Sunday, October 07, 2012

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 (and I'm sure you're going, "Huh?  Were those even shows?"). This year they’re saying VEGAS is America's #1 New Drama but I don’t know a single person who's seen 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” (discussed pretty much to death in this blog) – they show the major events that set the series in motion. For all the advantages of premise pilots, you pay the price week two.  What are they going to do on LAST RESORT?   Invade another island?  Fire another nuclear missile?   On BEWITCHED -- 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.  (See my attempt to catch up on GAME OF THRONES.)
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 THE LAST RESORT were on Fox they'd be nuking Europe already just to get you up to speed. Such are the problems facing today’s TV showrunners.

Update: Tomorrow a report on last night's CHEERS 30th reunion party complete with lots of pictures.  It's 10:17 a.m. and I just woke up.  


Jay S. said...

I find that sitcoms particularly tend to struggle for at least several episodes following their pilots until they find their footing. Seems to be the case now moreso than in the past.

Jerry Krull said...

Really interesting post. I loved the old Dick Van Dyke show and read that Carl Reiner had written out episodes for the entire first season before the show was picked up. So there were strong second, third, etc episodes all the way through.

I was asked to write a sitcom script about 8 years ago for a (would-be) showrunner who was pitching his show. He wanted to have 8 episodes ready to go for his next meeting to nail down the pilot.

Now that was interesting because we did everything via email. I had his pilot script and a crude show bible he started. It didn't make it to the pilot stage, but what an experience to write to somebody's vision without ever seeing it acted out.

Johnny Walker said...

Ha! Sounds like it was a good evening :)

My friend is working on Anger Management, and they've got this funky shooting schedule where they're doing two episodes a week. I can't imagine. Any thoughts?

I personally think it sounds like hell for the writing staff, even with the regular week long breaks they've scheduled... I can imagine the writing staff would still find themselves working. Ever worked on a show with this sort of schedule?

Anonymous said...

Interesting you mentioned "Last Resort". Based on this past weeks (2nd) episode--I decided to stop watching it--probably exactly for the reasons you mentioned.

And on a possibly related note, I'm still thinking about how spot-on your comments on "The Mindy Project" were. You articulated something I couldn't quite put my finger on during the pilot episode, but became much clearer during the 2nd episode.

I think I've given up on that show, too... And while I'm whining, the 2nd season opener of "Homeland" left me a little underwhelmed. That show is on probation at the moment--even though I really enjoyed Season 1....

YEKIMI said...

I can't remember what show it was for but I saw a promo for it proclaiming "America's #1 new comedy hit!....premieres in two weeks!" WTF? If it hasn't even been on air yet how can it be the #1 new hit? Who's proclaiming it #1...the focus groups they showed it to? TV critics? Goldfish? Charles Manson followers? Maybe if they showed it online and it had 30 more people looking at it then the "Exploding Rabbit" website....possibly then I could see them claiming it's #1.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Johnny Walker: That sounds like the way the Kilroy shows were done - they'd rent a studio for a week and shoot two shows a day. I had read that AM was taking a factory-line approach, but thought perhaps that meant doing an entire season's worth of kitchen scenes, then an entire season's worth of living room/group scenes, then an entire season's worth of bar scenes, etc. Two shows a week for a sitcom means very little rehearsal for the actors. I bet Sheen loves that (seriously).

Sometimes, even if 2nd episodes are hard, they're actually better than the pilot. When I want to introduce someone to THE BIG BANG THEORY I always show them episode 2 - I loved the characters from the beginning of the pilot, but episode 2 was wonderful (it's the one where Sheldon cleans Penny's apartment at night while she's asleep because he can't stand knowing the mess is there).


XJill said...

I really liked the Vegas pilot and they had a solid second episode, fwiw. It's a nice procedural, Chiklis and Quiad really add a level of watchability for me.

Those that did not pass the 2nd ep test for me were: Ben & Kate, Elementary and The Mindy Project.

I loved Last Resort's pilot and liked the 2nd ep; to me there are plenty of stories I can see playing out. Of course the ratings are dismal so it's all but cancelled but I'm hoping the get to wrap the story somewhat.

Jest Jake (as in everything is) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jest Jake (as in everything is) said...

