Sunday, July 09, 2006

Attack of the Sophomore Slump

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.

17 comments:

Telepresence said...

Did you ever watch Babylon 5? A war novel of about 3 seasons in length, chock full of good stuff (though with a trite ending, sadly), and then the story ended and the show drifted badly, includng a truly wretched story arc involving telepaths, and afterwards, weak followup shows set in the same universe that went nowwhere fast.

Now, the creator of Bab5 was constantly hamstrung by network interference and (apparently) bad contract negotioation skills with some of his actors. But I think it agrees with your overall point: A TV show with a good story can be cracking stuff, but when the story ends, trouble. As far as I can tell, a sort of modularized season-by-season story might be the way to go, sort of a maxi-serial format, assuming the contemporary American TV business model doesn't allow people to just go one or two seasons and then get out.

I also think TV shows just have a natural lifespan of 3-5 years.

As to why the first seasons rock and then the slump happens...lots of second and third generation and ex-fan writers coming of age, finally getting to tell the story they always wanted to tell on TV, the story they've been crafting onand off in the back of their heads since they were kids, all those old episodes of Trek and James Bond movies and Wonder Woman and Doctor Who and Kung Fu Theater and Creature Double Feature and whatever else they grew up on all mixed up and ready to pour out. But once it's out, do they have anything else in the tank?

Speaking specifically of the shows you mention...the Lost writers are clearly just playing for time, they've got a tiger by the tail, a cash cow based on mysteries they can't afford to actually solve, a show based on engaging the curiosity and intellect of the audience that can't afford to let its characters be smart.

Veronica Mars...I've never quite felt the appeal of this show that its fans feel. I've seen perhaps 6 episodes, and each one has been solid, but it's never really grabbed me. I appreciate it as an underdog and wish it well.

After thinking about it a great deal, I think the main problem BSG has is that Moore and co are extremely uninterested in expending energy or care on the aspects of the premise or the genre they find uninteresting. So the bits they sweat tend to be fairly awesome and the bits they handwave can be amazingly shoddy.

As you said, The writers don't really play to Tennant's strengths (I'll set aside that overall I preferred Eccleston). Also, I realize this is a point of controversy in the fanbase and I don't want to sound too fannishly bitter or reactionary, but I really do think adding so much romance into the Doctor/Companion dynamic has been a problem, it's done some weird things to the structure of several second season plots.

Eldritch00 said...

I once read a Spin magazine feature on the first season of the The X-Files, where there was much praise but also a now-prophetic warning that "a television series will ultimately break your heart." That's always stuck with me and might be why I can't commit to a television series.

I really wish there were more miniseries being made rather than these interminable ones. Something like the UK's Ultraviolet (not related to the recent Milla Jovovich film), or even The Prisoner, which was always meant to end at a certain point, as far as I know.

gwenda said...

I think you're onto something here, even if I don't entirely quite agree yet. Just wanted to recommend the two seasons of The Wire to you -- it's cable, so it doesn't count as network, but it's the most novelistic TV show I've ever seen and the first season was designed to be a complete "story." And yet the writers were able to completely reinvent it in a believable, just as successful way for season 2.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I have seen Babylon 5, Telepresence (I talk about it a little in my post on novelistic television from last year). I didn't mention it here because its story model was so very different from either of the models that I was talking about, but mainly because back in November I went back and rewatched the show and came away rather disappointed (here's where I talk about that, and a bit more at the end of the fourth season).

Yeah, Eldritch, I suspect the future is in miniseries.

I keep hearing good things about The Wire, Gwenda, but I'm held back by my general dislike of cop shows.

Niall Harrison said...

I also think this is pretty much spot-on. And I think there will be an increasing trend towards miniseries for economic reasons, and not just creative ones; my sense of the current US network TV environment is that it's just not that hospitable to ongoing dramas--unless they're formula shows.

telepresence said...

Abigail, I mentioned Bab5 in terms of it being a show that (it's overall strengths and weaknesses aside), clearly had a central story to tell and told that story best (The Shadow War/Bab5 independence story), and faltered badly once that story ended.

I liked it more on rewatching than you did, but I basically agree with the points you made in the other articles.

I really hope you give The Wire a chance, btw. I'm the son of a cop, and generally dislike cop shows. But I think of The Wire more as a show about the culture of a city, about race and politics and economics. The show is also, frankly, an aesthetic shock the first few times you watch, as you are confonted with a TV show with a (sprawling) majority minority cast.

Anonymous said...

Why didn't the Veronica Mars writers just create a mystery that Veronica would feel as compelled to solve as the Lilly Kane murder instead of pulling at the show's basic premise (which I'm far from convinced they did deliberately)?

