After debuting to critical and ratings acclaim, one of the biggest challenges for any popular new series is living up to the hype. Early success sets a higher bar for the storytelling to come. But the five second-year nominees in this year’s drama series Emmy race all successfully avoided the pitfall of a sophomore slump. According to the creators of these shows, the key to their success is not being afraid of reinvention.
“What’s exciting about what’s happening with television right now is there really aren’t any rules anymore,” says “Westworld” co-creator and co-showrunner Jonathan Nolan.
HBO’s “Westworld” and fellow second-season nominees Netflix’s “The Crown,” NBC’s “This Is Us,” Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” and 2017 Emmy winner, Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” are competing against veteran HBO series “Game of Thrones” and FX’s “The Americans,” which both returned to the drama series category after a year off. And they all faced the same challenge of expanding their worlds, adding new faces and striking the right balance between expansion and embracing the parts of the first season to which viewers responded.
In “Westworld,” Nolan and co-creator and co-showrunner Lisa Joy carefully planned an ambitious story of technology, artificial intelligence and the origin of a new species of life on Earth. While they’ve known where they’ve wanted the story to go since the beginning, says Nolan, “then you get into it with your actors and your writers and this incredibly talented group of people that we’re working with. You need to be open to ideas that come up along the way that fit into the framework that we’ve put together.”
That passion for reinvention is what fueled the second season — and will do the same for those to come, says Joy. “Every season is breaking new ground and exploring new worlds and exploring new scenes and even new genres,” she says. “Season two is very much a war scene. The entire park was at war. Whereas season one was … about an existential awakening. Season three will be something new. It allows everybody — our writers, our directors, our crew and our cast —
to engage on new levels of material, continually reinvent and push the limits of what the show can be.”
“The Crown,” which follows the life of Queen Elizabeth (Claire Foy), automatically had a framework for its second year because each season covers roughly one decade of the reigning monarch’s life. That fueled the nature of the story it is telling, featuring the timid but stoic young Elizabeth at the beginning of her reign being replaced by a more confident, experienced ruler. In its second season, creator Peter Morgan also added layers to Elizabeth’s troubled younger sister, Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), and spent an episode on the backstory of Prince Philip (Matt Smith).
“Season one was very much the story of Elizabeth’s journey from princess to queen, and what it cost her as a woman — as a human being — to come to terms with the crown,” Morgan says. “In season two we examine how the aftershocks of her accession to the throne affect her marriage and the rest of the royal family.”
While individual episodes may focus on different family members, ultimately the stories are all told in terms of how they affect the queen — and the crown.
“For Princess Margaret we see the repercussions of the crown forbidding her relationship with a divorced man; with Philip we see his unwillingness to ‘settle’ into his new role taken up a gear before a final resolution; and of course with the Duke of Windsor, whose abdication set this whole sequence of events in motion and cast such a long shadow over the monarchy — we see his true colors laid bare,” says Morgan. “A lot of the themes of this series are about the past: what is buried, what lies hidden, what is excavated. The past comes back to resonate in different ways for all our characters, and that’s what we wanted to shine a light on here.”
“You need to be open to ideas that come up.”
Offred/June (Elisabeth Moss) spent the first season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” on a quest to free herself from the oppressive authoritarian regime of Gilead; her character’s drive for her own survival was merged with a quest to save her unborn baby during the second season, created without the structure of Margaret Atwood’s novel.
During the first season of “Stranger Things,” the town of Hawkins, Ind., learned about the mysterious realm that stole one of their children; in the second, Hawkins and the Upside Down were integrated within each other. The show also added an extra infusion of ’80s nostalgia in guest star Sean Astin, and sent first-season standout Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) on a solo adventure.
The first season of “This Is Us” set up an inherently satisfying second thanks to the resolution of the ongoing mystery of how Pearson family patriarch Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) died. And with the audience already on board with the show’s time-jumping through the family’s history, there was more room to introduce other storytelling devices, including a trio of episodes that told the same story from the point of view of each sibling (Sterling K. Brown, Justin Hartley, Chrissy Metz).
“Once we establish the rules of the show in season one, in season two we were able to blow those right open and do things like an episode that was entirely about our new girl, Deja, and telling the story of her life,” says “This Is Us” co-showrunner Isaac Aptaker. “We were able to challenge ourselves as storytellers to really do new and inventive things because our audience was willing to go along for the ride with us.
“This Is Us” co-showrunner Elizabeth Berger admits she and Aptaker are eager to play to their cast’s strengths, given its “deep bench.” “We’re always anxious to give them more great stuff as we realize that they can do every single thing,” she says.
So, too, does “Westworld.” “It’s so much fun hanging out on that set with these amazing people and watching them work,” Nolan says. “But our story was one that wanted to move forward recklessly. … It’s nice to stick with what works, [but] we weren’t interested in that. I don’t think you do your cast or your audience any favors when you overstay your welcome.”
But even when shifting focus among characters, the show still needs to serve the story and present a consistent worldview.
“We maintain our belief that people are, at their core, good, and are trying their best in the world, and … we’re all more alike than we are different, despite all the ways we tend to divide and classify ourselves,” says Aptaker. “So hopefully that message is still coming through.”