Remember how those summers off during high school would fly by in a flash? Your boring summer job at the local depanneur/corner store would inevitably give way to an awkward return to homeroom class. I remember scanning the faces and places around me on my first days back, comparing this seemingly new status quo to last year’s. Friends and bullies tended to grow a foot taller, classes tended to be harder, and feelings for just about everything tended to grow, well, exponentially.
That’s kind of what it feels like to be back working on This Life’s sophomore season.
Don’t get me wrong, unlike going from road hockey to algebraic equations, coming back for season two is something to celebrate. Getting to spend time with people, both real and imagined, that you love working with is awesome, but there’s no doubting that This Life’s return comes with its own set of unique challenges.
Unlike season one, the royal “we”, meaning producers, directors, writers, cast, and crew, have to not only meet your expectations, but try our hardest to surpass them. This is no easy task.
Take The Wire, the widely-acclaimed American crime drama. After a groundbreaking first season that arguably changed the television landscape, creator David Simon opted to move things from the streets to the dock yards of Baltimore for season two with a boatload of unfamiliar characters. At the time of its airing, the creative decision was met with some derision from fans, critics and, believe it or not, cast members too.
At Paleyfest, a Los Angeles television festival, Michael K. Williams, the actor behind Omar, described the difficulty transitioning from season one to two of the hit TV show: “[...] I was ready for second season, like okay, where’s this storyline going? And I got introduced to the mind of David Simon—he took it to the docks. I got real bitter. I was angry.” As much as it was admonished at the time, Simon’s bold move to change course to this part of The Wire universe planted the seeds for the much-celebrated stories in the seasons that followed.
Simon was able to wade through these choppy times pretty unmoored but not every show makes it through a second season unscathed. Take True Detective, the crime drama anthology that ushered in (for better or for worse) the McConaissance and resurrected neo-noir television. Writer and creator Nic Pizzolatto’s first season was showered with critical adoration and hundreds of fan theories that live on in the annals of Tumblr to this day. Top to bottom, from its dystopian aesthetic of the bayou to its fearless tackling of life’s bigger questions, the show raised the bar.
Then came its second season, which was even further transplanted than The Wire, with its completely new setting, protagonists, antagonists and central criminal storyline. Aside from a killer ode to David Lynch and the atmospheric tone set in part by its sweeping shots of greater Los Angeles, the second season buckled under its more conventional framework. HBO’s executive chalked the hiccup up to the lack of time given to Pizzolatto to complete writing on the second season. The first season was a project that gestated for the better part of fifteen years.
For every second season that spawns a million think pieces, mixed reviews, or mean hashtags, there are many others that continue to garner audiences and level up. Recently, shows like Fargo, Transparent, 19-2, and X Company have all passed the sophomore test with flying colours. As an avid viewer of each of these shows, though they appear to be vastly different in style and story, each contain similar kernels of comparison.
Each show followed through on the contract they “signed” with their audience, meaning the themes, character identities and style remained consistent from season one to two. Transparent, much like This Life, relies heavily on the theme of identity. Mora’s transition acts as a spark plug to each of her children’s own journey inward while Natalie’s troubling prognosis acts as a catalyst to her family’s renewal.
These series weren’t afraid to go bolder too. Whether it was 19-2 with their jaw-dropping 13-minute sequence (with no cutting) in their second season premiere or Fargo with its inclusion of extra-terrestrials (of all things) as a Chekov’s gun-like thematic device, these shows took risks and were awarded for them.
As for This Life, like the class syllabus you never read on your first day back at school, allow me to outline what you should expect in the upcoming season. Expect to revel in what made you love spending time with the Lawsons in the first place, but also be prepared to be challenged by deep dives into how and why these characters do what they do. Lastly, be sure to keep a mountain of tissue on hand during the broadcasts because like Josh Donaldson of the Toronto Blue Jays, this new chapter of This Life is going to make it rain happy-sad tears.
I'm Max Morin, Junior Writer, Story Coordinator and your official insider for all things THIS LIFE.