Monday, August 09, 2010

First Season Wonders and Second Season Blunders?

I've always wanted to write a book-length survey entitled First Season Wonders/Second Season Blunders. In broad strokes, the subject matter would be the notion that if something's not broke...don't fix it as applied to television history.

In more concrete terms, a dedicated viewer can gaze back at genre TV history and detect all these programs that began with tremendous promise and survived a difficult first year on the air, but -- for whatever reason -- got drastically re-formatted for the second season.

In this re-vamping process, the qualities that were initially so endearing about the series in the first year were often sacrificed. It's the proverbial "throwing out the baby with the bath water" syndrome.

Space: 1999 (1975-1977) is a perfect, early example of this. After Year One, which had garnered "amazing ratings" in the U.S. (Adler, Dick. The Los Angeles Times: "Some Lame Re-running." January 7, 1976, page 23), an American producer Fred Freiberger replaced Sylvia Anderson and, well, "Americanized" the British-made series.

Although the wonderful and charming character of Maya was added to the series format, and some of the new, pumped-up action was undeniably fun, the second season boasted no real sense of story-arc or "build-up" like the first season. More importantly, Space: 1999's overwhelming sense of atmospheric, Gothic terror was overturned for a familiar universe more in keeping with the then-popular Star Trek.

Now, I don't "hate" Space:1999's Year Two for a variety reasons. I don't hate any of these shows I'm writing about today. Specifically, I adore Catherine Schell's Maya, many episodes are solid ("The Metamorph," "The Exiles," "Journey to Where," etc.) and there would have been no second season without Freiberger's participation. Still...much of what worked so well about Space:1999 disappeared for the second season approach. A minor tweaking instead of such a drastic re-vamp seems to be the very thing that might have saved the series.

Over the years, this perspective has largely been re-affirmed in fandom -- though there are also strong Year Two advocates and devotees out there -- and also by the series cast and crew itself. "I liked the first season better," Martin Landau told Starlog in July of 1986 (Lee Goldberg: "Martin Landau: Space Age Hero," page 45.) Landau went on to say:

"It was truer. They changed it because a bunch of American minds got into the act and they decided to do many thing they felt were more commercial. I think the show's beauty was that it wasn't commercial, it had its own rhythm. I felt the episodes we started with in the first season were much more along the lines I wanted to go. To some extent, that was corrupted."

The late Johnny Byrne, who had been script editor on Space:1999's first year felt much the same way. He always praised Freddie Freiberger for ushering Space:1999 survival into a second year, and always felt Freiberger was a friend and a good man. But Byrne didn't necessarily like the new direction of the series.

"Freddie's priority was to make it more American, more pacey. He kept saying, 'Above all it needs more humour'. What that reduced itself to was a crass line at the end of a scene with fixed smiles coming on the faces of the unfortunates who had to endure it on screen. People were dashing around so much that when they did have a moment to speak, they had to deal largely with story. They became a bit too knowing, they understood too much; they were up against the odds, but they were there to kick ass." (David Richardson, TV Zone: "Writing 1999, Johnny Byrne," Issue 54, May 1994, page 11.)

Later in the disco decade, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981) underwent a similar metamorphosis between seasons.

The first year was a jocular, swashbuckling, tongue-in-cheek venture that saw Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) and Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) basically acting as secret agents in the 25th century. They subverted space dictators, battled despots like the Draconians and Kaleel (Jack Palance), and even rescued a "defector" from a communist-styled (!) planet during the "space Olympics."

In short, the first season Buck Rogers played like an outer-space variation on Mission: Impossible, only with more colorful characters and a light-hearted sense of humor. Was it the deepest outer space drama of all time? Of course not, but the series had a distinctive groove and was extremely popular with audiences (it finished in the Nielsen top 40 against serious competition: Robin Williams and Mork & Mindy.)

Producer Bruce Lansbury departed the series after the first season and was replaced by Gunsmoke's John Mantley...who shepherded major changes. The second season re-vamped the formula to make Buck Rogers in the 25th Century more like Star Trek. Suddenly, Buck and Wilma were officers aboard an advanced spaceship, The Searcher, going from civilization-of-the-week to civilization-of-the-week. The series had a new resident alien like Mr. Spock, Hawk (Thom Christopher), who promptly became Buck's version of Tonto, or something. Wilma Deering became less assertive, reduced almost solely to the role of Buck's romantic interest. Buck and Wilma bantered a lot, but Wilma lost her edge.

