Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Why week two is often weak two

For most new shows this is the toughest week of the year. Week two.

The phony network hype begins, already heralding the next big hit of the season based on only one airing. The same hype that gleefully proclaimed WHOOPI the smash of the season and COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF the breakout hit of 2005. This year they’re saying BIONIC WOMAN and PRIVATE PRACTICE but I don’t think even they believe it.

All this bogus hype just adds unrealistic pressure. And every showrunner knows, as tough as it is to do a good pilot, that’s nothing compared to episode two.

Generally, you have months to write and polish your pilot. You have a week to bang out episode two.

Drama pilots often have big budgets. And big name feature directors. For week two you get the guy who directed a few DEGRASSI HIGHS and instead of spectacular stunts worthy of James Bond movies you must settle for a car that can fishtail.

And good luck spotting movie star executive producers like Hugh Jackman and Salma Hayek in anything but the pilot. They’d lose their invitations to Jeff Katzenberg’s picnic if they appeared in “episodic” television beyond the premiere.

A lot of pilots are “premise pilots” – they show the major events that set the series in motion. But what are they gonna do week two? Have another plane crash on LOST? Jaime Sommers has another accident and winds up with Bionic genitals? Darren finds out Samantha is also Jewish?

For a while networks were demanding we don’t do premise pilots. So in essence, we were writing a second show AS a pilot which combines the hardest aspects of both assignments. And then our second episode had to be essentially ANOTHER second episode.

People watch the second episode with different expectations. Some saw and loved the pilot and expect the follow-up to be just as good (despite the limitations). Others saw the pilot, are still on the fence but are willing to give the show another try. You have this one last chance to win them over. Gulp! And most people who tune in didn’t see the pilot. You have to get them caught up while not boring the viewers who don’t need a recap. It’s a tough line to straddle.

Obviously some shows can do the “Previously on…” prelude, but that usually works best on serialized programs. And still on those shows, with big casts, you’re spending half the episode trying to figure out who the hell all these people are and why the main character is named Jack in every series.

Bottom line: Second shows are a bitch so give ‘em a little slack this week. And Fox fall shows have it even worse. Because of the baseball playoffs their new entries disappear after a couple airings. So when they return they need to present yet another pilot episode. If Jaime Sommers were on Fox she would have her third car accident, new bionic breasts and eyebrows, and she would likely lose her driver’s license and certainly her auto insurance. Such are the problems facing today’s TV showrunners.


R.A. Porter said...

Having watched the second episode of Reaper tonight, I'm wondering if the creators have already run out of original ideas. I'd argue that if they could get that guy who guested on Degrassi: The Next Generation to come back and direct again, they'd be a lot better off.

Anonymous said...

So you're saying that the second episode of CAVEMAN is not going to scale the comic heights of episode 1? Well, I think one episode was enough for me. I found myself missing THE CLASS. The real timesavers though were the promos for CARPOOLERS. By the time CAVEMEN ended, I knew that no force on earth would get me to watch it. FAST-FORWARD. (I was taping while I watched World War II on PBS. SPOILER ALERT: we won!)

Rob said...

On a different note, last night's second House was proof that changing things up isn't necessarily a recipe for the now cliche "Jumping the Shark". Bringing in some new doctors to mix things up with House proved itself when every time he encountered his old staff the episode ground to a halt.

And the show is still more amusing than 75% of the sitcoms on TV.

Rob said...

Sadly, I'll never know how the second Bionic Woman turned out. But given your commentary Ken, I guess that means the second show looks like it was shot on the backlot of a studio in the Czech Republic, directed by Alan Smithee with special effects by some kid with a Commodore 64 and featured a cameo appearance by Special Guest Star Paula Marsha as "The True First Bionic Woman".

Thanks for freeing up time to watch a Select Comfort infomercial.

PS: I watched about 2 random minutes of Caveman and thought, "this premise loses any amusement it ever could have after 30 seconds" ABC would have caught less flack if they'd have called the series Geico's Caveman and had them talking aoout shopping for car insurance each week.

VP81955 said...

I hope Fox is planning some alternate time slot for "Back To You," because I fear it's going to be crushed by "Pushing Daisies." The baseball playoffs won't help either (particularly for a series based in Pittsburgh, where for the Pirates to make the postseason, you might need help from Jeannie, Samantha or Sabrina).

Unknown said...


No you didn't. We have a female chancellor now, universal healthcare and aren't involved in an unnecessary war (but rather in Afghanistan picking up the pieces but I digress) ;-)

Oh and our chancellor knows the plural of "children" *snicker*

Unknown said...