I hope "Vegas" gets better, but somehow I doubt it will. There's nothing particularly "new" or memorable about "Vegas" and the performances are all on the same level of mediocrity. I've seen "Vegas" before, far too many times in fact, to be as enthusiastic as some of the posters here.

On a separate note, I liked "Boss" in the first year, but I think they painted themselves into a box [because of the "disease") and it showed this season. "Boss" and "Vegas" are predictable shows and that
says death to me.

Jeremy Dylan said...

Me! I'm the one who watched VEGAS. Great pilot, directed by James Mangold. Better looking that most of the movies I've seen this year.

Ike Iszany said...

The second episode of Sherlock Holmes (I refuse to call it by that ridiculous title they used.) was long and tedious. Since I watch Big Bang, Two and A Half and Person of Interest they need to be really good to keep me in front of my TV for three straight hours. Next week is make or break that I stick with it.

cadavra said...

I always judge a show by its third episode. Months may have gone by since the pilot, and #2 is pretty much a reboot, especially if there have been cast and/or writer changes. So the third would be the first episode made directly after the previous one, at which point the machinery should be pretty well oiled.

DBenson said...

I know the media landscape has changed totally, but I remember thinking great ratings on the first few episodes of a show were more a reflection of good marketing, an already-popular star, or a commercial implying a hot girl would get at least semi-naked.

"Dick Van Dyke" wouldn't have sweated the first season if they had a few promos of Mary Tyler Moore in her dance outfits.

Pat Reeder said...

I watched the pilot of "Vegas," too, so that makes three of us thus far. Took a while because my wife was interested and I wasn't, but we finally watched it on DVR together (wait, four!), and I thought it was pretty good. Nothing original, but a well-done potboiler, and we loved the recreation of old Las Vegas, which is where we'd like to stay when we go there.

Good enough that I'll stick with it for at least a couple more episodes to see where it goes, and I'm not a big viewer of TV dramas.

Dan in Missouri said...

I've watched "Vegas" both weeks. It is very entertaining.
Dan in Missouri

Mike Bell said...

I saw Vegas. Eh. I was really disappointed that there was nobody named Dan Tana.

Bob Summers said...

I recall that "Revolution" was an odds on favorite to be the first cancellation this season, probably tied with "Neighbors". "Vegas" gets better, while "Last Resort" really doesn't seem to know where it's going.

Roger Owen Green said...

I didn't watch LAST RESORT, but I had the idea that it'd work better as a miniseries than an open-ended one. Yeah, what would they be doing in season three?

But I DID watch COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF, which had a few strong episodes before it floundered.

Barry Traylor said...

Although I like Lucy Liu quite a lot I gave up on the Sherlock Holmes knockoff about ten minutes into it. I missed the pilot for Vegas but enjoyed the second episode. Not sure if Last Resort will be around long enough for me to get invested in it or not. Even though I thought Revolution extremely dumb I must be in the minority as I see it has been picked up for a full season.
BTW Ken, all your comments lately about Cheers has made me order the 1st season from Netflix. I never saw many episodes of Cheers as that was long before Tivo etc. and I worked 2nd shift for many years so only saw a few of them later when it went into syndication. Darn fine show. I do wish this caliber of sitcom was on today.

PatGLex said...

I'm trying to figure out how "Nashville" is the #1 show of the season -- and it hasn't even aired yet.

I missed the 2nd ep. of Vegas [though I saw the pilot because I have the hots for Dennis Quaid] -- and you know, it didn't faze me. That one may be viewed by me on a drop in basis.

Sebastian Peitsch said...

Tee hee hee.

Commander in Chief was a Geena Davis vehicle. Didn't even have to look that up :-)

First female president and all.

Which reminds me - how many episodes of "Veep" were there? I saw eight.

cadavra said...

There were indeed just eight.

In its second episode, LAST RESORT seems to be turning into LOST--right down to the French woman running the joint. I'm hanging in there, but its long-term potential is starting to get iffy.

ELEMENTARY seems to be less Sherlock and more MONK: OCD amateur who spots the clues everyone else misses, long-suffering female sidekick, one cop who understands him (and played by an actor who normally plays villains), etc., etc. It seemed so promising, but I'm not sure I'm going to stay past #3 unless there's a real uptick in the writing.

COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF fell apart after the first few episodes because they fired creator Rod Lurie, and the replacements rejiggered the show to ABC's liking, killing it in the process.