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Second seasons challenge TV writers There's no question that something mysterious happens to a TV series between its first and second seasons.

How did a TV series as cool as "Heroes" turn unwatchable?

That's where it is today, in my opinion. Nor am I alone (though let me confess I have some colleagues who remain huge fans, especially after Monday's episode).

Don't tell me it's a "sophomore slump," either. Showtime's "Dexter" is in a sophomore slump. In other words, it's not quite as sharp and fresh in its second season as it was in its first.

I still watch it every week -- avidly, in fact, if not quite as merrily.

But there's no question that something mysterious happens to a TV series between its first and second seasons. It happens to some of the best of them too -- "The Sopranos," for instance. On the other hand, it never happened to "The West Wing."

I think I've come to understand it, watching some sophomore series this season -- or trying to. I'm talking about "Heroes," "Dexter" and "Brotherhood," all of them on their second go-round. And it all relates -- a little, anyway -- to the current writer's strike.

Writing a good TV series in its second season is very difficult.

It stands to reason that the more radical a departure a series is the first time around, the more stale it's going to seem once we've all gotten used to it.

That first season of "The Sopranos" was a minor cultural miracle -- a wildfire of good press and word of mouth that quickly imprisoned culturally aware folks in their houses every Sunday at 9 p.m. It's what happens when a professional TV writer -- and by then David Chase was nothing if not that -- gets a chance to do something truly different with all the backing in the world.

Then success happens. In other words, us. Reviews. Late-night comedian jokes. Fan affections and disaffections. Magazine covers. Blog blather. Awards and award nominations. The pressure is on to do more of what the world has quickly come to love and/or need.

At that point, what was once an inspiration becomes just a job.

Chase was too smart to let it happen completely. He slowed the show down. He kept it naturalistic -- even more in ensuing seasons than the first. He didn't succumb to a natural inclination to increase the amount of dramatic incidents.

Alan Ball wasn't so smart with "Six Feet Under." By the second season, plot developments were coming so thick and furious, he might as well still have been writing "Cybill."

That's what went wrong with "Heroes." Once you set up comic books for TV, all hell has to break loose every week. By the time you get to Season Two of all hell breaking loose, it begins to look like hell to anyone not in a comic book frame of mind. It's no longer about saving the cheerleader to save the world, it's about viruses going crazy and trying to please fans of breakout star Masi Oka by giving him his own time-travel plot in 17th century Japan.

It's just a bore that requires dedication to watch when you could be across the dial watching C-grade celebrities do rhumbas and paso dobles on "Dancing With The Stars."

"Dexter," clearly, was fun to put on the air -- an adaptation of some macabre novels about a serial killer who only kills other serial killers. It was something truly different. It was, in a small way, getting away with something -- like passing notes in the back of Mr. McGillicuddy's class about what a fat, bearded egotistical lardhead he is.

Not now. It has to stay close to the novels, which is both good and bad. Characters have to develop. They've got to have new sex partners. We've got to find out new things about people we're watching for yet another season -- always an invitation to absurdity (for which see Horatio Caine's sudden son on "CSI Miami").

Some of this is working on Season Two of "Dexter," some isn't. The FBI "rock star" profiler played by Keith Carradine works so well he ought to have his own show. So does Dexter's sexy artist sponsor in Narcotics Anonymous. But a suddenly troublesome Doakes stalking Dexter is a crashing and annoying intrusion. Nor is Dexter's sudden journey into his psychotic interior very interesting.

And then there's Showtime's "Brotherhood," the best show on the air. The writers of it couldn't have planned it more brilliantly. Everything we're watching in Season Two was implicit in Season One -- the lurches into middle class virtue by the thug brother, the slow progressive drift into cynicism and pure corruption by the formerly idealistic politician brother.

We know where "Brotherhood" is ever-so-slowly going (tonight, by the way, is election night on the show). We know that there will eventually come a time when the "good guy" pol takes a ghastly step into horrible corruption from which there will be no turning back.

We watch, mesmerized, as the writers keep telling us the story they started telling us a season ago. I can't wait to see what happens next.


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