It used to be hard to find a TV show that didn’t follow a strict formula, but now it’s getting harder to find one that does. Being Erica (airing on the CBC Tuesdays at 9 p.m.) began last year as a fantasy-comedy-drama in which the depressed, lonely title character (Erin Karpluk) goes to a mysterious therapist, Dr. Tom (Michael Riley), who sends her back in time to learn from her past mistakes. But when it returned for a second season last month, Erica was no longer lonely or depressed, and she spent the season premiere helping Dr. Tom instead of the other way round. Jana Sinyor, who created Being Erica, says that her heroine has changed so much that “the way she acted in the first episode of season two was quite an evolution. She would have acted quite differently in the pilot.” Today’s shows don’t wait until late in the run to make changes; writers want to create a world and then, as Sinyor puts it, “blow the world up a little bit.”
The original concept of the show was that Erica was unemployed and had a screwed-up romantic life, but now she has a good job and a steady boyfriend. The early episodes had her finding out why her life turned out so badly. Now she’s learning how to improve her seemingly perfect life, or helping others solve their problems. Aaron Martin, who executive-produces the show with Sinyor, explains that this season will be “focusing more on secondary characters and their role in Erica’s life.”
The writers have even changed the time-travel idea from a cute gimmick to something resembling a larger story arc. The new season has a plot line about Erica meeting a fellow time traveller, and more hints about who Dr. Tom is and why he’s sending people on time-travel adventures, including some pretty far-out ideas: “We’re not saying that he’s dead,” Sinyor says, but they’re leaving open the “ambiguous” possibility that he might be a ghost. Though Sinyor says the show is still primarily a comedy-drama and that they don’t want to make it too “magic-y,” there are moments in the new episodes that feel like a Toronto version of Lost.
This isn’t what we traditionally expect from chick-lit or light fantasy TV, let alone a combination of the two like Erica. Earlier time-travel shows, like the ’80s Scott Bakula vehicle Quantum Leap, stuck to the same premise and characterizations for as long as possible. Today, almost every drama show is expected to make changes long before actors leave or ratings drop. That’s true not only of serialized shows like Mad Men and 24, but shows like Being Erica that feature self-contained adventures in every episode. House has more or less the same plot every week, but it began its newest season by having the character check into a mental institution and kick (for now) his drug addiction. Even the CSI shows throw in little story arcs about the changing personal lives of the characters. You can watch these shows without having seen previous episodes, but they throw in what Martin calls “something for the dedicated viewer.”
Why do TV producers feel a need to shake things up? Partly it’s a matter of imitating the shows they admire. Sinyor and Martin are fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where, Martin says, “there was a series-long arc that each episode touched on. That’s the kind of structure we like to go for.” But it’s also about what the viewers demand. Martin recalls that when he worked on Degrassi: The Next Generation, fans got angry when the show failed to address things that happened the week before: “I remember viewers on the message boards saying, ‘What happened? How come we don’t see him this episode?’ ” Sinyor agrees that if Erica learns a lesson, fans don’t want to see her go back to being as pathetic as she originally was: “It doesn’t make any sense to us to have it go back to square one. It feels like we’d be abusing our audience.”
Of course, shows can’t stray too far from their basic formulas, or they’ll lose viewers. Being Erica’s season premiere made it look as if the show might abandon the old format, but the next episode was a conventional story where Erica relived a past regret; the show won’t give up on that kind of story any more than House will give up on medical mysteries. Still, Sinyor promises that this season will tell more “formula-breaking stories,” where they stray from their usual style to “do something unexpected and different.” Welcome to the new world of TV: when we tune in every week, we no longer know what to expect. Except that the main character will learn a valuable lesson about relationships.