Has the Phrase “Game Changer” Jumped the Shark?

“Game changer” just does not mean what it used to.  In fact, it means virtually nothing these days simply because the over-use of the term has diluted the very meaning of it.  When did the phrase “game changer” turn into such a snooze-fest? Back in the good ole days, when you heard that a television show was going to air a “game changer” episode, it meant something so much more thrilling — something so significant and unexpected that viewers were shocked and could not believe their eyes.  A “game changer” used to mean that a key character was being killed-off, someone was coming back from the dead, or there was going to be so mind-blowing that you could not foresee it happening.  But nowadays, it could mean anything from the addition of a new character, a character losing their job, or even less gasp-worthy, a character getting pregnant.

Great examples of “game changers” were LOST, 24 and TORCHWOOD’s willingness to kill off key characters.  Another show particularly adept at game-changers was the J.J. Abrams’ series ALIAS, such as when it took down SD-6 with one swift blow during the second season or when it surprised viewers with the 2 -year time jump.  Game-changers are risk taking and shocking.  The viewer should be sitting on their sofa wondering why the world felt like it had just tilted.

In recent television, FRINGE’s reveal that there was an alternate universe qualifies as a game-changer, but the over-hyped Fauxlivia’s pregnancy did not feel as mind-bending.  Likewise on V, the fact that Anna could bliss humans did not feel as big a game-changer as it should have been.  Nor the fact that Katie was carrying a super-human baby on NO ORDINARY FAMILY.  True game-changers would have been to find out that Father Jack was a mole working for Anna since the beginning on V; or that Katie was a plant by Dr. King to keep an eye on Steph’s research from the get go.  Even the fact that Orwell was afflicted by a similar mental illness to her father’s in THE CAPE did not feel as startling, as it should have been.

To be worthy of the label “game changer,” something must be not be foreseeable.  It must be unexpected to such a degree that everyone is talking about it, altering the way you look at a show completely.  Unpredictability is essential:  a previously unknown relationship, a major deception such as a traitor or mole, an unveiling of another layer of reality, a shocking and unexpected death of a key character.  All of these things send a show spiralling out of control or in a different direction.

Anything that can be foreseen or which is just a blip on the radar of a show feels less game-changing and more like a predictable event within a storyline. Perhaps over the years, television viewers have simply seen too much and things that would have surprised us a decade ago, now feel much more mundane.  Having just seen that DEXTER killed off Dexter’s wife, Rita and that LOST killed off Sun, Jin and Sayid in one quick swoop, even primary characters are not safe on television these days and we have come to expect that shows will take such risks – even with beloved characters.

Other classic game-changers in television included:  Angel losing his soul in BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, the Cylons taking over New Caprica on BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, the death of Marisa Cooper on THE O.C., the Veronica-Logan kiss on VERONICA MARS, watching Michael kill Ana Lucia and Libby on LOST, and Fox Mulder’s abrupt departure from THE X-FILES.  Each of these events were shocking, surprising and game-changing for each of these shows.  It propelled storylines in new directions and left viewers wondering what the heck was going-on.

Imagine today if such scenarios played out:  if Peter is the real villain of FRINGE; if DEXTER were killed leaving his sister to avenge his death; if the crew of Destiny were enslaved by the Lucian Alliance for an entire season on STARGATE: UNIVERSE; if Clark Kent or the Powells lost all their super-human abilities for an extended period of time and had to live normal lives on SMALLVILLE and NO ORDINARY FAMILY.  All such scenarios would be truly game-changing.  Unexpected, horrifying and mind-boggling.

It would be a fun change of pace to truly see a genuine “game changer” on television and not feel let down when the hyped game-changers are merely a minor reveal and not shocking at all.  Let’s bring back true “game changers” so that we may all savor the fun of being surprised once again!

Tiffany Vogt is a contributing writer to TheTVAddict. She has a great love for television and firmly believes that entertainment is a world of wondrous adventures that deserves to be shared and explored – she invites you to join her. Please feel free to contact Tiffany at Tiffany_Vogt_2000@yahoo.com or follow her at on Twitter (@TVWatchtower).

  • Yes, I’ve been thinking this for a long time now. Every show runner tosses it around these days so it doesn’t even mean anything anymore.

  • Lulu

    What about Zack on Bones being a killers’ apprentice. No-one saw THAT coming!!

  • Great example! I am still devastated by that reveal from BONES. 🙁

  • Isis_anew

    Please, someone send this to Hart Hanson!

  • Anonymous

    While I agree with the general idea presented here that a game changer needs to be unexpected and crucial to the overall story being told, it still has to be within reason. I love a good plot twist as much as anyone, but if done wrong, it results in the opposite reaction of what they were going for.

    Take Bones, for example. Several people have pointed out the episode where it was revealed that Zach was the apprentice. While that was certainly unexpected, it also made little sense that Zach, of all people, was involved in that. Fans were furious. It was a game changer all right, but not many people were fond of it. They were talking about it, but most were talking about it all for the wrong reasons.

    Similarly, with the example of Peter on Fringe being the real villain, I don’t think that would go over well. I understand the concept of including a development that no one saw coming, but that would just be too much. Peter has a conman past, but he has also been established as someone committed to the work they’re doing and helping people. It simply wouldn’t fit with what has been established for him to be revealed as a villain. I think a lot of people would be upset with a game changer like that.

    A good game changer is the kind of thing that you don’t see it coming, but after it’s revealed, you rewatch episodes and see it all in a different light and how things were alluding to that event all along. It should be something that they were building up to. And, in a lot of ways, a good game changer is made in the way it’s presented. Again with Fringe as an example, the idea of alternate universes itself wasn’t a huge shock to a lot of fans. It was the way it was revealed that Olivia had traveled there and was in the still standing twin towers that made it such an iconic moment. And it opened a whole new chapter for the show.

  • Two other game changers that actually change the game in my opinion.

    – CHUCK – In the season 2 finale chuck downloads the intersect 2.0 that propels him from being an simple asset to an Full blown spy changing the foundation of the show by giving chuck a way more active role, instead of him “staying in the car”

    -Prison Break – Bassicly, each season finale of prison break had a game changer. In season 1 they finally escaped from the prison becoming fugitives so that changed the complete foundation of season 2. At the end of season 2 they end up in Sona. A new prison. Yes, this kinda changed it back in season 1 but it was still game changing compared to season 1. Looking over the whole series, off course, it wasn’t game changing but then at the end of season 3 they break out and they go out to bring down the company in season 4 again changing the foundation of the show.