'Breaking Bad,' 'True Blood' among improvements

What’s the opposite of the sophomore jinx? Whatever one might call it, this happy condition has spread across TV thanks to the admirable creative performance of several programs.

This year’s honor roll includes “Damages,” “Breaking Bad,” “In Treatment,” “The Big Bang Theory,” and after viewing a four-episode preview, the upcoming season of “True Blood.”

The “sophomore jinx” (also known as the sophomore slump) generally refers to someone or something that started out like gangbusters before fizzling in its second season or go-round. In the past this designation has included rookie baseball pitchers who batters figure out how to hit; musical acts who tank after a breakthrough debut album; movie sequels (think “The Matrix Reloaded” or “Speed 2: Cruise Control”); and TV programs that careen off the rails.

The latest high-profile victim of this curse would be NBC’s “Heroes,” which exploded onto the scene in 2006, then waffled through a strike-disrupted second season that left even many die-hard fans grumbling. Staffing shakeups, public apologies and a sharp ratings decline followed. The show still hasn’t recovered and approaches its fourth season with a somewhat tenuous grasp on survival.

Notably, “Desperate Housewives” endured its own perceived sophomore slump and just finished a perfectly entertaining fifth season, but both programs are illustrative of how the phenomenon has become more prevalent.

In the modern age, TV operates within a media culture possessing the attention span of a hyperactive moth. As a consequence, hits are exhausted faster than ever — with everyone parasitically demanding a taste, then just as quickly accusing the drained host of over-exposure. Throw in the crazy-making effects of sudden fame on talent and it’s a wonder most new sensations aren’t one-hit wonders.

During the last decade, this process has been hastened by the rhythms of reality TV, where novelties flame brightly but expire rapidly. As examples witness Fox’s “Joe Millionaire,” “The Simple Life” or Fox’s attempt to reunite the Osbournes, demonstrating how fast a would-be franchise can slide from hero to zero.

Given all that, it’s particularly impressive to survey the crop of programs that have not only bucked the second-year blues but actually improved.

“Damages” built on its twisty, flashbacking format with a sophomore campaign that not only brought together loose ends but heightened the stakes and dramatically upgraded the cast. “In Treatment” echoed this pattern, continuing a first-season subplot while reducing its staginess and strengthening its roster of performers.

After having its maiden run shortened by the writers strike, “Breaking Bad” recently capped a breathtaking second season that delved deeper into the show’s world of moral ambiguity and unintended consequences. As for “Big Bang” — the odd-show-out comedy in this bunch — the writers deftly backpedaled from a perilous romance between key characters and unearthed a new well-spring of laughs in the testy exchanges between scientific genius Sheldon and his surprisingly formidable (and equally petulant) neighbor Penny.

Despite how diverse these series are, a few common threads exist, at least in regard to the dramas. Each airs on cable, which not only allows for more complex storytelling but, more significantly, shorter episodic runs. Let’s face it, when you produce 22 or 24 serialized hours of intricately woven drama in a season — as opposed to 10, 12 or 13 — the odds of inadvertently writing yourself into a corner (or off a cliff) are magnified.

The producers also took advantage of their second years to add top-notch talent, cleaned up messy plot threads and, perhaps most important, continued taking creative chances.

To be fair, focusing on the sophomore class shouldn’t obscure fine work done by other dramas, from “Big Love’s” engrossing third season (a junior jump, maybe?) to “Lost” and “24,” which in academic parlance would both be working on advanced degrees by now. The latter’s subpar sixth “day” and subsequent rebound underscores how such programs have become high-wire acts that can no longer rely on proven formulas alone to indefinitely sustain them.

Like any newborn, though, series can be especially fragile while taking those first tentative steps toward prolonged runs. So here’s to the sophomores that were anything but sophomoric. As Sheldon told Penny in one of their frequent battles, “Well played.”

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