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August 15, 2005

  • TV’s Sophomore Failures
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    One of the great additions to popular culture in the past few years has been the TV Season Box Set on DVD. Back in the olden days when people purchased and watched episodes of TV series on bulky plastic cassettes of magnetic tape, only the most popular series would give you complete seasons (and it might take hundreds of cubic feet to store it), the rest were consigned to ‘best of' collections that usually, frankly, weren't.

    Nowadays, you can own a whole season of a television series and it takes up no more space on your shelf than a novel—which is, when you think about it, an apt comparison since the time commitment involved in watching a whole season of TV often involves the same amount of time as a novel. And when it's a serialized drama like The West Wing or Boomtown, you can have a journey with the characters that's akin to reading a novel. Even with trashy fare like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century you feel like you're moving somewhere, even if it's toward even crappier episodes as the writing staff implodes.

    And yet, people viewing my own TV series DVD box sets will notice a lot of season ones with no season twos to follow it, even when they're readily available on DVD.

    The reason for this is not cheapness per se. It's just that there's a lot of TV series that go bad after the first season.

    I call it the Sophomore Failure phenomenon. A promising show with a great first season makes changes to its format or tinkers with the cast or replaces key people behind the scenes and the second season (and subsequent seasons) turn out to be a pale shadow of what it promised it would be initially. It's the televisual version of the disastrous second date that follows the glorious first outing.

    Take Remington Steele for instance. The first season of the ‘80s detective series starring Stephanie Zimbalist and a before-he-was-Bond Pierce Brosnan just came out last month on DVD. I for one couldn't wait to own this and yet for some perverse reason I took three weeks of frugal avoidance before gorging myself on it recently. I loved this show to bits when I was 13 years old, and I still enjoy it even today. In its first season, Remington Steele focused on modern-day Agatha Christie pastiches with a mystery that would always involve the person you least suspected. Add to this the fantastic chemistry between Brosnan and Zimbalist, some great supporting work by James Read and Janet Demay, and Pierce Brosnan's deftly comic and just plain fucking awesome evocation of Cary Grant and what you have is smart, funny, witty viewing. Watching it now I have to admit the mysteries are a little more obvious than they were as a 13 year-old (oh, why look there's an interesting conversation with a bit part who has a tenderly done character moment—he must be the killer) but the rest of it is still awesome.

    Only I find myself watching the first season of Remington Steele with a certain degree of sadness because I know the episodes are counting down to when Season Two begins, and Sophomore Failure kicks in.

    I still remember how much of a betrayal I found Season Two to be. Gone were the modern-day Agatha Christie pastiches; we're back to the familiar territory of knowing who the bad guys are right away (just like on Magnum and Simon and Simon). Mystery was out, romantic adventures were in. Pierce Brosnan's Steele became less like Cary Grant and more like Roger Moore. And, in a move that frankly still hurts even today, they replaced James Read and Janet Demay with Doris Roberts playing a comedy relief sidekick. They even replaced the oh-so-cool Henry Mancini jazz intro with something jauntier with a synthesized drum soundtrack.

    Now, maybe I'll give the second season of Steele a try when it comes out (I might have a better taste for romantic adventure as an adult) but I'm not holding out much hope. As a teenager I watched the remaining seasons of Remington Steele increasingly convinced they weren't a patch on the first season and that they missed out on something great.

    Sadly, Remington Steele is not alone. As my DVD collection indicates, there are dozens of brilliant television series that make a giant impact in its first season but fail to create the same magic in subsequent seasons. The reasons for this are myriad—network interference, star egos, a phenomenon that burned too bright too fast—but it all leads to the same problem; a show that really is only worth owning the first season on DVD. What follows is a list of some of the worst sophomore offenders in the history of television.

    Mork and Mindy (1978)
    First Season: Brilliant and funny sitcom about an alien from the planet Ork who lives with a nice girl from Boulder, Colorado, featuring a young Robin Williams at his most improvisationally manic
    Subsequently: Preachy, subdued fare that wasn't helped by Robin Williams being reined in. The naturally funny supporting characters were replaced with unfunny ones. Got marginally better toward the end, but it remained obvious to this eight year-old it was never quite what it was.
    Cause of Death: Interference from Network executives who saw that the fanbase was mostly with kids and moved it to a prime family slot and retooled it accordingly—meaning they felt kids should be talked down to, not made to laugh. Williams' substance abuse problems probably didn't help.

    Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993)
    First Season: A drama featuring funny and achingly real people living in the comic book world of Superman. (In some ways a forerunner to Russell T Davies 2005 version of Doctor Who). It had a fantastic ensemble cast including Dean Cain (who was never better) and Teri Hatcher (who perfected her comic genius here). The plots were 100% pure cartoon, but the characterization was honest and the relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane—featuring some of the funniest dialogue on TV at the time—drove the whole proceedings and created almost a superheroic version of Moonlighting.
    Subsequently:
    Saturday morning cartoon superheroics written by Hollywood writers, which means it's too broad, too comedic and too…ick. The realistic characterization was obliterated as Teri Hatcher started doing shtick (producers of Desperate Housewives, beware!) and Dean Cain couldn't resist mugging. The ensemble cast had many of its best members culled or replaced (particularly John Shea and Michael Landes).
    Cause of Death: Creator Deborah Joy Levine was pulled off the series and was replaced by producers who were encouraged to write for the kiddie timeslot they were in, not the 9pm timeslot they were originally promised.

    Boomtown (2002)
    First Season: A brilliant premise—a Rashomon multiple-point-of-view storytelling technique applied the world of cops, a paramedic, a reporter and an assistant DA in Los Angeles. The series had a brilliant pilot but its second episode may be one of the best episodes of television, ever. It was bolstered by an amazing cast including Neal McDonough, Donnie Wahlberg and Mykelti Williamson (all of whose lack of Emmy nominations exposed the corruption of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences) and a pull-the-ripcord kind of gutsy approach to TV drama on the part of writer Graham Yost and director John Avnet that you hardly ever see on the small screen outside of cable.
    Subsequently: No more Rashomon (though they curiously kept the intertitles indicating the change in a point-of-view, even though these were clearly ordinary scene changes!), no more tales of LA, just a cop show with a great cast…but a not very adventurous one. That they replaced the amazing Nina Gabrias with Vanessa Williams just about says it all.
    Cause of Death: It would be easy to blame all this on network interference demanding that the show become simplified (and they certainly did contribute to that, along with demanding that the brilliant music by Philip Giffin be replaced by someone more ‘upbeat'), but listening to the DVD commentaries by the production crew it's clear that certain voices in the room—namely producer Chris Brancato—held sway and managed to convince Yost and Avnet that this was just a cop show and to simplify the series' mandate and scope. The second season was just the end result of a creative coup which had taken place toward the end of the first season. The fact that the show went off the air two episodes after the retooling was, in many ways, just desserts for a show that, frankly, lost its nerve.

    The Apprentice (2003)
    First Season: Reality TV gets a business spin as individuals work in teams on business tasks for an opportunity to work for Donald Trump. The tasks are basic and yet require an incredible amount of savvy and business acumen, and the contestants were an interesting cross-section of American culture. Donald Trump proved to be an unlikely star as his Solomonic-divination leading to the firings became must-see television.
    Subsequently: The tasks became less about savvy and business acumen and more about product placement. The contestants, like all reality series that last more than one season, saw what made the last show interesting and promptly self-destructed. Worse, Trump became predictable.
    Cause of Death: The Donald—note the use of the term—caught wind of his own press, and tried to make a buck from it. Who can blame him?

    The Office (2001)
    First Season: Close-to-the-bone satire of boring office drudgery and politics in a mockumentary about a Slough paper company led by the brilliant Ricky Gervais as every frustrated employee's worst nightmare of a totally ineffective manager.
    Subsequently: More of the same, only ramped up: Gervais' manager gets an in-house superior who's better than him at everything while new employees who are transferred in are less prone to put up with his bullshit. There's more obstacles for bored employee Tim's would-be relationship with receptionist Dawn. Generally, there are more obstacles.
    Cause of Death: creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant simply said everything they needed to say in the first season. The second season almost seems there to placate the viewing public's need for more, but in the absence of anything else to say, all they can do is just throw more obstacles. But nothing is substantially different, and it seems repetitive. The concluding Christmas Special is almost a relief.

    There are more examples of Sophomore Failure than just these. Others include (in no particular order), Ally McBeal, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, The Wonder Years, Twin Peaks, the list goes on. I'm starting to think NCIS might get added to this list (the first season was so much edgier and cooler than the all-too-neat quirkiness of this season).

    On the other hand, there's lots of shows where the sophomore year is when things really take off. The West Wing is a great example of a program that truly found its voice during its second season; so is NYPD Blue. Some series don't even find their feet until year two: M*A*S*H is a clear example of this (the first season is an awkward hybrid between the Robert Altman movie and a sitcom) as is Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (which finally got the right people in front of and behind the camera together to pull off such a grisly premise with such aplomb) Who's to say this can't happen for Joey?

    As the new TV season approaches we'll find out if Lost and Desperate Housewives are going to stay the course or if their premise and cast are going to get tinkered with in such a way that will disappoint viewers forevermore. Time will tell. Just as long as they don't add Doris Roberts to the cast. That still hurts.

     

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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