Like Maya, I always liked Hawk and appreciated the actor who performed the role (Christopher), but very soon the second season of Buck Rogers felt like a bad Star Trek rip-off. By the end of the series' run, Wilma was being chased around by mischievous alien dwarves, in what had to be one of the worst hour-long episodes I've ever seen on network television.

Star Gil Gerard -- who had also not enjoyed the less-than-serious direction of the first season -- liked the direction of the re-vamped second season even less. He told an interviewer recently: "I hated that season, it was such a rip off of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. I was thinking: why are we doing this? I always wanted Buck to stay on earth, but we got a new executive producer who had no respect for the audience and the show."

Another example of this First Season Wonder/Second Season Blunders Syndrome: SeaQuest DSV (1993 - 1996), which began has a hard-science, hard-tech look the unexplored "universe" of the Earth's oceans, but became -- in its second season -- yet another derivation of Star Trek (do you sense a pattern emerging here?), down to resident alien-style characters like Dagood, telepathic doctors/counselors, and alien invaders/nemeses.

I still recall the fuss it generated when series star Roy Scheider noted in the press his displeasure with the format changes of the second season.

Specifically, he decried the alteration from "mostly fact-based programs to science fantasy." (Kachmer, Diane C. Roy Scheider: A Film Biography, McFarland, 2002, page 159.). Scheider also noted that he was "very bitter about it," and felt "betrayed." The second season stories, he suggested were not "even good fantasy" and Star Trek did that kind of stuff "much better than we do."

In a new wrinkle, however, SeaQuest returned for a third year with another revised format, and one that was arguably far superior. Michael Ironside portrayed a new, steely-eyed, hard-edged captain, Hudson, and a TV veteran, producer Lee Goldberg brought in some good writing and some much-needed character/situational tension.

But it was too late
. The ratings sunk...and so did the SeaQuest. Perhaps if these third season changes had arrived during the second season...the format change would have worked in this instance. It's tough to say.

On and on you can travel, through the corridors and dead ends of genre TV history, gazing at this syndrome. Battlestar Galactica's second season became the dreadful Galactica: 1980, a cheapening and, dumbing-down of the original space opera format that gave the world invisible, high-jumping, "super scouts" playing baseball on Earth to save an orphanage. Again, a sad shift away from a program that had performed admirably in the Nielsen ratings and had earned a devoted fan base in just a year.

And what about NBC's Heroes, a 21st century sci-fi series which also saw a dramatic second season slump? Was the problem in that case adhering to an existing formula too closely, or shifting away from it (to take Hiro back in time?)

In all of these situations, I should add, producers surely did their best and acted in good faith to inject life into programs that were perceived as "failing" series. No one sets out to make a bad show. Did they aim too high? Too low? Would these series have been better off making only minor modifications? Again, it's impossible to know.

One important takeaway from these examples, however: Star Trek is great, but Star Trek is its own thing, and a fledgling sci-fi series would be better off developing new, inventive formats, rather than aping Gene Roddenberry's. If you look at recent outer space shows such as Farscape, Firefly and SGU, you might argue the lesson has finally been learned.

Historically-speaking, other genre series have undergone format changes too, later in their runs, and it seems that, critically and historically-speaking, we tend to judge them far less harshly than the shows which shift in the second seson. The Twilight Zone became an hour in length during its fourth season, and then promptly-shifted back to a half-hour for its fifth and final season. The Outer Limits eliminated most of the "bears" for its second season, and focused more heavily on science fiction than horror. Land of the Lost went from being about a closed-off pocket-universe in its first two seasons to a valley of mythical monsters (like Medusa, the Flying Dutchman and the Abominable Snowman...) in its third and final season under Sam Roeca's leadership. And in its last season, The A-Team went to work for The Man from U.N.C.L.E....

Which of these aforementioned format changes irked you the most? Or, contrarily, do you think that these shifts were not actually "blunders" at all, but improvements?

20 comments:

  1. You've put together a great list for this subject, John. And yes, all of them got screwed up for the reasons you mention. A favorite of mine that I like to cite for second year blunderism is the Rashomon-like program, Boomtown. First year it was brilliant! Quality writing, great ensemble cast, taking multiple perspectives of each story (set in my hometown), with each show building its underlying storyline of Joel Stevens. My wife and I couldn't get enough of it. Then, that second season came... and they took apart everything good about that first season. Cancelled after only 6 episodes in to that horrid season! Can you tell I'm still sore about that? Anyway, great idea and post, John! Thanks for this.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Le0pard13: That's a great example (Boomtown) of sort of wrong-headed format change. I'm trying to think if, in my opinion, a second season format change ever actually helped a show.

