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Great Second Seasons In Television History

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Shortly before the sixth season of The Sopranos (finally! blessedly!) debuted a few weeks back, I indulged myself with a weekend spent watching the great and arguably best second season. For casual Sopranos fans, that’s the one where Big Pussy buys it on the boat, a big shocker that forced viewers to realize for all time that a) these fellers don’t play nice b) in fact, really aren’t very nice when it comes down to it and c) big characters – even big loveable H-dealing under-the-thumb of the feds ratting Big Pussy – are just as disposable as last night’s Satriales trash.

This led me to think about great second seasons of great shows. There’s a magic to first seasons, of course. It’s like a new love, a new magic, a new spark that’s exciting and blood pumpage-promoting. There’s nothing like being on the front lines of such a new discovery, a new creation that’s been brought into the world. I’ll never forget that rush of adrenaline I felt, for instance, when I watched Rescue Me or The Wire for the first time.

Then there’s that feeling of being in the know and being able to Spread the Word to all who would hear. The Internet is perfect for this kind of sharing and kibitzing, of course.

You mean you haven’t checked out The Shield?
No, dude, I just haven’t had the time.
Well, you better make time then, my friend!

The second season, however, is telling. Of course, it means that the show was enough of a popular draw to get renewed! Some dearly beloved and obscenely promising shows were never awarded that opportunity: Firefly, Wonderfalls, Life As We Know It, how we do miss thee and thine … sniff. But it’s also the time where we see if the whole operation is a fluke or if it has the wings and stamina to fly off into true and lasting kingdoms of greatness.

Here are some of the great second seasons in television history. I’ll go nowhere near claiming that they’re The Best, and I encourage you to contribute your own thoughts and ideas in the comments.

The Sopranos
We must start by circling back to north Jersey, of course. It’s been said that each episode of The Sopranos works as a one-hour film. That can’t be truer than in the second season, where every scene crackles and bristles with intensity and life. What I really love, and tend to dwell upon when thinking back, are the “smaller” moments of the show: the uproarious dark humor, the scenes where the fellas are sitting around not doing much of anything. There’s a scene where the goodfellas are sitting around the back of the Bada Bing polishing shoes, playing cards, watching television. A perfect scene closes out another episode with a pull-away shot: Agent Harris stops by Satriales for a sandwich as a minor traffic accident takes place right in front of the store.

That’s one of the true elements of genius about the show: it’s allowed to breathe with many of the rhythms and cadences of real life. Then when tragedy or excitement strikes (like Tony taking one in the gut from a demented Uncle Junior in the first episode of Season Six) — Blam! — nothing is ever the same again.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The second season is when Joss Whedon and crew really find their sea legs and a loyal and devoted cult fan base in the process. Moving definitively toward a season-long story arc plot structure (a bold move that required an attentive and returning audience) allowed this unique genre-blend of a show (who the hell would ever imagine a drama/comedy/horror show about a teenage girl with superpowers battling vampires and demons at her high school could work?) to blossom and then soar.

The Angel-Buffy storyline perfectly encapsulated young love that could never be. The shocker twist – “evil Angel” emerging after the hottie couple make love for the first time – was both brutal and deliciously effective. Joss Whedon’s ability to suck (sucker?) an audience in with likeable characters and witty pop culture-laced dialogue and then literally claw us all underneath to the dark side is fully operational at this early stage in his television career. David Boreanaz displays a wonderful acting range that later is rewarded with a spin-off (Angel) that had its own five-season run. The Dru and Spike subplot allowed for wonderful and cathartic comedy, gallows humor delivered with high British charm by the lowly undead.

And, come on, let’s face it: all middle-class kids would gladly throw their real-life friends under the bus to hang with the Scooby Gang – Xander and Willow and Cordie and Giles.

Alias
The second season is the time in which this fun, sassy, action-packed, spy romp of a roller coaster ride hits its creative peak. Between the slick mystery of Rambaldi (some kind of genius/Nostradamus-like inventor of several centuries back) artifacts, SD-6, Sydney’s back-story with her father and family, and ongoing spy missions far flung across the globe (featuring Jennifer Garner in over-the-top and not the least bit unsexy disguises), super-creator JJ Abrams (need more proof? Get Lost) doesn’t give you a split second to breathe, let alone realize that this show is really, at its heart, a wonderful spoof on the spy genre.

The Vaughn-Sydney romance is also a magnet-draw to the tube up until the moment that they kiss, which really does signal the beginning of the gradual but steady decline of the show. But for Season Two, the gals get to drool over Michael Vartan, Bradley Cooper and company while the guys get to feast eyes on, well, Garner.

The Office
Very promising in its first season, the American-version of the BBC’s miserably awkwardly hilarious classic really hits massive heights in its second run, in some ways surpassing its gem of a predecessor. The key has been the steady character development of the large, immensely talented ensemble cast. In the lead, of course, is Steve Carell as boss man Michael Scott. Wisely tuning and tweaking the show for its American audience, Scott has softened his nearly painfully mean tendencies and shown a warmer side that better suits Carell’s talents. Meanwhile the Jim-Pam relationship remains as reason alone to tune into the show. With Pam (the wonderful Jenna Fischer, who does more with facial expressions than nearly any actor out there, period) safely kept away from Jim (John Krasinski, who gets better every week) due to an engagement with a good natured lout of a fiancée, the prospects for office-centric greatness and hilarity both seem very strong indeed.

