Questions and realisations from television last week: Everything

Street Hawk

Question: Why were most episodes of all the new and returning US shows better in their second week this year?

It’s quite a list of shows this season that had better episodes than their premieres: House, Heroes, The Unit, Big Bang Theory, Bionic Woman, and Moonlight. A few were about as good (Numb3rs, Journeyman) and there was one that was worse (Chuck).

But on the whole, the second episodes were better than the first. Which is odd, because as Ken Levine points out (thanks Toby!), normally the second episode of a series is rubbish or at least pretty bad compared with the first. So why is it that the second episodes have been so good this time round?

Realisation: Second episodes are the new first episodes, thanks to the demise of the “feature-length opening episode”. No spoilers for any current shows, I promise.

Back in the day, every show started with a feature-length episode or movie. All those lovely action series of the 80s ?��Ǩ��� Airwolf, Street Hawk, Knight Rider, Manimal ?��Ǩ��� all had memorable feature-length episodes and that’s just to name a few. Even regular-type shows like LA Law began with feature-length pilot episodes. The idea was that even if the show didn’t manage to become a series, it could be sold or re-used as a TV movie.

Then along came the mighty power of syndication, with its demands for every episode to be the same length and soon these feature-length pilots started to be written so that they could easily be chopped in two. Star Trek: The Next Generation, of course, started off in syndication, free of network interference, so had an easily snippable double-length episode movie that had extra footage for episode two in which Riker gets to look over the Enterprise archives to see what happened in episode one. CSI began with a double-length episode and Five US didn’t even realise it was a two-parter so only showed the second episode when it launched.

In fact, proper feature-length launches are now so rare that the announcement last week that NBC’s planned revival of Knight Rider was going to start with a TV movie caused Variety to raise its (virtual) eyebrows in surprise.

The plan these days seems to be to wow them with cash, stars and concepts in episode one

Even though the double-length episode/TV movie has virtually disappeared from the schedules, with only minor networks able to find the time in the schedules for such special events (cf The USA Network and Burn Notice), that doesn’t mean the needs of series have changed any. Yes, pace has sped up over the years, but a pilot still needs to introduce characters, situation, et al and give viewers the time to find things they can like about the show ?��Ǩ��� like enough to keep watching it.

With the increasing number of ad breaks in US TV reducing total programme time to 40 minutes or less and shows needing to make much more of an impact in a multi-channel world, that means most of the otherwise ‘dull’ stuff is having to be shunted off into the second episode rather than being dispersed throughout the length of an entire TV movie. The plan these days seems to be to wow them with cash, stars and concepts in episode one, then give the viewers the frippery, characterisation, character development and natural evolution of relationships that will keep the viewers coming (assuming they make it as far as episode two). The second episode is, in effect, the proper first episode since it’s the one that’s re-establish the boundaries and style of the show.

Every season opener is a mad grab for audiences, both new and old

This is true not just for new shows, but also for returning shows. Every season opener is a mad grab for audiences, both new and old. It needs to introduce or re-introduce the show, establish the format again – or demonstrate what the changes are going to be this time. Sometimes that’s too much for it and it needs to spread out into the second episode as well. Either way, if the audience is tuning in for episode two, there’s a certain gamble they’ll be more patient than others and they’ll be prepared to put up with less pyrotechnics and more, erm, quality.

But why is it so true this year? Well, I reckon it’s simply the ultimate logical conclusion of this trend. With so much competition from other networks, cable, the Internet, et al, producers are now front-loading their shows just about as much as it’s possible to do without totally destroying the plot of the first episode – you can see many of the shows heaving under the strain of the various weights placed on them. That means about as much first-episode quality as possible is being shunted into the second episode, making the second episode the new first episode.

This does, of course, mean that The Carusometer is even more important than it used to be – if you could ever have described it as indispensable, that is. The third episode of any show is now little more than the second episode of an old show, so that extra bit of patience is now needed more than ever to find the shows that need time to establish themselves. If you want to be sure what shows to watch, value The Carusometer.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.