There appears to be a pattern in television entertainment that some series peak in their third season and then plummet in quality in the fourth. I am unsure of when I first noticed this pattern, but once I had recognized it in four of my favorite shows, I decided it was high time to think about it and possible causes and effects. So this is that. Beware, however, that I will talk about these shows in great detail, and not just their third and fourth seasons, but all of them. These “bad” seasons may not be that bad in isolation, so in order to explain what I mean when I call them bad, I have to compare them to the rest of their respective shows. So if you have not watched these shows, or have only watched up until the third season, there will be hard spoilers and you may not want to read. Let’s begin.
4. Teen Wolf
Oh, the beautiful mess that is Teen Wolf. Like two of the other shows on this list, Teen Wolf’s seasons vary in quality. The first season was nice, but still had a rather trashy look, and Tyler Posey as the lead was an undeniably mediocre actor—it didn’t help that his sidekick was Dylan O’Brien, who from his very first moment on screen outdid everybody so clearly it was almost embarrassing. Still, the show had a unique charm and so many beautiful people, I couldn’t stop watching. The second season was already a lot less trashy, but still featured some questionable ideas, such as letting the werewolves run on all fours while still in human form (an idea that looked so stupid it was thankfully abandoned after season 2). It did make some very good decisions, however, such as bringing back Peter, one of the funniest characters (and one who could provide a lot of friction). And then came the third season, which was the best season so far, the second-best season overall and definitely the scariest season. Stiles’s dream sequences in the second half were seriously uncanny, and the whole Nogitsune situation was body horror at its finest. It was exhilarating, complex, devoid of any trashiness, and the writers really went all out on emotional impact, as the death count in this season was higher than in any other. It would have been difficult to continue the series with something even better. But the fourth season made some serious mistakes, and in order to explore what went wrong, I’d like to say a few words on story arcs.
The story arcs of a TV show can span over one season and then be done, or they can be continued over the entire run of the series and be resolved (or not) after several seasons or even at the very end. The advantage of closing a story arc after one season is that it makes writing a season simpler: you present a problem/mystery at the end of the season premiere, and the problem/mystery is solved/revealed in the season finale. That structure gives the story arc a clear direction while still leaving room for interesting action. And if the stakes are high enough that the audience really cares for the problem to be solved and the mystery revealed, then this structure works. And it worked in season 4 of Teen Wolf. The stakes of finding the benefactor were very high, indeed, so lack of caring on the part of the audience was not the problem. The problem was the revelation of who the benefactor was. Seriously? Peter orchestrated the whole thing, but he did it while he was in a coma, so he didn’t remember, and then he stole his own money from himself, and Meredith, the traumatized reclusive, made it all happen? I mean, come on. It seems like the writers had a lot of fun constructing the plot for the season, lost sight of the time, and then had only five minutes left to come up with a resolution and realized they didn’t have one. The only possible resolution that could have been worse was that in the end it was all a dream. Gerard being the benefactor would have made more sense. Kate would have made more sense. Even Meredith on her own would have made more sense. Throw in the stupid idea of de-aged Derek and the convoluted side-plot in which Kate and Peter, the characters who arguably hate each other the most out of all the characters on the show, suddenly start working together, and the season was an overall failure.
It wasn’t all terrible, of course. There was the crucial introduction of some new characters after the numerous departures in the last season, there were some amazing fight scenes, Tyler Posey’s acting had considerably improved. But the main reason why Teen Wolf in only in fourth place, apart from the fact that its fourth season isn’t the worst fourth season on this list, is that the fifth season was much better, and almost as scary as season 3 (even if the writers seemed to have completely forgotten about Peter for an entire season, which admittedly was pretty weak). And the last season was the very best one, even if Dylan O’Brien was absent for a lot of it because of The Maze Runner. The drama of Stiles ceasing to exist, and the panic I felt when that happened, were gripping, and the series ended in the best possible way. After all the supernatural threats the McCall pack had to face, in the end the worst monster of all turned out to be the human being. It was just really good writing. So Teen Wolf’s fourth season was a dip in quality in the middle that it completely recovered from, ending the show on a high.
