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There are many reasons why the tone of a story may change. Sometimes a happy, joke-based, show goes into a much more serious and darker direction. Sometimes a once dark and deadly serious series turns into a comedy. Sometimes the work completely changes its genre. Sometimes writers run out of ideas and just try to put out anything they can or the exact opposite - they find what they really want to do. Sometimes Executive Meddling or Creator Breakdown takes the story in a new direction and turns it into something completely unrecognizable from its source material.

And sometimes all of it happens at the same time.

Cerebus Rollercoaster is what happens when Cerebus Syndrome gets Zig Zagged - the series goes back and forth through different tones, jumps from genre to genre or dances on the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism. If this ends well, the series can end up Growing the Beard by absorbing the best elements of all the phases it went through. If not, it may end up jumping the shark.

This may occur for different reasons. Sometimes creators just plain don't know exactly what tone they want to give their work. Maybe the story went too far into Cerebus Syndrome, and the writer is tired and horrified of the Crapsack World it has become, but while trying to reverse the process, he finds out that new, Darker and Edgier settings have a lot of fans, so he desperately tries to balance drama and comedy to keep both fanbases happy. Sometimes the new writer decides to take the series in a new direction, then into another direction and so on, until fans who have grown to be writers themselves take the series back to its original roots. Some people may just Follow the Leader too much, and when the leader changes, so too does the direction of their story. And sometimes they just don't want to stick to one setting and are forced to discard all story ideas which are too dark or too light for basic settings. Tropes Are Not Bad - when played right, it may give a series a unique, recognizable style and keep it fresh. If done badly, however, this will pretty much turn the story into a train wreck.

Compare Mood Whiplash, which is a smaller version of this taking place in a single story rather than spaced out among multiple installments. Dude, Not Funny may occur if one character is lagging between transitions.

Examples of Cerebus Rollercoaster include:


