Earlier today, I tweeted: “It’s amazing how good season 1’s of shows are, and how quickly the show falls apart after. #freshmanseason is always the best.” I got a few consenting replies, but this got me thinking: is this necessarily true?
As hard as it is to make a blanket statement, I think that for a majority of shows, season one is the setting of its finest character and plot development. It’s so easy during that first season to introduce and set a tone for the major characters and explore storylines that are flashy but not over-the-top, relevant, and engaging. Season one is the place for a show to make moves, to really prove itself to networks and to audiences that it has what it takes to be in the line-up each and every week. Season one is a chance to establish a show’s rhythm, prose, and style. Season one is the foundation of the show, and without a strong base, the show cannot continue to stand.
But what happens after season one?
More often than not, Season Two Episode One begins the decline. Even for truly great series that run successfully for 5, 6, maybe 8 seasons, the first season will never be touched in terms of pure quality.
If you look at a show like Lost that ran for 6 seasons that arguably got better and better every time, I would still argue that season 1 was the most gripping. It introduced the story, brought us to the mysterious island, and began unfolding the secrets that were hidden in both our characters’ pasts as well as on the island itself. While each subsequent season built upon that premise and we learned more and more, without a solid first season, the show would have crumbled. In season 1, I found myself intrigued by the mysteries surrounding these people and this island, and I yearned for more. Without that initial hook, I would have missed out on one of the greatest journeys I’ve ever been a part of. And once we reached the end of six long, complicated, but worthwhile seasons, simply looking back at season one reminded us of a purer, more innocent time when all we had to worry about was a polar bear and a French chick.
But that’s just a show that held it together. What about the countless shows that have absolutely fallen apart after a stellar first season?
If that preceding sentence wasn’t obvious enough, I’m talking to you Heroes. What was once a great sci-fi series, Heroes fell apart quite nicely during the second, third, and (how did they even get here?!) fourth seasons. I stuck it out through the second season and partway into the third before completely losing all interest. Props to anyone who stuck with it until the end, you are all truly brave souls. But back to my point, season one is the epitome of a great season of television. It introduced fantastic characters and left room for them to grow. It planted delirious, yet hopeful, thoughts in all of us that we too may be living amongst people with superhuman abilities, and even if it’s highly unlikely, maybe we have special abilities within ourselves. We were driven to care deeply about the characters; we wanted them to succeed and we never wanted to see them hurt. Season one was full of suspense, emotion, camaraderie while the subsequent seasons fell flat in these aspects. Plot lines in season one seemed natural and plausible while seasons two, three and (probably) four all felt forced and unnatural. Season one was all driving towards one catharsis: the exploding man. It seemed as though after this event, we had nothing left to care about and picking up the pieces here was not something viewers were interested in. The introduction of new characters just made us yearn for our original cast even more. Heroes is one of those shows that had the possibility to be a classic series, one with collectible DVDs and action figures, but is instead laid to rest as the one with one great season and three really really bad ones.
As I said earlier, I don’t want to make blanket statements. But I think the way this post has been going suggests that yes, this is a blanket statement. So let’s play Devil’s Advocate for a bit.
If I’m being honest, I didn’t like Parks and Rec when I first watched it. It was boring, the jokes fell flat, and I didn’t care about the characters. They annoyed me, and not in a Michael Scott endearing sort of way. I gave up on watching it a few times, but some friend or another always told me to get back on the bike. It was probably like force feeding a child, but whatever. I just wasn’t into it. But then somehow I finished the first season, and the second season got me laughing and really really hoping someone would fill that damn hole so that Leslie Knope could move onto bigger and better things in Pawnee, IN. All of a sudden, I cared. Season TWO made me care. This is a rare switcharoo, where the first season proved to be less engaging, less rewarding than later seasons. And while I haven’t caught up completely yet, I’ve heard that seasons three and four have gotten even funnier and I’m excited to get there.
Do I think this is the norm, though? No, not at all. I still stick to my opinion that the first season is the best for most shows, no matter what happens after that. Good or bad, 5 more seasons or cancellation, the first season is usually going to have the most clarity and quality of the entire series. It happened with Friday Night Lights, The OC, Grey’s Anatomy, The Office, Glee, and Community, just to name a few, and it will continue to happen in television. This is no statement about the quality of any show as a whole, and everyone is entitled to their own opinions. I’d love to hear what other people have to say!