Thursday, October 25, 2007

“Grey’s” and “Earl” Change, but Is It for the Better?

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

There is a well-known website, Jump the Shark, whose sole reason for existence is to measure when television shows start to go bad. It exists because shows almost always do, eventually, go bad. It’s hard to sustain the quality of a program over the long haul. Really hard. Like, trying to get Donald Trump to shut up hard. It’s rare for a television show to avoid a decline, and it’s even rarer to find one that does so without making any major changes to its core cast and concept. (“Scrubs” springs to mind as a current offering that has managed to dodge the bullet.)

What’s worse is that there is no formula to follow to guarantee a drop-off in quality. Sticking to the show’s tried-and-true premise and making a radical change have both produced successes and failures. This is clearly a case-by-case issue.

In an October 19 New York Times article, Edward Wyatt pointed out that “Prison Break” and “House” have both taken their characters on different courses this season but have achieved conflicting results (“House” is a hit, while the ratings for “Prison Break” have plummeted). To me, no two shows have undergone more interesting overhauls this season than “Grey’s Anatomy” and “My Name Is Earl.” (Coincidentally, both shows feature blonde actresses who won last year’s Emmy for Best Supporting Actress, Jamie Pressly in the comedy category for “Earl” and Katherine Heigl in the dramatic category for “Grey’s.”)

In the case of “Grey’s,” this season’s changes were not entirely driven by the show’s writers. When ABC fired Isaiah Washington over the summer, series creator Shonda Rimes was left to pick up the pieces of losing one of her central characters, along with one of her primary story lines (Washington’s Dr. Preston Burke’s romance with intern Dr. Cristina Yang, played by Sandra Oh).

Rimes had already taken a chance earlier and spun off another main character, Dr. Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh), into a new show (“Private Practice”). She was also faced with the problem of accounting for the professional progression of the show’s doctors (the interns couldn’t be interns forever), essentially forcing her to shake up the medical dynamics on the show.

For the most part, the injection of new blood has been good for “Grey’s.” By the end of last year’s third season, the plots and dynamics had gotten stale. The will-they-won’t-they waltz of whiny, self-centered intern Dr. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and hangdog, brooding neurosurgeon, Dr. Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), had settled firmly into “Who gives a flying, uh, damn anymore?” territory. Same with the repetitive, opposite’s-attract head-butting of Burke and Cristina. And I’m not sure anyone ever cared about the highly improbable love triangle between put-upon nerd Dr. George O’Malley (T.R. Knight), emotionally unstable Dr. Izzie Stevens (Heigl) and bullying orthopedic surgeon Dr. Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez).

In general, the characters had become so self-involved and so increasingly unlikable that any sense of identification or empathy was lost, returning only briefly when a tragic patient emerged to tug at our heartstrings. And when you care more about the guest stars’ characters than the leads, well, the shark and the jumping ramp are clearly in sight.

So what happened this year? Well, we still have the love triangle and the weekly Meredith-Derek dance, but some new elements have enlivened the increasingly moribund Seattle Grace hallways and elevators. The interns are now residents (except for George, who flunked his exams and has to repeat the year), opening up a whole new dynamic: Cristina wants to be the heir apparent to the “Nazi” nickname given to Dr. Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson), refusing to learn her interns’ names, instead addressing them by number; Izzy struggles to get the respect of her charges who have heard about her killing her patient/boyfriend Denny; Dr. Alex Karev (Justin Chambers) is forced to relate to a new group of people (never a good thing for him), including Norman, an intern old enough to be his grandfather (Edward Herrmann, far more jovial than his stern turn as the family patriarch on “Gilmore Girls”); and Meredith has to be a teacher, not easy for the me-first doctor who still has plenty of her own issues to address, and even more difficult when it involves supervising her long-lost half-sister, Dr. Lexie Grey (Chyler Leigh), someone she would be much happier ignoring completely.

But as an audience, I don’t think we can agree with Meredith’s take on Lexie. Lexie is nicer and far more self-aware than Meredith, which makes us root for her in a way we could never pull for ice princess Meredith. Like Meredith, Lexie recently lost her mother (“Grey’s” parents have the life expectancy of Chernobyl survivors), but unlike Meredith, Lexie lost a parent with whom she was close. And yet, Lexie’s fortitude in soldiering on is something Meredith, who seems to get waylaid by the slightest setback, can learn from.

