TV Needs to Stop Lying to Us About Its One Season Wonders
The second season premiere of 'Under the Dome' was watched by 9.4 million people, but that should be a scientific impossibility. Not because transmissions can’t go either in or out of the dome, but because the second season wasn’t supposed to exist at all. Sure, when CBS greenlit the show, they left the possibility of a second season open ended in case the thing was a hit -- but it was written about and marketed like a miniseries. After 13 episodes we would know exactly what this dome was made of, where it came from, and just why the heck someone dropped it over a small town in Maine. But none of that really happened, and here we are staring season two in the face like an uninvited house guest.
This has been happening a lot recently. Back in March, Matthew McConaughey said that the first season of 'True Detective' was “finite” and that he wouldn’t be back for a second season. Then, just this June, he’s changed his tune and said that he would consider returning to the show, even though we were all promised that his and Woody Harrelson’s engagement would only last for their first eight episodes. That’s sort of like the trickery of one of those tourist traps in Times Square that always seems to be having a "going out of business" sale. FX’s 'Fargo,' which just finished a critically-adored first season, was always sold as a miniseries, but now that it’s over, everyone is asking writer Noah Hawley whether or not the show will be back for a second season.
Don’t any of these people know what a miniseries is anymore? In today’s TV landscape there are anthology series, “event series,” reboots, and relaunches. There are shows that were meant as series, but then given endings because they’re never coming back, and series that give themselves an series finale only to be given a reprieve at the last minute a million times ('Community,' I’m looking at you). We’ve become a lot more sophisticated about the kinds of shows we watch and what to expect from them. But we need to be sure what we’re getting before we jump in.
Each new series we decide to watch is a commitment. There are so many hours in a day and there are so many shows to stream for free on Netflix that viewers need to be able to make informed decisions of the level of commitment they’re going to make before signing on. That’s what is great about all these miniseries! Not everyone wants to add another long-term commitment to their TV roster (especially when shows like 'LOST' burned us so badly with their finales). But committing a summer to 13 episodes of a sci-fi confection seems like a walk in the park, until it wasn’t.
That’s what happened with me and 'Under the Dome.' After watching a handful of episodes because, honestly, there was nothing else on, I figured I was far enough in that getting through the summer would be a snap. And I wanted to know what was up with that damn dome! I never found out (not a spoiler alert: it was maybe aliens, question mark).
And now I’m pissed about it.
So it seems were 3 million other viewers, which is the number of people who watched the season one finale, but skipped the season two premiere. That’s about a quarter of the show’s audience, all who were so mad that they decided to skip town, dome or no dome. 'The Killing' -- which notoriously angered fans after it didn’t reveal just who did the killing at the end of season one -- lost nearly half its audience, partially due to fan disappointment. Sure, producers said that they never promised closure at the end of their first run, but when the marketing campaign is “Who Killed Rosie Larson?,” are all of us at home idiots to believe that we would find out the answer to this question by the time the show went on hiatus? You don’t even have to wait to the end of this season to find out the answer ... because it is "no."
What’s so genius about 'American Horror Story' is that it never tried to be something that it wasn’t. Viewers tuned in thinking it was just Ryan Murphy’s creepy show and fans wondered just how it could sustain itself as the first season finale neared. Immediately after the finale, Murphy announced his plan to have many of the same actors play different characters in a whole new story. Fans were never angered and the audience has grown each year. The network gets what it wants, which is essentially one show to make and market rather than a miniseries where it has to restart its efforts every year, and so do the fans.
But it’s heartening to hear that McConaughey won’t be back on 'True Detective' -- and even if he is, he’ll be playing a new character, since showrunner Nic Pizzolatto is looking to cast three leads instead of two and moving the action to California. This is more in line with what we were promised when we gobbled up those first eight episodes and promised that it was a limited time offer.
So what should season two of 'Fargo' be? Well...does it have to be anything at all? Why not just let this beautiful thing be a beautiful thing? Maybe season two shouldn’t exist at all. Or maybe season two should be 'O Brother Where Art Thou' or another Coen Brothers movie. Who wouldn’t watch 10 episodes of 'The Big Lebowski'? What’s important, clearly, is that these experimental shows be very upfront with viewers about what they’re offering and deliver on it, whether it’s a hit or not. Otherwise we just feel duped and exploited by the networks.
That’s why I was so angry at 'Under the Dome.' It’s sort of like picking someone up at a bar for a one night stand and the next morning they arrive with a U-Haul looking to move in. That’s not what I signed up for. And, so far, not following through on their promise isn’t working all that well for CBS.
Brian Moylan is a writer and television addict who lives in New York City. He live tweets award shows at @BrianJMoylan.