Most serialized television shows establish narrative arcs that follow a predictable trajectory over the course of the series. The twists and turns within that limitation are usually what makes the series interesting or entertaining. However, often a show will conclude its initial premise, or get tired of it, or other circumstances may intervene and dictate that the series take a narrative right turn off of the path it had set for itself. It’s often a great way to bring new life to a series, inject some more excitement, or simply up the stakes. Other times, the narrative right turn completely fails.
Here are ten examples of memorable narrative right turns, and the subsequent results.
SPOILERS FOR THE NAMED SHOWS
1. Sons of Anarchy — Kurt Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy has taken a lot of narrative sharp corners over its six seasons, and while there have been plenty of twists and shocks in this season alone, the hardest narrative right turn took place after scheduling circumstances forced Sutter to kill off the Big Bad, Donal Logue’s Lee Toric, four episodes into the season. Sutter had to retool the entire storyline, kill off Otto, and convert District Attorney Patterson into one of the season’s Big Bads.
Did It Work? — Absolutely. In fact, the death of Lee Toric seemed to re-energize the series, forcing Kurt Sutter to bring back some of the fun elements that made earlier seasons so much more entertaining. SAMCRO ultimately rallied around each other, and instead of being another season about power-grabs, in-fighting and squabbling, the club worked together and turned its focus toward outside enemies with great effect.
2. Lost — After three seasons in which each episode of the series thematically centered around the backstory of an individual character stuck on the island, the season three finale revealed a shocking twist: The “backstory” of an alcoholic Jack was not, in fact, a backstory, but a flash-forward to events after the surviving characters escaped the island.
Did It Work — Yes, and no. It certainly brought new life into the series, although the showrunners eventually changed it up again, and utilized flash-sideways. However, the ending of the series — in effect — made it all a moot point.
3. Dexter — For four seasons, Dexter was about a serial killer and his efforts to assimilate within a family. However, having seemingly exhausted the serial-killer-trying-to-balance-murder-with-family-life premise, the showrunners surprisingly killed off Dexter’s wife in the season four finale, essentially retooling the entire series.
Did It Work — No. Although the retooling was necessary to the survival of the series, Dexter was never able to satisfyingly stick another thematic through-line. It didn’t help that the writing itself took a major nosedive, but the show never really figured out what to do with the central character, either, bouncing him from one unsuccessful season to another until Dexter finally fell off a cliff in the final season.
4. Homeland — In the middle of season two, the series’ long target, ambiguously terroristic Nicholas Brody, is abruptly captured and turned into an agent for the CIA, shifting the entire focus of the series onto a new major target, Abu Nazir.
Did It Work — Yes, and no. It injected some short-term excitement into the series, but the show quickly exhausted Brody’s usefulness, and by the end of season three, the writers had to take another narrative right turn to transform Brody into something else entirely: A recovering heroin addict/assassin.
5. How I Met Your Mother — After eight seasons of centering the series around Ted Mosby and his search for the mother, the end of the eighth season finally revealed her identity. The ninth season, taking place over one wedding weekend, shifts the focus from who the mother is to the circumstances surrounding how Ted meets the her, throwing in the occasional flash-forward to a future in which Ted and the mother are already together.
Did It Work? — Kind of. It temporarily extended the life of a stale series, but midway through the final season, it’s already become kind of stale again.
6. Boardwalk Empire — The first two seasons of Boardwalk Empire largely centered on the relationship between Nucky Thompson and his protégé, Jimmy Darmody. However, once Darmondy turned on Nucky, the series had written itself into a corner it couldn’t escape from without killing one of its lead characters.
Did It Work? — Absolutely. The show suffered some brief growing pains in the opening episodes of season three, as it figured out what to do with itself without one of its central characters, but it managed to pick up better and more interesting plotlines, and has flourished into an even better series.
7. Roseanne — After eight seasons of being a show about a blue-collar family struggling to barely get by, Roseanne took a sharp narrative right turn when the Connors won $108 million lottery jackpot, essentially altering the entire premise of the series.
Did It Work? — It did not. In fact, it was so poorly received that Roseanne chalked the entire season up to a dream, nullifying the final season.
8. Fringe — In the season three finale, having taken the existing storyline as far as it could go, the showrunners “erased” their main character, Peter Bishop, basically writing him out of existence.
Did It Work? — Yes. It set a brand new course of the series, although that new course would eventually land them on yet another new course in the final season, which essentially flash-forwards the series into a dystopic future. That narrative right turn, unfortunately, was not particularly successful.
9. The Wire — After creating a phenomenal universe built around the distribution of drugs and peopled with fascinating characters with whom we became invested, The Wire drastically shifted gears in season two. The storyline shifted to the shipyards, bringing in new characters and relegating beloved ones into the background.
Did It Work? — Mostly. Ultimately, yes it did, but many people still have mixed feelings about the season two outlier.
10. Alias — Midway through season two of Alias, Sydney destroyed the anti-government cell SD-6, rebooting both the show and Jennifer Garner’s character.
Did It Work? — Not really. Although the show managed some success over the subsequent seasons, the shift from SD-6 to Rambaldi got increasingly preposterous until the series lost all of its steam (and its viewers).