Critic's Notebook: The Challenge of Surviving Season 2 in the Peak TV Era

It's hard to get your TV series noticed these days, but it's even harder to have it remembered by the time it returns for season 2.
Courtesy of Eric Liebowitz/Amazon Prime Video
Do you remember this show? 'Sneaky Pete' returns for season two on Amazon

Among the many difficulties of life in the Peak TV era is the return of good series that lacked buzz or insanely devoted fan bases for the dreaded and pivotal second season.

A lot of shows die right there.

Of course, losing buzz or failing to launch in the first season is still a far sorrier state to be in. As the importance of ratings gets a whole lot blurrier and the challenge of simply being discovered among infinite choices increases, the whole notion of how to evaluate the current health and future well-being of a series becomes more difficult.

Especially if the discussion sticks to cable and streaming services, where the bar for what constitutes success is murkier than the high-panic, high-churn world of network television, where results are tracked nightly and weekly and then run through some kind of cost/ratings/profit algorithm that broadcast is still using (and that only makes sense to its executives and their varied gods).

Expectations, or the relative lack of them given the Peak TV environment, have always been more realistic on ad-supported cable where few dare to dream about the glory days of an outlier like The Walking Dead and tend to be more focused on a solid hit that might also win an award here and there and help build the brand. On premium channels and streaming services, it's all about subscriptions and the perceived value that drives them, which finds its sweet spot in sustained buzz, critical acclaim and awards.

If series "go silent" relatively quickly after they launch and there's this perceived lack of interest in the new product, that's a hurdle everyone faces (think HBO's Here and Now or Showtime's The Chi, where an all-star cast in the former and high-profile creator — Lena Waithe — in the latter doesn't seem to have been enough to combat a saturated marketplace. Which makes you wonder about lower-profile shows on smaller platforms and how they'll get to the next level, which is the next season.)

Ah, yes, the sophomore season. It seems, for a lot of shows, that the second season is weirdly more difficult. Unless it's a series like Marvel's Jessica Jones, which appears to have retained its buzz entering this week's season two premiere, or FX's Atlanta, which took more than a year to return but still managed tons of coverage this week, the fight is less about being noticed than remembered.

Think about Amazon's Sneaky Pete, about to return 14 months after its freshman season. Here's a show that flew under a lot of radars but, like Amazon's other mostly undiscovered gem, Patriot, totally deserved a second season. Will it capitalize on that — grow, get attention, reap rewards or be seen enough to add value — and make it to a third season? In a world where benchmate The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel at least seemed to have a higher profile and thus more successful launch than either of the other two, it remains to be seen.

Since Amazon, like Netflix, doesn't release ratings, will we ever know? Yes, when a show is not renewed. It's a late answer, but a definitive one. (Hell, it could be that Sneaky Pete is super popular among Amazon subscribers and the streamer is confidently assured it will bust out bigger than Mrs. Maisel and maybe reach the apparent popularity of Mozart In the Jungle — there's no telling what the important analytics are on the inside).

But unless you're a slam-dunk like, say, Black Mirror, the second season premiere seems especially daunting at it approaches.  Do the viewers who were there in season one know your show is even coming back? Will they still love you? Have they found eight or nine new loves in the year you've been away? Is there no more room for you?

Since the start of 2018 alone, consider that these pivotal second season premieres happened. In January: Falling Water, USA; Lovesick, Netflix (third season overall, but second billed as a "Netflix original"); Victoria, PBS; Divorce, HBO; Crashing, HBO; High Maintenance, HBO; One Day at a Time, Netflix. In February: Marseille, Netflix. In March: Atlanta, FX; The Good Fight, CBS All Access; Marvel's Jessica Jones, Netflix; Santa Clarita Diet, Netflix; A Series of Unfortunate Events, Netflix.

The second season difficulties will be measured on a number of those. And that's mostly a collection that has either good pedigree or incentive for some of the platforms to keep them. Even still, it's probably not a good sign that I liked the few early episodes of Falling Water I watched last year but had zero idea the second season launched. HBO seems unlikely to cut ties to Divorce, but it surely must have expected a whole lot more buzz from that; while lower-profile series like Crashing and High Maintenance remain just that. Netflix, which is a tough entity in the tea-reading business, hasn't decided on the fate of critically acclaimed revival One Day at a Time, while Santa Clarita Diet is, well, a thing that's still on. I would guess that the pedigree of A Series of Unfortunate Events and its family-friendly versatility in cross-promotion would make it strong bench fodder for Netflix, whereas more Santa Clarita Diet seems ill-advised, but it's hard to say.

I think I'm most interested in the fate of Sneaky Pete because of its long absence and under-the-radar quality, then One Day at a Time as a harbinger of how much Netflix values critical acclaim and, lastly, Divorce as a test case on HBO's patience.

Remember that a lot of these sophomore shows are going up against shiny new offerings and other returning stalwarts. Both the new and the firmly established are threats. Nobody's fate is safe for these shows going into their second seasons.

A third season, then, is a gift. Especially in this environment. Honestly, it's an achievement to be proud of — you made it. That said, one of the things I hear the most confusion over is people saying, "How is this series I've never watched now in its third season?" (Random recent sampling: The Path on Hulu, The Magicians and The Expanse on Syfy, The Detour on TBS, Baskets on FX, Ash vs. Evil Dead on Starz).

But hey, they made it for a reason, even if that reason is wrapped up in dubious analytics and plenty of third-season series remain obscure. Those shows may find issues ahead — five-plus-season runs are becoming increasingly rare. But in the world of Peak TV, it's really saying something to survive the sophomore season.