(Photo by AMC/courtesy Everett Collection; Netflix; Frank Ockenfels/AMC)
Great new shows leave critics and fans clamoring for their second seasons, but new series don’t always deliver when they return for round two – many suffer the dreaded sophomore slump.
That’s not the case with these titles — in fact, just the opposite. We’ve pulled together a list of TV series that enjoyed the biggest sophomore bumps between season 1 and season 2, according to our Tomatometer. To ensure a fair accounting of opinion, we only included series with at least 20 reviews determining their scores in both their first and second seasons (you could find, if you dug deep, shows with bigger season-on-season improvements, but the pool of reviews would be pretty shallow).
A few of the shows here weren’t very good to begin with, so any improvement is noticeable, but others started strong and managed to get even stronger by their second seasons.
Some of the most prestigious titles in television turned up — hello, Breaking Bad and Mad Men — but the series with the biggest bump of all is Marvel’s Iron Fist on Netflix, which on Friday releases season 2. The second season has a 58% Tomatometer score (updated) from 45 reviews, giving the title a 40% bump between its first and second seasons. The next biggest bump was for Fox’s Human Target, which experienced a 26% jump between season 1 and 2.
Read on to see which other titles were competing with Marvel’s Iron Fist bump.
Updated on February 24, 2019 to reflect season score changes.
What improved: Season 2 was building up to the death of Escobar. Screenrant’s Kevin Yeoman wrote, “By streamlining the narrative into a compelling manhunt that makes far better use of actors like Pascal and Holbrook, while still giving Moura room to shine, Narcos has definitely improved in season 2.” AV Club’s Joshua Alston wrote, “Even with less ground to cover, Narcos is pleasantly dense and steadily introduces intriguing new characters to fill its impending power vacuum and firm up the show’s historicity.”
The ratings: It was a juggernaut from the beginning by modern broadcast standards. The first two seasons each averaged 13 million viewers and only dipped slightly below 11 million by the end. Spin-off The Good Fight is still going on CBS All Access.
What Improved: The supporting cast became every bit as important as Margulies. Many critics lauded Archie Panjabi for her role as in-house law firm investigator Kalinda Sharma, while USA Today’s Roberto Bianco singled out another: “Wife has expanded its reach to envelop all of its well-acted main characters, a growing stable that now includes Alan Cumming‘s Eli Gold (a great addition).” The show also rewarded viewers who watched every episode making it a worthwhile investment. EW’s Ken Tucker wrote, “The Good Wife is so layered with previous-episode details that are never forgotten that it already has its own sort of mythology.”
The show: Hard-drinking, womanizing ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) tries to survive the ’60s while times change around him; meanwhile, female employees Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) rise through the ranks.
The ratings: After a strong premiere to 1.65 million viewers, season 1 averaged 900,000. It nearly doubled for season 2 as the show’s acclaim made AMC a major player in cable originals.
What Improved: Critics caught on that Mad Men was a slow burn. TV Guide’s Matt Roush said, “Mad Men sizzles, simmering with erotic tension and crackling with cynical wit.” Alan Sepinwall, then with the Newark Star-Ledger, wrote, “as with a great baseball game, the leisurely pace gives you more time to marinate in the details.”
The show: Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Geere) are both dysfunctional, but they may be perfect for each other. Their friends Lindsay (Kether Donohue) and Edgar (Desmin Borges) may be on their own.
The ratings: Season 1 only averaged 300,000 viewers on FX, so they moved it over to FXX where season 2’s 200,000 was just fine. The show will wrap up in its fifth season next year.
What Improved: Season 2 went deeper into the characters’ psychological issues like Gretchen’s depression. Critics appreciated the frank portrayal of delicate subjects. GQ’s Joshua Rivera praised “the way it handles a sobering character arc while remaining one of the sharpest comedies around.” And like life, You’re the Worst’s problems can’t be solved in 22 minutes. “It resists learning the lesson that each installment would seem to set out to teach its characters,” wrote TV Fanatic’s Caralynn Lippo. The show hits 100% in seasons 3 and 4.
The show: Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) visits a mental-health retreat after she suffers an epic breakdown at the office. When she returns, she is reassigned to the company’s basement operations with other corporate misfits.
The ratings: Enlightened was never a ratings juggernaut for HBO. The first season barely averaged 170,000 viewers. Season 2 jumped up to 250,000.