Anime & Manga

  • The Gundam franchise as a whole goes through this, with series varying from Zeta Gundam to Gundam ZZ, to Victory Gundam to G Gundam, from Gundam Wing to Gundam SEED to Gundam 00 to Gundam AGE.
    • Zeta to ZZ is a miniature example in and of itself. Tomino himself said that Zeta was too dark and depressing, and thus made ZZ light-hearted because he felt that anime should make people happy. However, this seems to have resulted in over-correction, resulting in ZZ being very silly at the start before evening out later on, which has lead some fans to apply Fanon Discontinuity to just the early episodes.
      • Tomino himself has this as applied to his whole body of work; Its been a common observation of his fans that Tomino tends to alternate between lighter works and depressing character dramas. Be Invoked, for instance, was directly followed by Xabungle, which was then followed by Aura Battler Dunbine. The tonal shift between Zeta and ZZ is pretty much a continuation of Tomino's established pattern, as ZZ was made directly after Zeta.
  • Yu Yu Hakusho plays this trope to the hilt. Beginning at first as bit of a Black Comedy about a dead teenager hilariously doing anything to come back to life,anything. Then he gets ressurrected and has to hunt down criminals like a detective and the whole thing escalates with the Toguro Brothers and Yukina. Then comes the second season which although does have development,mostly is just shonen-style fighting,...then Genkai dies and it just keeps getting darker. It doesn't really stop again until Yusuke proposes a tournament for the the Three Kings.
  • Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann in a way mirrors the rollercoaster ride taken by the entire mecha anime genre through its history. Episodes one to eight are very optimistic and often outright comedic, taking a lot from classic 70's Super Robot anime like Mazinger Z or Getter Robo. The next episodes contain their share of angst and dark themes, and villains, while still evil, gain some depth. It mirrors the effect Mobile Suit Gundam had on the genre. Later episodes are post Neon Genesis Evangelion era, being much darker than before, with varying moral values. Yet in both parts the anime remains pretty captivating and the last part takes the awesomeness Up to Eleven, mirroring the effects GaoGaiGar and other reconstructions had on the mecha genre. It seems that Gurren Lagann is trying to tell that it doesn't matter what tone or message your mecha show has - if it doesn't have its share of epicness, you're doing it wrong.
  • Dragon Ball started as an parody of Journey to the West. Then King Piccolo became its Knight of Cerebus and comedic elements started fading away. Stronger and crueler villains like Freiza started to pop out and each next saga was darker than the previous one. And then the Buu Saga came, bringing back lot of silly and combining original humor with later epic fights and darkness, creating such situations like people being killed by being turned into chocolate candy and eaten. The anime version has also Dragon Ball GT, which swapped from a goofy humour-based Adventure Planets first half, to dark ultimate evil after ultimate evil second half.
  • Code Geass varied wildly in tone, influenced by a lot of Executive Meddling and behind the scenes stuff.
  • Higurashi has this in spades due to the weird time shenanigans.
  • Karakuridouji Ultimo. Starts off with the 16-year-old protaganist running into a cute little boy robot, who wants him to help save the world. A few chapters later, we found out, that said robot boy is a Sociopathic Hero at it's worst. Then more comedy and action scenes, which lead up to the protaganist's best friend being in love with him, and also being batshit insane. Then all the good guys are killed, and the world blows up. Which leads us right into part 2, with time restarted and everybody fine. They even threw in some more comedy just to reassure us that everybody is A-OK. Until the end of part two. Two of the original Good Doji masters are dead, and the others are out of commission. Part 3, managed to do this in single chapters alone. The only thing you can be sure of with the tone of this series, is that by the end of each part, something bad is going to happen to somebody, if not everybody.
  • The fourth season of Yu-Gi-Oh!. There are some funny moments in-between, even after Yugi sacrifices himself in the Pharaoh's place. But the humor dramatically lessens when Jonouchi, the series' Plucky Comic Relief, dies.
  • Katekyou Hitman Reborn. It started as a comedy manga, but from the Kokuyo Arc onwards it turns into a battle manga, with quite some violent and bloody stuff.
  • Air Gear manga. I'm pretty sure it was a story about people mastering rollerblading, full with comedy relief, but in recent chapters it turns out there are genetically enginereed kids who where created to free humankind from "gravity", and that the Air Treck true nature is that of a technology that can save the world. Or destroy it. Many people have been horribly killed or used for AT's sake. That, and the psycopath Big Bad ulterior motive is: to help the weak
  • Gintama and Fruits Basket exemplify this trope, flipping from hilarious to heart wrenching in moments.
  • Gate Keepers go up and down with this, in both humorous, and dark elements.

