For a new TV series, the only thing harder than becoming a freshman hit is maintaining that momentum in Season 2. Several of last year's biggest critical and commercial hits, including Blindspot and Mr. Robot, have been felled by ratings and creative challenges in their sophomore seasons.
Two of last fall's biggest success stories, NBC's Blindspot and ABC's Quantico, were hoping to grow their audiences in Season 2, but instead they've stumbled out of the gate. Blindspot, which averaged a 1.8 in the 18-49 demo last year, is off 30 percent, averaging a 1.3. However, much of that ratings drop can be explained by NBC relocating Blindpsot from its cushy post-Voice time slot on Mondays to Wednesdays at 8 p.m., when the network is much more vulnerable (and when the show is being trounced by another action-heavy series, Fox's Lethal Weapon).
Quantico's fall is more alarming. It remained in the same time slot as last year (10 p.m. Sundays), but the series, which averaged a 1.2 in the demo last season, is off 33 percent with a 0.8. Last season's most promising freshman series for ABC is now the network's lowest-rated scripted series in the demo—though the network notes that it's had significant gains in delayed viewing.
Meanwhile, summer 2015's biggest critical hits, Mr. Robot and Lifetime's UnReal, both faced significant backlash when they returned this summer for Season 2. They failed to match the accolades of Season 1, and ratings dropped as well. (It's an echo of what happened to True Detective's second season.) While Mr. Robot seemed to rally creatively later in the season, UnReal never regained its mojo, thanks to behind the scenes in-fighting that resulted in the show's third showrunner in two years as Lifetime tries to get things back on track.
That quartet is far from the only shows in recent years to discover the second season struggle, as expectations are raised and producers must prove that their initial success wasn't a fluke. "I was definitely stressed during Season 2, and I still don't know if we succeeded in that," said Pete Nowalk, creator of How to Get Away With Murder, which lost a third of its Season 1 audience in its sophomore year.
Even Empire, which was one of the biggest broadcast successes in a decade during its first season in early 2015, fell victim. "Season 2 was hard," agreed showrunner Ilene Chaiken. "In some ways, harder, because we had to find ourselves again." The guest-star-heavy start to Season 2 (Chris Rock, Ludacris and Pitbull were among the celebs who popped up on the show) led to a backlash, but Empire regained its footing later in the season, focusing back on the core family.
"The great thing about Season 2 is that if you do survive it, you come into Season 3 better than ever, and that's where we are," said Chaiken. While Empire isn't the monster hit it was a year and a half ago, it remains the top-rated scripted broadcast series in the 18-49 demo.
ABC's Black-ish was one of the few shows last year to build on its freshman buzz, with thought-provoking episodes like its take on the Black Lives Matter movement. Ratings were down 22 percent from Season 1, but its critical acclaim grew, and led to a Peabody Award and Emmy nominations this year for best comedy; leading actress (Tracee Ellis Ross); and actor (Anthony Anderson, who had been the sole nominee a year earlier).
"It was a lot of hard work," said Black-ish executive producer Jonathan Groff of trying to live up to expectations in Season 2. "At some point, you have to try and shut that out, and just concentrate on good stories that feel organic, as opposed to trying to do, 'Where's our 'blank' episode this season? Last season, we had that episode where we do this, and this season, we need to have another one where we do this.' I think we try to avoid that and just do what feels right for the characters."
The Black-ish producers have taken the same approach to Season 3. "We honestly feel it, but then you have to shut it down as much as possible. Use it as an inspiration to be bold and forward thinking, but not be paralyzed by it, because you can be," said Groff.
Another problem, said How to Get Away With Murder's Nowalk, is a freshman show's novelty has worn off by the second season. "I'm guilty of this as a viewer: I like what's new. I like discovering characters, discovering a show, and so much TV is not new. I think, my first time doing it, you just try to say, 'Look, we've still got tricks left!'" said Nowalk.
You're the Worst, FX's low-rated but critically acclaimed comedy, found a new gear in Season 2, as it shifted to FXX and focused on the clinical depression of one of its main characters. Creator Stephen Falk said he used his time in the writer's room to block out much of the external pressure to top himself in Season 2. "The lucky thing is that the writer's room process is insulated from all that a little bit, because you're just the creative team, again making your lunch orders and sitting in a room full of blank whiteboards," said Falk.
When planning the season with his writers, "We have time to just breathe and go, 'OK, the sophomore slump is very common, so let's analyze it and figure out why and what the fears that go into it are.' And what part is the artists' overreacting or trying to pre-course correct, and what part of it is just the audience's desire for more of the same and not liking departure? Or, the converse reaction is, 'Oh, it's more of the same. Well that's boring. They just repeated themselves,'" said Falk. "So in a way, you can't win by trying to duck it."
Falk's solution was similar to Groff's: "It's a difficult thing, but you have to try and tune all that out and just tell the next iteration of the story. Because we're very interested in making sure each season is about something, while keeping the same DNA and keeping the same sort of feeling like you're still watching the same show."
Nowalk said he's learned from some of his Season 2 mistakes this year. Instead of trying to top himself, he's focusing on making an entertaining story. "That's what I wanted to do in the third season, just try to chill out and just be like, maybe in 10 years, someone is going to watch this, so don't write it for the hype now or trying to prove too much. I probably tried to do that [before]: 'I swear, we have more story left!'" said Nowalk.