Which Sophomore Shows Will Thrive, and Which Will Take a Ratings Dive?

Photo: Maya Robinson and Photos by CBS, FOX, NBC and ABC

Network television’s new fall season kicks off today, officially ushering in the arrival of a couple dozen shiny new series. Broadcasters have invested millions in the production and promotion of these newcomers, and after months of hype, we’ll now finally get to see which ones have a future — and which will end up buried next to the corpses of long-forgotten short-timers such as My Own Worst Enemy, The Unusuals, or Life on a Stick. Vulture and other business and entertainment outlets will pay lots of attention to these debuts over the coming weeks (check back tomorrow for the first big Nielsen report card). Yet despite the understandable obsession with what’s new, network suits will be following another class of programs nearly as closely: the sophomores. These are the shows which defied network TV’s long odds to make it to a second season and now have to prove they really do have long-term value. This has become particularly true in recent years: With breakout hits less common, series which in the past might not have graduated to a second season are now getting more time to connect with audiences. Year two can be the time when network patience either pays off with a sophomore surge (see: ScandalChicago Fire) or is rewarded with definitive audience rejection (Smash, Revolution).

While it’s obviously too soon to precisely predict how the 2014–15 season’s crop of sophomores will end up performing, the early signs look promising. Unlike many past years, none of the seven series returning from last fall seem headed for certain doom right now, the way ABC’s Neighbors did last September or Fox’s Touch did two seasons ago. Even the shakiest sophomore ratings performer, Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, looks likely to make it to a third season, if only because Fox’s overall live-action comedy cupboard is so bare. If anything, there’s a case to be made that several of the sophomores are poised to take off in their second years, or at least grow their audience.

Read on for our guide to which returning series from the Big Four broadcast nets seem headed for a sophomore surge, based on how they finished their first seasons and how new time slots and new competition are likely to impact their performance this year. (One note: Don’t be alarmed by the absence of Resurrection, About a Boy, or Chicago P.D. Somewhat arbitrarily, we decided to only look at programs that debuted last fall, and to ignore reality shows altogether. The Vulture crystal ball can only predict so much.)

Sleepy Hollow (Fox)
Season one report card: One of last season’s true breakout hits. Season one, which ran just 13 episodes, averaged over 11 million viewers and ended up a Top 10 hit among viewers under 50. The show’s Nielsen might was coupled with even better word of mouth, not because Sleepy redefined TV drama or soared to cable-like levels of sophistication, but because it was so much damn fun. In that sense, it most closely resembles ABC’s recent success with Once Upon a Time, a series that could’ve marginalized itself as geeky sci-fi but quickly established itself as one of TV’s few family-friendly adventures.
Odds of a sophomore surge: Moderate. Sleepy ended in fine shape creatively, with a great cliff-hanger and its fan base fully invested in the yarn producers had spun over season one. It’s hard not to imagine most season one viewers returning and maybe bringing with them a few friends or family members curious to see what all the fuss is about. But a couple of factors could dampen Sleepy’s momentum. For one thing, Fox’s decision to limit the show’s freshman season to 13 episodes means it’s been about eight months since a new episode aired — standard for cable shows, but unusual for broadcast series. What’s not known is whether the extra time will result in some viewers forgetting the show, or if the long break will actually have ended up giving audiences overloaded with choices more time to catch up via VOD or streaming. Equally mysterious is how well Sleepy will pair with new lead-in Gotham. The comic-book drama is Fox’s biggest fall gun, and it should draw big crowds its first week or two. But both Bones and the short-lived Almost Human were broader based than the niche-y Gotham and in some ways feel more compatible with the old-school entertainment that Sleepy serves up. Sleepy has proven it’s a self-starter that can do well on its own, but whether it grows in year two might well depend on how Fox’s 8 p.m. show does.  

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC)
Season one report card: ABC’s biggest new fall show last year, a Top 10 hit among viewers under 50 and a big beneficiary of time-shifting (its demo numbers jump nearly 70 percent once DVR plays are counted). On the downside, loyal Marvel-istas complained bitterly about the show’s creative direction through most of its run (though buzz got better late in the season), and most media reports about S.H.I.E.L.D. painted the series (fairly or not) as a bit of a Nielsen disappointment given its auspices. 
Odds of a sophomore surge: Low. ABC is moving the show to 9 p.m. Tuesdays, which means it no long will have to go up against NBC’s The Voice most weeks or CBS’s original recipe NCIS. But ABC is also doing the show zero favors by scheduling a pair of likely-to-be low-rated rom-coms (Selfie and Manhattan Love Story) as its new lead-in. Plus, despite attempts to make it a “villain of the week” procedural, S.H.I.E.L.D. is still at its heart a mythology-driven show, one not welcoming to outsiders not already familiar with its universe. If the audience still watching the show last May returns, ABC will be very happy with S.H.I.E.L.D., but a sudden season-two growth spurt seems unlikely.

