The sophomore slump is more than just when college kids stop trying so hard in their second year and watch their GPAs plummet. Many TV shows also suffer from this phenomenon- an impressive, acclaimed first season is followed by a much more disappointing effort. I started thinking about this topic after watching the second season finale of Masters of Sex the other night. While I do not think its slump was very severe, at least compared to many other shows we will discuss later, I did find that Masters of Sex had a bit of a dip in overall quality during season two. As discussed in my previous post, episode 3 (“Fight”) of season 2 was the series’ best to date, but the season later faltered and meandered a bit. They did, in my opinion, course-correct some of their mistakes by the end of the season, and I will absolutely be tuning in again next year, but most fans and critics seem to agree that overall season 2 was not as strong as season 1.
There are several other shows in recent memory that also succumbed to the dreaded sophomore slump. I found House of Cards to be such a show as season 2 ventured further and further into the absurd and unbelievable. Back in 2007 Heroes famously fell off after a stellar season one, largely due to an already complicated mythology that was only made more convoluted. Revenge is another show I enjoyed greatly in season one but stopped watching at some point during season 2 because it became ridiculous and unfocused and lost many of the qualities that had once made it fun. Homeland followed the same pattern as Masters of Sex– one of the series’ strongest episodes (“Q&A”) came midway through season two, but then the show went downhill rather rapidly.
On the flip side, I think there are many examples of shows that not only avoided the sophomore slump but improved in their second seasons. My favorite examples are Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Parks and Recreation, The Mindy Project, Scandal, and Weeds. There are a few ways to make sure your show only keeps improving. One that has worked for many shows, specifically (from this list of examples) Angel and, to a lesser extent, Buffy, is slowly transitioning from episodic, “case of the week” storytelling to a more serialized format. Angel season one was a lot of fun, but the show really found its darker tone once it became about more than just who Angel Investigations was helping that week. Buffy season one consisted of only 12 episodes, and while it was instrumental in establishing the world and relationships, it cannot compare to the heights the show reached in seasons two and three, which are widely considered to be the show’s best. In Buffy’s case, the characters and mythology came first and the emotional depth came later.
Another way to avoid a decline in quality is to not be afraid to keep fine-tuning the show. The Mindy Project made tremendous cast changes throughout the first two seasons, for example completely removing Anna Camp’s character, never to be mentioned again. While I always understood the intention of giving Mindy a best friend unrelated to her work, the character simply did not fit into any of the storylines and always felt forced in for one scene per episode. The show understood what was working and what wasn’t, and as a result, I have found the first three episodes of season 3 to be their strongest yet. It took some work and some time, but they have zeroed in on the aspects of the show that have always worked, and were not afraid to let go of those that weren’t. Parks and Rec is interesting in that I have never even seen season one, which consisted of only six episodes. Every single person who recommended the show to me said to just start with season two because the first season was not at all representative of what the show became, and I took their word for it. In that show’s case, having such a short first season that wasn’t watched by a ton of people was basically an opportunity for a fresh start when the show was renewed.
The final shows I mentioned, Scandal and Weeds, both started out compelling, but really grew in quality in their second seasons. The end of Weeds’s second season into the beginning of its third is fantastic television, and in my opinion the show was never better. Scandal is yet another example of a show with a very short first season- only seven episodes. In my opinion, in most cases that isn’t enough for a show to fully find itself, which may be part of why shows with short first season orders tend to thrive in season 2- in a way, it is their debut season in that it is their first chance to fully develop a story over 13 or 22 episodes. If you think about it that way, and consider Scandal‘s second season to be their first REAL season, the fact that many feel the show dropped a bit in quality in season 3 may have been their version of the sophomore slump after all.
A theme across the shows I listed that did have a sophomore slump is that they lost sight of what the show was and what worked about it, often becoming too convoluted in an attempt to keep raising the craziness bar. In many cases, I think this is a crisis of confidence. Shows like Heroes and Revenge received a ton of buzz for their first seasons, and this inevitably creates pressure to live up to expectations. A sophomore slump is not necessarily the be all end all, but if the viewers are all gone, who will be there to see if a show gets its mojo back in season 3?