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Why ‘Shiny New Show Syndrome’ Happens More Than Ever

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UnReal

Remember when everyone who had a TV in 1990 was all in a tizzy over Twin Peaks? Viewers were not only entranced by the mystery of “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” but also with David Lynch’s intricate and unique storytelling, something that really had never been seen on American television to that point. Was it twisty and weird? Absolutely. And viewers soaked in every second of it; the premiere attracted a third of the television viewing audience and first season episodes were seen in 15 million homes per week.

Then, it solved Palmer’s murder midway into Season 2, and poof, viewers disappeared, to the point where ABC put the show on hiatus before its second season fully aired.

This phenomenon is something that I call “Shiny New Show Syndrome.” As the example above shows, it’s been around for decades. But with the sheer volume of shows on TV today, this syndrome happens so much it’s hard to keep up.

What is Shiny New Show Syndrome? Simply put, it’s when a show becomes a critical and pop culture sensation in its first season, generating recaps and thinkpieces galore and vacuuming up Emmy and Golden Globe nominations by the armful. Then, when the second season comes, the novelty wears off, viewers leave, recaps end and it completely falls out of the pop culture conversation.

Quick: how much do you remember about Homeland‘s second season, after Carrie (Claire Danes) figured out that Brody (Damian Lewis) was a terrorist? Did you make it to the end of True Detective‘s disastrous second season? Were you disappointed in the direction both of summer 2015’s hits, Mr. Robot and UnREAL, took in their second seasons? These are some recent examples of recent shows that captured the zeitgeist in their first seasons and then crashed and burned in their second. Even if the shows continue – Homeland just finished its sixth season – you never hear about it and it definitely doesn’t garner the same awards attention.

Is this just about a fickle viewership? Yes and no. Yes, viewers have a ton of choice now and will move on faster if a show isn’t as satisfying as it was during its first wondrous season. But things also happen behind the scenes that create that unsatisfying experience.

CREATIVE CHANGES

Both of the summer hits mentioned above, Mr. Robot and UnREAL, went through massive creative changes between its first and second seasons.

In the case of Mr. Robot, showrunner Sam Esmail wrote and directed every episode of Season 2, a risky endeavor for any showrunner, much less one that’s just getting started in the job. “I am so very specific in how I want to shoot the show and the visual grammar of how I want to tell the story,” he told Variety last year. “I’m on the set every day anyway, and I just think it would make the whole show be more efficient.” By the end of the season, viewers were decrying the darker tone that had less black humor, and dropped a huge twist that many fans thought was not only unnecessary, but a betrayal of their loyalty until that point.

With UnREAL, Season 2 showed a creative struggle between creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, whose experience was in reality TV and Shondaland veteran Marti Noxon. Noxon left early in Season 2 and was replaced by Carol Barbee, but the show continued to be a creative mess, with a Black Lives Matter-adjacent storyline for the show-within-a-show Everlasting jostling for elbow room with a revolving door of producers, a vengeful ex for Rachel (Shiri Appleby) and a pace that had something crazy happen once per episode. A new showrunner is being brought in for Season 3 to fix what’s broken.

THE SHOW BUCKLES UNDER VIEWER OR EXECUTIVE PRESSURE

If you were disappointed with Season 2 of Homeland, the people you can blame are Showtime’s executives. It’s a well-known fact that Brody was supposed to die at the end of Season 1, but Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon kept him around because Lewis was doing such a phenomenal job, and their bosses at the network ordered them to figure out a way to keep Lewis. The problem was that Brody’s arc was really only designed to last one season. So Season 2 saw Carrie out Brody as a terrorist, fall for him, then let him go. He managed to last most of the way through Season 3 before finally meeting his demise. In the meantime, viewers’ eyes rolled at the show’s loss of credulity and people stopped caring.

Something similar happened with Twin Peaks. It had become such a sensation during the first season, ABC put pressure on Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost to resolve the Laura Palmer murder at the end of the first season. They resisted, but finally solved it midway through the second. But in the back of their minds, they thought that the show could keep the mystery going indefinitely, because the show was more about the quirky residents of the town of Twin Peaks than the mystery. The viewers, however, disagreed.

THERE’S NO SEASON 2 PLAN


Remember Under the Dome? It was a fairly ridiculous summer series on CBS that was based on a Stephen King novel about a town that got clamped under an invisible dome. It was a silly show, but eminently watchable, if only to make fun of the overacting and bad special effects. But it was always supposed to be a “limited” series, with the source of the dome to be revealed at the end of the season. However, it became so popular, and such a windfall for the network after streaming rights were sold, that a second season was inevitable. So no resolution was offered, and the show went “off book” for season 2. The ratings crashed, and so did the show.

In the case of a much better show, True Detective, it was more of a matter of time. Nic Pizzolatto had years to conceive of the story that brought us Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson). After that show exploded on the scene – and more or less won McConaughey his Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club – he had less than a year to figure out a new story for Season 2. We all saw the result – broadly-drawn characters and a confusing mystery that no one cared about. If HBO and Pizzolatto had left well enough alone, or taken some time to write the second season, we wouldn’t have been wincing at yet another mediocre Vince Vaughn performance.


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Audiences just aren’t going to tolerate stumbles these days; there’s just too many shows that they want to watch. They’re not going to give a show time to get back on its feet. Once the viewers are gone, they’re not going to come back.

So 2016-17’s Shiny New Shows, like Stranger Things, This Is Us and Big Little Lies need to heed the lessons of shows past. Stranger Things needs to follow up what was a pretty well-contained Season 1 story with one just as well done, without leaning so hard on the ’80s nostalgia as they did the first time around. This Is Us needs to tone down the twists, give us more Sterling K. Brown and finally tell us how Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) died so we can move on. And Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon need to be happy with how BLL turned out and not even consider a second season. If these shows make the same mistakes of the recent (and distant) past, they’ll be in the same category as Under The Dome, and I don’t know anyone who wants that.

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, Fast Company’s Co.Create and elsewhere.

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