Comic Books

Film

Literature

Live Action TV

  • Scrubs. Holy mother of God Scrubs. The show itself is best described as a collision between a medical drama and a slapstick comedy with great big dollops of tragedy, Gallows Humor, surrealism and Lemony Narrator thrown in for good measure, and it's a complete toss-up as to what each episode will give the viewer. And it's not just across the show or across seasons, it can be across a single episode: one storyline might be a Zany Scheme filled with sex jokes, pratfalls, and wacky shenanigans, while another storyline might be a gut-wrenching, savagely dark tragedy about the death of patients and the psychological fallout from one or more of the doctors, while the camera merrily Whip Pans between the two.
  • Power Rangers always has been, and always will be, a franchise nobody can take without a lot of Willing Suspension of Disbelief. It's campy and Crazy Awesome in its own way, but the tone of each season varies. Lord Zedd was its Knight of Cerebus and set a much more epic arc than the original Rita arc. Both Power Rangers Zeo and Power Rangers Turbo were a step down from serious towards lighter tones, only for the series to turn into epic space opera during Power Rangers in Space and Power Rangers Lost Galaxy. The tone of the series can vary from dark, like Power Rangers Time Force, to completely comedic, like Power Rangers Ninja Storm. Even checking out the source Super Sentai material isn't any indication of which route the next series will take, as proven by the darkest series of all, Power Rangers RPM, which was based on a self-parody of Super Sentai -- but even then RPM is one of the funnier seasons, relying on humor from The Comically Serious and the Meta Guy in the cast instead of having Hijinks Ensue.
  • Kamen Rider as a franchise also alternates a lot between silly and serious. You have darker series like Amazon, Faiz, and Blade, and less serious ones like Black RX and Den-O. Within each series, most start as being comedic and episodic, and then eventually focusing around mid-season into something more serious, while still having several gags and enemies like Starfish Hitler and a muay-thai boxing chicken who constantly dances in the background.
  • Skins appears to be falling into a pattern of letting things get lighter with the premiere of each new generation, then taking a turn for the Darker and Edgier in that generation's second season.
  • Psych used this to its advantage for a multi season story arc. By keeping the show episodic and lighthearted during most of each season the Ying and Yang episodes they used for the finales seemed much darker in comparison.
  • Doctor Who has seasons like this. Example: Series 2 alternates between an invasion where the Doctor can't help and may be dying, to a madcap body-snatcher romp, to a tale about humans losing their humanity to cold steel shells, to a somewhat tongue-in-cheek 50s piece with a hammy villain, to demonic possession on board a lonely sanctuary base, to a very offbeat episode about a gang who met the Doctor chilling out with one another to all-out war between the Daleks and the Cybermen. On extreme occasions, the show shifts mood from dark to childish all in the same episode.
    • The classic series had a lot of this too, with the tone changing wildly, particularly whenever new people took over behind the scenes. The best example might be the tenure of Tom Baker as the 4th Doctor, since it lasted so long. It began with the comical Robot, which established 4 as much sillier and more alien than his predecessor. Soon it was doing far darker stories like Pyramids of Mars and Genesis of the Daleks. Moral Guardians complained, so we got a Robot Buddy and much more comedy with serials like City of Death (written by comedic author Douglas Adams). Baker's final season, however, was incredibly grim with death and decay being a recurring theme.
    • Arguably, Series 5 and 6 of the new series is this. Matt Smith was originally a much more madcap and alien Doctor, who met a girl and took her away to see the universe. In the middle of the season, Rory gets erased from time. However, two episodes after this, the Doctor is passing off as a human lodger and playing football. The episode after that has the Doctor trapped in the Pandorica; Rory returning, albeit as an Auton and shoots Amy, while River is inside the TARDIS and it's exploding. And that's just Series 5.
      • As for Series 6? It begins with The Doctor being Killed Off for Real and only gets worse from there. Though it still manages to play this trope straight as the finale is quite upbeat. Other episodes in the season include a madcap pirate romp, a sinister clone saga, a horrifying episode about dolls and a buddy comedy.
  • How I Met Your Mother, with its dedication to showing both the ugly and delightful sides of life in equal measure, has been a mild version of this trope ever since season 1. Often combined with Mood Whiplash.
  • NCIS rolls with this, the show starts off with some gruesome murder, then it kicks starts with the crews antics (mostly Tony's), then in between and at the end, it can go either light and humorous or dark and dramatic depending on how the plot goes.
  • The Prisoner has this to some extent. Many episodes were quirky and surreal and filled with 60s sci-fi elements, while others were darker, more realistic, and often psychologically unsettling. It became even more noticeable in the last few episodes: the most lighthearted episode of the whole series ("The Girl Who Was Death") came right before the strikingly dark "Once Upon a Time" and the infamously bizarre "Fall Out".

Music

  • Musical duo Trout Fishing in America recorded two albums of children's songs in their earliest years. Then they did an album of mostly dead-serious folk-rock. Ever since then, they've gone back and forth between the two, even splitting the difference with sillier folk-rock songs, and albums that contain a little of both.

Theater

Video Games

  • The Diablo series seems to be riding on this. Despite its immense popularity, Diablo II was sometimes derided for not being as dark and edgy as the first game. In the books as well, the mood can range from as dark and edgy as the first game to surprisingly goofy. On the other hand, whatever Narm-ish moments the series can prevent it from getting too dark.
  • Sonic the Hedgehog went from lighthearted and happy-go-lucky (as much as having a hedgehog save his friends from being used as live power sources for robots and a mad scientist threaten the world with a Death Star clone can be anyways) in its "Classic era" to progressively darker in its Dreamcast era and culminating in Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) before doing a 180 and returning to its happy-go-lucky roots (well, as much having a mad scientist split the world into pieces and a hedgehog nearly outrun a black hole can be considered happy-go-lucky) with titles such as Sonic Unleashed and started getting even goofier shortly after with Sonic Colors. Sonic Lost World as itself is a Cerebus Rollercoaster (more of a Cerebus Drop Tower, really), with a very saturated and whimsical art style, silly level concepts, comical circus bonus stages, more visual gags, comical new villains, and Sonic and Tails falling out, Amy nearly dying, and dialogue referencing cannibalism, before going right back to Cerebus Syndrome with Forces

