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For all the jokes and stereotypes about “difficult second albums,” I’ve slowly become obsessed with the tendency for second seasons of popular television shows to heavily disappoint and go off the rails in terms of quality control. Is the problem with the shows themselves, though, or with what people expect those shows to be?
I admit, this train of thought comes from watching a possibly non-SpinOff-esque series, PBS’ Downton Abbey, this weekend; I found myself thinking about how disjointed and melodramatic the storytelling had become in this second season, with characters acting unlike themselves for little reason, and things happening with little cause or effect (The most egregious of which, for those who also watched the show, was Lord Crawley’s almost affair with Jane, which seemed to come out of nowhere and finish before it had started, with no seeming effect beyond much angst-ridden expressions all round). But, thinking about it, I started remembering complains about the slowness (and lack of zombies) in the first half of The Walking Dead‘s second season, and the disappointment in Glee‘s second year. And then, I thought about the train wrecks that were the second years of Friday Night Lights and, far far earlier, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I ended up wondering why second years seemed to be so hard.
In part, I guess, there’s the obvious pressure of following up on what has already been accepted and adored by your fans, and all the risks that entails: Do you try to repeat what you’ve already done (running the risk of being accused of being unable to change) or push forward into new areas (running the risk of being accused of having changed too much)? There’s also the possibility that you’ve exhausted the original concept of the show in the first season, whether by accident or intent, and haven’t found something to replace it with just yet (I’m tempted to argue that this was the case with Glee, which still hasn’t found something other than repeating itself to follow up on what was essentially the end of the story at the first season). But part of it also may be that, as the audience, we have unrealistic expectations of What Happens Next after something we’ve enjoyed.
It’s so much easier to create something when no-one knows anything about it, because the audience views it without any concrete preconceptions; it’s not competing with anything other than itself, to put it more clearly. But when a show returns after a hiatus, the fan base doesn’t just know what they’ve seen before, they also have a whole set of ideas about what they want to see happen next, and everything that actually appears onscreen has to fight with that for approval. It’s not just that we want the shows to be good anymore, now they have to be as good as or better than what we’ve played in our heads in order to have the same kind of impact as they originally did.
The problem, possibly, really comes when the creators of the show react to that expectation, either in terms of writing towards – or worse, maybe, purposefully against – what they think the audience is expecting as opposed to writing what they want to happen. The idea of “artistic purity” may be a little idealistic, but there’s a need for creators to do what they think is right, as opposed to try and go for ratings stunts or the like. If there was some way to keep creators free of outside influence in shaping the second go-arounds for shows, I doubt that we’d be entirely free of disappointing sophomore outings, but I can’t help but wonder if those that remained would, at least, be more interesting in the ways in which they failed.