Sometimes the best way for a TV series to tell its story is out of order.
As networks try to make the best impression with new series each fall, execs occasionally make the tough call to air them with episodes out of sequence — even when it risks confusing their storylines early in their run.
ABC disclosed that the second and third episodes of new dramas “Charlie’s Angels” and “Pan Am” will be trading places. While it hasn’t been announced yet, a third ABC series, rookie comedy “Suburgatory,” will also swap its third and second episodes. NBC half-hour “Up All Night” has exchanged its third and fourth segments.
Changing the order of episodes is nothing new in primetime. Because conventional industry wisdom dictates that a series’ audience level is set in stone within its first three episodes, frontloading the most compelling installments becomes paramount.
But for a drama series like “Pan Am,” a 1960s-era evocation of the airline’s early days with some serialization in its plot, the writers’ conception of how their story will unfold is forced to change. “They sit in a room and plan out arcs for the season and talk about how those episodes build,” said Channing Dunghey, senior VP drama development at ABC. “And we set out with the intention of those unfolding in that direction, but that’s not always the case.”
To wit, ABC confirmed what was initially slated to be the third episode of “Pan Am” had to be re-edited to eliminate references to plot points raised in the episode originally scheduled to precede it.
Another source suggests that there’s been much internal debate at ABC about what aspect of “Pan Am” is its strong suit: the romantic lives of its characters or the tonally different espionage element.
Dunghey denied any such consideration prompted shuffling for “Pan Am”; she declined to elaborate citing sensitivity regarding revealing storylines ahead of broadcast.
Reshuffling is a less disruptive proposition to TV shows with more self-contained storylines such as procedurals like “Angels” and sitcoms like “Suburgatory,” which are developed to have episodes that are often deliberately interchangeable.
But even “Angels” nearly made a very risky reshuffling. A source familiar with the “Angels” production plans said the net considered having an episode other than the pilot serve as the premiere episode because of concerns that the cast chemistry deemed crucial to the series’ appeal hadn’t sufficiently gelled enough to serve as a fitting introduction for viewers.
Sources say CBS has long informed producers with series in its primetime lineup to avoid serialization in the first five or six episodes of a season in order to provide the network with flexibility in scheduling. Of course, that’s easy for a net with a sked comprised almost entirely of procedurals and sitcoms.
But sometimes even liberal manipulation of a show’s narrative timeline doesn’t get in the way of viewers’ enjoyment. Last season, ABC midseason entry “Happy Endings” was rife with disjointed plot developments because the network aggressively reordered the lineup to get what it thought were the best episodes out first. For instance, episodes originally slated to run second and third ended up airing 10th and 11th (out of 13).
But regardless of the flipping, “Endings” wasn’t affected. The series drew enough ratings and buzz to not only get a second-season order but transfer to a plum timeslot following hit “Modern Family.”
TV history is littered with examples of short-lived shows that underwent episode reshuffling. Whether that precipitated or forestalled their demise is subject to interpretation; even whether failed shows undergo reshuffling at any greater rate than successful ones is subject to debate.
Sometimes a swap isn’t necessarily the result of a creative choice. Episode flipping has become more common in recent years due to a production technique being utilized more often in the TV business known as “cross boarding”: shooting scenes from two or more different episodes in one day because they share a common setting. That cost-conscious move can sometimes bring later episodes to completion before ones that precede it, resulting in some ad hoc resequencing.
Picking the right follow-up episode can be critical should ABC find itself in the enviable position of having a ratings windfall for either premiere. Have an episode that doesn’t feel tonally consistent with the pilot — which can be tricky in the early days of a series’ run when it is still trying to find its creative voice — and all those fickle viewers that turned out can be turned away.
Too many series in recent years that enjoyed strong initial interest have found their fortunes reversed quickly enough to last just one season or even less.