Syfy’s original shows Warehouse 13 and Alphas began their new seasons a few weeks ago, and I’ve noticed something interesting and not entirely pleasing about both of them. In both series, the previous season ended with a climactic event that set the stage for some major changes to the shows… and in both series, the first episode of the new season does its level best to restore the status quo. There are some changes, and there is some development out of the big events of the finales, but mostly it’s glossed over. In Alphas, the government has largely succeeded in a cover-up of Dr. Rosen’s expose over the existence of Alphas. In Warehouse 13, well, it was a given that the warehouse would be restored somehow, but rather than a rebuilding and having to start over from scratch, the first episode involved tracking down an artifact that turns back time. Now, if any series can be forgiven the use of a reset button, it’s Warehouse 13, which probably has a literal reset button somewhere on its shelves, and though the warehouse is restored, the use of the astrolabe is having some potential consequences. And I’m certainly still enjoying both shows so far. But it did get me thinking about the ways that some series get to relying heavily on the use of the reset button.
Series that don’t have an overarching storyline for a season or the series as a whole, such as most sitcoms, essentially wind up hitting the reset button after every episode. No matter what happens to Homer Simpson, he’ll be right where he belongs at the start of the next episode. When the series has an ongoing storyline, as with a lot of dramatic shows, and science-fiction shows, the reset button doesn’t happen with every episode, but it’s still not an unfamiliar sight. One might expect it to be almost non-existent, yet it seems to show up with disturbing regularity — at the start of each season.
For some reason, there’s a tendency to end each season with a big explosive finale that has the potential to “change everything forever” — and then follow it up with a season opener that ensure that things aren’t really changed at all. Sometimes this is just so that a season finale can also serve as the series finale if the show doesn’t get renewed — as was the case for many of Chuck‘s big finish finales. But other times it seems to be there just for the sake of dropping a drama bomb and then ignoring it. In the case of Warehouse 13, we all knew that Jinks was going to be back; the metronome had been shown and discussed before. And we knew that even though the warehouse blew up, there would still be a warehouse, and it would probably still stand on the same site — they weren’t changing the show to Warehouse 14, after all. But it was still a big powerful moment, and it left the viewers with the feeling that the Warehouse crew would have to start from scratch, that H.G. Wells and Mrs. Frederick were dead, and that Claudia would have to continue in Mrs. Frederick’s role. None of that was true when everything was unwound. Alphas had Dr. Rosen go on national television exposing the existence of Alphas, leading us to believe that finally we were going to have a series about super-powered individuals that didn’t have everything shrouded in secrecy. Season 2 debut comes along and instead Dr. Rosen is in an asylum (he gets out shortly after), discredited as the government hushes everything up.
It’s frustrating, and it’s irritating. These big events are made so that the audience has a strong emotional reaction to them. We’re supposed to be invested in the outcome of these events. But how can we be if they’re just going to be erased, unwound, or swept under the rug? In a way, the fourth season opener for Warehouse 13 exemplified this perfectly. The team is hunting down the astrolabe, knowing that it unwinds time 24 hours. Towards the end, Pete actually dies in the process of retrieving the artifact. It’s supposed to be a strong emotional moment, and Saul Rubinek as Artie actually does manage to deliver a good performance mourning his friend… but the whole point of the episode is that the past day is going to be erased, so Pete’s death doesn’t have much effect on the viewer. It’s the same with everything else that gets undone, or has its effects neutralized. If it doesn’t count… why should we pretend that it does? Why should we care about a big event if it doesn’t actually change anything?
Using the reset button is occasionally a necessary evil; I can see where sometimes writers can write themselves into a corner and need to back off to get the show back on track. But being a necessary evil doesn’t make it good. It is my opinion that shows should have the guts to actually go through with their big life-changing events. You want me to care about your big season-ending event? Then make it actually matter. Go forward from there, not backward. Explore the new plot lines the event makes available.
Make it stick.