TV Critic Debate: 'The Handmaid's Tale,' 'Westworld' and the Art of the Successful Sophomore Season

Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg discuss why second seasons can be a particular challenge for critically lauded shows.
Courtesy Photos

Daniel Fienberg: At the Emmys last fall, five of seven Outstanding Drama Series nominees were first-year shows. While you probably could have predicted that type of acclaim for the Netflix prestige costumer (The Crown), the others felt like outliers. A broadcast network tearjerker? A dystopic nightmare from a streamer that had never been an Emmy player before? Mind-bending HBO sci-fi from a '70s movie remembered more for its concept than its execution? An exercise in '80s nostalgia starring a cast of unknown kids?

One of this year's most intriguing critical activities has been seeing which of last year's starry crop of newcomers would hit a sophomore slump facing the weight of high expectations. Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, straying further and further from its Margaret Atwood source material, and HBO's Westworld, coming off a first season of big creative delays and bigger narrative twists, might have faced the highest of expectations.

With both finally set to return, have they avoided the dreaded letdown?

Tim Goodman: I think Handmaid's is definitely going to hit a fatigue factor in its second season that Westworld will not. I've already seen the first five of Westworld and reviewed it, and I'm fairly confident it can add new viewers while just as importantly serving its strong base by expanding the storyline in this second season. Granted, I like the series a whole lot more than you do, but I really liked what I saw not only as a strong second season but also as a set of episodes that is useful in laying down some building blocks for future seasons. It's encouraging. I've only seen the first two Handmaid's episodes, since you reviewed it, but I think that series has always struggled with pacing — it's relentlessly bleak and the first season took forever to get much forward momentum. Even then, we were left with a kind of a cliffhanger that season two doesn't so much resolve early on as stretch out, which I struggled with. The content is very good, but for me it's a struggle to get through. Worse, the first two episodes have what I think are ridiculously pointless bits tossed in to spin the wheels in a showy spectacle while not advancing the plot. Worrisome.

DF: I think you bring up a very important distinction that every show faces as it extends or elongates its run — namely the difference between wheel-spinning and world-building, one which is clearly in the eye of the beholder. I would say that Handmaid's is expanding its world, taking us to new locations with new aesthetic palettes like the Colonies and also giving us an expanded sense of how the persecutions in Gilead impact people of different economic statuses and different religions, hinting at how other countries view what has happened here, etc. It's a wider world, even if it's still anchored by Elisabeth Moss' spectacular Emmy-winning performance.

To its credit, Westworld is also unquestionably expanding its world — new parks, new characters, replacing of the "maze" with a "door" — and yet I remain frustrated by the show's time-bending puzzles, which it clearly takes such elevated pride in, even though Reddit users and casual viewers cracked every code by half-way through the first season. I'm also frustrated trying to find any character to empathize with. It's not the same as "rooting" for anybody, but when I think about Westworld, Bernard, Dolores and Maeve are the only characters whose names I even remember and, issues of self-actualization and identity aside, they're grappling for control of a rich person's theme park. I appreciate most of the performances and the show looks admirably expensive, but I'm left with a chill.

TG: I don't think the average viewer, and Westworld has loads of them, is reading Reddit threads to crack mysteries. Most people just watch the show (and TV in general) and try to figure it out themselves or with friends at a party or dinner. People obsessing online is, I think, a warped view of how TV is consumed — but I also love the enthusiasm of those ultra fans. Neither of these shows is perfect. Both are excellent in different ways. I think Handmaid's is, at its best, a reminder of how oppressive authoritarianism is just around the corner, just under someone's public face. I think Westworld is best when it takes on existential themes of identity and purpose, but also it's a whole lot of fun as AI-run-amok.

For me, where The Handmaid's Tale falls down is that it's never going to be compelling on a strictly entertainment level until everybody starts fighting back, crushing Gilead. Until then, it's a dark parable and one that, for me, is too often like an anvil — behold this bleak world and all of this relentless suffering! By my count, there have been 12 hours of that so far and my urge to continue is waning (going to the Colonies didn't help because there's nothing but rote bleakness there — and unless everyone there starts fighting back because they have literally nothing to lose and would be better off dead, then I don't think it will ring true or be interesting). I would rather see more of Canada and Mexico and how they're dealing with the insanity between them. I just want the show to shift gears a bit — even one new gear would be nice. (And that's my mood without asking the show to address the infrastructure issue: Where are the tanks, the helicopters and fighter jets and armored fighting vehicles — anything beyond mat black Mercedes? This series is definitely protecting its budget, I'll say that.) But there are other series in their pivotal second seasons that we should probably address as well — some finished, like Stranger Things, and some current, like Atlanta.