What Improved: The show connected with the viewers who saw it, but its season 2 critical surge ultimately couldn’t save it. Alternet’s Eileen Jones said, “Unleash Amy and watch the endless repercussions in unsparing detail and laugh sardonically at your own stumbling way through the poisoned world.” Francine Prose of the New York Review of Books marveled at the strength of the show’s characters, especially “how much of ourselves we may see in them, if we only have the temerity to allow it.”
The show: The early days of the computer business were full of drama for Joe (Lee Pace) and Gordon (Scoot McNairy). But by season 2, the show became more about Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna (Kerry Bishe) developing online games.
The ratings: Season 1 averaged 750,000 viewers. Season 2 was down a tad to half a million, but the show held on for four seasons on AMC.
What improved: Turns out software is more dramatic than hardware, and focusing on the women helped. “The fact that two young women are bossing the enterprise gives it an added piquancy,” Globe and Mail’s John Doyle wrote, while Andy Greenwald wrote in Grantland, “Its inversion of decades of prestige-drama gender convention seems painfully obvious, and yet I’m not sure if any other show has actually attempted it.”
The show: Harry Potter for twentysomethings, the series takes place in a secret magic academy, where young adults learn how to practice the magic they only read about in storybooks.
What Improved: The second season gave fans more of what they wanted: more sex, bad behavior, witty banter, and whimsical magic, but with higher emotional stakes, too. Black Girl Nerds’ Kyndal Wilson wrote, “There is no truer statement than ‘more magic, more problems.’ If you’re already a fan of the show, you won’t want to miss this.” Screenrant’s Molly Freeman called it “another season focused on the darker, more cynical side to magic grounded in the whimsy of the show’s characters.”
The show: After a cancer diagnosis, high school teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) becomes the crystal meth cook Heisenberg with his partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), to the chagrin of his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn).
The ratings: As AMC’s follow-up original series to Mad Men, Breaking Bad started out modestly. Its first two seasons averaged 1.5 million viewers. It wasn’t until after season 3 that people started binging and catching up to follow the saga as it aired.
What Improved: Season 1 was only seven episodes, so it was just getting started. Season 2 may have been when critic Alan Sepinwall decided it was a modern classic, writing, “This brilliant second season of Breaking Bad is starting to earn a place in any discussion of the classics of the genre.” Sepinwall would go on to write a book on the series, Breaking Bad 101. Newsday’s Verne Gay also accurately predicted the show’s Emmy dominance saying, “if the rest of the season matches Sunday’s premiere, an Emmy nomination for best drama seems certain.”
The ratings: NBC gave series creator Fuller three seasons to tell the story, at least up through the end of the Red Dragon story line. Season 1 dropped from just over 4 million viewers to just below 3 million. The ratings didn’t improve in season 2, but those who kept watching agree that the show did.
What Improved: Fuller rewarded loyal viewers, never compromising the series’ artistic sensibility or explicit gore to try to win new fans. Critics, at least, noticed the level at which Fuller was working; TV Guide’s Matt Roush said, “[It] is a feast of macabre freakishness, going beyond the realm of guilty pleasure in a sustained nightmare of horrific yet elegantly hypnotic design.” Slate’s Willa Paskin marveled, “Somehow it has become an engrossing, psychologically dense show that is also visually stunning.”
The show: Based on the James S. A. Corey novels, the trio of U.N. executive Chrisjen Avasaraia (Shohreh Aghdashloo), detective Joseph Miller (Thomas Jane), and captain Jim Holden (Steven Strait) combat espionage and hostile alien technology in the colonized solar system.
The ratings: Ratings for the expensive sci-fi series went from 700,000 viewers in season 1 to half a million in season 2 on Syfy. The network ordered a third season, but then cancelled the show. Fans rejoiced when Amazon founder, president, and CEO Jeff Bezos announced that the company’s premium streaming service will distribute the fourth.
What Improved: With a whole solar system, you can imagine there’s a lot of ground for the first season to cover. Those who stuck with it were rewarded with more focused storytelling.“Unburdened with introductory world building and backed by surefooted writing, The Expanse returns as thrilling and intriguing as ever,” We Got This Covered’s Mitchel Broussard wrote. Indiewire’s Liz Shannon Miller said, “There’s more focus to the first four episodes of the season than expected, thanks to more of the characters uniting in proximity to similar goals.”
