O happened when ER *was the top rated drama, a show that was nominally a medical show, but was really a primetime soap set in a hospital (and a show I hated). NBC toyed with the idea of making L&O more of a drama, and did a three-parter with very personal storylines for Curtis and Ross, which aired in the ER Thursday timeslot instead of L&O’s usual Tuesday slot. I have no idea if ratings for L&O had dropped (it ended up outlasting ER), and the idea was to pick up some ER viewers, or if the official explanation, that NBC had not anticipated the popularity of ER and hadn’t ordered enough episodes was all there was to it. It didn’t seem to work, though, and L&O went back to being itself. IIRC again, this was when the “ripped from the headlines” advertising campaign started. Dick Wolf also began developing L&O: SVU, which had storylines that were much more involved in the detectives home lives from the first episode. In fact, it was almost an ER-L&O hybrid.

“No hugging! No learning!” I miss that show.

I’ve just started rewatching NYPD Blue. The series started as a standard crime procedural with John Kelly as the hero detective. The series, IMHO, changed to a standard crime procedural with the underlying theme of the redemption of Sipowitz.

One of the few shows I can think of that didn’t change focus from the time it gave to plot, and the time it gave to personal lives of the detectives was Cagney and Lacey. It was a show about women detectives, and how being detectives affected their personal lives. The story arcs regarding their personal lives reached further and further for drama, and became less mundane, and more soap opera-ish, while the cases became, IME, more hit-and-miss as far as whether they were interesting, but the amount of time relative to each component didn’t change.

Lou Grant was always a little about the private lives of the reporters, but semi-detatched, and I think it was one of the few shows that kept a good balance right up until the end. It was also one of the few shows that remained good up until the end.