Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't the rule of thumb use to be that the second season was when most television shows started to shine? If, that is, shining had ever been in the cards--most good television shows, I mean to say, only got good in their second season. The first season was where the groundwork was done, the characters and their voices and personalities established, the writers got their legs under them. Then the second season would come along and the shows would shoot to the stratosphere--The X-Files, Buffy, Angel, even Farscape. They all kept to that formula.
So what's changed?
I started watching four new television shows last year, and fell in love with them all. Four superb first seasons, which between them got me feeling hopeful about television again. And one by one, each of these shows has produced a disappointing second season. Not all of them were dismally disappointing--my reactions ran the gamut from 'screw this, I'm done' to 'but it's still better than 90% of what's on TV', but none of the seasons I've watched this year have excited and elated me as their predecessors did.
I've written too much about Lost and Battlestar Galactica to repeat it all here. The former spoils my argument a little in that it only had half of a superb first season. The rot started setting in when the show was extended from its originally planned length of 10 episodes, and everything neat about the show started losing its lustre. Lost chugged through to last year's finish line on the very last fumes of its personality and charm, but with the exception of the first 10 minutes of the second season premiere, both qualities have been largely absent this season. What's left is hours of tedium punctuated by minutes of shocking developments which, in their turn, give rise to even more hours of tedium. Battlestar Galactica fared a little better--the first seven episodes of the second season were quite excellent, and certainly the show doesn't give off the impression that its writers have simply stopped caring (if, indeed, they ever did) as Lost does. But the show is still a shadow of its former self, and I can express this change no better than to say that although I probably will be watching when the third season starts in the fall, it will be rather reluctantly. Watching Galactica seems a bit more like a chore than a pleasure these days.
Doctor Who's second season has been... pleasant. It didn't sink to the depths that the first season was capable of--there were no "Boom Town"s, no "Aliens of London"/"World War Three"--but it didn't scale the first season's heights either. The best episode of the second season, "The Girl in the Fireplace", doesn't really approach the wit and emotion of the first season's best entries. I disagree with a lot of what he says about Who's second season, but Andrew Rilstone is right on the money when he writes that the second season--and the tenth Doctor--don't surprise the viewers as the first season and the ninth Doctor did. I think I was most struck by this in "Army of Ghosts", when the Doctor talked Yvonne out of running the ghost shift by smugly sitting by and doing nothing. It occurred to me that this sort of behavior, which by all rights should be the Doctor's stock-in-trade, has been sadly absent throughout most of the second season. Instead of moving at diagonals to the rest of us, the Doctor has been sticking to the horizontal and the vertical. He knows more, and he sees more, but he doesn't think differently anymore. The writers also seemed to have no idea what to do with their main characters. There were hints of possible character arcs--Rose becoming disenchanted with her life with the Doctor, the Doctor growing careless with his safety and that of others--but they were allowed to peter out, and the season as a whole doesn't amount to a single story as the first season did. There's nothing actually wrong with the second season of Doctor Who, but a hell of a lot that was right about the first season is missing.
Veronica Mars is another show that I've written extensively about this year, and as I've already said, by any standard but the one set by its first season, the show has had a spectacular year. Judged against that standard, however, Mars' second season is sadly lacking. Unlike Lost and Galactica and Who, however, there is a definite sense that Mars' writers were aware of the difficulties inherent in expanding their standalone story into a series, and tried to meet that challenge by playing with the fundamental building blocks of their premise--turning the show from a detective story into a story about a person who is sometimes a detective. It didn't work, or at least not entirely, but the writers certainly have my respect for recognizing that they had a problem and trying to deal with it.
Four excellent shows. Four talented writing crews. Four disappointing second seasons. Once again, what's changed? There are obviously individual factors that have affected each show--pressure from within and without to move the show to a more episodic format was clearly instrumental in both Lost's and Battlestar Galactica's implosions; David Tennant has a very different skill set from Christopher Eccelston, and the Who writers still don't seem to be writing to his strengths (one of these days, I'm going to thwap the person who decided that "I was there at the fall of Arcadia. Someday I might even come to terms with that" was a line that Tennant would be able to pull off); Kristen Bell needed a less grueling schedule in Mars' second season, and producer Rob Thomas couldn't afford to hire the entire supporting cast for all 22 episodes--but is there a single underlying cause?
I think there is. I think it all comes down to that much-maligned staple of television writing, at least until a few years ago, formula. The shows I mentioned in this entry's first paragraph were all originally formula shows. They were products of the middle period in the transition towards novelistic television, when writers and viewers alike were marvelling at the discovery that a show that demanded loyalty, patience, and attentiveness from its viewers could thrive, but they were originally conceived as formula shows. Each week, Buffy battles monsters who humorously parallel her teenage troubles. Each week, Mulder leaps to unlikely conclusions and Scully scoffs at the supernatural. Each week, John Crichton is tortured and/or seduced by alien lifeforms. It was only in their second seasons that these shows, having accumulated backstories and deepened their imaginary universe, started moving towards longer and more complicated plot and character arcs, eventually arriving at novelistic storytelling--the Angel/Angelus arc, Crichton running from Scorpius, Angel and Darla, Scully's abduction. Newer shows, created in recent years, have skipped over that introductory period in which story is sublimated to formula--they were created with a story, not a concept, in mind.
To my very great surprise, it turns out that that foundation of formula actually gifted the mid- and late-90s shows with a degree of durability that their early oughts counterparts don't have. When Joss Whedon wrapped up a storyline--yet another villain defeated, yet another emotional hurdle leaped--he had the show's basic concept to fall back on and use as a starting point for the next story. The newer shows' writers don't seem to have that broader understanding of the kind of story they want to tell--they have a story, and they don't know how to handle its ending. Lost abandoned its story half-told. Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who arrived at something like a stopping point and tried to regress into formula. Veronica Mars tried to find a happy medium between repeating itself and abandoning its genre and came up with something half-baked.
Nearly a year ago, I wrote a rather disjointed essay about the past and future of novelistic television. I came to some rather hopeful conclusions, based primarily on my impressions of Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who and Veronica Mars' first seasons. A year later, it seems that some reevaluation is in order. Perhaps I should have paid closer attention to my own choice of words--novelistic television. Novels end. Most of them don't have sequels, and when they do those sequels are usually inferior, and their sequels give increasingly diminished returns. The underlying cause of all these disappointing second seasons may simply be an incompatibility of format--we can have television novels, but perhaps not in the American network model.