One of this summer's most buzzed-about TV shows was a sequel. Technically, it was the same show — Only Murders in the Building, the mystery comedy starring Steve Martin, Marty Short and Selena Gomez as three true-crime fans and bumbling gumshoes — back for a second season on Hulu. But the critical reception put me more in the mind of last year's blockbuster movie that had cloned itself in a shameless attempt to rake in box office anew.
"They've decided not to fix what wasn't broken," wrote Judy Berman in Time. "Season 2 feels like an extension of Season 1," is how critic Matthew Gilbert put it. "It is in many ways a model second season, giving you more of the same, but different," echoed Robert Lloyd.
For fans of Only Murders in the Building, these reviews were no doubt a relief to read. We all remember the sophomore slump of Killing Eve, and varying degrees of disappointment have greeted a number of prestige shows in recent years: Big Little Lies, True Detective, Man in the High Castle, 13 Reasons Why. Some of us old-timers even remember the bitter pill that was Ally McBeal's second season.
And that leads to a question I've been pondering: What law of the universe requires that a show, to be deemed successful, has to come back for Season 2? I ask this because of two facts that have emerged in the Streaming Era:
1. There is no end of producers, writers and actor-models with intriguing ideas for new shows.
2. Most of those ideas are capable of producing about one season's worth of interesting TV. Then they jump the shark, run out of steam, lose their minds or otherwise annoy us, leading most viewers to switch to something else.
I write this having just previewed Season 2 of The Outlaws, the Stephen Merchant "hit comedy thriller" that drops this week on Amazon Prime Video. "Hit" is Prime Video's term, not mine; the BBC, which produced The Outlaws, will only say that "The Outlaws series one is the BBC’s biggest comedy launch this year and has been streamed 11m times on BBC iPlayer so far," neither of which sounds very impressive.
Undeniably, though, the show was enjoyed by critics, including yours truly. "Well-written and engaging, The Outlaws will appeal to viewers who like where television is heading these days — towards more character-driven, tonally varied narratives," I wrote earlier this year. "Through their backstories we learn that each character has much deeper flaws than their petty offenses suggest, which sets up nicely the payoff in the concluding hour."
But that "concluding hour" line was a bit of a misdirect on my part — sorry! As members of the press were aware, the BBC had signed The Outlaws to a two-season order, and both seasons were shot at the same time, so barring an all-out viewer revolt we were virtually guaranteed a second set of six episodes. (The first set streamed only a few months ago, making the Season 1/Season 2 distinction a little dubious.)
For every Outlaws, though, there are two or more shows introduced as "limited series" that suddenly become un-limited, because the critics liked them or the viewing numbers were high or whatever. The Flight Attendant was a limited series until it wasn't. And many who watched that second season wished it had stayed on the tarmac.
I'm well familiar with the network executive lizard brain, which seeks to wring as much value from an entertainment product before tossing its lifeless, desiccated form by the side of the road. And I know that it's become fashionable in Hollywood to dump on Netflix for having an itchy trigger finger and killing off shows after one or two seasons. But I would suggest that the executives at Netflix (and, if we're being honest, all the streamers) are simply following the data. And the data are telling them that we the people just don't have the patience for any more than about a season of any show.
And we've got options like nobody's business. There are 500 scripted shows in production right now, and more than 1,500 unscripted shows. There's always something new — and good — to watch, regardless of your tastes. So what's the point of bringing back something old? Every streaming platform's catalog is bulging with thousands of legacy titles. It’s not like they need more.
If I were running a streaming platform, there would be only two reasons to bring back a show that is not a sitcom or a procedural for another season. One is that the creator wrote out a detailed multi-season story arc and convinced me she could tell that story. The classic examples are The Wire and The Fugitive, but there are plenty of recent shows that did this too, like This Is Us and The Leftovers.
The other reason to bring a series back is to break the show into pieces and reassemble it as something else. None of this "the same, but different" crap. Anthology shows like Easy and Black Mirror offered surprises every time you tuned them in. American Crime and Archer are shows that reinvented themselves every season with more or less the same cast. If you can't break things in today's fast-paced TV environment, where can you?
Which brings us back to The Outlaws. According to our British friends who got to see it two months before we did, the second season of The Outlaws gets darker as it goes along. The cash-laundering conspiracy of Season 1 is about to bear some very bitter fruit with implications for Christopher Walken's Frank, Stephen Merchant's Greg and all the other trash-picker-uppers on that show. One critic has gone so far as to call The Outlaws the British answer to Ozark.
I haven't gotten that deep into Season 2, but that certainly wasn't the show we got in Season 1. But if that's the direction The Outlaws is heading, more power to it. It's defying expectations, doing a pivot instead of playing it safe. For this it will be long remembered... until something new comes along.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.
TOPICS: The Outlaws, Amazon Prime Video, BBC, Hulu, American Crime, Archer, Black Mirror, Easy, The Flight Attendant, The Fugitive, The Leftovers, Only Murders In The Building , The Wire, Stephen Merchant