How buzz-worthy shows avoid a slowdown in their second season

Why This Matters: Every creator hopes for a good, long run for their show, but a successful second season may be a series’ toughest hurdle.

Killing Eve was perhaps the buzziest hit of 2018. The BBC America drama has Sandra Oh as a bored MI6 agent and Jodie Comer as a psychopathic-yet-stylish assassin, the two characters playing cat and mouse — or cat and cat, as executive producer Phoebe Waller-Bridge has put it — across the globe before their fateful interaction. It also had a wunderkind behind the camera in Waller-Bridge, a young British talent who’d made her name in comedy, thanks to Fleabag, before developing this taut thriller.

Killing Eve was a finalist for top drama at the 2019 Golden Globe Awards. It didn’t win, but Oh, who co-hosted the Globes, did get best actress.

As season two of Killing Eve starts April 7, there’s an exceedingly tall task at hand for the producers and stars: How to make the new season as compelling as the first, and avoid the dreaded sophomore slump that so many hot rookie shows have fallen victim to. Momentum in season two can be key to winning seasons three, four and beyond.

“We’re always cautious, but cautiously optimistic,” David Madden, president of programming at BBC America parent AMC Networks and AMC Studios, said. “We’re hopeful Killing Eve is still on an upswing. We think it’s still on an upswing.”

Not a Freshman, Not All that Fresh

Also facing down the harrowing prospect of a sophomore slump is HBO dark comedy Barry, which was nominated for a best comedy Emmy last year. In a profile on star Bill Hader, The New Yorker detailed the sophomore slump, mentioning Netflix’s Bloodline, Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle and USA’s Mr. Robot, among others, as examples.

“You feel the media ecosystem’s effect within the frame of the art: ‘We have 10 hours to fill, and not enough ideas to fill it,’ ” Matt Stone, creator of Comedy Central’s South Park, explained. “As a creator, you don’t quite know why the first season worked, and you’re trying to deconstruct the formula even as you’re trying to surpass it.”

The sophomore slump has long been a part of TV history. As the adage goes about novels or record albums, it too goes for television: You have 25 years to do the first, and six months to come up with the second. It is the buzziest shows, such as True Detective or Homeland, that seem to fall the farthest in season two. For its part, season one of True Detective averaged 11.9 million total viewers in 2014, while season two had 10.9 million a year later. Season three, which started Jan. 13, averaged 8.1 million — the drop thanks to both a lackluster season two and the natural degradation of ratings.

“Any time you put so much hype on the first season of a show, how can any show live up to that?” Justin Spitzer, creator and executive producer of NBC comedy Superstore, said. Spitzer believes the sophomore slump is an issue more for dramas than comedies, noting that season two is often a “golden year” for comedies, after their characters have found their voices.

Rolling Stone TV critic Alan Sepinwall raised the same point in his article “Five Reasons Why 2018 Has Been the Year of the TV Sophomore Slump” last summer, putting dramas The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu), Luke Cage (Netflix) and Westworld (HBO), among others, on the slump list, and noting that comedies Atlanta (FX), One Day at a Time (Netflix) and The Good Place (NBC) excelled in season two. “Dramas tend to be more plot-driven and tend to burn through story more quickly,” he told B&C. Comedies are more built out of characters, he said, meaning many hit their stride in season two.

The robust ideas that earn dramas the green light are often hard to sustain after the first season. “A lot of shows are pitched on concept — a concept that has legs,” said Mike Daniels, showrunner and executive producer on new NBC drama The Village. “After you’ve burned your way through the first season, it’s on you to reinvent it. It can be a really tricky thing.”

Season one of a show often uses the whole of the novel it is adapted from, leaving the producers without their North Star for subsequent seasons. Netflix teen drama The End of the F***ing World, for example, relied on Charles Forsham’s graphic novel for its first season. We shall see how the second season fares without that vital roadmap.

Showrunners Spread Thin

Rotten Tomatoes detailed its top 10 sophomore slump shows last summer, using the Tomatometer score — an aggregation of critics’ reviews — to list the series with the biggest creative drop-off from season one to two. Among them are Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, Nat Geo’s Genius and Marvel’s Daredevil, which was canceled by Netflix.

