“Well, I’ve been afraid of changing / ‘Cause I’ve built my life around you,” Fleetwood Mac once sang. Hopefully they weren’t singing about television shows, because there’s no point expecting those to refrain from changing. Most television shows morph and develop over time, subtly shifting as their characters grow and change. A comedy program might start off fairly grounded, but then up the goof factor once the audience is familiar with the characters. A drama, on the other hand, may slowly become a different beast as the show goes on, much like how Breaking Bad started off as a fairly tame black comedy and turned into a visceral thrill ride. Some shows, however, skip the whole “evolution” process and contort themselves into entirely different programs in abrupt fashion.
Here are 12 shows that decided to pivot their entire premise partway through the series.
The first eight seasons of Scrubs were a delightful romp through the ever-changing staff at Sacred Heart hospital. Known for its ability to mix absurd comedy with serious, hard-hitting emotional moments, the series set itself apart from fellow sitcoms by often being able to draw just as many tears out of its audiences as laughs.
For many fans, there are only 8 true seasons of the beloved dramedy, because there’s nothing Scrubs fans hate more than its highly questionable Season 9. While the creative team behind the show clearly expected the final episode of Season 8 – which was titled “My Finale” – to be the last episode of the season, the network had different ideas and ordered a ninth season, which took place in a medical school revolving around a new cast of characters and featured only 2 main characters from the original series. Fans didn’t take kindly to the change, and Season 9 failed to inject new life into the series.
This spinoff of the legendary series Buffy The Vampire Slayer focused on the brooding, conflicted vampire Angel, who decides to give back to the world by fighting crime in Los Angeles and “help the helpless” by working as a private investigator. The noir-tinged gothic series spent its first four seasons collecting memorable characters and establishing a major force of evil for the characters to rally against – the law firm of Wolfram & Hart.
So imagine the surprise from viewers when in the Season 4 finale, Angel and his crew are offered the Los Angeles branch of the conniving law firm. Season 5 saw the characters getting used to their new life at Wolfram & Hart, and invigorated new life into the series creatively. However, that new life didn’t carry over to new ratings, and the show only lasted one season in its legal incarnate.
10. Baywatch Nights
Everyone knows Baywatch – that footage of bodacious babes and ripped hunks running down the beach in slow-motion is forever part of the cultural landscape. Over 242 episodes, the lives and dirty details of those that patrolled the Los Angeles Beaches were on display in all their melodramatic soap-y-ness.
While the show was a massive success on its own, the producers thought that there was an untapped market for Baywatch fans who wanted to see something more than just beach-related injuries. Baywatch Nights was a spin-off that served to combine the gritty feeling of a primetime cop drama with David Hasselhoff. However, when Nights wasn’t the success that producers had hoped for, they pivoted the series to mirror another popular genre of television – paranormal drama. Taking after game-changing shows like The X-Files and Twin Peaks, Baywatch Nights turned away from drugs and murder and changed its focus to sea monsters and vampires. The show didn’t last long after its supernatural shift.
Torchwood was the first spin-off of the incredibly popular Doctor Who revival. Taking the fan-favorite character Jack Harkness and putting him in charge of a group of paranormal specialists dealing with all things supernatural made for a fun, breezy series. Akin to shows like Buffy or Supernatural, the show followed a case-of-the-week structure with larger plots throughout the season, and was often witty but not beyond straying into occasionally dramatic territory.
That is, until Season 3. Torchwood apparently wanted to step things up a notch and bring some hard sci-fi to television, and did so by becoming Torchwood: Children of Earth for a season. Season 3 upped the stakes in a massive way, telling one giant story over the whole season, garnering critical acclaim. Season 4 took a similar approach but failed to garner similar praise, but Season 3 was a rare example of a show changing direction for the better.
It’s almost unfair to include Lost on this list because the whole point of the show was that, after a while, you never knew what kind of a show you were going to get. Lost began as a simple series about a group of people trying to survive on a mysterious island after a plain crash. Then came the polar bears, then came the smoke monster, then came the hatch, then came time travel, then came alternate universes.
The biggest shift came at the end of Season 3, where Lost taught their audience not to trust that time would be presented in a linear fashion by introducing fast-forwards to the show. By the end of the series, full episodes were being dedicated to characters the audience had only barely seen existing multiple millenia before the events of the show. Lost is a perfect example of watching a simple premise for a series unravel into something borderline absurd.