    But I'm drawing a blank... :)

    Thanks for the comment, my friend,

    best,
    John

    ReplyDelete
  3. You mentioned "The Man From UNCLE" in passing; let me suggest that it's switch to color and to more fantastical storylines in its second season reflect, if not an "improvement" (I do prefer season 1) then a move that brought it enormous popularity without losing quality. The third season is the one that killed it. While not as drastic creatively "Wild Wild West" took a similar jump when it moved to color, also "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" and "Lost in Space" - all significant changes in tone and subject (none of them improvements, really, but these were the "definitive" seasons); and "Bewitched" became far less offensively sexist in its color seasons and also funnier (I think these were all second season moves; too lazy to check).

    Glad to hear you defending Space: 1999's second season, for the same reason I liked it: Maya. In my case, I suppose my enormous teen-age crush on the character might have colored my opinions slightly...

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi DLR:

    Very interesting...

    The adjustment to color makes a huge difference in terms of visual appeal, I agree, on those series, particularly The Man from UNCLE.

    But I wonder if LIS was also a second season blunder, as the stories not only went to color, but became less-grounded in reality, and Dr. Smith moved front and center.

    You know, I had a crush on Maya too. She's the only woman to "ever look sexy" in side-burns, said Tom Shales. And I agree!

    Thanks for the comment, my friend.

    best,
    John

    ReplyDelete
  5. Man, when I saw the heading for this list the first thing I thought of was SeaQuest.

    My dad and I watched the first season together every week and loved it. Come second season, our general response to each episode was: 'hey that's a cool teaser' to 'well that was odd' to' what the sam hell!!!!!!' Needless to say we didn't watch season 3.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi Will,

    I watched the first season of SeaQuest and enjoyed it tremendously too.

    The second season was kind of embarrassing, with Counselor Troi rip-offs, giant monsters and cliched Star Trek storytelling. So I quit watching.

    But then I tuned in to the third season, and by God, it was a different and better show: it was dystopian instead of utopian, and the storytelling/character development was much stronger.

    I wonder what changes Space:1999 and Buck Rogers would have made with a third season, had they survived...

    Thanks for the comment!

    best,
    JKM

    ReplyDelete
  7. You mentioned Mork & Mindy above as the competition Buck Rogers had to face but it also suffered from a second season blunder. That one had a brilliant first season (giving us one of the funniest sitcom seasons ever) as Robin Williams was allowed to be his hilarious, anarchic self. Then for the second (for no good reason seeing as the first season was a ratings smash) they changed characters and the format and reigned in Williams. The series never recovered (despite a later switch back to the original format) even if it did manage to limp along for a couple more seasons.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi Johnny Jay!

    Thanks for the great comment, and an interesting point of history too: that's right, Mork & Mindy underwent a format change in its second season and then kept doing so, eventually adding Mirth (Jonathan Winters), which for many viewers was the final straw.

    Thanks for remembering another first season wonder/second season blunder!

    best,
    John

    ReplyDelete
  9. Le0pard131:20 PM

    From Le0pard13:

    John said:

    "I'm trying to think if, in my opinion, a second season format change ever actually helped a show.

    But I'm drawing a blank... :)"

    It is hard given the history on display in your fab post and the great thread it's generating in the comments. But, how about this? ST: THE NEXT GENERATION. Perhaps, it's not holding up as well as the original series, but wasn't there an improvement starting with the second season? Isn't it now marked, as TV|Tropes labels it, as the Growing The Beard moment (when Riker brought on his distinguished goatee). Just one more thing to keep this thread going ;-).

    Thanks, John.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hey Le0pard13,

    For some reason your last comment wouldn't post on the thread here (crazy, this Blogger software...), so I cut and paste it in myself, to add to the conversation :)

    Interesting idea on ST-TNG, but to play Devil's Advocate, I count the series more as a second season blunder.

    The show dumped Dr. Crusher for Dr. Pulaski, and then had Data do stand-up comedy with Joe Piscopo in "The Outrageous Okana." (There was a writer's strike going on, if I recall...)

    I always thought the first half-of-the-season was dreadful, save for Riker's goatee...which was indeed cool.

    But then, on the other hand, Season Two did introduce The Borg in "Q Who," which is one of the finest episodes of the entire series. That episode still holds up today.

    So was TNG a second season wonder or a second season blunder?

    Didn't the show really pick up with Season Three, the return of Dr. Crusher, and fine episodes like "Best of Both Worlds Part I"?

