The second impression matters in television
Next month, the six networks will announce the new shows they’ll be adding to their fall schedules. Inevitably, we’ll hear execs say things like ”The pilot just blew us away.” And we’ll know that once again, most of these shows are doomed. Why? Because as any inveterate TV viewer knows, it’s the second episode that really counts.
A pilot for a series is just a proposal, full of promises, vows, and optimistic lies. Episode 2, however, is the marriage — and in many cases, it’s cause for divorce. Take one of this spring’s most prominent, and struggling, new series, ABC’s lighthearted surveillance hour Eyes. The first episode, which introduced us to Tim Daly and the attractive, shiny-as-lip-gloss employees of his firm, was breezy, charming fun that ended with a massive tune-in-next-week twist: the cold-blooded murder of one employee by another. Then came episode 2. Suddenly, Daly’s character, Harlan Judd, had crossed the line from impish rogue to speechifying smart-ass — a misuse of an actor whose strength is understated earnestness. But more grievously, it turned out the investigator who we thought had been killed was actually just. . .nicked in the ear. That bait and switch announced two things: (1) The show was instantly lowering the dramatic stakes set up in its pilot, and (2) it didn’t mind cheating. No wonder people tuned out.
Occasionally, a second episode U-turns in a positive direction. I wasn’t eager to revisit NBC’s Americanization of The Office after seeing the first half hour, with its dialogue lifted virtually intact from the Ricky Gervais original and its almost creepy sense of constrained homage. But I’m glad I did; in episode 2, given the original script, the show’s excellent cast — led by the great, apparently unembarrassable Steve Carell — began to relax into their roles and find comic rhythms that honored the British show but didn’t duplicate it.
Great second episodes need to give you, directly or indirectly, a road map to the next year (or five) of a series. They can do that without trying to top the pilot, or even giving much away; the second episodes of Lost and Desperate Housewives stayed true to their own premises by revealing little, essentially announcing their intention to tell complex stories that would reward long-term viewing. They didn’t backtrack from their pilots, nor did they wrap everything up neatly; instead, they sold viewers by projecting a confidence level that said ”Don’t worry, just enjoy the ride — we know where we’re going.” By the end of May, we’ll know whether they were telling the truth or just winging it.
More often, though, second episodes sink under the dire weight of premises that, upon further consideration, do not have five years of life in them. Two current examples: NBC’s Medium (she can see things other people can’t — and she solves crimes!) and ABC’s cop drama Blind Justice (he can’t see things other people can — and he solves crimes!); each took exactly two installments to convey the dispiriting notion that all future episodes would be interchangeable whether the shows ran for 10 weeks or 10 years. Finally, there’s the Life on a Stick phenomenon. I’d tell you what went wrong in the second episode of Fox’s hot-dog sitcom, but I never got around to watching it. Sometimes, it turns out, a pilot really is enough to go on.