I think that the two main reasons for the dip in quality were: the first season mystery had clearly been thoroughly worked out when the pilot was being written and the second season mystery couldn't be afforded the same kind of consideration;--and the characters in the first season were conceived alongside the mystery which obviously wasn't the case for the second.

For me, the reason the second seasons of both Veronica Mars and BSG have failed to match, or come within shouting distance of, Buffy and Angel's second seasons is because they don't show a healthy enough respect for their character's interior lives. VM is too suffocatingly plotted, BSG is too issue-driven. Angel's triumphant second season was surely the result of someone saying "What is important to Angel?"; Buffy's second season was half character exploration, half emotional evisceration.

Also, and this is to the side of what I was saying just there, but VM and BSG have a pretty rubbish handle on how to weight certain moments. For a quick contrast, look at the second half of the 'Not Pictured' and 'LDYB Pt 2' - the rush of information is such that it has no time for grace notes (or, in VM's case, showing a regular character's reaction to hearing his brother has died); then, the second half of 'Becoming Pt 2' and 'Reprise' (which was the climax of S2) - their stories turn on one event, then stew in their repercussions.

s

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Why didn't the Veronica Mars writers just create a mystery that Veronica would feel as compelled to solve as the Lilly Kane murder instead of pulling at the show's basic premise (which I'm far from convinced they did deliberately)?

Well, my guess is that they didn't want to - possibly for the reasons that I suggest in my VM review. But I'm also not convinced that such a mystery would have been possible, or at least not within a few months of the first season's end (last summer, I held on to a faint hope that the writers would shift the show's setting a few years into Veronica's future, thus allowing more backstory to accumulate and a new mystery to emerge organically).

VM is too suffocatingly plotted, BSG is too issue-driven. Angel's triumphant second season was surely the result of someone saying "What is important to Angel?"; Buffy's second season was half character exploration, half emotional evisceration.

Yeah, that's pretty much what I'm saying here - the shows centered around a concept have a greater longevity than the ones centered around a story (although I'd argue that BSG wasn't inherently story-oriented. It's more that, as you say, the second season largely ignores the characters without offering a coherent story in compensation).

Niall Harrison said...

Now you've got me thinking about Angel, which certainly started out as a concept-based show (helping the helpless), but gradually moved away from that over the course of its run. And season two is clearly the switch-point, but that wasn't obvious as it was airing: I remember that a lot of people expected things to go back to a S1-style format in the wake of 'Epiphany', and were a bit thrown when that didn't happen. Instead, the concept becomes the setting, not the story - you have to take for granted that they're out there helping the helpless, because the show has become about what they do the rest of the time. By the time you get to season four, you've got a fully story-centred show which doesn't even leave any other time for the helpless-helping to be happening in, which in turn necessitates the reboot for S5 (and gags like "I spent most of last year stuck in a turgid supernatural soap opera").

Also, 24 starts to look quite clever, viewed from this angle: it's a concept-based show in which the concept happens to be a single season, rather than a single episode.

Anonymous said...

Hmm... it's an interesting argument. I'd certainly agree that shows like Angel and Buffy had a first season to warm up in, introduce the characters and the setting, and the newer shows had to hit the ground running. I'd blame the American networks for growing impatient, at least in three of the four cases you mentioned. In the years between the heydays of the older shows and this newer crop, there was a whole bunch of promising shows culled before they even completed a first season - the networks wanted success from the get-go. So they got it - shows with watertight first seasons but consequently lacking that same slow development other shows had, and thus starting to flail a little now.

Doctor Who is a special case - its first (new) season also had to be watertight, though for different reasons. Newspapers looking for any opportunity to bring out all the old jokes about "egg-box sets", hundreds of moldering old gags about gay daleks and pakistani daleks and what-have-you; it had to satisfy the old-school fans, many of whom had been sharpening their knives for close to a decade for this moment; attract a solid core of younger new-school fans, and also appeal to the general public - while Michael Grade, who'd killed the show last time, was back at the top of the BBC ready and waiting to kill the show he'd admitted to hating a second time.
That it succeeded against such odds is a triumph; that it got a little wobbly again on the second season is really just such an example of the sophomore slump, I believe.

Danel4d

Anonymous said...

Abigail, I'll have to read your Veronica Mars review before commenting on what you wrote in your reply.

[i]the shows centered around a concept have a greater longevity than the ones centered around a story[/i]

But the fact that Buffy and Angel were concept-centred seems incidental to me. Yes, it was amid the MotW that the necessary groundwork was laid for the Angelus arc but the groundwork didn't necessitate the MotWs. What strikes me as the root of the trouble for VM and BSG is that the writers are unwilling to follow the characters to the places the characters' backstories demand (The trouble with Lost is that Lost sucks.)

At some point in the life cycle of a great television drama, the characters take over. New plots can wait, new themes can go unexplored;-- the characters are bedrock. That's what Whedon understood and what Thomas and Moore don't quite grasp. And that's where I feel they're going wrong; not in their lack of a solid standalone formula (which I kind of think VM has) but in their writing teams current failures.

