Things I Don’t Like About Television, Episode 28: Recycled Plots

You may think you’re about to watch a fresh episode of one of your favorite series, but as the show is half-way through, you notice that you have practically seen a story before. Is this déjà vu? No, it’s just the laziness of the writers.

Every now a then, a show or group of shows tied to one writer/producer will repeat a plot that it has previously shown. Either the writers have effectively run out of ideas or they really need some time to recharge.

Note that this topic also includes copycats. In this case, one program totally rips one plot or premise from another.

Peter Engel Shows Had Noticeable Recycled Plots

If you have ever seen a Peter Engel show, you would know what a recycled plot is.

In the 1990’s, Mr. Engel was known for shows aimed at teenagers. Among them was the wildly successful and memorable Saved by the Bell, which made Mark-Paul Gosselaar (“Zack Morris”) and Mario Lopez (“A.C. Slater”) household names. Other shows Peter Engel produced included: California Dreams, Hang Time, City Guys, and USA High.

What these shows were known for was a formulaic approach to storytelling. Look to Saved by the Bell for the template. Usually the main cast would include an enterprising schemer and heartbreaker (Zack), a pretty, popular girl (“Kelly Kapowski”), a jock/tough guy (Slater), a rich, spoiled girl (“Lisa Turtle”), and a nerd (“Samuel ‘Screech’ Powers”). A Soap Box Sadie (“Jessica Spano”) was optional. If you read about these shows, you would notice that there was at least one schemer/heartbreaker in all the shows and he may not have been the “main” character, but he was still in the main cast.

These shows were also known for “borrowing” plots from one another. One egregious example was the plot of the dishonest, fading musician. A teen or pair of teens from the main cast would approach one of their favorite musicians with a song in hopes of getting a music deal. However, that star would steal the song and claim it as his own. But don’t worry, the moral is that the teen can still make more songs, unlike the aging, spent superstar. This was shown first on California Dreams and would be shared on City Guys and USA High.

South Park Is kind of Guilty on This Front

Have you ever seen the episode about Minecraft? A focus on a popular online game was done before…with an episode about World of Warcraft. While there were general differences with both episodes — the boys wanted to get over a high-level player WoW with no life the first time and used Minecraft to get over their parents the second time — the story transitions were basically the same. Also, the first of these episodes had better execution.

I Never Thought I Would See This…

…But The Boondocks writers became copycats, at least for one episode. In the fourth and final season, one of the first episodes featured a plot by Robert to profit of an illegal, dangerous chemical mixture brewed by Huey. Not only was Huey’s behavior out of character, but the second half episode was basically plagiarism. It stole from the pilot of Breaking Bad. One might call that paying homage, but I don’t see it that way.

Networks Love to Be a Part of Trends

This is fairly common as executives want to appeal to certain demographics. Similar shows will be created to appeal to audiences. For example, teen shows were fairly popular in the 1990’s and the better part of the last decade. You can also look at competition shows to see how networks cashed into people’s interest in finding others with hidden talents.

I can’t really fault networks for that, but it’s pretty annoying to see them go for movie fads. For example, I think that’s the case with zombie and vampire shows. The Walking Dead in particular starts in a way eerily reminiscent of “28 Days Later.” After the Twilight book and movie series blew up, there were numerous vampire shows that cropped up. One of them was HBO’s True Blood. CW has Vampire Diaries and the Originals. I don’t care for any of these.

Egregious examples include attempts from FOX. Near the turn of the century, FOX would start trying to scoop other networks — namely ABC — by taking the premise of upcoming shows and showing its (cheap) version in short order. The success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? led FOX to create the ill-advised “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire.” The success of The Bachelor led FOX to make Joe Millionaire. In 2004, ABC was getting ready to launch Wife Swap, a show in which two families would participate by allowing the wives/mothers go to the other family’s house for two weeks. There was no frisky business, but the wives had to observe the normal routines of the families they stayed with for one week, then institute rules for the families to follow the next. Anyway, FOX launched Trading Spouses in order to capitalize on another network’s (purchased) idea.

Speaking of that, I kinda hate it when an American network takes ideas from overseas. It’s not that some ideas can’t be adapted, but I would prefer it if the right writer was hired to come up with more original ideas.

To come back to the vampire stories, they have one thing in common that I will address in the next episode…



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