Second Series Syndrome

Happy Valley

It’s a familiar headline in the world of television: a popular drama series, initially transmitted as a self-contained, start-to-finish story, finds itself recommissioned for a sequel. From Broadchurch to True Detective, Doctor Foster to Happy Valley, the arrival of a second series has gradually become the most hotly anticipated event in the TV calendar. With production executives preferring to milk popular ideas than risk trying something new, it’s an obvious tactic – and yet, as proved time and time again, not one that always proves the safe bet it seems.

Instead, what these comebacks often fall prey to is the so-called ‘second series syndrome’. The phrase describes when, unable to recapture the hype or success of its previous outing, the second series of a programme falls spectacularly flat on its face. And given the influx of top quality programming in the last few years, TV schedules are currently abound with various attempts at a second triumph – most of them reminding us we should have known better than to get too excited.

The Fall

The Fall, the thriller featuring Gillian Anderson as a detective hunting down Jamie Dornan’s disturbed serial killer, has lost its compelling tension to a plodding game of cat and mouse. Meanwhile, The Killing slid from a powerful drama about the shockwaves caused by one horrific crime to a farfetched, unconvincing foray into international politics. It seems that irrespective of whether a series continues with the same plotline, or decides to pursue a new one, the narrative struggles to peak twice. In the case of the newly recommissioned Doctor Foster, the drama which charted a woman’s discovery of her husband’s affair, one wonders if it even has such a lifespan carry on at all.

Perhaps the most infamous case study in second series syndrome of recent times is Broadchurch. After an award-scooping, ratings-smashing debut in 2013, the eight-part series returned two years later to the unanimous cries of Boredchurch – for no other reason than the series achieved perfection the first time around. The story had been told, the characters had nowhere further to develop and, testament to a whodunnit already so neatly tied up, there was no plot left to play with. The sequel did little other than to tarnish our memory of the first.


To an extent, the challenge of a second series is inevitable, whatever the motives behind it: the difficulty (or impossibility, even) of measuring up to the bar it has set for itself. Neither is it unique to the field of television. Just as musicians struggle with second album syndrome, sportsmen and athletes can suffer from second season syndrome, too overwhelmed by their previous success. In the world of literature, there’s also the ‘curse of the second novel’, where authors find their creative efforts too consumed by their first work.

But the issue particular to TV is whether a one-off series can, or indeed should be revived for the sake of its popularity. It’s no wonder that Ken Stott, star of 2015 drama The Missing, slammed the BBC’s decision to recommission the series as a ‘bad idea’ and criticised their motives as being ‘for financial reasons, not art’. It’s evident that without original input or creative integrity, the quality of programming is too easily compromised.

There have however been some success stories, and BBC’s Happy Valley, currently on its second run, looks set to become one of them. Writer Sally Wainwright, whose drama Last Tango in Halifax has also gone from strength to strength, says: ‘Second series are often better because of confidence. You’ve got a second series because the first one worked, so you’re in a good place. The thing with a new season is that you want to get it right. You want to make something that is worth watching, you don’t just want to churn something out for the sake of it.’

Doctor Foster

It might seem an obvious statement to make, but Wainwright hits the nail on the head, which might explain why she succeeds where other writers have failed. If it’s not worth watching, then it’s not worth writing, and to recommission a second series blindly does an injustice to viewers’ intelligence. It is after all worth noting that the programmes we’re all talking about became successful because they were new and fresh. It’s by filling a void in the schedules that these shows grabbed the attention of the nation, not by flogging old ideas.

So while the revival of a second series can indeed work, the wealth of them on our screens implies a reluctance for artistic gamble – but our ongoing dissatisfaction ironically suggests a hunger for precisely that. Whether future recommissions prove to buck the trend remains to be seen, but – and this applies to all programming, new or not – one thing is for certain: creativity is key.

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