The show: Famous characters from horror literature team up to save Victorian London from monsters, including Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), and Van Helsing (David Warner) with American gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and the haunted Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) added to the mix.
The ratings: Season 1 averaged 750,000 viewers for Showtime. Season 2 dropped to about half a million, but surged back by the season finale. The series got a third season, but the season finale ended with “The End,” though Showtime never announced that the show was cancelled.
What Improved: Season 2 didn’t offer a jumping-in point, according to New York Daily News’s David Hinckley, but “it should nicely satisfy those who hopped onto the ride last year.” Salon’s Sonia Saraiya wrote, “If anything, the return from hiatus has shifted Penny Dreadful into even higher gear.”
The show: Eight people around the world discover they are linked by extraordinary mental abilities and must team up to survive being hunted by Whispers.
The ratings: Even though Netflix does not release ratings, the streaming service clearly wasn’t happy with the performance of the second season, because the series was cancelled. There were enough passionate fans demanding more Sense8, however, that Netflix agreed to a finale movie, but the Wachowski siblings and J. Michael Straczynski had a five-season plan for this story.
What Improved: The Wachoskis’ bold new mythology takes a while to explain, but patient viewers are rewarded, according to Indiewire’s Liz Shannon Miller, who wrote, “Sense8 may have had a slow start in season 1, but season 2 is a hell of a ride.” The Washington Post’s Sonia Roo wrote that she was just getting into the characters: “Sense8 avoids tokenizing its characters, which involves giving each sensate a full backstory that helps viewers understand what motivates them.”
The show: After a breakdown, newsman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) tries to redeem himself while working under ex-girlfriend MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), while young producers Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.) and Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) try to prove themselves.
The ratings: Creator Aaron Sorkin’s opinionated dramatization of real news stories from recent history polarized audiences and critics, and seasons 1 and 2 hovered around 2 million viewers. Sorkin, who also created acclaimed NBC White House drama The West Wing, decided to end his HBO series after its third season.
What Improved: Sorkin won over some Rotten reviews to Fresh in the second season, like LA Times’ Mary McNamara and People’s Tom Giliatto. A few critics posting negative reviews for season 1 simply didn’t come back to review the second season, like Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz and Time’s James Poniewozik, which also gave Fresh reviews more weight in season 2’s score.
(Photo by Fox)
The show: Based on the DC Comic, Christopher Chance (Mark Valley) keeps his clients safe by making himself the target.
The ratings: A lead-in from American Idol, the action series brought a lot of eyeballs to season 1, though its initial audience of 10 million viewers dropped. By season 2 it was only getting six million, not enough for Fox to give it a third season.
What Improved: If viewers had listened to the critics, they might have known that Human Target really brought it in season 2, adding Indira Varma and Janet Montgomery as two strong female characters. That sold What Culture’s Dan Owen on season 2, writing, “The inclusion of two strong women is an obvious but welcome change to Human Target‘s dynamic.” For HollywoodChicago’s Brian Tallerico, season 2’s changes should have made it must-see TV: “Human Target seems to be taking itself more seriously in season 2, trying to add the emotional weight that might have kept it from becoming a water-cooler hit last season.”
The ratings: Netflix does not release ratings, but it’s no secret that season 1 of Iron Fist was a bust. Fans and critics complained about the choppy editing (kind of a problem when showcasing his super power requires badass fight scenes), its slow pace, and derivative echoes of other origin stories.
What Improved: Praise of season 2 credits the show with hearing those complaints and addressing them. TVLine’s Matt Mitovich said in his Rotten review, “Iron Fist season 2 marks an improvement over its well-derided freshman run, but still lacks punch,” while Den of Geek’s Mike Cecchini said in his Fresh review, “A new showrunner, a new fight coordinator… all help tremendously, along with better villains, a more focused story, and a willingness to put the show’s supporting cast to better use.”
Here are titles 16-30 of series measured by Tomatometer whose scores increased most between seasons 1 and 2 and the size of their bumps:
16. The Leftovers – 12%
17. American Horror Story – 11%
18. The Knick – 10%
19. The Good Place – 9%
20. Love – 9%
21. The Americans – 9%
22. How to Get Away With Murder – 8%
23. Masters of Sex – 8%
24. Pushing Daisies – 8%
25. Bates Motel – 7%
26. Justified – 7%
27. The Sinner – 7%
28. Game of Thrones – 6%
29. The Missing – 6%
30. Rectify – 5%