“Hello, Mrs. Premise!”

Just to add a bit to my digression, in an earlier post, about “premise-driven” shows vs. “character-driven” shows: obviously you can’t make an absolute distinction between those two types of shows. Every television show with continuing characters is based in part on the hope that we, the audience, will find the characters interesting, and every show has a premise that is hopefully good enough to create cool stories for those characters. Even an anthology show can’t be called strictly premise-driven because we’re supposed to get involved with the characters, if only for one week.

But some shows do depend very heavily on the initial concept. “High-concept” is often used as a derogatory phrase to refer to shows (and movies) that have a basic idea that sounds great and nowhere to go from there. But a good premise-driven show isn’t just relying on the basic idea; it executes that idea in a gripping way, with the characters, setting, writing, production, all working together to sell the idea and take it to places that we would not have anticipated just by hearing a summary. The creators of a show like Twin Peaks or Desperate Housewives or Heroes or 24 or, hell, even Mork and Mindy — any show that hit the ground running and immediately fulfiled its potential — figured out how to get the full value out of the big, high-concept idea they started with.

The reason high-concept, premise-driven shows are so apt to have sophomore slumps (they don’t have to, but a lot of them do, we can all agree on that) is that no premise can really last for the full run of a show. Not unless the premise is frozen in aspic and repeated, over and over, with no variation, for the rest of the series; that’s the way many shows used to be made, but we don’t and shouldn’t accept that from a good show today. We, and the creators of the show, have the attitude of, “okay, we’ve seen that, now let’s see the show top it.” But it’s very difficult, perhaps impossible, for the show to top what it did in the first season, because the first season was when the writers put in all the great ideas that were associated with the premise, all the ideas that helped sell the show in the first place.

The second season of a show with a high-concept premise often winds up having a storyline that feels like a bit of a stretch, or a bit too much like an imitation of the first season. (See Veronica Mars: the whole show, the setting, all the characters, are perfectly calibrated to fit the first-season storyline about Lilly Kane’s murder. In the second season, Rob Thomas had to come up with a new season-long storyline that would fit the show, rather than structuring the show to fit the story. It was still good, but the second season’s storyline inevitably seemed contrived. By the time they get to season 2, they inevitably have to stretch to come up with ideas, because the “top-tier” ideas were used up in season 1, and yet there’s an audience expectation that the new stories will not only be as good as season 1, but better. To sum it up, in the first season, these shows construct themselves around the story or stories; everything is of a piece, the way everything on Twin Peaks was built around Laura Palmer’s murder. In the second season, the stories have to be constructed around the concepts, characters and conventions that were set up in the first season. Which is harder and often creates a sense that the show is too hemmed in, whereas in the first season it seemed very free and inventive.

Season 2 is where the “character-driven” shows get a chance to shine because these shows never had particularly interesting premises to begin with. You can spot a show like this if the premise seems really generic (“They’re two opposites — living together!”) or kind of dumb (“she’s a bratty teenage girl — who fights vampires!”). These shows, like premise-driven shows, will use up all their best story ideas as early as possible. The difference is that these “best” story ideas often turn out to be not that great, because they’re based entirely on the generic premise. If you look at a workplace show, for example, you’ll notice that the early episodes are often very closely tied to the setting, as the writers use up everything they know about offices/TV stations/radio stations/police stations/boarding schools/whatever. Then they run out of premise-specific stories, and they start looking for new stuff. That leads, almost inevitably, to the show becoming very different from whatever the initial concept was; a show with a great concept will develop the characters to best fit that concept, while a show with a very generic concept (one that’s really just an excuse to get the characters on the air) will re-shape itself to fit the characters. So by the second season, when the premise-dependent show is trying to figure out where to go next, the character-dependent show is doing better than it was, because it has started to forget whatever it set out to be, and is moving toward something new and better.

I’m not, by the way, saying that one kind of show is better than the other, or that a great first season with a sophomore slump is better or worse than a weaker first season and sustained improvement afterwards. They’re just different ways a show can develop.

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