Webcomics

  • El Goonish Shive has this problem - when it went through Cerebus Syndrome, it ended up being too dark in Painted Black arc, so the author took it back to being silly and fun, but decided to introduce serious elements from a completely different angle, adding a lot of relationship driven plot points, teenage angst and Slice of Life elements. Ultimately the series evolved into a combination of comedy and teen drama.
    • It's not a bug, it's a feature. The comic oscillated between wacky comedy, teen drama and animesque adventure from the start. The wheel turns more and more smoothly, but it more indicates Dan's growing experience with using Rotating Arcs than possibility of other long-term trends.
  • Sluggy Freelance began as a Gag Per Day Fantasy Kitchen Sink comic, then gradually went through Cerebus Syndrome, at first with combination light comedy/dramatic arcs, and then with full-blown dramatic storylines such as "Fire and Rain" and "That Which Redeems," featuring Character Development, relationship angst, quests for identity, and even tragic elements. Since then, the comic has alternated between such storylines and light, goofy ones such as a lengthy World of Warcraft parody. Sometimes, the tone will switch abruptly from comic to dramatic even within the same chapter.
  • Drowtales effortlessly jumps between cutesy comedy and incredibly depressing drama, though most of the time it spends somewhere in between.
  • To put it in perspective, the main villain of Homestuck is a dog with sunglasses...who thinks only of killing everything in sight...and occasionally dog treats and is unable to kill the cutie of the group thank to loyalty...but then ends up in a universe where he quickly finds other cuties to kill and proceeds to do so while infighting gets them Killed Off for Real...but luckily there's a afterlife and everyone there seems to be quiet happy with how things turned out...that exists in a realm of eldritch abominations who are morally ambiguous at best. And it all began as a young boy playing a game with his friends. Yeah, Homestuck is this trope in webcomic form, basically.
    • Although it's definitely gone towards the darker side. And to many, the remaining humor elements seem forced and unnatural. The creator has picked up on this and the comedic elements now are usually situational or background events to the overarching drama.
    • As of Act 6, many of the most pressing conflicts have been dealt with at least for now, and much screentime is spent following the Alpha universe, an alternate universe in which the kids' ectobiological parents are the new kids, which starts in much the same places as Act 1 did and calls back to the much more light-hearted mood of the early strip. Yep, Homestuck is definitely back in lighter territory...for now.
  • For a Mega Crossover fancomic running mostly on Fan Service and Comedy Roommates has some suprisingly dark storylines. (Mostly stemming from the premise of the series: Fictional characters are "real" and know their fictional nature. So what's free will? How binding is their Canon? What happens when too many storytellers mess with you?)

Web Original

  • Atop the Fourth Wall, while is always a deeply comedic series, has plot arcs toned to fit the main villain - funny villains are just for additional jokes, while serious ones tend to have other plans going on in the background. Comedic and incompetent Doctor Insano was replaced by the scary Mechakara. After Mechakara's defeat, his place was taken by Harmless Villain Doctor Linksano, to let fans catch a break. Currently Linksano has been replaced by the far more menacing Lord Vyce. Of course each arc is full of episodes completely unrelated to its plot, which helps in keeping the main purpose of the show straight.
    • It's gone from Silent Hill: Dead/Alive (one of the most depressing arcs in the series, giving a nightmarish origin to the "Magic Gun") to "Secret Origins Month", where even the reviews are light-hearted and playful.
    • And again - from "The Entity" arc, that worked well to give the series more horrors for another "Secret Origins Month".
  • Everyman HYBRID starts out a lighthearted fitness series/parody of The Slender Man Mythos, before some hints show up that the real Slendy might be getting involved, then there's a Wham! Episode where he appears to the group in Evan's home...but in their next few videos and Ustreams they blow it off and take a step back into lighthearted territory, though Slendy still shows up if you look hard enough...until "Joke's Over", where all pretenses of fitness or hijinks are abandoned and the series takes a full step into Cosmic Horror Story territory.

