An analysis of TV's latest second seasons
Last December I published my picks for the Best New TV Shows of 2018. Unfortunately this list of 18 great new series only covered about half of the great content released last year. There were also a ton of phenomenal second seasons.
So I began to brainstorm a follow-up article on 2018's best 2nd seasons, but this quickly became problematic because there are two fundamentally different definitions of a great season 2. Sometimes a great new show returns with a 2nd season that pales in comparison to the original but is still, in a vacuum, a great show. This is often referred to as "the sophomore slump."
Out of curiosity, I wrote a script to pull the average viewer ratings from IMDb of all episodes in S1 vs. S2 of a show, as well as the average critics rating from RottenTomatoes. (Note this is the actual average score out of 10 assigned to the season by critics, not the percentage "Freshness" score. Perhaps more on this distinction in another blog post later...)
The chart below summarises the results for select tv shows which premiered their second season in the past year or so. These shows are shown in blue while some popular older shows (shown in grey) are provided for reference. Scores are a mix of both users' and critics' ratings with slightly more weight to users because of the larger sample size.
These are the shows that, according to the data, really picked up steam in their second seasons. All of them were already good shows (first seasons averaging above an 8.0 with both critics and users) but in their second seasons they proved they were great.
For historical context, shows like Breaking Bad and the BBC's Sherlock fit into this category. However, the biggest second season surges in recent television history are The Leftovers and Hannibal whose first seasons averaged around that 8.0 mark but pushed very nearly to 9.0 in their second seasons. The only other series I could locate with this much of a positive discrepancy between S1 and S2 is Parks and Recreation, which started at an incredibly low 6.8 average.
The Good FightCBS All Access
CBS All Access original series The Good Fight (a spin-off sequel of The Good Wife and not at all related to The Good Place) really came into its own in Season 2. The first season set itself apart as the only show to directly address post-2016 America. Season 2 boldly leans into this identity even further by taking on the absurdity of the current political climate.
The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselAmazon Prime Video
I personally enjoyed both seasons of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel about equally, but I can easily see why critics adored the second. Season 2 puts more of a spotlight on the legendary comedic actor, Tony Shalhoub. The introduction of Zachary Levi's character also provides additional chemistry for Brosnahan to work with. (Plus Susie's plunger.)
The Dragon PrinceNetflix
The Dragon Prince was also featured in my best new shows of 2018 list, but the creators were so fast to release "Book 2" that it also gets a nod in this post. Despite the quick turnaround, the second installment is an improvement both in story and in technical terms, with a smoother frame-rate.
Atlanta's clever, genre-defying first season is only improved in Season 2. (a.k.a Robbin' Season) With some inspiration from the critically acclaimed film, Get Out, the second season of Atlanta is a horror anthology, dark comedy, and social satire all at once.
These shows essentially started off great, averaging around 8.75, and successfully maintained quality in their second season. The well known HBO drama, The Wire, is the highest rated reference show which maintained similar quality going into its second season. Also, more recently, the Netflix mockumentary American Vandal which was actually the most consistent series in my data-set. (I guess penis and poop jokes truly never get old.)
Although Season 2 didn't have the charisma of John Lithgow as Winston Churchill to lean on, The Crown successfully found new legs to stand on by shifting focus to the captivating Vanessa Kirby's portrayal of Princess Margaret as well as a more tense focus on the Queen's marriage, sending Claire Foy away with an Emmy for Best Lead Actress in a Drama Series.
The Handmaid's TaleHulu
Like The Crown, Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale Season 2 also had to survive losing a key part of Season 1's success: the book it was based on. It remained great by focusing on Serena (played magnificently by Yvonne Strahovski) and going back in time to show how the United States we know today slowly became the totalitarian extremist regime of Gilead.
Although these shows aren't necessarily bad, they showed clear signs of the classic "sophomore slump" and the general consensus is S1 trumps S2. The best reference show for this category is Twin Peaks (the original) which is well known for having a much better first season, although not a particularly bad second one.
Other recent shows that fit here would include FX's Legion and National Geographic original anthology biographical drama series, Genius. Although I think the first season (featuring Albert Einstein) deserves to be rated higher, the second season (Picasso) was a clear miss.
Stranger Things was a huge hit but failed to measure up in its second installment. The first season will be remembered for mystery of Eleven's origin while the second will be remembered for the misstep of Eleven's weird side adventure in episode 7.
The other breakout sci-fi hit of recent years, Westworld lost it's story along the way in Season 2. It was still full of great 1-off thematic episodes like Akane no Mai and Kiksuya which appeased critics, but the users weren't as entertained.
I would disagree with the average rating of Ozark Season 1 (which is largely brought down by critics comparing the show to Breaking Bad) but have to agree the second season really lost steam.
American Crime StoryFX
I have to disagree with the extent of this slump. Although it's almost impossible to live up to the quality of The People vs. OJ Simpson, I think The Assassination of Gianni Versace was much closer than the critics seem to.
These are the shows that really just gave up in Season 2. Think Heroes level disappointment. We're talking an average rating over a full point lower in S2. If these were actual college sophomores, they'd be the ones who drop out.
The all time record for this category (to no one's surprise) belongs to True Detective which had the highest rated first season out of any show in my data set and then fell a whopping 1.75 points. However, after finishing Season 3, this shows that even a Sophomore Shitshow can redeem itself. (Although the fact that it's an anthology series may have helped.)
Marvel's Jessica JonesNetflix
It's almost unfair having to follow the performance of David Tennant in Season 1 of Marvel's Jessica Jones. Kilgrave may be one of the most compelling television villains of all time. Season 2 just felt like a tank with no gas in comparison.
13 Reasons WhyNetflix
Oh dear God why? 13 Reasons Why's first season had some serious flaws in the writing and acting categories, but still had a compelling overall story. Season 2 kept all of the flaws and amplified them to give new meaning to "flaming dumpster fire."