Shaking up “Grey’s” represented a huge risk, since the show has a huge audience on the night with the highest profile (Thursdays) and demands the highest commercial rates of any scripted program. But the gamble seems to have paid off, at least in the short term. Lexie, Norman and the changed medical dynamics give us something else to concentrate on other than the show’s elements that had grown tired and off-putting.

The changes on “Grey’s” have acted like a defibrillator shock to the show, jerking it to life. The patient is still in guarded condition, but at least it has a heart beat, along with a chance to survive and thrive.

Meanwhile, over at “My Name Is Earl,” the new direction has been undertaken wholly voluntarily. There have been no cast changes, and the core characters remain intact: reformed petty criminal Earl Hickey (Jason Lee); his child-like brother, Randy (Ethan Suplee); his trailer trash ex-wife, Joy (Pressley); Joy’s good-hearted witness-protection-program refugee husband, Darnell (Eddie Steeples); and the gang’s friend Catalina (Nadine Velazquez), a motel maid and exotic dancer who just may be the smartest one in the bunch.

In the show’s pilot, Earl finds karma thanks to winning the lottery, getting hit by a car, and watching Carson Daly (believe it or not). He decides to reform his life by making a list of everything he did wrong and trying to make up for his misdeeds. For the first two seasons, each episode was structured the exact same way: Earl chooses an item from his list and, with Randy in tow, sets out to fix the chaos he had wrought. In nearly every episode, he would find that things are not as easy to make right as he thought they would be, and, since he lives in such a small town, Joy, Darnell, Catalina, and a host of other recurring characters would figure into the problem. But, in the end, Earl would find a way to make things right, ending each episode by crossing the item off of his list.

Then, in last season’s finale, everything changed. Earl decided to take the rap at Joy’s trial (she stole a store’s truck after they wouldn’t let her return a television, but, oops, unbeknownst to her, the truck had an employee in the back at the time) so she can avoid a “third strike” that would send her to prison for life, taking her away from her two kids. It seemed unlikely that Earl would spend much time behind bars, since it would be hard for him to cross items off of his list while he was incarcerated. And yet, as the new season began, that is exactly what executive producer Greg Garcia has decided to do.

The third season of “Earl” has completely reinvented the premise of the show. Earl is in jail. Still. While in jail, he is powerless to work on his list. So, for the first time, the episodes are built around premises completely unrelated to Earl’s list (although, even in prison, he can’t escape figures from his past ... again, it’s a small town). Instead, the characters all have to deal with issues related to Earl’s incarceration, with Earl trying to survive, Randy suffering from severe separation anxiety (that he addresses by becoming a guard at the prison), and Joy wrestling with her guilt (although, last week she is relieved to find out that by tricking Earl into marrying her years ago, she saved him from participating in a big robbery that would have landed him in jail for a long time).

Instead of being bound to Earl’s list, plots have revolved around more adventurous ideas, like Earl trying to make peace between two rival gang leaders in an effort to cut time off of his sentence (turns out the gang leaders are in love, and the fights are a chance for them to get close), and a truly surreal exploration of the imaginations of the main characters (all fueled by Earl’s writer’s block in a prison creative writing class).

Garcia’s decision to blow up the show and start over again was risky. While “Earl” is hardly a hit on the “Grey’s Anatomy” level, it is a solid performer and part of NBC’s critically-revered, demographically desirable Thursday night lineup of single-camera, half-hour comedies. And since it is not a ratings juggernaut, any alienation of the show’s fan base could have swift and irreparable repercussions. Was it worth it? So far, the shake-up has been a big success.

You see, “Earl” was always my least favorite program of the two-hour NBC comedy block. I found “The Office,” “30 Rock” and “Scrubs” to be far more interesting and unpredictable. As I noted earlier, every episode of “Earl” followed the same track, but its saving grace was that the jokes were sharp and the actors were solid, so while the show was a formula, it was an entertaining one. It also didn’t hurt that Garcia made great use of guest stars, making ingenious choices like casting Norm McDonald in the role of the son of a character earlier played by Burt Reynolds (you may recall that McDonald often spoofed Reynolds on “Saturday Night Live”).

But no matter what else Garcia did right, the formula was bound to wear thin eventually. He took a solid risk by weaning the audience off of the list-item-per-episode format of the first two seasons. In doing so, it freed Garcia from having to make a list of his own misdeeds one day that begins with: “Ran my show into the ground by clinging to a formula too long.”