Monday, June 14, 2010

Not even Breaking Bad immune to third season-itis

Name your favorite TV show.

Now think of your favorite season of that show.

Did you answer season 3?

Maybe you did, but most of us didn't.

There are surely some exceptions, but it seems that the 3rd season of a long-running series never turns out to be its best.

There are reasons for this.

Most shows seem to fall into one of two categories: 1) They start with such a killer concept and cast and execute it so perfectly that anything they follow up with after the inaugural season turns out to be a disappointment or 2) The ideas are there, but the execution is not, so it takes a little while for the series to really get going, but when it hits its stride, it makes all the rough early going worthwhile. This happens most often in the second season.

Then there is a pattern that follows either scenario: once a show has figured out what it wants to be (and if it's lucky enough to be renewed for longer than a season) it risks either becoming boring through reputation, or criticized for not being able to live up to its ambition.

For these reasons, third seasons often turn out to be less successful than what came before them.

(The Simpsons is a huge exception, but in this case the late-blooming renaissance that normally would occur in the second season took longer than usual).

Breaking Bad was a fantastic concept brilliantly executed from the get-go (High school teacher gets cancer, cooks meth). Its second season actually managed to up the ante in every way, creating some of the show's finest episodes.

In comparison, the third season felt more scaled-back, as if we had been flooring it plot and character-wise the whole time and the writers felt the audience needed a bit more time to breathe.

So we ended up with some episodes in the third season that felt a bit trite and underwhelming compared to what came before. The show is still likely better than anything else on the air right now, but for the first time it has put out a season that contains dead spaces, scenes that feel rushed or unnecessary, and too much focus on the less compelling aspects of the show.

And that's fine. Because the same history that shows that season 3s tend to be the weakest also indicates that many shows have been able to recover from this slump, and create seasons that are even stronger than the early ones, especially as they build towards their end.

And it's encouraging to me that even as the series has lost a lot of its narrative weight, headlong propulsion and shock value, nothing else that I've watched this year has been able to so reliably inspire such a palpable feeling of dread. It's a show that promises you bad things are about to happen, and it's the waiting for them that creates tension and suspense so suffocating it actually becomes physically stressful to watch. Like the drug that its protagonist, Walter White cooks, the show itself provides a rush and then leaves the viewer jonesing for more.

This past season provided fewer of those moments than ever, but it finished so strong that my excitement for the next season is just as high as it was for this one. And given what the show has accomplished already, I won't be surprised if we're in for its best season yet.

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