When Nikita got renewed, I died of happiness. This high-octane spy thriller is filled with Alias-like twists and turns and movie-quality combat, and the characters are layered and nuanced. I love the first and second season with obsessive tendencies. However, gun to my head I would still say that the first season has stronger storytelling.
You can find more examples of this phenomenon in a slew of other shows. The first season of Damages with the non-linear murder-mystery is indisputably the best season of the show. Despite the ambitious directions Damages has taken, it’s premise was at it’s strongest when our main character was in peril. House has an impressive track record, but the last two seasons were the weakest. Chuck‘s best season was its second.
So why do shows get weaker the longer they stay on the air?
- Clunky Season Two Premieres. Shows like Nikita and Damages have to set up all of the show’s dynamics (arcs, relationships, conflicts, the premise) at the beginning of each season in order to lure in new viewers and refresh the memory of old viewers, while at the same time being entertaining and teasing new mysteries. Procedurals can (usually) cut back on the amount of ground they have to cover because the plot ends up in pretty much the same spot each episode. We all know the typical Castle will feature a crime with a perp and a victim. But shows like Nikita? The first episode of the second season had to set up: who’s running Division, what happened to Alex’s parents, who she’s after, why she’s working with Division, Nikita and Michael’s relationship, who Birkhoff is and whose side he is on and why, why Nikita and Alex are at odds… There’s so much that needs to be set up that the entire first episode of the second season is overburdened with information. Each line of dialog reminds us of what happened last season, and unfortunately it’s not as seamless as it could be.
- The Newness Factor.First seasons are the product of a Showrunner’s true vision. He or she has come up with a premise, and then enthusiastically created a world and characters that are brought to life by this person’s zest and excitement for the job, and this energy shines through in each episode. But as seasons drag on, the premise is further cemented and those who want to rock the boat and test the premise are discouraged– why change something that’s working?
- No More Story Left to Tell. Sometimes, shows just run out of fuel. They’ve explored every possible plot twist the premise allows, and everything they try now seems stale and been-there-done-that. Housegot that way during its final seasons. There’s only so many things Gregory House, M.D. can do to shock us, and after his mental institution bout, the show seemed to go downhill. (That episode — Broken — was the best two hours of television I’ve seen. Period. Everything up to that couldn’t live up to the episode’s greatness.) Same thing happened with Damages. The premise of the show had to be altered from the first season, going from “a lawyer tries to solve a murder mystery in reverse” to “lawyers do shady stuff.”
- The Main Characters Change Too Much/Not At All. Character growth is good, right? To a point. When the characters change, they alter the show. Audiences like familiarity. House will always love mysteries and hate patients. Patti Hughes will always be hatching a plan of some sort. The entire cast of characters in Entourage will always be womanizers who spend money like nobody’s business. But characters can only return to drug habits and resist change for so long before their flaws become tedious, and eventually a show reaches an ultimatum so dire that the character must change or else the integrity of the show will be destroyed. Chuck handled the evolution of its title character quite well, while House’s inability to change after Broken invalidated our sympathy for him and dampened future attempts at making his character arc (although the season finale did well to remedy this.) Damages tried to make the ruthless Patti Hughes more sympathetic and humane, which watered down the show. Communityis a prime example of how the characters change just enough to keep the show on its feet: they still continue to learn more about the meaning of friendship and sacrifice and empathy, but at their heart they’re still the quirky characters we fell in love with. We just get to know them better.
- Weaker Arcs. I stopped watching Alias in the middle of its final season because they killed off one of the main characters in a desperate attempt to create drama. The seasons had gotten progressively weaker, and this last move destroyed the show for me, especially because this character had been “killed off” several times before. It was just so lazy, and this gimmick was maddening. I invested how many hours into this show and you’re going to get rid of my favorite character unceremoniously in the second episode of the final season?! This is a series finale twist! Not a quick-lets-bump-him-off decision. These kinds of stunts had been going on throughout the last few seasons to the point where other actors had been jumping ship as well. It’s so frustrating! I know there’s a time crunch, I know there’s so many arcs to juggle– but please build strong stories!
- Too Many Set-Ups. The television format can get away with telling much more complex, sweeping mysteries. But even shows like Lost got a little too tangled up in their mythology at times. The season finale was good, but I’m one of those people who wants answers to the loose story threads.
Shows That Stay Consistent
There are always exceptions. Here are two shows that manage to stay strong no matter the season number!
- Dexter. America’s favorite vigilante serial killer never fails to disappoint. The episodes and story arcs are always surprising and fresh, even with the perpetual change in showrunner leadership. The dramatic irony in this show is delicious — our serial killer works at a police station! The reason Dexter’s amassed such a cult following is probably because of the compelling characters and the well crafted arcs. It’s just… good storytelling!
- Community. This show’s actually gotten better since it’s first season because it has grown into its voice (a wry parody of pop culture with heartfelt undertones) and the storytelling has let its characters grow and develop. The recent episodes have been more and more entertaining.