Musicians like to say that second albums are often weaker than first albums, because you have your entire life to prepare for the first one and six months to make the second. Something like this rule obtains in TV as well.
How many times have you seen a series perform strongly out of the gate, only to falter when it returned for another go-round? But it’s the second season that often defines the character of a series. It’s a test of inventiveness as well as of stamina, and very often when you look back on a long-running show that’s mostly great, mostly terrible, or maddeningly inconsistent, you realize that season two is where the show’s true potential (or lack thereof) started to come into focus. While I was rewatching The Sopranos, Seinfeld, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Simpsons, and other canonical shows recently, it became clear that the series we think of when we say those titles were forged, or started to be forged, the second time around. Something about getting through the pop-culture furnace of season-one expectations unscathed makes showrunners and their teams relax, stretch their legs, and take risks, sometimes big ones.
Season two of The Sopranos started, a touch self-consciously, with a montage scored to Frank Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year,” but because the series had in fact enjoyed one of the very best inaugural seasons ever, it felt more like a promise of invention to come than an instance of a show patting itself on the back. What followed was a quieter, more disjointed, but more intuitive batch of episodes, an anthology of interrelated, forward–moving short stories in contrast to season one’s blackly comedic novel, and the rest of the series ultimately owed more to season two than season one.
Sometimes the stench of the sophomore jinx is so strong that you can barely stand to tune in. One of the most notorious recent examples is Homeland, which had one of the strongest debut seasons in memory but stumbled when it came back and didn’t untangle the messes it created for itself until season four. (It’s almost as good as it’s ever been right now.) Another is Fox’s action series Human Target, which nailed an Ocean’s Eleven–style, lighthearted-caper mood in season one but became disjointed and strangely mean-spirited in season two (a devolution that some speculated was owed to network tinkering that aimed to turn a critically acclaimed, modestly successful show into a hit). Glee had similar trouble sustaining. This has often been the case with projects by writer–producer Ryan Murphy; the high-school-musical drama’s first season was perfect, on its own kooky and admittedly shameless terms, but in season two the seams in the concept had already started to show, and they only widened as the show moved into seasons three and four.
We’ve already seen quite a few promising series crater this year in their return engagements: The Last Man on Earth, already a one-joke premise that was pushing its luck, has been running on fumes this time out, and Empire, while still enjoyable, seems at once more brazenly ambitious (particularly in its satirical or politically provocative moments) and less coherent (the show’s M.O. of giving audiences a finale-worthy explosion of melodrama every few minutes is getting tiresome, which is surely the opposite of the effect the producers wanted). Season two of True Detective was (legendarily) a disaster. Season one was tightly written and elegantly directed and benefited enormously from witty banter and strong comic chemistry between its leads; it was so compelling in total that viewers were willing to forgive some of the trashier, stupider, more predictable aspects. Season two had few compensatory virtues. It was a garbage Dumpster filled with incoherent and repetitious plot devices and warmed-over dude-bro-noir moping; Colin Farrell’s mustache was the most interesting character, and he shaved it off halfway through.
On the plus side, we’ve seen a lot of returning series step their games up to dazzling effect. In season two, the biblically inflected trauma drama The Leftovers changed locations, introduced a lot of new major characters, and complicated its already mesmerizing mythology; if it keeps reinventing itself from week to week in ways that further the show’s themes rather than evade them, it could become one of the all-time great HBO dramas. Black-ish was one of last season’s most delightful new sitcoms — one that was important for a lot of reasons but carried itself as if it were no big deal at all. Season two is already shaping up to be one of the finest second seasons in memory. From star Anthony Anderson’s lead performance, which has become more brazenly Jackie Gleason–esque in its bigness, to the Norman Lear–influenced plotlines, which examine everything from handgun ownership and class resentment on Halloween to the sanctity of the barbershop and the cultural politics of black hair care, it has become the rare comedy that takes bold leaps and nearly always sticks the landing. Fargo’s second season has widened the show’s scope and deepened its style while strengthening its claim to not just being a Coen-brothers knockoff, or even a Coen–esque show, but its own strange thing. All the elements you expect from the show are firmly in place, including eccentric monologues and eruptions of bloody, often mournful violence, and the show sprinkles every frame with Easter-egg-type references to Joel and Ethan’s work (including UFOs). But the 1970s period details, such as split-screen montages, deep-cut rock and roll, and Ronald Reagan (played by Bruce Campbell), somehow feel like organic extensions of the series’ gestalt rather than annoying attempts at quirk.
There have also been examples of shows where the critical jury might still be out on some of the changes from seasons one to two, but what’s onscreen is fascinating enough that you’re willing to follow wherever the writers lead. You’re the Worst has pushed deeper into the psychology of its characters and become much darker than it was in season one, often at the expense of laughs; there are now a lot of moments when defining the show mainly as a comedy feels like a stretch. But a lot of supposed comedies have done that, in fascinating ways, and there’s a precedent for notable shows that are more funny–poignant or funny-weird than just plain funny. As long as a show seems to be shape-shifting out of creative restlessness or a desire to surprise, and not to distract audiences from the fact it has nothing to say and nowhere to go, there is no such thing as a change for the worse.
*This article appears in the November 30, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.