The Goldbergs (ABC)
Season one report card: When ABC first screened this ’80’s-set family comedy for critics and reporters over a year ago, two questions immediately popped up: Is Jeff Garlin always going to yell so much, and why isn’t this show scheduled on Wednesday nights? Garlin quickly turned down his volume just a scooch, but Alphabet execs (stubbornly, if you ask us) kept The Goldbergs in a Tuesday-night quarantine for the length of its first season, pairing it with the wholly incompatible, young-male-skewing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. And yet, creator Adam Goldberg’s fictional version of his real-life fam hung in there, drawing a consistent audience of around 7 million viewers (including those who watched via DVR). While that’s not a big number by broadcast network standards, The Goldbergs did a very good job of bringing one of ABC’s key constituencies to Tuesday nights: Young women under 50. Among that target demo, The Goldbergs averaged a 2.5 rating, holding on to nearly all of its lead-in from S.H.I.E.L.D. (2.7 among women under 50) and within spitting distance of Wednesday comedies such as The Middle (2.8) and Super Fun Night (2.9, with the advantage of a massive 5.3 lead-in from Modern Family). Young males who came to ABC for their Marvel fix might not have had much use for The Goldbergs, but the masses of younger women who love ABC’s Wednesday comedies clearly demonstrated an interest in the show.
Odds of a sophomore surge: Excellent. Moving behind The Middle will give The Goldbergs a bigger, broader lead-in than it was getting from S.H.I.E.L.D. by the end of last season. (Last May, the latter series was averaging a little more than 5 million same-day viewers, while The Middle was drawing close to 7 million.) Plus, the best lead-in for a comedy is almost always another comedy. ABC has also done a great job giving Goldbergs added exposure over the summer, immediately shifting reruns to Wednesdays in June and running a couple of mini-marathons to hook in new audiences. Those Goldbergs reruns scored identical numbers to reruns of ABC’s other Wednesday comedies, suggesting the network has found a perfect home for its 1980s refugees.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)
Season one report card: If critical love and Nielsen numbers were aligned, this would’ve been one of last season’s biggest hits. Instead, Brooklyn has to settle for being one of the year’s best-reviewed new shows, a Golden Globe winner, and a so-so ratings performer (average audience: 5 million viewers). The show’s biggest problem last season was that it didn’t mesh with anything on Fox’s Tuesday comedy lineup. Instead of sticking with a logical plan and pairing Brooklyn with the late, beloved-by-many Enlisted, Fox at first tried to arrange a marriage with the bawdy multi-cam Dads. When that predictably failed, the network then put Brooklyn behind a fast-fading New Girl. Buzz on Brooklyn grew louder and more positive as the show found its comedic footing, but Fox was never really able to back it up with an appropriate companion. The good news: Enough viewers found the show anyway, and its DVR lift was a hefty 64 percent. 
Odds of a sophomore surge: Moderate. Fox has shifted Brooklyn to an unusual time slot: Sundays at 8:30, hammocked between animated icons The Simpsons and Family Guy. Some TV types Vulture consulted think this is bananas thinking on Fox’s part, since there’s little history of 'toons and live-action shows playing well together on network TV. But, honestly, Sundays seem the safest spot on Fox’s troubled lineup for Brooklyn to build an audience. The Simpsons, particularly on nights when Fox has big NFL games, delivers a much bigger and broader lead-in than anything on Tuesdays. And while Brooklyn isn’t a particularly macho show, it did do much better among men than women last year; Fox’s Sunday schedule is a young-dude magnet. If live action and animation can coexist peacefully on Adult Swim, there’s no reason Bart Simpson can’t end up being Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s best bud.