R.A. -

Granted, I was in and out of watching Reaper (making cookies to surprise my wife, honest), but I thought the episode had hardly any fall off from the premier. Granted, there wasn't any kind of a major plot wrinkle or paradigm shift, but like Ken said, the second episode really should just advance the premise and keep it interesting. I'd say you're asking too much, because Reaper is still one of the better new shows.

Anonymous said...

Dick Wolfe talked about going to the network with 17 scripts or so to pitch perfection. I doubt they read them all but I think his approach points out something he did differently than most. Writers tend to be looking for that one big score. (I know I am.) I guess he was so confident because he took a lot of time polishing so he didn't just take just one week to bang out episode two. It must be nice to have had a lot of scripts in the bank when tackling that first season.

A word about casting, epecially with big casts. On House last night they managed to deal with a roomful of job candidates and make them all interesting and distinguishable from each other. It was deft work and they gave minor quirky characters good lines. This is rare, but especially so with unknown actors you know you'll never see on the show again. Perhaps it's generosity, doing something un-Hollywood for a better show, or maybe there's just enough good writing to go around that they don't have to give Hugh Laurie the only funny lines there are.

On the other side of the coin there was a cop/firefighter show a few years ago which had promise but didn't last long. One of the problems for viewers trying to get into it was that the casting director obviously like a certain look in his/her men, so several of them looked too much alike. "Who's he again?" "Um, you know, that guy." "The undercover cop?" "No, the other one...I think."

Rant over. Thanks for your blog Ken. I come here daily for you, you, you.

Anonymous said...

Watching CAVEMEN = Cruel and unusual punishment.

It made me miss SUPERTRAIN.

Anonymous said...

First episode of Big Bang Theory: brilliant.
Five minutes of second episode of Big Bang Theory: awful.

Gail Renard said...

Yup, I agree with you, Ken, about writing a second episode as your pilot. No one should have to spend 70% of every show reiterating what went on previously or you'd be in a permanent Tristram Shandy situation. Ideally the premise should be so clear that you never have to mention it again except for the odd line.

My favourite (which I didn't see but feel I have) was a series called, "She's The Sheriff," which was a title, pilot and concept in one. What economy!

Anonymous said...

Nice timing on this post, since I watched -- or should I say, "tried to watch" -- the second episode of "Chuck" last night and couldn't even finish it. Ouch. Then I remembered that awful second ep of "Firefly" and how it nearly turned me off the whole enterprise, until I listened to Joss Wheedon's DVD commentary and learned that he was basically forced by Fox to write it over a weekend. I wonder how many other writers & producers could tell similar stories? (Go ahead, tell me "all of them.")

Nat G said...

Just in the interest of factual correctness: The lovely and short Ms. Hayek appeared in plenty of episodes of Ugly Betty season 1 beyond the pilot. She was both a character within the show for an arc, and appeared repeatedly in the Mexican soap opera that some characters watch.

By Ken Levine said...

I just checked Katzenberg's guest list. Salma's off this year. That'll teach her.

According to the Ari Gold handbook -- it's also acceptable for movie stars to appear in episodes of television IF their episode airs right after the the Supebowl.

Anonymous said...

I think you're wonderful Ken, and by extension, all your TV friends, but I haven't laughed once watching "Back To You" so I had to call it quits after the second episode.

Much to my surprise, I found both "Caveman" and "Carpool" to provide more laughs.

I know, it's best I stay anonymous.

- Dan O'Day :-)

Anonymous said...

Ken, I just wanted to thank you for running that picture of Salma Hayek.

Jill Golick said...

That's the problem with the premise pilot. You're not actually writing the franchise. Then you get to episode two and you have to create the show all over again -- except in a form you can deliver week after week.

Anonymous said...


Impressed as I am that Germany doesn't have the evil George W. Bush as it's chancellor (Although you're welcome to him. Take my pres, please.) but according to Ken Burns, my dad and his pals kicked your dad's butt from Normandy to Berlin, and Hitler lost, and you have a lot of different buildings now because the ones you had in 1940 we bombed into dust. Last time I looked, Japan surrendered to us also. That is called winning the war. What you're talking about is winning the peace; different topic altogether.

As for unecessary wars: WWII wouldn't have been necessary if you guys hadn't decided to conquer the world, TWICE!. The unecessary wars you started were a WHOLE LOT bigger than the unecessary war we have started. You are in no historical condition to brag.

And while it's true we have racial violence over here too, we have not murdered 6 million Jews, nothing remotely as horrible as the Holocaust has happened here in over a century, and you guys only stopped doing it because we stopped you, by winning the war.

But I do admit that your rewriting history certainly smacks of the Old Germany. You lost the war. Time to accept the fact.