Western Animation

  • Futurama is one of the few successful examples of a comedic series trying this. For example, four consecutive episodes of the fourth season involve 1) an elaborate Star Trek parody/homage; 2) global warming played for laughs (and guest-starring Al Gore's Head); 3) Fry's thousand-years-dead past resurfacing in the most heart-rending, gut-wrenching, soul-destroying story ever broadcast; and 4) a whacky escalating war involving paper routes. Yeesh.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender knew how to keep audiences rooting for their Kid Hero protagonists, before brutally reminding us children really are being pitted against some rather cruel people.
  • Teen Titans, especially in later seasons (season 1 was fairly tonally constant) was pretty much the king of this, bouncing back and forth from lighthearted action-comedy, to utter random goofiness, to some surprisingly intense darkness. Honestly, when you've got an episode centered around sentient omnicidal cow abducting space tofu that comes shortly after an episode where the local Woobie gets tortured by being shown a vision of the apocalypse at her hands in a scene strongly choreographed to suggest rape, your show is officially schizophrenic.
  • Re Boot was mostly comical during season 1, but the season ended with a somewhat darker two-part episode. Season two went back to comical for half of the season, but kicked off a plot for the second half that ended with a Wham! Episode. Season 3 got darker every four episodes, before spending the last ten minutes with a Musical Episode. Season 4 goes to the point of Cyberspace Annihilation, then swings back into comedy. THEN a previous villain returns, WINS, and we get a Cliff Hanger. This series is a freakin mood yoyo.
  • As Re Boot, its "relative", Beast Wars also shifted its tones frequently. Season 1 was an episodic and fairly balanced series of semi-serious and humorous stories, while season 2 was serious-toned all the way through (with some amusing moments sprinkled throughout its run, of course). Season 3, on the other hand, went from being serious, to half-serious and jovial, back to being dark again, but with some truly over-the-top comedic moments, which made not only the season, but also episode-tones shift wildly.
  • Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated alternates between its largely-humorous episode stories and its very different story arc.
  • My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic pulls this with the opening episodes of both seasons.
    • Season 1 started with Nightmare Moon, who represented the pinnacle of real danger the mane six faced for the entire season; almost all other conflicts were social or moral in nature - dealing with petty jerkasses, learning lessons about friendship, and the like. While occasionally dealing with creatures like dragons, hydras, and cockatrice.
    • And now, with the beginning of season 2, we've come full circle - Discord is a much nastier monster than Nightmare Moon ever was. And notably for a show like this, he isn't shamed into defeat or forgiven and redeemed - he gets put right back in the Fate Worse Than Death he crawled out of. Then you're into stories like "Pinkie Pie Babysits", "Rainbow Dash finds out that reading is fun", "Love potions cause hilarity to ensue" and "Twilight Sparkle struggles so hard to find An Aesop that her Sanity Slippage sinks into nightmare-inducing depths".
    • Also, Queen Chrysalis. She is a bug-pony with significant Body Horror. She manipulates the main character's brother into loving her, beats Celestia one-on-one after absorbing his love, and launches a full-scale invasion.
  • Samurai Jack uses this trope as darker and more serious episodes are interspersed with jarringly comedic ones.
  • Good Lord, Generator Rex. The ongoing story is incredibly dark, and just keeps getting darker ... but the breather episodes are crazy funny.
  • Ben 10 Ultimate Alien is currently going through this. The most recent episodes had the main trio being murdered (but revived later) and the return of an old villain who starts killing people in cold blood. So, the next episode was a fun romp with Dr. Animo and teradactyl people.
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