Mom (CBS)
Season one report card: It did fine on Mondays behind CBS’s Mike & Molly, holding on to most of its lead-in among viewers under 50. The problem for the Eye is that, with How I Met Your Mother gone and Two and a Half Men entering its final season, it doesn’t need another perfectly serviceable sitcom to fill a half-hour slot. It needs hits. And while the critical buzz on Mom was actually pretty darn good — particularly for actors Anna Faris and Allison Janney — the show had a hard time breaking out last season as part of a CBS Monday comedy block which had clearly seen better days. CBS execs, however, love their Mom, and given how hard it’s been for any network comedy to pop lately, renewing the show was a no-brainer.
Odds of a sophomore surge: Excellent, at least in the short term. Mom’s first six weeks of episodes will air behind original episodes of blockbuster hit The Big Bang Theory, which is temporarily relocating to 8 p.m. Mondays as a result of CBS’s Thursday football package. This will almost certainly lead to new viewers sampling Mom and a big surge in overall audience. On October 27, however, 2 Broke Girls will replace Bang as Mom’s lead-in, taking with it a huge chunk of the audience. And yet, Mom might still do better at 8:30 than it had been doing at 9:30 p.m. last season. While 2 Broke has lost some luster, it’s still got more buzz than Mike & Molly and skews a bit younger, both factors that should help Mom. Plus, reruns of Mom have done surprisingly well this summer, indicating viewers who’d heard good things about the show decided to check it out. And while Emmys don’t always translate into ratings, the fact that Janney took home a Best Supporting Actress statuette last month for her work on Mom certainly doesn’t hurt. 

The Blacklist (NBC)
Season one report card: A monster hit that helped transform NBC from also-ran to competitive player in the ratings game. Season one scored an average audience of just under 17 million of viewers, and while airing behind The Voice surely helped, by the end of its first year, Blacklist was bringing in its own audience. The surest sign it was no time-period hit: Over 6 million viewers made a weekly habit of recording and watching the show each week, more than any other show on TV (including CBS’s Big Bang Theory). 
Odds of a sophomore surge: Moderate. Blacklist really doesn’t need to do any better than it already is: It’s a transformative hit for NBC and would still be so even if it declined a bit in season two. Complicating any forecast for its future: NBC is splitting the show’s second season in two and moving it to a new night. Fall episodes remain on Mondays at 10, but in November, the show disappears for three months before relocating in February to Thursdays at 9 p.m. There’s no reason to think Blacklist won’t do fine in the fall, though if ratings for The Voice continue to trend downward (as seems likely), it could hurt Blacklist on the margins. A bigger question mark is how the show does on Thursdays, when it’ll face off against ABC’s equally, er, red-hot Scandal and will have no big hit as a lead-in. There’s no doubt it will work on Thursdays, dramatically improving NBC’s ratings on the night and bringing much of its audience with it. NBC’s decision to herald the move by airing an episode of Blacklist after the Super Bowl could also help it find new viewers. But all the change, combined with the high bar Blacklist set for itself freshman year, makes a season-two uptick a 50-50 proposition at best.

The Millers (CBS)
Season one report card: On paper, creator Greg Garcia’s family comedy was a big hit, drawing more viewers — over 12 million most weeks — than any new comedy on TV last year. In fact, The Millers is a classic time-period “hit,” its success almost entirely the product of the fact that it follows the juggernaut known as The Big Bang Theory. Almost one out of two Big Bang viewers changed the channel rather than watch The Millers, and almost nobody bothered to DVR it, either: The series’ ratings inched up just 12 percent once seven days of time-shifting were tallied last season, one of the smallest increases of any scripted show on network TV. (By contrast, another CBS Thursday show, Elementary, saw its viewership spike 82 percent post-DVR last year.) Still, 12 million viewers is still 12 million viewers, and CBS produces The Millers, giving it every incentive to keep it on the air until it collects enough episodes to reap millions in profit from rerun sales. 
Odds of a sophomore surge: Low. The Millers will still air behind Big Bang when it returns next month, and the fact that it’ll be familiar to the Big Bang audience might convince a few to give the show a second chance. NBC has also abandoned (its admittedly low-rated) 8 p.m. comedy block, leaving CBS as the only sitcom alternative in the hour. And Sean Hayes has been added to the cast, though it’s not clear if that move will repel as many viewers as it attracts. But it’s also possible that Big Bang’s age, plus CBS’s decision to temporarily shift the series to Mondays before returning it to Thursdays, could shake up viewing habits enough to slightly weaken Big Bang’s same-day ratings. And that’s key for The Millers, since folks who watch Big Bang via DVR can’t simply stay tuned to watch the comedic stylings of Arnett and Martindale. What seems most likely is that The Millers will continue to do okay, drawing either a slightly larger or slightly smaller audience than it did last season and staying on the air for approximately 100 mostly forgettable episodes. Hey, it worked for Rules of Engagement and Caroline in the City!