    Discuss...:)

    Oh, and to keep the dialogue going, how about the syndicated series The War of the Worlds? It had a well-received first season, and then cast-changes and new aliens arrived (with a new format) for season two...and the series was canceled!!!

    best,
    JKM

    ReplyDelete
  11. You bring up some great points about ST: TNG, John. I'm a big admirer of Dr. Crusher (your doing that mind-reading thing again, my friend -- a post coming this week that spotlights her is in the works) and didn't appreciate her loss that season. I guess I point THE NEXT GEN's second season out because of that seminal episode (Q WHO), the addition of Guinan (Whoopi) and Riker's change (overall exemplified by that cool goatee). The Pulaski experiment did seem like a ill-advised reach back to the original series (since Diana Muldaur was so great in her stints in that show's RETURN TO TOMORROW and IS THERE IN TRUTH NO BEAUTY?).

    Still, Pulaski did grow on me as the season progressed since she did capture some of Dr. McCoy's cantankerousness (what the producers were obviously shooting for, and something I always enjoyed in the original series). You're correct, though, about ST: TNG big leap forward in the third season for the very reasons you stated.

    I didn't watch THE WAR OF THE WORLDS when it was out [which covered my courtship and early marriage period ;-)], so I can't add anything there. Great discussion, John. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I think what killed "Mork and Mindy," even more than the cast changes was that ABC moved the show from Thursday nights to the Sunday at 8:00 PM timeslot (taking over from the recently-cancelled "Battlestar Galactica"). The ratings dropped, and ABC moved Mork back to Thursdays, but by then, the damage had been done. It never recovered its audience to the same extent.
    "SeaQuest DSV" was on up against "Lois and Clark." At first, it beat SeaQuest beat Superman, but as the season progressed, the ratings on SeaQuest dropped, and L & C's improved. So, I guess they thought they needed to do something to shake things up for season two. What they probably should have done was move it so that they didn't have two shows with potentially the same audience trying to decide which program to watch.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Oh yeah, Buck Rogers! I went to the drive in to see that theatrical release of the pilot episode of the show, way cool!
    Were we separated at birth perchance?
    Land of the Giants? Lost in Space? Voyagers?(82-83) Misfits of Science? TV series Cliffhanger? Invasion? Kolchak:The Night Stalker? Dark Shadows? Hilarious House of Frightenstein? Forever Knight? Babylon 5?

    ReplyDelete
  14. John,

    Good to finally have a moment to read your wonderful article. Terrific piece.

    It's so very true. It's a bit like the chicken and the egg applied to television. For Space:1999 [and we certainly loved it for Maya too- a hot chick with sideburns- too funny] we lament the altered course in format yet its existence would cease to be without the very involvement of those we project our frustrations. Not unlike yourself, I still have fond memories of Year 2 and hope I enjoy it when revisiting it. I also hope they consider releasing it on Blu-Ray just the same.

    As for Star Trek:TNG, a great example of a second season getting past the hump if you will. If only Space:1999's second season did the same. That fabelled third could have really led to the potential for a seven season run like TNG.

    Additionally, I think you've convinced me to check out Seaquest based upon my affections for Roy Scheider coupled with the fact you enjoyed it overall. This is great news.

    Also, I always did find the similar shake-ups and fates of Buck Rogers and Space:1999 to be interesting in their radical departures to mix it up ultimately leading to their cancellations. The comparison utilizing those two series was excellent. "Beedy beedy beedy....Wilma!" Loved WILMA & the tight spandex. SWEET! I loved Star Trek, but does that series influence know no bounds?! DANG!

    As for Galactica 1980 and those Chips-styled moments including flyingmotorcycles ...gasp! .... perish the thought, but yes another great example.

    As for other series, UFO could have been interesting in a second season. It got arguably stronger in its storytelling toward the end of its first season. That show changed so much it became another show, as you know, Space:1999.

    Your more detailed, interesting post combined with my thoughts in The Wish are almost scary John. Are we not on the same wavelength together my friend? Great entry!

    Ah, the "what could have beens." I remember this girl in Scotland when I lived there... another time, another place.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I really wasn't a big watcher/fan but I've read that "Invasion" (set in Fla., on ABC a few years back) improved in its 2nd year before getting the axe.

    ReplyDelete
  16. @indianhoop. Invasion never for the chance to have a second season, unfortuneatly. I know some people who know some people who were involved in that show (yeah, how super cool am i? haha).