13 Reasons Why got a 79% on the Tomatometer for season one and a 25% for season two.

This era of peak TV appears to have pushed more shows into the sophomore slump. With some 500 scripted series fighting for viewers’ attention, many up-and-coming producers become rookie showrunners. Some have the skills to sustain a series for several seasons. Many do not. “There’s a greater sense of, something could go wrong when the resources are spread so thin,” said Myles McNutt, assistant professor of communication at Old Dominion University and contributor to The AV Club.

McNutt noted how showrunners on cable and streaming shows don’t always have the same long-term mindset for a series that their broadcast brethren do. A red-hot idea will get the green light, even if the idea doesn’t play for season two and beyond.

“You do a brilliant first season, and blow the doors off it,” said David Caspe, executive producer of Showtime comedy Black Monday. “After you’ve turned the plot over and over, it becomes harder to reboot.”

Today’s shows don’t get the early ax the way that Nielsen-starved ones did years ago, but not knowing if there will be a renewal nonetheless compels producers to toss everything they have into the freshman season. “You want to use your best ideas as early as humanly possible,” Caspe said. “You don’t know if you’ll get a second season.”

Limited series, essentially a rebrand of TV’s timeworn miniseries, have grown in popularity, with HBO’s Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects among those making a mark in pop culture. Some series are envisioned as one season and done, but when such shows truly connect with viewers, not to mention awards judges, it’s not hard to understand why a network would want another season of it.

Based on Liane Moriarty’s novel, David E. Kelley’s Big Little Lies has Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley in the cast. Season two, with Meryl Streep coming on board, starts in June. Mary Dalton, professor of communications at Wake Forest University, wonders how the show could take off again after its stellar first season wrapped so tidily. “How could they possibly not have a sophomore slump?” she said. “I don’t want that show to come back.”

McNutt has a similar take on what seems like an inevitable return for quirky hit drama Russian Doll on Netflix. “How do you continue, why do you continue, and why not do something different?” he said. “The question creators need to think about is, why not do something different?”

A recent New York Times story noted how Phoebe Waller-Bridge “passionately did not want to do” season two of Fleabag. “She had put all of this effort into building the perfect story arc for the first season,” said the Times, “and now the BBC wanted her to twist it out of shape to make way for more content.”

Season two started on BBC Three March 4, and will follow on Amazon Prime Video.

‘Killing’ It In Ratings

Killing Eve was uncommon in the TV world in how it built audience throughout season one. The premiere episode in April 2018 drew 669,000 total viewers on a live-plus-three-day basis. It went up every week, not including one episode that went down 1%, before tallying 1.25 million viewers for the finale, an 87% gain from the premiere. The show increased viewers every week in adults 25-54 and 18-49, a rarity in television today.

BBC America parent AMC Networks will air season two on both BBC America and AMC, which AMC Networks has done for select shows, but never for a drama’s whole season. “A really good show deserves a wider audience,” Madden said.

Waller-Bridge was nominated for an Emmy for writing season one. She remains executive producer, but tapped Emerald Fennell to be lead writer for the new season.

Killing Eve has momentum in advance of its season premiere. The trailer, released March 8, tallied 5.8 million views over its first five days, more than nine times as many as the season one trailer after five days. After she hosted the Golden Globes with Andy Samberg in January, Sandra Oh hosted Saturday Night Live March 30.

Season two starts 36 seconds after season one wrapped. Oh’s Eve stabbed Comer’s Villanelle in the finale, but does not know where the assassin is.

Can Killing Eve generate season one-level ratings and buzz? “Killing Eve is highly stylized, and everything lives on the edge,” McNutt said. “Season one was the meeting of the two characters on a collision course. Telling the next part of the story is just a difficult task.”

Melanie McFarland, TV critic at Salon.com, watched the first episode of season two and felt it had the energy to set up an interesting season. “The central relationship is so strong, and Sandra Oh is so strong, so I don’t think it is necessarily destined for a sophomore slump,” McFarland said. “But time will tell.”

As Madden said, he remains cautiously optimistic. “Gravity happens to all shows,” he said. “But I think this one is on the rise.”

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