Supernatural follows in the long tradition of paranormal dramas like Buffy and The X-Files that balance week-by-week cases with an overarching storyline, and the series has always managed to give equal focus to both.
What has changed, however, is the topic of those plots. Supernatural centers on Dean and Sam, two monster hunting brothers who hunt down werewolves, vampires, and everything in between. In Season 4, however, the show began introducing elements of biblical lore involving angels and demons. Now in its 11th season, characters like the angel Castiel and the devil himself, Lucifer, play a major role in the ongoing plot of the series. While the show is still essentially about two paranormal-investigating brothers, it’s far away from its monster-hunting beginnings.
6. Moral Orel
Before it became known as the home of experimental, envelope-pushing television, Adult Swim was just kind of weird. Most of Adult Swim could be defined as “stoner comedy,” which makes it all the more shocking when Moral Orel decided to stop being funny, and start getting real.
The claymation show that centered around the small town life of the young Orel Puppington was a humorous parody of the naivete of Leave It To Beaver-style sitcoms. However, in the show’s third season, the series made a massive change and decided to tell one dark, brutal story over the whole season about the main character’s relationship with his abusive father. The show’s cult status skyrocketed after taking such a massive shift in tone, and launched the career of Dino Stamatopoulos, who would go on to produce the critically acclaimed film Anomalisa, which also told a very human story through stop-motion animation.
Archer was always an irreverant series, taking the tropes of spy fiction and turning them on their head. Sterling Archer and his co-workers at ISIS (they were named that before the terrorist organization reached prominence, by the way) would often get themselves into all kinds of explosive hijinks, jeopardizing their own well-being and that of others along the way. Usually, however, everything would go back to normal at the end of the episode.
This changed in Season 5, when Archer became Archer: Vice and changed location from the spy headquarters that fans had become accustomed to and relocated the characters to Miami, where they used their expertise not to fight crime, but to become criminals. Archer: Vice became the premiere animated comedy about pushing cocaine, but it was not built to last. Archer returned to its spy setting for Season 6.
Whether a Jon Hamm-starring live-action film would focus on the team’s time as agents or as criminals (potentially) remains to be seen.
Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse came after he created Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly, two cult classic and widely-beloved television shows, so expectations were high. Some fans were disappointed to see that Dollhouse, a story about a company that rents out humans with downloaded personalities, seemed to be a standard procedural drama with a sci-fi twist. However, Whedon had much larger plans than that.
The unaired finale of the first season provided a sneak-peek of an apocalyptic future. By the time the show came to an end, the show was in full-on post-apocalyptic mode, complete with weird tech and a cast adorned with ragged military clothes.
Alias followed the story of Sydney Bristow and her missions as a part of SD-6, only to discover that everything she thought she knew was a lie. Just as Sydney would change her personality to suit her missions, she would be forced to suit her true self to the new realities that she would find herself in.
When Sydney ends up bringing down SD-6, she begins working for the CIA. Even more dramatic, Season 3 takes place after a two-year time jump where Bristow is presumed dead. The show becomes less about espionage as it goes on, and more about Sydney’s attempts to keep her life together.
2. Prison Break
Prison Break stopped working as a title for the program once the main characters broke out of prison. The first season detailed the characters initial escape from prison, and every season since has focused on the continued adventures of the characters following their break from prison. Season 2 told the story of the characters on the run from the law. Season 3 told the story of the characters trying to break out of another prison, but with a more action-packed tone.
By the time that Prison Break got to Season 4, the writers must have figured out that there is only so many different ways that a group of people can break out of prison, and turned into a traditional action thriller using the characters that had already broken out of prison.
Apparently the show will return behind bars for the recently-revived fifth season.
1. Family Matters
Family Matters was just your average, everyday sitcom for a few episodes. The Winslow family would go through struggles every week, but come together again by the end of the episode to enter the next one with a fresh start.
Then, something peculiar happened. The Winslow’s nerdy neighbor Urkel started visiting. Then Urkel kept coming back. By the second season, Urkel’s popularity was so huge that he was upgraded to a full-time cast member. Eventually, Steve Urkel became the main character of the series despite the show ostensibly being about the Winslow family. The plotlines about a down-to-earth family started getting substituted with stories about cloning machines and “cool juice,” and in the end, people associate Family Matters with one stand-out character, Steve Urkel, and little else.
Which of your favorite series made a dramatic left turn halfway through? Let us know in the comments.