You can’t say TV dramas have been stuck in a box of doing the same things over and over. While the legal and medical dramas we see sometimes stick by the book, other shows on cable have been going in a lot of new creative directions that are very bold. They’re so bold that commercial TV networks probably wouldn’t do them based on their unsettling nature. Some of this is in the “Anyone Could Die” trope that’s now being used mostly on AMC shows like “The Walking Dead” and “Mad Men.”
While the above shows were actually influenced by ABC’s “Lost” that had two regular cast members dying per season, what about shows that completely revised the cast so it doesn’t resemble how it first started?
The revolving cast idea is one that commercial TV probably doesn’t want to try yet with the assumption those who watch the mainstream networks want more familiarity. Perhaps that’s true and why cable continues to be a completely different world in the world of TV dramas lately. “True Detective” almost stands alone after its first season as a testament to what TV shows can be and inevitably will be. While many in the media have cited the movie quality of the show as being a game changer, it might also change the game in whether we want a different cast each year to keep a show fresh.
What Shows Worked Before Using the Revolving Cast Idea?
With “Lost” setting a lot of precedents based on its large cast, it almost gave the feel of a different cast each week as certain characters had central focus over the many others. But it’s always been the big ensemble shows with the depiction of a turnover career that’s frequently succeeded at revolving cast changes. Then again, when you add in “Doctor Who,” you can add sci-fi as a potential depiction of situations with a revolving door.
The above show was one of the first shows to have a complete cast change every number of years with the actor playing Dr. Who leaving the show. The idea of having Dr. Who regenerate every set number of years made the show intriguing, plus sending a clever message when each ensuing regenerated Dr. Who became increasingly younger. The most recent ones look like they’ve hit the 20-something mark, which means it may have to start going the other way to start all over.
Even “Mission Impossible” in the late 1960s/early 1970s had constant cast turnovers, and it didn’t hurt the show at all because each show took place in a different place with the cast usually in disguise. Since the cast never fully played their real character selves, it was easy not to get emotionally attached to them.
Later, “ER” used the idea of a hospital and its constant revolving wheel of medical staff. Each rapid cast change never hurt the show’s popularity because of the larger themes and the attention to bringing appealing new stars in.
There seems to be more daring going on now, though, especially on shows like “The Walking Dead” and “Homeland.” The latter, particularly, shifted gears with their cast so dramatically not long ago that it might be off-putting for those emotionally invested in prior seasons. It’s the idea of starting all over in a new place and new cast that’s become this new dare in drama. If “American Horror Story” already does this to some extent, will shows like “True Detective” be able to carve out separate identities each season from the season before it?
Is “True Detective” Really a Revival of the Anthology Show?
An anthology show used to be a different story every week, as in “The Twilight Zone,” and a format we haven’t seen on TV since Steven Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories” in the 1980s. With the latter not lasting long, it was clear the 1980s had audiences still wanting recurring characters in familiar places. More recently, sticking with characters for years hasn’t been quite as an emotional experience for TV watchers, perhaps because the characters on many shows are ones you don’t really want to stick with watching. As amazing as Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson were on “True Detective,” their characters could easily lose their magic if they interacted beyond a year.
As the show brings in a new cast and setting for the next season, there’s an interesting chance to revive the anthology series as a seasonal changeover rather than one every episode. It’s an idea we’ll likely see imitated based on how audiences are demanding fresh plots and ideas. Otherwise, having troubled characters recurring for years may get to a point where they get stuck in the trap of doing things that look too outrageous in order to keep audience interest going.