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Who’s To Blame For Disappointing Second Seasons?

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.


  • Ducksh!t

    What about Lost? It’s debatable, but many say that has a better second season.

  • Turtletrekker

    “Heroes” is a good example of a show that kept disappointingly repeating itself after a strong first season.

  • jay

    Say what you will, I still think Downton Abbey is one of the best shows this year. And I thought the tension of watching Lady Crawley almost die, with the sudden death of Livinia was very well done. And do you really think we have seen the last of Judy? Doubtful.

  • CD

    The 2nd Season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is without a doubt it’s best season of the 7.

  • Coryjameson

    Fringe’s Second Season was vastly superior to the first.


  • Macmillanandwife

    Who’s To Blame For Disappointing Second Seasons?Overexpectations of crap rteviewers  like Graeme Cracker 

  • Anonymous

    Granted the show is still on the air, but second season of Justified was WAY better then the first. (Which stumbled out of the gate but found it’s place by the end). 

  • Mel

    Terminator SCC was so awesome. I miss it so much.

  • Rollo Tomassi

    Heroes didn’t even have a good First Season, so it’s not really applicable.

  • Anonymous

    I believe it’s the studio impact. And the second season of lost was terrible. Best example imo is Heroes. Instead of being real threats of death after the first year when everybody came back you just figured out that nobody important was going to die.

  • Alex

    Wish I could agree. I saw that scene of the second season premiere at the end of the episode. The one with the urinal and I just checked out!

  • Juniorak715

    Nothing wrong with 2nd seasons. Fans just come back in with negative expectations.

  • knivesinwest11

    without a doubt! i think that is mostly because of David Boreanaz carrying the second season on his back. Angelus was outstanding. also, the introduction of two great characters in Spike and Oz was excellent.

  • knivesinwest11

    Justified has been excellent from the very beginning.

  • Anthony

    Agree with the Downton Abbey comment. The show definitely has veered into full-on soap melodrama— its all sudden hookups, sudden break ups, and sudden deaths.

    I had a bad feeling this would happen at the end of the first season. I mean, we had a surprise pregnancy and surprise miscarriage all in one episode!

    I miss the show’s more restrained and quiet beginnings— when it was all about the tension of who would inherit Downton against the steady grind of social change and political breakdown.

  • Brotherjustinccrowe

    Who’s to blame for disappointing second seasons?

    The writers of Boardwalk Empire.

  • John

    I have thought about this since the 90’s.

    I believe that these creators/writers pitch a basic idea of the show to the network. Then they have already planned out most of what’s going to happen in the pilot and the first season, all the way through to a great finale. They don’t plan much past this because they just worry about getting the show on the air.

    I notice that the show’s that get great ratings early on do better because they network picks up the full season and the writers feel more comfortable with their ideas. Shows that ease by with the bare minimum ratings have to use every ounce of ideas from the creators’ brains. By the time the season ends, they are exhausted and tapped out of ideas.

    The show’s creative team then begins to plan out the rest of the series during the production of the second season, causing the second season’s success to dip in quality.

  • Tonytower

    There’s something to be said for your idea, but in what world is the second season of NEXT GENERATION worse than the first?!? The second season didn’t hit the assured strides the third did, but it was a quantum improvement over the first. If you disagree, tell me which S1 episodes measure up to “Measure Of A Man” and “Q Who” (just to name two)?

  • Kickaha

    Lost is a uniquely counterintuitive example. Every season was worse than all other seasons. Needs more scientific study IMO, lol.

  • Teej71

    Any “review” that contains the phrases “I was expecting…” or “why didn’t they …?” or “they should have…” is not a review. It is a desperate wish of a would-be screenwriter. I wish people would abandon preconceptions and just enjoy (or hate) the episode/film for what it is.

  • Yanks5179

     Then you wouldn’t have any comic reviews on CBR, that’s for sure!

  • jephd

    dude!!! Spoilers!!!!

  • Anonymous

    Second seasons do have ups and downs but I can’t help but wonder how nobody in the writers room raised their had and said, “do we really want the group sitting around a farm and doing nothing for 8 plus episodes?”