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  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Yes, second and third seasons are where classic tv series are really made. A fair number of programs show some promise in the beginning, but the wheels come off of them rapidly. Maybe the writers have just used up all their good ideas, or the premises of the show were just too narrow to support dozens or hundreds of episodes.

    Sometimes, the characters determine the show’s fate in ways that might not have been obvious starting out. All in the Family, for example, distinctly got better in a second and third season as Archie went from being a caricature to a real character. On the other side, the cleverly drawn characters of the Bluth family just weren’t going anywhere, and the show imploded creatively.

  • Jet in Columbus

    The classic Dick Van Dyke show was canceled and then reinstated after it’s first season after CBS took a look at the scripts for it’s second season.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    I think Seinfeld is another good example — picked up a lot of steam in its second season.

  • Colin Green

    I had avoided hearing about the 6th season premiere of The Sopranos as I hadn’t gotten a chance to watch it yet. So, thanks for the spoiler about Tony and Junior. Nice job. My first and last visit to this site.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    Sorry about the spoiler, Colin, but we’re already past the third episode, which aired last night! Uncle Junior shot Tony at the end of Episode One — it would be nearly impossible to talk about the show in any way without mentioning this event. My review of the first episode had a clear spoiler warning at the top of the piece.

    In your view, how long should people wait to publicly discuss the events of a television show? A day, a week, a month, a season, a year?

  • http://talesofanordinarygirl.blogspot.com Crystal

    I love this: “come on, let’s face it: all middle class kids would gladly throw their real-life friends under the bus to hang with the Scooby Gang”

  • RogerMDillon

    I’ll pick the 2nd and final season of Fawlty Towers

    Colin, if you are so far behind and out of the loop on pop culture, your presence won’t be missed.

  • Baronius

    I’m a fan of 3/4 of your picks (I don’t have HBO). And I agree with most everything you’ve said. The Office is coming along nicely, isn’t it.

    But David Boreanaz as an actor? Watch those Season 2 DVD’s again. He’s flat. He and Sarah Michelle Gellar don’t have any chemistry as a couple. It’s the writing, not the acting, that make his turn to evil so interesting. His understated malice is understated because, well, he’s flat. Also because he’s playing against the Over-The-Top Twins, who work as a perfect foil to anyone.

    One other point: both The Office and Buffy had short first seasons, as I recall. I wonder if that works to their advantage in Season 2. They both had a cult fanbase, so they could open things up from their small starts. I’ll have to think about other examples.

  • Dynamo of Eternia

    This is certainly an interesting article and makes a lot of great points.

    Most shows tend to hit their stride more in season 2. Usually they are just finding their footing during the first season (particularly with shows that have a rather short first season like Buffy of Seinfeld). Once they find their pacing, then they are off and running.

    Buffy Season 2 was great. It really picked up the pace and was better than Season 1 (not that Season 1 was bad, but 2 surpassed it). Though, in my opinion, Season 3 was even better overall than Season 2, and was the best season of the series. That was the year of the Mayor, who was just a fun and awesome villain. That whole season just rocked. There were some very noteworthy and popular episodes in the seasons to follow, but as far as looking at each season as a whole with their story arcs and everything, 3 was the best for me.

    Going on the subject of shows that didn’t quite make it to a second season (Firefly was mentioned in the article, amongst others), there is the series Tru Calling. Man, did this show ever get the shaft. It technically did make it to a second season, it just never finished that season. Only 6 episodes were produced out of what should have been 20+.

    I think the reason this series didn’t initially do well was because they put it on opposite Friends during the end of its run. Now, I know they were going for the idea that it would attract a different audience, but still, putting it on opposite one of the most popular shows on TV at the time was just suicide. And, it is possible for people to like more than one type of show (I am also a Friends fan).

    I actually didn’t see Tru Calling on TV during the first season, and mainly because Friends was on and I was already into that show. I picked up the first season of TC on DVD, marathoned the hell out of it, and was hooked. Then I found out about the show being canceled and was mad. They eventually aired most of the season 2 episodes that were filmed, but I didn’t even realize they were airing them until they had already showed most of them. The episode that was actually filmed last never aired and was only seen on the season 2 DVD set, which I eventually picked up and watched. The show really was going well and was pulling me in. The last one was really compelling but leaves you hanging (since it was not actually meant to be the series finale).

    This was a great show that was never given its due. I really wish it had continued and could have at least been given an ending.

    Sorry for the slightly off-topic rant. :)

  • http://wisdomandmurder.blogspot.com Lisa McKay

    Baronius (comment #8), I have to say that while I was never a huge fan of Boreanaz’ acting in Buffy, I think he redeemed himself (no pun intended — really) in Angel, where I often found myself surprised by his comedic talents.

  • http://indemnification.blogspot.com -E

    First, I would add Grey’s Anatomy and Entourage to the list.

    Second, this was picked for the Editors’ Pick this week. Congrats.

  • http://indemnification.blogspot.com -E

    Doh! How could I forget to say you need to add Lost to your list too!

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com Eric Berlin

    I don’t watch Grey’s, E (just can’t handle one more hospital show!), but I wouldn’t pick Entourage or Lost because the first seasons of both shows are so special and great. Season Two in both cases are also very good (or better) but they don’t have that ramping up feel that I was looking for in this column.

    If you feel differently, I’d love to hear why!