matt zoller seitz

Seitz: A TV Show’s Second Season Is As Important As Its First — Maybe More So

Watching the sophomore seasons of Wilfred and Falling Skies makes me think that a show’s second season is as important as its first — maybe more so. When a series limps through one season or less, then gets axed, viewers can take comfort in might-have-beens, and speculate on what a difference better PR, a bigger budget, or different actors would have made. But when a series heads into a second season, such chatter becomes a sideshow to a discussion of what’s actually onscreen. And what’s onscreen can’t be denied. If you defended a first-season show that you knew deep-down was creatively not quite there, your special pleading sounds naïve or dishonest when it continues to stumble through season two. But when a not-quite-there show figures itself out, produces one solid episode after another, and starts walking with a spring in its step, you feel a misplaced sense of pride as you watch: Yeah, see? That’s my show! I told you it was good! The chance to watch this process is part of the fun of being a viewer. It’s like watching a band or sports team learn how to play together. Or not.

When a show starts strong and grows stronger, it’s elating: Breaking Bad, Archer, Mad Men, Community, Louie, Parks and Recreation, and Justified are but a few recent, notable series that struck me as experiencing immense creative growth spurts in year two. Then there’s the middle-ground situation: a show that starts out promising but wobbly, then rights itself. Boardwalk Empire, for instance, was handsome and compelling but uneven and undeservedly self-satisfied during its first season; but at some point during season two, it pretty much quit trying to be The Godfather or Deadwood, and concentrated on its two biggest strengths, gangland melodrama and sub-Freudian perversity, and delivered a string of B+ to A+ episodes capped by a knockout finale.

Walking Dead’s course correction was even more surprising. It nearly lost me at several points during season one and the first half of season two (which was so bad that by that point I was hate-watching it). Then, miraculously, it got better, exhibiting B-movie terseness and understated visual wit that should have been present from the start. Although it has not overcome its central flaws — unearned self-seriousness and monologuing milquetoast heroes — it has improved enough for me to give it another shot without feeling like a sucker. Of course, the worst-case scenario in this two-season evolution theory is a series that starts out solid, then falls apart in season two. The most painful recent example is Fox’s Human Target, which was silly, exciting, and charming during its first season, then became such a pandering botch during season two that when I swore to latecomers that it used to be good, they wouldn’t believe me.

Right now, the sophomore series Wilfred and Falling Skies seem as though they could go any one of these ways.  They’re good and likable enough that when I stumble upon an episode of either series, I usually watch it all the way through. The problem is, neither is special enough to land on my personal “can’t miss” list, and I get frustrated by all the hints of something greater bubbling, unrealized, beneath their surfaces. They’re both in much better shape than, say, The Walking Dead, which went from promising to weak to laughably bad before pulling itself out of what seemed like a permanent tailspin, and they’re in nowhere near as bad a shape as The Killing, which improved a little bit in season two but still felt like a mediocre episode of Cold Case marinated in sixties European art cinema ennui and stretched out to 26 hours. Wilfred is much more pleasant and consistently enjoyable than Falling Skies, but that might be because the stakes are much lower. It’s a low-key character comedy rather than a sprawling pulp sci-fi saga with a huge ensemble cast, and its premise is just odd enough that it doesn’t have to constantly fight to seem as memorable as whatever predecessors inspired it.

FX’s remake of the Australian series about Ryan (Elijah Wood), a disturbed man who hallucinates that the titular dog is a human in a dog suit, is odd and twee but often beguiling. At times it has the benevolently kooky vibe of Harvey, wherein Elwood P. Dowd hallucinates a six-foot rabbit who (maybe) isn’t there. Other times it’s as if somebody read a book about the Son of Sam killings and thought, “Take away the murders and mass hysteria, and this might make a good sitcom.” Its main selling point is Wood, whose everysprite charm hasn’t gotten its critical due. Smallish and stick-thin, Wood seems forever at risk of slipping through the space between floorboards or getting blown away by a mild breeze. He and the show are adept at turning his visual harmlessness into a sight gag and a source of sympathy. If the character were slightly taller or heavier, or played by an actor without Wood’s warmth and angel eyes, the premise of Wilfred would seem menacing rather than sweet: more Son of Sam than Harvey. We’d all be waiting for the series finale in which Ryan bays at the moon and then straps on guns. (Bear in mind that I haven’t seen the original series; if Wilfred is headed in that direction, I’d rather not know).