Anonymous said...

@d. mcewan

Though I'm tempted to offer a rebuttal to your war rant, perhaps I'll just suggest that Mr. Levine's blog really isn't the best place for this discussion...?

- Adam

Anonymous said...

In Heroes case, it was more of a 'weak month two' kinda deal. Of course, that weak period didn't end.
Seems like television hype and messy, but too simple for the mess to matter plots work.

Of course, LOST works too. Even better. But networks don't want to persue the risk.
Which is why I don't look forward to any new series.

'Heroes' works, which scares me.

Karen said...

And good luck spotting movie star executive producers like Hugh Jackman and Salma Hayek in anything but the pilot.

But...but...Salma Hayek had only the tiniest of tiny roles in the pilot, and had an extended role later in the season. In fact, the photo you run of her is NOT from the pilot, but from those later shows.


Dwacon said...

Commander in Chief wasn't a flop... it was killed by network executives who were prolly afraid of Hillary in 2008.

Anonymous said...

"@d. mcewan
Though I'm tempted to offer a rebuttal to your war rant, perhaps I'll just suggest that Mr. Levine's blog really isn't the best place for this discussion...?
- Adam"

Tell that to "Germany really won the war" Sebastian.

Tallulah Morehead said...

What's all the fuss about? I remember when the war ended reading who was victorious in all the papers. As I recall, the North won, although Lincoln was shot and Harry Truman ahd to take over.

Anonymous said...

To return to Ken's quite interesting topic, As I recall, the best cliff-hanger I've ever seen on any show - the indestructable cheerleader coming back to life in the middle of her autopsy - occurred in the third episode of HEROES. It was only in their season 1 finale that the show fell apart rather severely.

Rob said...

Here is idea for week one that will make everyone's life easier. Don't make it a pilot, but do what The Wire does. Make the characters rich enough that we don't need to know the entire setup in the first 30 minutes or an hour.

R.A. Porter said...

Commander in Chief wasn't "killed by network executives". Rod Lurie couldn't keep up the pace of a weekly show (very unfortunate, as he has a great mind for political drama) and when he was pushed aside so the show could stay on time, it suffered greatly.

So unless you think a network demanding its weekly dramas show up - weekly - is unreasonable, the network didn't kill CiC.

Charles Jurries said...

Please don't mention Commander in Chief... I cry a little bit inside every time I think of that show being off the air. (No more weekly Ever Carradine! No weekly banter between Natasha H. and Donald Sutherland! So sad...)

Unknown said...

re: Salma

Funny that you posted the pic the same day news broke about her giving birth. Is anyone else afraid of what happens when her mammary glands swell?

Ger Apeldoorn said...

I just watched Big Bang Theory and quite liked it. Okay, they overdid the sex jokes, but the characters as well played and the dynamic between the two main characters was very well done. I am going to watch the second episode soon to see what the difference is between having James Burrows or the guy who did the fifth season of The Jim Belushi Show.

Rob said...

Commander in Chief was an enjoyable show that fell apart quickly. It also was a great argument for a 13 week season.

Dwacon said...

Regarding Commander in Chief... moving it around the schedule and having Cannell totally change the tone of the show were like treating the flu with leeches.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

I watched Big Bang #2 and I must say I didn't see any marked differences. The slapstick scenes were a bit jokey and I am sure Jim Burrows would not have done the walking into the door gag like that. But there were certainly no lapses of taste compared to #1 and they did adress what everyone here percieved as the basic problem of episode #1 - why would a girl like that even listen to geeks like that if there are no camera's around filming it for a television reality show. Well, she's been left by her boyfriend, you see and she is not used to guys being kind to her. Which these guys are. At least some of them. Actually, this episode I was wondering how soon the boys would tire of her, because she is obviously a very needy girl with very low self esteem.

Anyway, it was enough for me to stick around for the next one. It helps that I really like the super-intelligent-asperger guy. Much more than the similar guy on the British IT crowd, whih is going to be transferred to the US with the same actor.

Anonymous said...

Dwacon, I believe you mean Bochco, not Cannell, a Stephen/Steven of a different color.

I have recorded but not yet watched episode 2 of Life. Anyone see it? Is a "weak two" or not?

Unknown said...

I do have to give "Life" credit for not recapping the entire pilot the way that Chuck and Reaper did this week, yet you still get across what happened with him (in the "documentary" bits and flashbacks).

That said, not the best episode ever there. I dunno, I think I just want Charlie to show a little emotion, for crying out loud.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply, Jennifer. Yeah, Charlie's whole Zen 'tude could get old pretty quick. We'll see.