I remember back when Lost was on the air, some of my friends had gotten hooked on Season One, but then got disgusted with Season Two and jumped ship, complaining that the characters no longer felt like they were real people–that they were more like pawns in the hands of the show’s creators. That conversation has stuck with me since then, and as I’ve watched television shows developing in the years since, I think I’ve seen a pattern developing:
Crappy Season Twos.
In addition to Lost, I’ve personally seen this pop up in various other series: Angel and Heroes come to mind. Veronica Mars suffered from it somewhat. 24 sort of puttered through some of its later seasons, as did Alias. Buffy had consistent issues with the beginnings of its first three seasons or so. Battlestar Galactica had some bumps toward the front half of season two, as well.
Why is this, you ask?
I have an answer. A theory, at least. It seems to me that television series as we know them are evolving into Something Else. It started with shows like Twin Peaks and the X-Files. Shows that demanded a lot from their viewers. Shows that expected viewers to obsess about them. To follow hints and clues down a rabbit hole of trivia and theories. Buffy and Angel built on this, Alias branched out into other genres–you get the trend. Whereas in the past you had tv shows that were fairly stable (think of MASH or the many Star Treks, for example)–shows where the main characters remained fairly constant, with the main conflict of the show stemming from what adventures those characters fell into next. It’s like most of the James Bond movies. Bond never really changes (except the actor playing him). He’s suave, collected, full of one liners–he’s Bond.
Until Daniel Craig, where suddenly James Bond has a plot arc. He grows. He changes. Do you see the difference? That’s what’s happening to tv shows. I’m not saying the old style of shows don’t exist anymore. You’ve got plenty of sitcoms full of that style, and you always have Law & Order, CSI and the like. But there’s a new niche in town, and it’s closer to a really long mini-series than it is to a standard tv show.
But this style of show is still a work in progress. Creators haven’t quite figured out how they work just yet, and so often times they have some really rough edges. I’d say it’s because this new style of show has three very different stages in its life. Stages that each have their own pitfalls. To me, they seem like the three pieces of a standard fantasy trilogy.
In Book One, you set the stage. You provide interesting characters and conflicts. You establish how the world works, and what makes it unique. This is the Season One of most of these shows. (Sometimes it bleeds into Season Two a tad.) For the most part, these shows do really well with Season One, because that’s how they came into existence in the first place: they had a great hook. They knew how to start and capture audiences.
But then comes Book Two. The second part of any trilogy is a tricky beast. You’ve got to sustain the tension and make it bridge to Book Three without making Book Two seem lame and drawn out. Authors these days know how to do that, but tv shows are different. In books, authors can introduce new characters. They can drastically change the setting, explore new main leads–do all sorts of things to keep it interesting. That’s now how it works in a typical tv show, however. You’ve established who the main characters are. They’re all paid by actors who have contracts. You can’t abandon your leads. You don’t have enough money to start paying brand new actors to get major roles (typically). So all your conflict has to come from the pieces already in play.
This means you have to start mixing things up. Make some characters start doing different things. Have them show that they weren’t all they seemed to be in Season One. If your audience really liked how things were in Season One, they can start to feel betrayed by Season Two. Characters you loved are suddenly doing things you hate, and that’s a hard pill to swallow–especially when you’re forced by the nature of the show to wait for a week to see new content each time. It can kill a series. What’s worse, is that by the nature of tv up to now, shows never knew how long their Book Two would last. It might be for a season, it might be for five seasons. You have to somehow keep changing things up without alienating your audience, but also without becoming boring. Good luck with that.
And then of course there’s the end. Most people can do a Book Three: the grand finale. You’ve been building up to a climax, but it’s different with television. For one thing, who knows if you ever get your Book Three. You could get canceled (Firefly). You could get the ax midseason. You never know. And even if you do get your shot, you have an audience that has invested *years* into your product. They have very firm ideas of how it should finish. If you don’t meet those expectations–or better yet, exceed them–then you’ll be accused of ruining everything.
And even if you have everything planned out ahead of time–your whole show’s arc ready to go–who knows what the audience’s reaction will do to that. Maybe you suddenly discover an actor who’s doing great, and everyone wants him to be the new lead, or at least play a main role (ala Ben in Lost). And now you have to accommodate that, which might ruin all your carefully laid plans.
This “new beast” is one of the reasons I think you’ve seen show creators start turning to fantasy for inspiration. Game of Thrones. True Blood. Prepackaged, multi-arc stories ready and rearing to be adapted to the small screen, if you can weather the ups and downs.
Anyway. I’ve gone on about this enough. What do you have to say about it? Am I right? Way off base? In either case, I’ll be interested to see where television heads next. I’ve been loving the new style of show, and I look forward to seeing how it further evolves.