  • Max

    2 examples that comes to my mind. BBC’s Sherlock which had a great first season and an excellent 2nd run. Of course, it’s not the average show since it’s already been written, they just have choose the next story to adapt. In the end, it doesnt matter, the adaptation is still brilliant.
    The other case I think outdone what they did in the 1st season would be The Good Wife

  • Keptpics

    Totally- and Angel’s 2nd season was superior to its 1st.

  • Brianlovescomicbooks

     I know plenty of people who enjoyed season 1. Just because you and some others didn’t, doesn’t mean its not “applicable”.

  • Papercut_fun

    I’m of the view that some shows would benefit from being planned as a single season right from day one.  Prison Break comes to mind as a perfect show for that formula. Once they got out of the prison at the end of season one the show spun into a new direction in season two only to have the cast thrown into an even rougher prison in season three, I’m guessing to reclaim some familiarity (somewhere along the line I dropped out).  

    The lead actor’s “full upper body tatoo with map of prison” was such a great creative element that it became laughable when they got out and it could never be used again. He was then forced to wear sweaters and long sleeve shirts the rest of the run so he wouldn’t have to spend hours in make-up while someone painstaking reapplied, what was now a useless device.  But if they hadn’t broken out of the prison after season one, that show would have been a perfect target for being called a “one trick pony”.  I think with the right long term vision, appropriate pacing and solid writing a show like Prison Break could have been a great single season show, or perhaps a three year show with a defined start & end all set in the first season location. 


  • Anonymous

    Interesting points but you have overlook how the TV series life cycle works.  In the beginning, there is the word of God, or in the case of TV a pilot episode.  It’s shopped around until a network picks it up – or when it’s a cable channel the show is requested from a production company and then the channel sets any schedule it wants so things may or may not adhere to what I am about to say below – and then a lot of 10-20 (but usually 13) shows is ordered and filmed.  This process can come to its completion months before the first episode actually airs.  Then the ratings come in and, when multiple episodes are successful, the show is then picked up to either fill the rest of the current season or for a full 2nd season.

    In between the completion of the initial order of episodes and the request for more episodes, as much as a year can have passed with absolutely no work being done (producers can work behind the scenes but SWA and DGA rules prohibit writers and directors from participating in prep work unless they are getting paid and on a new show there is rarely a budget to allow for this).

    Then BAM! the renewal is received and the writing staff and producers have to scramble to get the episodes ready in time for airing.  For a new show on a regular network getting its first notice that it is being renewed for a second season can come as early as November but because its new it can come late as March for an initial air date due the following September or October.  That is a highly compressed time frame to create new stories and there is a much shortened vetting process to get a show out.  When a show is up and running, story lines and scripts are banded about sometimes years before they are actually committed to air.  That simply is not an option on a new TV show.  

    There are other variables too.  The writing staff for the 2nd season may change up and not be as competent, clued in, or enthusiastic as the staff who wrote the 1st season.  There’s the trick of figuring out what worked and what didn’t in the 1st season, trying to replicate the success without replicating the story, and with actors directors and writers 9not) having a full understanding of the nature of the characters that are being portrayed.

    If all you want to do is watch a good premise play out then watch the BBC (or for entertaining soapy drek watch a Latin drama).  They sure do make good shows but they rarely last more than a few years and their seasons, called series over there,  are usually 6-8 episodes long a year (Dr. Who and Being Human being the rare exception).  While I enjoy that, I prefer the American model of having a show and its characters evolve over years and showing the intricacies and variables of a main story, giving it depth and breadth beyond anything that a movie can do.

  • Crackakilla

    Dont confuse Grasmeykins with how TV shows and Tv production actually works… he is the most misinformed  bloogger/reporter/.fantwat on the net…

  • Hunterdan

    Firefly season two was awesome….no..wait…DOH!

  •!/ David R. Schmitt

     Everyone I’ve ever talked to thought Heroes first season was by far the best. If it wasn’t for such a strong first season then no others would have followed. Season three was much worse however.