I feel like I'm totally missing your point. Am I?

S

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I suspect, S, that I haven't been expressing my point very clearly. Both you and Niall are taking 'concept-centered' to mean a show that focuses on a single plot concept - teenage girl battles monsters at her school, vampire with a soul helps the helpless. I was thinking more of character concepts. At the core of every story that Buffy ever told is the conflict between Buffy's desire for a normal life and the acknowledgment of her responsibility towards the world. Angel was the guy who wanted to fight the good fight but couldn't deal with the fact that it could never be won. You're right to say that at some point, all shows have to be about their characters, but I think the problem with shows like Veronica Mars and BSG (although the latter obviously has more, and more pressing, problems) is that they came up with a single story without knowing what kind of character arcs they wanted to describe, whereas the formula shows I list had those character arcs baked into their formulas.

Anonymous said...

Oh, okay. I've reread the article with what you've said in mind and I'm now following the steps in the argument much better. I never thought of the situation as you've outlined it before now but I have to say, it seems pretty darn unassailable.

You have a big brain.

S

ca said...

Okay, this comment is coming a little late, but was talking about it with a friend of mine, and suddenly made the transition in my head to books:

Perhaps instead of novels, the proper comparison of Veronica Mars is to something like Harry Potter, where there *is* something of a formula... but a rigid beginning and end. One could go on as to what happened after Voldemort is (presumably) defeated, etc., but... it seems kind of silly.

...whereas Buffy is more like, say, the Bujold Vorkosigan series (and YES, this is yet another plug :) ). It didn't really start out (at least, as far as I can tell) to be anything but a series of fun space operas, but the characters started to grow and develop and have conflicts and rich histories, and suddenly around the fifth or sixth books you realize that you're utterly addicted and love the characters. And like a formulaic TV show, occasionally you get just a formulaic space-opera fun-adventure story that doesn't *advance* the "arc" any, which frustrates me no end, but is something to fall back on and use as another starting point, as you said.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

In the sub-group of multi-year story shows, I'm not aware of any that follow the Harry Potter model - a series of self-contained stories that build on one another in order to tell a larger story. Most show either take an open-ended approach (Buffy, Veronica Mars) or take several seasons to tell a single story that can't be parsed into discrete pieces (B5, Carnivale). It would be interesting to see someone try to implement this model (in fact, I've always thought that television is the most appropriate visual medium for the HP novels).

Stephen said...

Terrific post.

"series of self-contained stories that build on one another in order to tell a larger story"

Of course it wasn't designed this way, and was sort of steered on the fly, but I think that the retrospective effect of Buffy is something like this.

"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."

Do you have a link/source for that? I'd never heard it, and I'm curious to find out more.

Incidentally, I strongly second (third? fifth? whatever) all recommendations for The Wire. It is extremely different in feel than any other cop show (the closest in feel are the early seasons of Homicide, Life on the Street, which was based on a book by the creator/exec producer of The Wire.) And it is also as focused on the drug dealers as the cops -- and, as one of your other commentators said, "a show about the culture of a city, about race and politics and economics." It's really wonderful.

(Do give it more than one "episode" though -- it is structured as a 13-hour film, and they don't work to hard to give the first hour a particular hook or narrative satisfaction (any more than the opening 1/13 of a novel would have.))

But, I will say, I found the second season a slight down-tick from the first. Like Veronica Mars, this is true only by the extraordinary standard it set for itself in the first -- but it did seem a bit weaker to me.

But do, do give a try. It's at the Buffy/Veronica Mars level.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Do you have a link/source for that? I'd never heard it, and I'm curious to find out more.

Here's a recent interview with Rob Thomas, in which he talks about some of the problems in season 2. He mentions that Kristen Bell was overworked in the first season (fourth paragraph down on the first page).

On the issue of reducing the actors' contractual obligations, there was an interview with TV Guide's Michael Ausiello that is no longer online. There's a copy of it here (second post). The relevant quote:

Ausiello: Is it true that you're killing off a major character?
Thomas: No. The thing I read was in Episode 6 we're gonna kill off one of our main characters, and that's not true. But in order to make the budget work, a number of actors on the show lost a few episodes in their contracts. I wouldn't have done that of my own volition. That was forced on me.

Ausiello: Were Logan or Papa Mars impacted?
Thomas: No, it's not Logan or her father. It's just about everyone else.

Ausiello: Are we talking drastic reductions? Like some characters are only gonna be in one or two episodes?
Thomas: No, no, no. Far from that. It's like one went from 22 to 16. One went from 16 to 12.

Ausiello: Weevill (Francis Capra)?
Thomas: He's gone from 16 to 12.

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