In many forms of media created by an individual– the standup special, the LP, the novel– the “sophomore slump” is an oft-observed phenomenon regarding the decline in quality between works. As the old saying goes: You have your whole life to write your first album and eighteen months to write your second.
Television is different. Television is a special kind of alchemy that has so many different moving parts and people, and where changes necessitated either by production or by what works on screen can result in a show being retooled such as to put its best foot forward and put the best product possible on screen. Thus, it’s very possible that a show whose season one has some promise but is somewhat messy will retool enough between seasons to focus on what works and throw out what doesn’t and take a substantial leap forward.
One example discussed before on this site is The Shield; another great example is NewsRadio, which didn’t need much retooling between its seven-episode spring ’95 first season and its second season launch in the fall, but did make one major change in setting, replacing the tape room with the beloved and setting-of-much-hijinks break room.
I was inspired to write this column after watching season two of Santa Clarita Diet, Netflix’s Victor Fresco (Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Better Off Ted) comedy starring Drew Barrymore as Sheila Hammond, a realtor who vomits up a strange ball one day and discovers she’s turned into a zombie who can only eat human flesh, and Timothy Olyphant as Joel, her partner in “real-a-tor”-ing and usually laid-back husband.
I liked season one well enough; it was a fun serialized comedy, surprisingly breezy for its subject matter, as Joel and Sheila try first to make sense of her condition, then figure out how to best manage or even cure it if possible. Season two, however, makes that big leap forward: With the premise firmly established, the couple’s goals become threefold: Figure out what caused Sheila’s zombification so they can prevent it happening to anyone else; keep Sheila fed (which unfortunately requires fresh humans); and keep from getting caught. The latter point is challenged most by a friend in the sheriff’s department, Anne (Natalie Morales), who has developed a fascination with the increase in missing persons around Santa Clarita that she just can’t let go. Oh, and they have to do all this while (unsuccessfully) hiding what’s going on from their teenage daughter Abby (Liv Hewson), then trying to protect her from the consequences; Abby is also adjusting to how her life has permanently changed now that these stakes are in play and how it’s inspired her to take action.
The show does an expert job of raising the stakes and ratcheting the tension on Joel and Sheila throughout the season without introducing too many new plot elements; the ending of the season is the kind of event that’s both completely surprising and makes total sense with everything that has come before. For honing down the show to what works and introducing some of the best dramatic plotting I’ve seen this year, Santa Clarita Diet took a leap from season 1’s fun-but-inessential show into one of the best shows on television. (It is still, in fact, very funny as well.)
What are some of your favorite examples of shows that made the second-year leap? (And if you have counter-examples from other media, feel free to share them as well.)