2018 has been the year of the sophomore slump. The Handmaid’s Tale, Luke Cage, Westworld, Legion, 13 Reasons Why, Jessica Jones and Sneaky Pete were among the second-year shows to disappoint, frustrate and/or inspire reevaluations of their acclaimed debut seasons.
But ironically, it’s also been the year of the sophomore surge. Atlanta, The Good Fight, One Day at a Time, The Good Place, Brockmire and Timeless (RIP) were among the shows that managed to, at the very least, equal what made them so beloved to begin with. In some cases, they even surpassed their standout first seasons.
If you look at those two lists of shows, you’ll note that all the ones on the former list are dramas, while most of the ones on the latter are comedies (even if Atlanta, Brockmire and One Day can all go to dark places). There are a lot of different reasons for how and why the first group of shows went awry. But if there’s a Grand Unified Field Theory to the phenomenon, it’s this: Like second novels and albums, sophomore seasons of TV dramas have an awfully hard time living up to the original, while comedies are much more immune to this.
When you look back over the last decade and a half of television, there are in fact plenty of comedies whose second seasons are not only clear improvements over their first (Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), but stand unquestionably as the show’s best runs ever (The Office, Community, Chuck). And you can find a few dramas from the same period that got better in Year Two (Breaking Bad, Dexter) or even peaked at that point (Justified, Sons of Anarchy). More often, however, you’ll find sophomore years that ranged from disappointments (Mr. Robot, Homeland) to outright disasters (True Detective, that Friday Night Lights year when Landry killed all those people).
What makes dramas more susceptible to this than comedies? There are a variety of problems they have to face, starting with the biggest (unavoidable spoilers are coming for many shows):
The Plot Problem: By and large, contemporary sitcoms are more dependent on characters, while dramas – particularly the intensely serialized kind that’s become ubiquitous in the streaming age – lean much more heavily on plot. The more everyone (both the people watching shows and the people making them) gets to know the characters, the stronger the comedy can be, which is why you hear comedy writers talk about needing a half-season or more to fully capture a character’s voice and figure out how best to utilize the talents of the actors playing them. The Office needed a summer off to make Michael Scott less of a creep, while Parks and Rec had to reframe how other characters reacted to Leslie Knope, while also recognizing that Chris Pratt was much better as a lovable doofus than a selfish heel.
This happens with dramas, too – look at how important Breaking Bad eventually made Jesse Pinkman, who was initially supposed to die within a few episodes, once everyone saw how good Aaron Paul was. It just doesn’t occur as often, particularly as most of them prioritize cliffhangers and twists and other attention-grabbing plot devices. And characters tend to be more of a renewable resource than plot: If the audience understands what makes these people tick and what can make them hurt, then the show can work even if the storylines are less thrilling the second time around (or are an outright rehash). But when you lean more on “and then this crazy thing happens, and then another crazy thing happens, and you won’t believe the third crazy thing we’ve got planned,” then you tend to burn through your most potent material – and the audience’s goodwill – much more quickly.
Ideally, a drama has great characters and a thrilling plot (again, see Breaking Bad). But it’s not a coincidence that Mad Men, one of the most gracefully aging of recent dramas, exhausted a lot of its big story points early on (Don’s secret identity, Peggy’s pregnancy) yet had such a richly drawn group of characters that their reaction to the story was usually much more exciting than whatever the story actually was.
The First Album Problem: It’s an old saw in the record business that every musician had a lifetime to generate the material for their first albums, and then a couple of months to figure out what to put on the follow-up. TV shows don’t always work that way (J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof threw together the Lost pilot script over a few weeks after another writer got fired), but at minimum, there’s often a sense in freshman-show writers’ rooms to put the most vital and resonant material into that first year to make as big an initial splash as possible.
That’s why, for instance, most recent comic book shows use their hero’s most famous archvillain in the first season, then have to flail around to find another one as compelling as Reverse-Flash or the Kingpin. Luke Cage and Jessica Jones both suffered from this to varying degrees this year. (Though, really, Cage had been in trouble since it killed off Cottonmouth halfway through Season One, while Jones wasn’t as badly hurt because its heroine is a more fundamentally interesting character no matter who she’s up against.) Sneaky Pete is not a superhero show, but it couldn’t have asked for a more perfect Season One villain than Bryan Cranston, whose absence left a charisma vacuum that Season Two could never entirely fill, among its other issues.
This doesn’t have to be a crippling problem – The Sopranos never had a better villain than Tony’s mother, and David Chase had spent years mapping out some version of that Season One arc. But it requires an incredibly high degree of execution to pull off and a dramatic infrastructure and characterization that are strong enough to move on past a show’s initial idea. (Even back in 2000, Sopranos fans were grumbling that Janice and Richie were disappointing antagonists compared to Livia and Uncle Junior.) If you look at the outlier dramas that improved significantly in Season Two, they were uneven at the start and needed a year to figure themselves out. When you start brilliant, there’s often nowhere to go but down.
