We've all seen it a million times before: The TV show that limps out of the gate, and can't quite find its footing for an entire year. Or two. And then... something clicks, and the show picks up. See: Supernatural, Angel, Buffy, TNG and DS9. But how can you tell if a show's shitty first season is just the prologue to greatness?
This is a question that obviously applies to at least a couple of shows right now, whose debut seasons were less than wonderful. And really, this question boils down to a couple of things: 1) Does this show still have potential for greatness, in its characters or its mythos? 2) Are there any glimmerings of signs that the show is groping its way towards fulfilling that potential, at all? And I guess, also: 3) Is there any scope for the show to reinvent itself, with a brand new storyline or a shaken up cast?
Nobody ever sets out to make a mediocre TV show. And given how hard it is to get a TV show greenlit these days, you have to believe that for every show that makes it to the air, there was someone who had a deep and abiding belief that there was something here. Somebody had to see the potential for greatness in this show.
Also, any show could suddenly achieve excellence, after years of moderate to extreme suckitude. You could get a brand new creative team, or a revamp that's almost like a whole new premise, and suddenly? Watchability! Anything can happen.
But if you've just watched a whole season of bleh, and you want to try and decide whether to give a show one more chance when its second season debuts, what do you look for?
First of all, is there any chemistry here? Like, do any of the cast have chemistry with each other? Is there one relationship that actually seems to be cooking, in the midst of the kludge factor? You can't manufacture chemistry out of nothing. And conversely, even one pair or set of characters who seem to have sparks, due to writing or acting or both, can be enough to turn things around.
And then you have to ask, is this show just treading water? That can actually be a good sign — sometimes it seems like a show that's just swimming in place might have an easier time than one that's actively backstroking in the wrong direction. If it feels like the show is just having the same boring episode over and over, that could actually indicate some extra potential just bubbling under the surface.
Also, is the show living up to its premise? If it's a show about time travel and dinosaurs, is it actually giving you time travel and dinosaurs? Or is it getting stuck in the weeds? If it's about alien invasion, are the aliens actually invading shit? Can you see any hope that it's going to start treating its premise seriously?
Does the mythos have a core to it? Like, Fringe's mythos was always about Walter Bishop's past mistakes, even when the show seemed stuck in a procedural "case of the week" format for its first year. If there's something in the show's mythos that actually seems to have a point, or a real central idea, then you can at least hope that the show will zero in on that in later years. (But this isn't the same as the show's premise — having a cool premise is definitely not enough.)
And also, was the pilot somewhat entertaining? A show that fails to live up to a fun pilot is maybe in a better position than one that's trying to build on a pilot that fell flat. A good pilot asks questions that you're actually interested in the answers to, and lays out some ideas that can fuel years of stories. If the pilot didn't suck, you can always hope the creators go back and rewatch it over the break.
And then there are the questions that get to whether the show seems to be showing some signs of turning the boat. Like, have they shaken up the cast in a way that seems positive? Did they kill off some "dead wood" characters already, or introduce a few new veteran character actors to the cast? If there's one recurring character who actually has legs, is he or she being upgraded to series regular?
Or did the recent batch of episodes feature some entertaining moments among the tail-chasing? This sort of gets back to whether some characters are showing actual chemistry, but also whether there are some ideas the show seems to be groping towards exploring. Sometimes it just takes one really strong moment, of honest emotion or someone punching someone else in a particularly great manner, to make a show seem like it's starting to gel.
Also, did the season end with a bang or a WTF? The season finale is like a promissory note. And history teaches us that a finale that actually makes sense, or seems like it follows on what's gone before, is a better sign than one that feels like "Hey, let's throw some stuff at the wall here." If a show's season finale manages to pack a huge punch and culminate all of the earlier action, and any twist feels like it has a reason to exist, that's a good sign that season two might be better.
On a related note, are you getting answers? That make sense? The good news is a lot of TV shows seem to have evolved past the "endless rabbit hole" model, in which there are always more questions but never any real answers. Revolution already told us why the power went out, for example. So you can always ask, are the answers interesting enough to keep you wanting to learn the next thing, and does the knowledge enrich this world for you?
There's also just the intangibles, like is the show just growing on you? Maybe you can't point to any reason why it might be improving, but you've just started to enjoy it more and look past the flaws.
Of course, any show can have a major shakeup at any time. You could always do a Sliders or whatever. You could replace every castmember except one with drunken firebreathers and have all the show's dialogue spelled out in their mouth-flames. You could send everybody to an alternate universe, like Eureka did.
The good news is, as shows are getting more serialized, we're also seeing them get more agile. Like, Once Upon a Time seems to throw everything in a blender at the end of every season. Fringe was starting to get like that as well. Most shows will change things up somewhat from season to season, but showrunners seem to be less and less worried about confusing casual viewers or screwing up the syndication.
So if there really is a nub of something interesting in the show's premise, or in its setting, or in a few of the characters, try to imagine how much the show would have to change to capitalize on that. And then try to guess whether the show's creators are willing to do what it takes.
The other good news is, television people actually pay tons of attention to the fans, and lurk on fan forums ever since J. Michael Straczynski paved the way. So if you seriously start a "replace everyone on the cast except one with firebreathers who speak through flames" campaign, you have a shot at making this happen. They're all starting to work on their next seasons right now, so this is the perfect time, too!
Firebreather image via Garry Knight.