This morning I chanced to see a little bit of Angel on TNT. I didn’t watch much of it–partly because the treadmill was calling, but mostly because I didn’t really care for the first half of the first season of the show. But the little bit I saw made me remember how big a difference there was between the first and last episodes of the series. I don’t just mean that the characters were different; though the only consistent cast member throughout the series is David Boreanez, that’s nothing compared to shows like ER & Law & Order, which have entirely changed their ensembles more than once. In Angel, EVERYTHING changes over the course of the show. The show began with mostly self-contained episodes but changed to serialized arcs; the special effects grew much flashier over time; even the lighting and background music changed. In short, Season 5 Angel is hardly the same show as Season 1.
What other series is this true of?
Contrariwise, what long-running series changed the LEAST over time? (For purposes of this discussion, consider “long-running” to equal “four years or more.”)
Family Ties originally focused on the parents, not on Alex.
The Facts of Life started out with Mrs. Garrett and a male headmaster dealing with the problems of about 10 girls (including Molly Ringwald) - after the first season, most of the kids left (and so did the headmaster). A new kid (Jo) arrived, and the stories thereafter were about the four kids and their interactions with Mrs. Garrett.
I’d argue that the recent Battlestar Galactica could belong on this list. It started as a largely episodic action-heavy series about people surviving a war in space (and glowing sex!), and ended as a show about conflict politics, faith, redemption, and fatalism. There was a significant shift in aesthetics, too, as the show moved from gritty and loose production to shiny and tight. Color palettes, camerawork, and the very pace of the scripts shifted dramatically.
Then again, this was all done very intentionally and the transition was smooth and followed the shifting narrative. Nevertheless, I’d argue that the final episodes were a pretty far departure from the first.
Most shows do undergo transitions over a long run. But I’d say the champs in this were those that evolved, not only into a different concept, but also a different name.
The best example of this was Duet. The show (one of the original Fox series) was originally a romantic comedy about Ben Coleman and Laura Kelly. At the end of the second season, Ben and Laura were married and gave birth to a daughter. The first episode of the third season was set three years later. It didn’t do too well, so Laura divorced Ben and joined up with her ex’s best friend’s wife (Alison La Placa) to be part of a real estate agency. The show was renamed Open House and was changed to feature La Placa.*
Going back, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp actually did follow (roughly) Earp’s life as it changed.
*Always a mistake, since series starring La Placa had a terrible track record.
The original “Doctor Who” changes radically from beginning to end, and not merely the actor in the title role.
In the first year or so, the Doctor’s background was completely unexplained (apart from the fact that ‘his people’ were obviously more scientifically advanced than Earth people of 1963). The Doctor is actually a selfish, meddling character who causes as more problems than he solves. In the first serial, he actually has to be stopped from killing someone (because the man is wounded and slowing them down from escaping their pursuers!) He has a grand-daughter (implying having a family, which was never mentioned again), and despite being the title character, he is NOT the primary hero of the series. The two main heroes are Ian & Barbara, two school-teachers who are considerably older and less sexy than the Doctors’ usual traveling companions.
The series was actually intended to be an educational show for young kids. The serials alternated between science-fiction scenarios that demonstrated science & physics principles (allowing schoolteacher Ian, a science teacher, to point out interesting science facts to Susan, the teen-aged character, and by proxy the young audience) and historical settings (in which Barbara, a history teacher, could lecture about different historical events.) In fact, originally, the series was only supposed to depict historical stories.
In the original Dalek story (the first science fiction story), the travelers are stuck on the planet Skaro and need to stage a raid on the Dalek city in order to escape. Unfortunately for them, the Thals (the humanoid race living on Skaro) are complete pacifists and won’t help them. Ian gives a long, impassioned speech about the need to fight for what you want, which is a far cry from the Doctor’s later incarnations who express their disdain for combat in any form. At the end of that series of episodes (serials typically ran for six or seven weeks) the Daleks were utterly destroyed. There was never any mention of them being an intergalactic menace capable of nearly destroying the universe - in fact, they never left their citadel on their home planet.
The TARDIS is also a malfunctioning time machine which the Doctor cannot control. There was no way for him to predict where he would be going.
I’ve thought there was a world of difference between the first season of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and the last, (not even counting MAYBERRY RFD). Early Andy the emphasis was on comedy, and funny situations, later Andy was more character driven and less going for funny.