Have I just talked myself into continuing to watch Wilfred? Maybe. The show’s biggest downside is its repetitiveness. I like how series creator Jason Gann (who plays the titular pooch) and his writers turn the dog-man into a projection of Ryan’s emotionally suffocated id without making a big writerly deal of it. We’ve gotten more of this in early episodes of season two, which place Ryan in a boring white-collar office ruled by an arrogant ninny of a boss (Stephen Weber, brilliant) and match him up with a sweet, flirty co-worker, Amanda (Allison Mack of Smallville). I dig the show’s measured tone, always edging toward hysteria but rarely crossing over. (Every episode is directed either by Randall Einhorn or Victor Nelli, Jr., both veterans of the American The Office.) But despite the terse titles suggesting emotional states or epiphanies — “Conscience,” “Pride,” “Progress,” “Dignity,” etc – and a funny cameo by Robin Williams as the shrink from Good Will Hunting, the show’s revelations are ultimately so minor that when I check out for a few episodes and then check back in, I rarely feel as though I’ve missed much. Wilfred isn’t quite a “Seen one, seen ‘em all” show, but it’s trending in that direction. If the series doesn’t either deepen or spring real surprises, I can’t envision sticking with it. Mostly, it just makes me want to re-watch HBO’s brilliant, underappreciated In Treatment.

Wilfred is in much better shape than Falling Skies, a season-two series that I really, really wanted to like but still can’t quite recommend. This TNT alien invasion from Saving Private Ryan writer Robert Rodat and producer Steven Spielberg is a sci-fi gumbo, stirring in elements from V, Independence Day, and bits of the Body Snatchers films and Croenenbergian body-horror. The special effects have improved quite a bit since season one, and the dramaturgy has gotten a lot less creaky and preachy. The Revolutionary War parallels, which were previously carried via monologues and didja-know? factoids, are now carried mostly through situations and shots, such as the ongoing motif of the human heroes crouched in underbrush waiting to ambush a technologically superior foe. The arachnid-humanoid Skitters are scary enough to have given me my first TV-induced nightmare since The X-Files was on the air, and the writers have upped the dramatic stakes by making us wonder if former abductees — including Noah Wyle’s history professor hero, Tom Mason, and his younger son Ben (Connor Jessup) — are traumatized rebels fighting the good fight or secret sleeper agents who could suddenly turn on their colleagues. The filmmaking is sharp and sometimes exceptional, with lengthy tracking shots and cunningly staged moments of suspense and graphic violence. 

But if these virtues were enough to brand a series as unmissable, I’d DVR half the scripted shows on television. Falling Skies is better than it used to be, but it’s still whiffing the allegory, the action, and the characterization: three strikes and you’re out. Will Patton transforms gruff but noble Captain Dan Weaver from a stock character into a person, Wyle acquires more gravitas the sadder and more exhausted he seems, and Moon Bloodgood’s Dr. Ann Glass is growing on me. But their lines are so clichéd that sometimes you can finish the dialogue in tandem with the actors, they all look way too clean and groomed to be living on the run, and I have yet to be convinced that the Skitters inability to find them is part of some nefarious grand plan rather than the byproduct of sloppy world-planning, though I suppose the show might still prove me wrong on that. (One action sequence in the back-to-back season two premiere episodes had the rebels masking the heat from their vehicles so that the aliens wouldn’t detect a troop movement; apparently the extraterrestrials can travel a jillion light years with no trouble, but their heat-vision capability is stuck somewhere around 1956.)

And this stubbly, long-haired Pope character (John Cunningham) has got to go; whether the problem is bad writing, miscasting, or some combination, the character never convinces me that he’s as deadly, selfish, or menacing as the show always claims. He struts and snarls like a dollar-store Snake Plissken. The character is wearing a pop-mythological aura that’s way too big for him, much like Falling Skies – a show that, like Wilfred, is always likeable but rarely memorable. Their sophomore slumps had better end soon, otherwise both these shows will be Trivial Pursuit questions.

Seitz: In Praise of Second Seasons