Do you remember your first kiss? First car? Do you remember the first time you ate seaweed on purpose? The first time you ate seaweed by accident? I’m sure you do. There’s something inherently romantic and beautiful about firsts. It’s in the newness, the excitement, the thrill of the unknown. Not surprisingly, the same sort of rose-tinted nostalgia doesn’t attach itself to seconds or part-twos. There are no country songs about a second date. Parents aren’t taking pictures of children headed off to their second day of school. Human nature dictates that we seem to lose interest with repetition, that our passion diminishes just the smallest amount the second time around.
That collective behavioral tic doesn’t limit itself to lookbacks at past romances or Chevy El Caminos. It’s evident in the way we look at and consume entertainment as well. I’ve been thinking about all this recently, ironically enough, because of the impending return of Stranger Things—a wonderful show that was hugely successful due largely in part to its ability to transport and immerse us so fully in the memories of our youth—in ways both meta and tangible. I’m very much looking forward to the return of those thundering neon-synth credits. I’m also very much afraid I’m going to be let down once they roll. We live in a world that’s become increasingly difficult to impress. Getting to the top is hard. Staying there has become almost impossible. It’s the law of diminishing pleasure-returns. If Stranger Things wants to remain in the pop-culture zeitgeist of the Twitter generation, it’ll have to avoid the traps populated by the failed sequels and Season Twos that walked before it.
Trap One: Success Breeds Contempt, Babe or A Squeak-Less Wheel Gets No Grease: 2
One of the best problems a television show or movie can run into is the heightened, fervent expectations for a follow-up. There’s pressure involved with that, sure, but that pressure is better than the alternative. I’m sure the producers of R.I.P.D. would love to feel that pressure. I imagine the screenwriters behind John Carter would kill to feel that pressure. However, a good problem is still a problem. The more success a project or a person or an idea has, the greater the heights it reaches, the more eyes it attracts, the more ready people become to watch that mountain crumble. Some projects are going to thrive in that heat, some are going to melt.
It’s a sad thing, and a bizarre thing, this public readiness to push away something they once embraced so fully, but it’s real. The biggest questions that arise after a big hit are, “Should it come back? Does it need to come back?” It’s difficult to walk away when the money is on the table, but sometimes the best hand to play is throwing your cards in the middle while you’re still ahead. Odds are, if you have to ask how necessary a sequel or a second season is, you already know the answer. Everyone loves a cute, talking pig until it makes its way to the big city for everyone to see.
Trap Two: Too True To One’s Self
In January of 2014, HBO, along with writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto released True Detective, an anthology crime series that marked the re-emergence of Matthew McConaughey’s viability as an A-List star and watchable actor, a time that is now clumsily referred to as the “McConaissance.” (C’mon. McConaissance? McConaissance rhymes with Reconnaissance, not Renaissance, the word I think we were trying to invoke there. Unless we were referring to the exploratory nature of his performances, we probably should have just retired that particular phrase.) The first season of True Detective was a legitimate cultural phenomenon. The weekly, binge-proof Sunday night releases made it impossible to get ahead of the story or ahead of anyone else. Its audience had to fill the voids between episodes by slinging theories and predictions around the water-cooler. The show lent itself perfectly to conversation domination. A murder-mystery starring a long-haired, strung out former Rom-Com heart throb with supernatural themes of occult and Satanism? It was juicy.
What Pizzolatto didn’t understand is that much of the hype surrounding the show came from the mesmerizing performances of its lead actors and the outstanding direction of Cary Fukunaga, not the lengthy, nonsensical, pseudo-psychological circle-speak that too often popped up in the script. When True Detective season two got the green light, Pizzolatto doubled down on the talking and slammed the brakes on…everything else. The second season was dominated by excessive close-ups of a mustachioed, bolo-tied anti-hero, in the same dimly lit booth, in the same smoky bar, over and over and over again. The show dried out. In True Detective’s first season, the killer was a schizophrenic, occult-backed janitor. In season two, it was hubris killed the show.
Trap Three: Falling Off The High-Wire
Before the pitchforks are sharpened and the torches are lit, I’d like to start this section by stating with full confidence that The Wire is the greatest television show in history. You could argue for something else to wear that crown, but no, and also wrong. I’d like to also have on record that the worst season of The Wire is probably nearly as good as the best season of just about anything else, so we aren’t talking about some kind of entertainment disaster or misstep on par with Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights here. However, I think it’s safe to say that season two of The Wire is the show’s worst season, and if not the worst, then certainly the one that felt most like the longest, most unenjoyable grind to get through.
The biggest mistake (relatively speaking, of course) that Wire creator David Simon made in season two was its quick and sudden deviation from the show’s beginnings. The second season kept the expansive, borderline voyeuristic look into the Baltimore drug trade mostly on the periphery of the story and brought us to “The Docks,” a setting that wasn’t particularly interesting or insightful or exciting—it was mostly just gray. Instead of pointing the eye of the show back towards the devious but lovable buddy-cop charm of Bunk and McNulty or the scary but cool charm of Avon Barksdale or the handsome but ruthless charm of Stringer Bell, viewers were taken to a place populated with characters so abrasive and annoying and impossible to root for that audiences begged to move back to the projects. Season two of The Wire is still great television, but it’s nobody’s favorite.
Trap Four: The Victory Hangover
The tricky path back towards the mountaintop doesn’t allow for straying too far off course, but it also doesn’t allow you to retrace the exact steps that got you there in the first place. Too often, seasons and sequels come back without anything new to say. Directors and show-runners need to give the people what they want, not what they already have. That’s the slippery slope that needs navigation.
Jaws 2 is Jaws with a different shark. Basic Instinct 2 is Basic Instinct with the same shark. Oddly enough, Stranger Things has quite a bit in common, thematically, with a franchise that jumped the shark even before the sequel began filming—a group of friends, in over their heads and in more danger than they’re aware of, looking for a missing friend who could very well be dead. Like Stranger Things, The Hangover came out of nowhere to completely saturate the pop-culture landscape. After the commercial success of the first go-round, a follow-up was inevitable. It underwhelmed. Do you know what The Hangover has in common with The Hangover 2? Everything. Vegas was replaced by Thailand. A baby was replaced by a monkey. That’s it. It made new money, of course, but not new fans. Anyone that stuck around through a third Hangover more than likely had a problem they weren’t quite ready to admit. The Netflix smash will have to change their winning formula to keep their audience happy and engaged this fall. It’s hard to go back to the same well over and over again. Eventually everything becomes stale. Sooner or later, even the Strangest Things become just…Things.