    @ everyone else. Oh god. I could go on and on about TNG but it does seem like the trend of 'bad first year, good second year' switched around after Star Trek. I remember dreading watching the 1st season of TNG, DS9 but actually REALLY likeing Voyager's first season compared to the rest of it.

    The cream of the crop example has to be Babylon 5. Good god how the show went from terrible to classic from season 1 to season 2.

    @le0pard13: I was just listening to this epic interview Paramount did with Rick Berman about Star Trek (it goes on for 3.5 hours) and apparently there was some internal strife between the writers and Gates McFadden and they had to let Gates go or there would have been a biiiiiig problem. When one particular ring leader of the problem left the show in the third season, they brought her back. I liked her. Under-utilized. But I did like Pulaski. She banged Riker's dad, remember. . .maybe she's Riker's mom!!!! DA DA DAAAAAAA.

    ReplyDelete
  17. JKM. Just thinking about Torchwood. Not that there was any kind of significant format change, but it seems to be moving from strength to strength, getting better with each season, like Farscape.

    Interestingly, Torchwood is now becoming a British/ American production for its fourth season a la a kind of Space:1999 hybrid. It will be interesting to see how that show is handled in its fourth outing. It's definitely onme of the more interesting productions at the moment.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Oh my gosh, I'm way behind on the comments for this thread! Sorry! I've had crazy errands to run with Joel this week and have been behind on everything...

    Let me get started:

    Le0pard13: I wasjust playing devil's advocate on Season Two to keep the conversation going.:)

    I guess I would call it a period of occasionally awkward growth for the Next Generation...but growth in the right direction.

    I liked Pulaski, but I remember fans hated her, and I think it's because you got the sense that when she was dissing Data, she was being mean to a child, essentially. Spock was a grown guy and could fend for himself with McCoy, but Data? It was liking being mean to an innocent, and people didn't take to that. Pulaski occasionally felt like a bully. But I love Muldaur, and I liked her in that role. It offered the necessary conflict. (And remind me to tell you sometime how I really wished and hoped that Captain Jellico would have taken command of the Enterprise for the final season...).


    Howard: You are right to point out scheduling issues. That always plays a part in a series' success or failure (think Now and Again). Buck, Mork and SeaQuest all got moved aroundn a lot, which didn't help them survive the competition. Mork did undergo a big format change, however...it became a lot less...wacky, or something.

    Trick or Trete Pete: I think maybe we were separated at birth. I've noticed on your great blog the discussion of all the things I go nuts for -- Kolchak, Night Gallery -- well, you named 'em!!!

    best to all (more to come...),
    JKM

    ReplyDelete
  19. Sci-Fi Fanatic: Your comment was great. Thank you for the kind words about the piece, and I know we agree on Space:1999. Without Freddie Freiberger and the changes in format, there would have been NO SECOND SEASON OF SPACE:1999. We would have had 24 episodes all these years instead of 48. And we never would have had Maya, or episodes like "The Metamorph," "The Exiles," etc. I think much of Freiberger planned was fine...I just think it was scuttled in execution, to a large degree. But I'm with you: I will be first in line to buy blu rays of Year Two. That's for dang sure!

    Now SeaQuest: I haven't watched it with regularity in fifteen years. But I remember enjoying the first season, in part because my wife is a dead ringer for Stacy Haiduk (Lt. Hitchcock), and in part because I've always loved submarine stories. The first year is more science/fact based, and has some good stories. The second year is Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea...but worse. Much, much worse. And I liked what I saw of the third year, but my memory is that I only saw a few episodes, and that some didn't actually air.
    So don't go whole hog on SeaQuest based on my recommendation. Seriously. Netflix a few first year episodes, I think!! :)

    Indianhoop: I remember liking Invasion (from Shaun Cassidy, I think...) very much. I mean, it was slow-as-molasses, but also extremely intriguing and well-acted. I wish it had survived longer, myself.

    Will: Like you, I liked Voyager's first year more than the later years (see, Kes!; that's all I'm saying). DS9 got better over the years...ended really strong. I seriously need to watch B5 to make a better assessment of it. That's on my radar in a big way.

    Sci-Fi Fanatic: Please tell me more about Torchwood. I have been on the fence about picking it up, but I suspect I might like it. What's your opinion?

    best to all,
    John

    ReplyDelete
  20. Torchwood is interesting in that it does something different. It's hard to say more without revealing too much, and that would ruin it for you, but it's strength is *not* in its sci fi aspect but its social, cultural dimension. Again, after you watch it I'll happily elaborate.

    ReplyDelete