The Miniseries Problem: American Horror Story, Fargo and other anthology miniseries have made the one-season story a bit more fashionable than it used to be, but the TV business is still inclined towards stories and characters that continue on for as many years as prove profitable to do so. This leads to a lot of shows with premises best suited to live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse instead sticking around into awkward zombie middle age.
The most glaring example of this in the last decade was Homeland. A miniseries that ends with Brody blowing himself up, or even with Carrie stopping him at the last second, would still be talked about in awed whispers. Instead, it awkwardly kept him around (and around, and … ); by the time he died for real and the show reinvented itself as a classier 24, the whole thing felt like a cautionary tale.
13 Reasons Why and The Handmaid’s Tale were even more overtly suited to a one-and-done treatment, since their first seasons exhausted the plots of the books that inspired them. Handmaid’s at least ended on a cliffhanger, and there were ways in which the second season improved on the first in the way that it (like many of the aforementioned late-blooming sitcoms) delved deeper into its characters and the world they occupied. But the fact that June escaped captivity three different times and it never quite took suggested the fundamental limitations of this premise, no matter how many interviews the showrunner gives about his 10-year plan. And 13 Reasons Why embarrassingly contorted itself this way and that to re-solve a mystery its first season had exhaustively solved, simply because the show was apparently too popular to cancel.
The Emperor’s New Clothes Problem: I loved the first season of Legion, while Westworld‘s freshman year left me cold. It’s easy to see, though, how the inverse could be true for other viewers. Both shows have abundant visual flair and larger-than-life performances. Both structure their narratives in unconventional ways in an attempt to illustrate bigger themes about mental illness and free will; both are prone to long and portentous monologues about said themes. The psychedelic style of Legion Season One plus the performances were enough to have me on board, where the puzzle box design of Westworld mainly bored me. It’s basically a question of what kind of weirdness we’re each willing to indulge and for how long.
The two shows’ frustrating second seasons mainly exposed the hollow characterization plaguing each, and raised the question of whether the series’ respective fetishes were undercutting attempts to make the people feel real enough to care about, or if they were simply meant as distractions from that.
This happens periodically with new shows that seem like radical departures from convention. Sometimes, there’s enough substance behind the flourishes to sustain interest once the novelty wears off (Hannibal made it through three mostly gripping, and increasingly weird, seasons). More often, if they falter even slightly in some way, it becomes easy to lose interest and reassess how great they were to begin with.
The Showrunner Problem: In the mid-1990s, the power of NBC’s Must-See Thursday lineup created something of a sitcom land rush. Every network suddenly wanted a few dozen comedies about attractive young singles in the big city, and if they could be created by someone with Friends or Seinfeld or even Just Shoot Me on their resume, all the better. So people for whom those shows were their first or second job – and had been in a subordinate position to veteran showrunners – suddenly found themselves being given series of their own, without proper training in either management or basic narrative architecture. That inexperience led to lot of truly awful shows and helped turn the traditional multi-camera sitcom into an embarrassment.
You may have heard there’s a lot of television being made right now. (Something something Peak TV.) Those shows need people to create and run them, and the demand for folks who’ve done those jobs outstrips the supply. On top of that, one way TV execs are trying to break though the cluttered programming environment is with flashy, high-concept work that can more easily get attention rather than “here’s a really well-executed variation on a thing you’ve seen three dozen times already.” Together, this means that a lot of shows are in the hands of screenwriters, playwrights, novelists, etc. with little to no prior time on a TV writing staff. They may have a great initial idea; they may even be able to stretch that out over 10-13 hours (even if you can acutely feel that stretch by the fifth or sixth episode). But they don’t necessarily know the art of seeding your first season with ideas that can bloom in your second, or just not burning through too many story and character points too quickly. TV isn’t “movies, but longer” – and a lot of shows are in the hands of people who never learned that.
There have been a lot of disappointing second seasons so far this year because there have been a lot of second seasons, period. (Again, Peak TV.) Sophomore slumps are so frequent throughout TV history, you could probably find 1960s TV criticism along the lines of, “Ugh, again with the twists, Rod Serling?” Truly great shows manage to come back strong the year after and the ones that don’t make it clear pretty quickly that it’s all downhill from here. Many of this year’s slumpers seem to have fundamental flaws (the thin characters on Legion and Westworld, the horrible pacing of all of Netflix’s Marvel shows) that will only grow bigger over time, but we won’t know for sure until next season. And in the meantime, we can hope that The Deuce and other sophomore returnees will buck this year’s trend.