Community is an outlier on this list for several reasons. First, it is a sitcom, not a drama series (and as hilarious as Teen Wolf is, it’s still a forty-minute-drama). Second, because of its difference in genre, it has a completely different structure in terms of story arc. While dramatic shows tend to tell stories that span over several episodes or even seasons, classic sitcom episodes function in a more self-contained way and rarely continue the main plot from one episode into the next one. Even though Community does exactly this at the end of season 2, the plot is only stretched over two episodes (A Fistful of Paintballs, and For a Few Paintballs More), and even between those two episodes, there is a significant tonal difference, as the first one is a homage to classic old Western films, while the second one makes clear and obvious references to Star Wars, complete with Storm Troopers and Abed’s Han Solo outfit. And third, it is the only series on this list with a constantly high quality that experienced only one decline: season 4. Now, first off, not all the episodes were terrible; I liked the Halloween episode, the Thanksgiving episode and the Inspecticon episode, and I thought the attempt at an origin story in the finale was nice. I didn’t hate the puppet episode as much as most do, either. But still, most of this season was dreadful, cringeworthy, and unfunny, most of all the abysmal body-switch episode. There is a clear tonal difference in this season compared to the others that I can’t quite pinpoint, but it is obvious that safe for Jeff, none of the characters develop or change in any way at all, and even Jeff’s change seems rather superficial considering the fact that the half-brother he meets and connects with in the Thanksgiving episode never appears again. The paintball episode was a nice try, but really what the writers did there was an attempt to recapture the brilliance of Remedial Chaos Theory (without question the best episode of the entire show and maybe the best episode of any sitcom ever) that was doomed to fail because they didn’t get it at all. The season 3 episode Remedial Chaos Theory explores seven different possibilities of what could happen, and it uses the roll of a die to lead us through the different timelines. The brilliance of Remedial Chaos Theory is that all of the different timelines actually happened, and all of them gave us as the audience valuable information about every single character. And in the season 4 paintball episode, despite the nice reference to Terminator, nothing actually happens, it is all in Jeff’s head, and the re-introduction of the die made no sense and had no effect, not to mention we didn’t learn anything about anyone.
The reason why this season was so bad is well-known and seated behind the scenes. For some stupid reason, Dan Harmon, the creator and mad genius behind Community (and nowadays, Rick and Morty), was fired after season 3, and then apparently NBC thought anyone could do what Harmon can and hired some replacements for him who wanted to capture the humor and tone of the show and epically failed. In addition, Chevy Chase wanted to leave the show, and that resulted in a lot of scenes where Pierce just wasn’t there and the remaining characters had to laboriously explain his absences. That alone disturbed the comedic rhythm enough that the audience had to notice something was off. And because it must have been so obvious that the show’s quality was rapidly declining, and because the cast complained about Harmon’s departure, Harmon was rehired for season 5, in which Community finally felt like Community again. That season had the most insane episodes—the one where the floor is lava, the MeowMeowBeenz episode (the idea of which allegedly Black Mirror stole for one of its own episodes), and G.I. Jeff. Of course, this season suffered from the departure of Donald Glover, but Harmon turned this massive change into an important character development for Abed. And despite NBC cancelling the show after season 5 and Yahoo!Screen picking it up for a sixth season (and plunging into financial ruin because of it), the last season is beautiful and hilarious and the finale was a real heartbreaker. And as Community has always been extremely self-aware, the finale even contains a reference to the low quality of the fourth season: when Abed mentions the fourth year (the fourth season), Chang farts and then explains that “it’s an inside joke.” May season 4 of Community function as a warning for anyone who thinks humor is easy to replicate.
Part Two coming this Thursday…
Author: Miriam (@miri_mh8)