DF: If you're asking The Handmaid's Tale to address issues of infrastructure, you may be watching The Handmaid's Tale wrong. The same is certainly true of me asking Westworld to involve me on a human level if I haven't bought into the show's "Once robots are programmed with free will, how are they different from humans, for aren't we just robots programmed by our Creator with free will?" mumbo-jumbo ethos.

These are big questions and they may be why Stranger Things was able to not face such a prohibitive backlash in its second season. The second season of that show was basically the first season of that show and fans seemed perfectly happy with repeated telekinetic bloody noses and Eggos, and — tellingly — only got ticked off by the lone episode that attempted to expand the show's universe. "Don't go chasing faux punk waterfalls," Stranger Things fans instructed the show. "Stick to the rivers and demogorgons that you're used to."

Fortunately, nobody is likely to tell Donald Glover anything similarly restrictive. Talk about a lack of sophomore slumps.

TG: Stranger Things could very well be the biggest surprise to me. I was pretty sure that if there was a show ripe for a second season implosion, it was that one. I loved the first season and marveled at how the second actually grew, in small ways, but mostly didn't explode into goo like I — and lots of people — thought was pretty likely. So that's definitely a success. And a welcome one. Stranger Things has a lot of flaws but it's really fun to watch and it's nice to see it succeed. At this point, you'd have to bet on the positive side for a good third season. Maybe aging up will be the only real threat to that show. Atlanta is a series I love but one that's hard to judge other than "what you got in the first season is basically what you get in the second season, minus the surprise of discovering Darius." It's a slice-of-life series that does unexpected things at a certain pace, but doesn't actually kick out at its own boundaries. But does it need to? That said, there was probably more growth in the second seasons Master Of None and definitely in Better Things. I don't see Atlanta sticking around that long because everybody is blowing up and maybe Donald Glover is already bored with it?

DF: If boredom forces Donald Glover to cover himself in latex makeup, adopt a creepy voice and deliver an episode as strange and brilliant and indescribable as "Teddy Perkins," then I hope he plays out the boredom thing a little bit more. Though I agree that between his hip-hop career and his burgeoning Star Wars empire, Glover is about to have more options than he has time for and it will be fascinating to see which parts of his identity get prioritized over the next decade. It's interesting that the recent upper-tier comedies we both agree maintained momentum in their second seasons are, for the most part, these semi-singular visions belonging to Glover and Aziz Ansari and Pamela Adlon.

TG: Two other big second-season returnees provide me with a chance to A) say again how much I love Legion on FX, because having an intellectually curious and creative dude like Noah Hawley running a Marvel concept through his gray matter has been super interesting and B) admit again that I haven't found the time to watch the second season of The Crown. It's Peak TV, so it happens. I have every intention of watching it at some point. And weirdly, it's not that the series isn't compelling — there are just so many other choices and our dutiful need to keep reviewing new stuff. It could be that there are too many series. But I still love the options that presents.

DF: Season 2 of The Crown is worth a watch! It's such a complicated examination of the trappings and traps of power, even if it tests all tolerance of Matt Smith's Prince Philip.And I'm never happy when a show I like is canceled, but I confess that sometimes I'm relieved when something like an Everything Sucks! isn't brought back. It was a good show and full of heart, but I like that it told a lovely and often funny story to something resembling a conclusion and then nobody felt like they had to force additional stories into the world. I liked both Big Little Lies and 13 Reasons Why and reached the end of both shows without any need for an additional chapter. "Need," though, is only the smallest part of the equation when you have ratings and Emmys like Big Little Lies or whatever ephemeral, unquantifiable representation of success Netflix saw in 13 Reasons Why. It's one thing to quibble about how a show came back, another to have to quibble about why it needed to come back at all.

TG: Exactly. And I've already written about how second seasons — particularly those not as high profile as Westworld or The Handmaid's Tale — can be very challenging. I didn't like Big Little Lies but had no doubt it would return in some form, and godspeed to it. I can vote with my remote. I also didn't get into 13 Reasons Why and can't find one reason, other than profit, that a second season would be needed but, again, it's hard to shock me on that front either. If a series I adore — like The End of the F***ing World — does regrettably come back, I can worry then about whether I'll watch it at all, or watch it and be disappointed and annoyed that they botched a perfectly encapsulated little gem of a story. In the meantime, wow, are there other options.

A version of this story first appeared in the April 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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