Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Sophomore Sprawl

I’ve been watching The Wire: Season Two lately, which reminded me that I never posted about a TV-related theory of mine. I’ve never seen another name assigned to this before. If you have, by all means, point me to it. I dug through TV Tropes for some time, but I couldn’t find anyone documenting this phenomenon.

As you may have guessed from the title, I call it Sophomore Sprawl. Technically, I suppose, it’s a variation of the Sophomore Slump, but it’s more specific. Sophomore Sprawl occurs when a series which is tightly focused in its first season tries to do too many things in its second.

The Wire is a perfect example (spoilers follow). In the first season, everything – absolutely everything – revolves around the investigation of drug dealer Avon Barksdale by a Baltimore Police detail. We get plenty of character moments along the way, but we’re watching either the cops or the criminals at all times. It was about as pure as a narrative can be.

Season two, on the other hand, is all over the place. We’re following Barksdale and his associates both in and out of jail, getting up-to-date with the members of the police detail (who begin the season scattered at various jobs), and watching a new set of characters working at a shipping dock. It’s not that the show is worse than it was in season one, necessarily. It’s just juggling several different stories, which it didn’t try to do before.

Other examples abound. Veronica Mars season one is about Veronica tracking the murderer of her best friend Lily. Season two is about Veronica trying to figure out who caused the bus crash, and also who killed a gang member, and also about the aftermath of the arrest of Lily’s killer. Lost season one is about the survivors of a plane crash on a mysterious island. Season two is about a group of people living on an island where they have a fully-stocked research station in the ground, and a creepy other group who have apparently lived on the island for several years.

All my examples are recent, you’ll notice, and the reason for this is simple – until the last decade-and-a-half or so, TV shows didn’t have much scope at all. They established a formula and stuck to it. That’s not a criticism; it’s just true. Only recently have things shifted to a model where the status quo is expected to change.

But it does point to a possible explanation for the prominence of sophomore sprawl on TV these days – shows aren’t built to last forever anymore. The storytelling engines (to borrow a phrase from John Seavey) of these shows are designed to tell one story. (Lost excepted, of course. It’s more likely that storytelling engine was designed to leave many unanswered questions when the show fell victim to early cancellation.)

The first seasons of these shows are very carefully crafted – the creators likely spent years developing the concept to their satisfaction. For obvious reasons, the second season can’t have the same luxury – it has to get out there. This is often the cause of the “sophomore slump”. But why, specifically, does it cause sophomore sprawl?

When developing the second seasons, the creators have to deal with threads leftover from the first season as well as move the story forward. Consequently, they don’t have adequate time to fully address anything and the shows give off the appearance of having bitten off more than it can chew.

Again, I certainly don’t mean to imply that sophomore sprawl indicates a complete loss of quality. Rather, it usually amounts to a creative wobble early in the season before producers figure out how to effectively balance all of the storylines. Lost recovered quite quickly, as did The Wire.

I’ve been using the same few examples repeatedly in this post, and that’s where you come in. Is this not as much of a trend as I think it is? Can you think of other examples of sophomore sprawl?

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