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In Praise of Second Season Shows (Column)

The only thing harder than making a pilot just might be making a second season.

Pilots have the unenviable task of trying to live up to expectations for network and studio executives, just looking for reasons to say no. Second seasons have the unenviable task of trying to live up to expectations for fans, just looking for reasons to tune out.

It’s only gotten more complicated in Peak TV: Viewers have gotten ever more fickle, with itchy trigger fingers just waiting to change the channel. And with good reason: The mass migration of talent — both behind and in front of the camera — to television has led to a boom in creativity. Each new effort is more surprising and enterprising than the last.

But when it comes to awards, which efforts should be recognized: The fresh new groundbreaking voices, or the returning favorites, which continue to deliver on the promise of their initial efforts?

I’m not arguing for stale ballots which cling to shows long past their prime (do I really need to name names?). But this season especially, we’ve seen something of a television miracle: The end of the dreaded “sophomore slump.” Top contenders for the awards circuit include a lineup of dramas and comedies that burn even brighter in their second seasons.

Consider FX’s “Better Things.” The debut of Pamela Adlon’s comedy about the struggles of a working single mom deservedly won raves — and even earned her an Emmy nomination for best actress. But in its second season, she fully embraced a perspective rarely seen on television: raw honesty about motherhood. Adlon’s Sam doesn’t always do the “right” thing — she’s sarcastic, self-destructive, and shockingly blunt — but in doing so, she has shattered the sitcom stereotype.

And then there’s HBO’s “Insecure.” In season two, creator Issa Rae resisted the happy endings — because, really, do they ever happen in real life? — to explore her alter ego’s ever increasing complications with romance and work.

Some may complain that NBC’s “This Is Us” is maudlin, but it has more than lived up to the promise of its first season. This time out, the creators have managed to strike the balance of fueling those compelling mysteries while still plumbing the emotional depths of the characters we’ve grown to love, with the trilogy of episodes dedicated to the Big Three — sibling Kate (Chrissy Metz), Randall (Sterling K. Brown), and Kevin (Justin Hartley) — serving as prime example.

The first season of Netflix’s “The Crown” introduced us to a young woman thrust unwillingly onto the international stage. In season two, we learn more about her as a wife and mother — but also those who surrounded, supported and challenged her, from her willful sister Princess Margaret to her faithless husband Prince Philip.

NBC’s “The Good Place” pulled off the ultimate high-wire act with its first season finale — with a narrative twist few saw coming. And yet it’s attempting even more impossible aerobatics this time, with ever more outrageous stunts all in the name of truly hilarious mockery of morality.

Netflix’s “Master of None” took even more creative risks in its second season — filming in black-and-white, for example, or without sound. Or an entire episode where Aziz Ansari’s Dev barely appears. These bold experiments not only succeed brilliantly — they resonate long past the credits (particularly Lena Waithe’s standout “Thanksgivings” episode).

Perhaps no series had a higher bar than “Stranger Things,” which burst onto the screen relatively unknown. It might have turned into a ‘80s tribute series, but instead found resonance as it delved even deeper into the characters’ search for belonging.

Of course, this year offers plenty of worthy freshman contenders — from Netflix’s delightful “GLOW” to David Simon’s compelling “The Deuce.” And given the awkwardness of the TV awards season calendar, some first-season shows that have already won kudos from the TV Academy will be vying for Golden Globes and SAG Awards for the first time. Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a sure thing, of course — and rumor has it its second season doesn’t disappoint.

There are still more sophomores to come: season two of Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” as well as HBO’s “Westworld,” which will also face the pressure of living up to their breakout freshman success.

But this season, let’s take a moment to applaud the enduring show — the show that fully embraces its vision to fuel continuing storylines, themes and characters.

No pressure.

 

 

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