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Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Second Season Syndrome

Just finished Season 2 of Daredevil, and over the last 13 episodes, I've been struck by the odd idea that second seasons of shows are typically the best of all.

It shouldn't be too much of a surprise, but it's something that had never occurred to me before. In this specific case, Season 1 of Daredevil was focused on setting the scene, with Matt Murdock not donning the red suit until the very end of the season finale. This led to a lot of stuff that we saw play out in Season 2, like the Hand and more of the Kingpin's machinations, but whereas getting through Season 1 was kind of a slog, I couldn't get enough of Season 2 - to the point that I've been watching two episodes a day this week.

I can think of a few other examples, like the Big Bang Theory, Star Trek: TOS, Justified or (more controversially) the Wire. I can also think of a few counter-examples, notably Heroes, which apparently turned into a real stinker in its second season.

But thinking about it, I believe that improving in the second season or iteration is a lot more common for TV shows than other media. The "difficult second album" or "shitty sequel" is almost axiomatic for music and movies - in the case of the latter, a band or artist that's emerged with a singular vision that they developed over years is suddenly expected to hit it big again in vastly different circumstances, while for movies a sequel is usually driven by similar dynamics in that the studios and financiers want more of the same.

Where TV shows have the edge, I believe, is that by being serialized they're expected to continue, and lead on to bigger and better. A hit CD or movie or novel, as I said, emerges from nowhere and makes everyone fall in love with it, but generally speaking stands on its own. JRR Tolkien took so long to write The Lord of the Rings because he probably never expected The Hobbit to be so resonant (and yeah, WWII-related paper shortages and bombings likely also helped).

A TV show, by contrast, has the time (unless it's a real stinker from the start) to figure out its strengths and weaknesses, and calibrate accordingly, both across a single season and across multiple seasons. To cite the Big Bang Theory again, the first couple episodes are pretty painful to watch, thanks to some weird gender politics and treatment of socially awkward types. But as the relationships fleshed out, the season ended strongly, and when it came back for Season 2, the show fired on all cylinders until about the middle of Season 3, when Penny dumped Leonard.

Or, in the case of a show that starts well, the second season allows the writers to expand on the universe. This is the case with Justified, where the Crowder storyline from the first season expands out to include other characters from Harlan County, like the Bennett Clan, who insinuate themselves into proceedings for the rest of the show (or at least, through to Season 5, which is as far as I've gotten).

Similarly with the Wire, the second season allowed the creators to show that it wasn't simply about cops and drug dealers, by showing how the decay and hopelessness of the West Baltimore projects was mirrored in the destruction of the dockworkers' livelihood.

Of course, not all shows improve in the second season - Star Trek: The Next Generation didn't get good until Season 3, and Grimm, as I've said, plodded along as a kind of guilty pleasure until the end of Season 4 when the writers decided to throw everything out the window and go apeshit. Others, like the aforementioned Heroes, are so perfect in the first season that they can never live up to that early promise - or they write themselves into a corner with an overarching plot that gets too convoluted to ever resolve.

Daredevil, pleasingly, managed to open out its universe in ways that felt right, and if the overall plot was more disjointed than in Season 1, it just all felt much more assured. What I'm a little concerned about is Season 2 of Mr. Robot - the first season felt so perfectly done, and went to such interesting places, that I have trouble imagining how they top it.

Because that's what you're meant to do in creative endeavors - or really anything. Doing a great job at first is wonderful, but once you show what you can do you're held to that standard for ever after. Satisfying customers is simple, but not easy, because it involves doing the same thing, but better. So I'll be checking out reviews and ratings for this new season of Mr. Robot - fingers crossed.