Rookies fight to avoid second season misfires

Now comes the hard part.

Following Emmy nominations, critical glory and huzzahs from all around, last season’s breakout hits try to figure how to stay the course.

It’s great to be a rookie sensation, but many Emmy-lauded freshmen over the years have found the bar they set for themselves too high in season two.

Coming into fall, there will certainly be high expectations for best-series noms “Heroes,” “Ugly Betty” and “30 Rock,” the latter gaining critical buzz as the season moved along.

Showrunners must keep focused on what made their shows hits in the first place, and the job of network execs is to keep those busy showrunners happy as best as they can.

“The sophomore season is always a challenge,” says Erin Gough-Wehrenberg, NBC’s exec VP of programming. “They’re almost harder than the first season, with more expectations. There have been many shows where mistakes have been made in season two, but I think with both of our shows (“Heroes,” “30 Rock”), they’re run by strong entities and we’ll be OK.”

After “Desperate Housewives” first-season run, in which it was a rat

ings giant and got nommed for top comedy series along with two actress nods (Marcia Cross and Teri Hatcher), the series got dinged by critics in season two. Showrunner and creator Marc Cherry took on less responsibility, and the vocal fan base seemed to notice the difference.

Tim Kring, who started up “Heroes” last year after running “Crossing Jordan,” knows he has challenges ahead of him, including keeping his sci-fi fan base happy.

“The challenges of the second season are somewhat different than the first,” he says. “The big one is to make sure that we are continuing to be a show that defies expectations. What so many people love about the show is that they never know what is going to happen. So, in many ways, the second season has to embody that idea.”

“Heroes” will have the task of untangling a hefty storyline that left some viewers unfulfilled as the season finale unfolded.

With such a daunting task of unraveling a complex arc in a final 42-minute episode, Kring would like to break up season two into smaller, easier-to-digest stories that might be resolved quicker as the season goes along.

For “30 Rock,” expectations for season two aren’t so much in the quality of the show — viewers of comedy series often don’t feel the need for a season-ending payoff, as they would in a high-concept drama — but the question that remains for Tina Fey and Co. is whether more viewers will tune in.

Like NBC’s “Friday Night Lights,” in which critical raves didn’t translate to Nielsens, “30 Rock” is in need of a ratings boost. There needs to be an uptick in numbers, as the series was the least-watched NBC scripted show of last season, averaging 5.4 million viewers a week. (To compare, “Heroes” drew an impressive 13.5 million, and even the dimly viewed “Lights” outdrew “30 Rock” with 5.7 million.)

If the numbers don’t pick up, there will be a natural inclination to view “30 Rock” as the current “Arrested Development,” another widely praised comedy (it even won an Emmy for best series) that never caught on with the general public.

Trying not to fall into that camp, NBC moved the show this fall from 9:30 to 8:30 on Thursday nights, where it could find a new audience.

“The first step was to move it to a less competitive time period, to expose it to a broader audience that likely has heard of it but has yet to have had a chance to check it out,” Gough-Wehrenberg says.

The Peacock also is reaching back into its history in trying to woo more viewers. Jerry Seinfeld will have a guest-starring role in the Oct. 4 premiere episode, a move the network hopes will bring in viewers who watched “Seinfeld” religiously.

But back to “Heroes,” where Kring feels the pressure to get keep his series on the same track in which it began nearly a year ago:

“The concern for the sophomore slump weighs heavily,” he reiterates. “The show was shiny last year, and this year it’s not so new. There will be another show that’s shiny and new out there, so we’re aware of the pressure to stay relevant and exciting.

“Our goal is to keep reinventing and pushing the creative boundaries of the storytelling.”

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