Down in the Third

There are a couple of obvious critical moments in the life of any television series.  First, the pitch has to get a network interested enough to order a pilot.  Then the pilot has to be good enough to convince the network to order the whole series.  That same pilot then has to draw in viewers, and the first couple of episodes after that has to keep them coming back for more.  As the recently-departed A to Z showed, a good pilot is meaningless if the subsequent episodes are crap.

I have determined, though, that there is another critical point in the life of a series, and that’s the third season.  That seems to be the point when I decide that I’m giving up on a series or that I’m with it until the end.  And the reasons for that, I believe, are rooted in the early days of the show’s creation.

Think about a movie compared to a television series.  In a movie, you have two hours to tell a complete story about a character or small group of characters.  Stuff happens, and the characters live or die or fall in love, etc. The end.  A television show, by its nature, is more open ended.  Creators develop a concept and characters designed to propel the series through (they hope) multiple seasons of stories.

It doesn’t always work.  Sometimes it’s just a character that isn’t working, as I discussed in THIS POST.   Other times, though, the problem is more deeply rooted.

Going back to that show that’s trying to get on the air.  The creators have a concept, characters, and a pilot.  From there, they have to prove to the network that the show can drive a full season and more of stories.  In order to do that, the creators have most likely mapped out the first season pretty thoroughly leading up to a slam-bang season finale that will launch them into season two, which they probably have some really solid ideas for.

But then what?  Well, very likely, things get a bit hazier from there.  They have some ideas, but they’re far from fully developed. 

So they sell the show, start production, and they run headlong into an old adage: no plan survives contact with the enemy.  In this case, there are multiple enemies.  The studio may want things to go a different way, viewers may respond to something that they didn’t plan on, characters may not work out, they could find themselves blowing through plot developments faster than expected, or the process of writing and creating may take them in completely unexpected direction.

By the time season three rolls around, the show could be in a very different place than the creators thought it would be when they were tossing ideas back in the pilot days.  Or, more frighteningly, they may have already blown thrown their season three plans and be completely out of narrative steam.

Ideally, though, the opposite happens.  By the time they hit season three, the creators and writing staff have really honed in on what the show is and who the characters are.  The show has found itself and is ready to move forward confidently through several more years.

There are a few classic examples of this.  Star Trek: The Next Generation had a rocky first season followed by a second season marred by a writer’s strike.  Season Two ended with what is generally considered to be the worst episode of the series, “Shades of Gray,” a clip show.  Season Three, however, is when TNG hit its stride, with episodes like “The Offspring,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” and the iconic cliffhanger, “The Best of Both Worlds Part 1.”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is another such series.  The first two seasons were a mixed bag, but, as Season Two entered its second half, the show moved to another level.  Season Three is thought to be one of the show’s best years, if not THE best, with the Mayor and Faith plotlines and several excellent episodes including “Lover’s Walk,” “The Wish, “Doppelgangland,” and the “Graduation Day” two-parter.

On the other side, though, there are series that have not been able to get over that third season hump.  I mentioned one a couple of weeks ago in my post wrapping up the TV season.  Orphan Black felt to me like it was losing its narrative momentum in season two, and the first couple of episodes of season three just confirmed it.  The show’s central mystery felt like it was going nowhere, and many of the characters seemed to have run their course.  Glee ran into the same problem for me.  By the third season, the storyline potential seemed to have been drained from the show, and the characters were acting less and less like themselves just to give the writer’s something to work from.  During Season Three of Dexter, I got the feeling that I had seen every variation of events that were possible with the show’s set-up.  Also, the characters didn’t seem to be growing at all.

If I knew for certain what made one show sustain its storytelling momentum while another falters, I might be able to make a mint as a consultant in Hollywood.  I don’t, but I do have some ideas.  Really, it all comes down to the concept.  And by that I don’t mean whether you have a cop show or a doctor show.  I mean is your show telling a story or setting up a situation?  

On the surface, telling a story seems like the right answer.  I don’t think that it is, though.  If your show sets out to tell a singular story, such as something like The Event from several years ago, your series is limited by the focus on that singular story.  Most of shows based on a central mystery have this issue.  Maybe they can get a solid season or two, but the longer the mystery drags out, the harder it is for the show to maintain its momentum and the interest of its audience.  There are obvious exceptions, such as Game of Thrones, but in that instance the showrunners are working from a story that has been previously plotted out by the novels’ author, George R.R. Martin.

A situation, however, gives you a basic platform from which to launch several story ideas.  This isn’t exactly news.  Sitcom is short for Situation Comedy.  A group of people work the evening shift at the New York City court.  A bunch of people hang out in a Boston bar.  There’s no central storyline happening there, but the writers of Night Court and Cheers were able to keep those shows humming along for years.

And that’s really the goal.  For the most part, a television show isn’t a singular story; it’s a storytelling machine that has a central situation and characters that can sustain its operation for years and years to come.  An alien and his companion have a machine that allows them to go anywhere in time and space.  The crew of a spaceship explore the galaxy.  The staff at a city hospital deal with patients and each other.  From there, it’s still up to the writers and actors to give us stories and characters that we want to follow week after week.  But they need the right initial set-up to even get that opportunity.

- Alan Decker

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