Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Fifth Season Theory

The current brilliance of Mad Men's fifth season recently got me thinking about other TV dramas that delivered their finest moments fairly late in their runs. As it turns out, there are quite a few. Indeed, of the dramas I've seen that went on for more than one season, almost all of them (with a few exceptions like Battlestar Galactica and Slings and Arrows) gave us their greatest seasons at or after the halfway point of their given runs: The Wire's third and fourth seasons, Lost's fourth, Deadwood's second, and so on.

There are plenty of good reasons for this. One of the most obvious is that the characters and story on a given show tend to become richer and more complex with each passing season as we learn more and more about them, something that's definitely been the case with Mad Men. Another equally obvious one is that the writers typically are able to take more chances with the narrative when they know they're nearing the end of the series.

However, these reasons don't really account for the fact that in over two-thirds of the dramas I've seen that ran for five or more seasons, the fifth season is the one I'd point to as the show's best. The Wire and Lost are the only exceptions. And I'm not even sure the latter should count, since I know there are quite a few people out there who would argue that season five of Lost is in fact its strongest season. (For me, it's 4, 1, 5, 6, 2, 3.)

There really isn't an explanation for this phenomenon. Why shouldn't it sometimes be season six or season seven (if the show ran that long, of course) or seasons three or four? I'm not sure, but for whatever reason season five appears to be the pinnacle for many dramatic series. Comedies are completely different, typically hitting their peak a few seasons earlier. But that's a topic for a different post, assuming there is in fact a similar observation to be made.

Getting back to the point at hand: this is not to say that the following seasons of the shows that continued past five years weren't still great in many cases. In fact, I can't think of an example of a series I've watched where that was the case. To list but two examples: Buffy and The Shield both followed up their standout fifth years with some terrific television, and the latter actually almost equaled season five with its magnificent final stretch of episodes. But they never had a season better than their fifth.

This has led me to come up with the following theory. I've put it in bold letters to signify what an important and noteworthy discovery it is. It is not simply some random half-baked idea I came up with in my spare time. This I swear on the grave of the U.S. Free Agents.

The Fifth Season Theory: If a TV drama lasts for at least five seasons, its fifth season will either be its finest or very close to its finest*.  

* Unless it isn't, because sometimes it isn't. This is known as the "The Wire exception", although there are undoubtedly quite a few other shows to which it applies.  

And now let's see five examples of the fifth season theory in action (in no particular order).

1. The Shield - The fourth season of The Shield was a tremendous achievement, and the best season of the series to that point. But then season five came along and managed to top it. While there was still a while to go before the show reached its magnificent series finale, the events of this season are to me what truly marked the start of its stunning conclusion: an unforgettable three season ending that cemented The Shield's legacy as one of the finest dramas in television history.

2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Aside from season one, I like all of Buffy's seasons quite a bit. But its fifth year stands head and shoulders above any of the others: containing a number of the best episodes in the entire series, including "The Body" (one of the greatest episodes of television ever made), "Fool for Love", and "The Gift". It also features as an astonishing level of consistency for a twenty-two episode season. Such seasons typically have at least one or two low points. Not this one.

3. Angel - The same almost goes for Angel's fifth and final year, although it does have a handful of weaker installments. But even those aren't particularly bad, and the rest of the season is more than strong enough to compensate. While this series was generally quite good (apart from a terrible fourth season), it typically featured some major fluctuations in quality both from season to season and within a given season itself. This is the year that truly delivered from start to finish and brought Angel to a far higher level than it had ever been before, culminating in one of the best series finales in TV history.

4. The Sopranos - The Sopranos is a great television program, but just about every season had at least one weak episode (which isn't a lot, but in a shorter cable season even one stands out). Season five is the only season that doesn't. So what? That alone doesn't make it the show's finest hour. True, but episodes like "Irregular Around the Margins", "Long-Term Parking", and "All Due Respect" do. The second part of season six is arguably better. But since the fifth season theory only governs whole seasons (even split up ones), this one comes out on top.    

5. Friday Night Lights - The only entry here that may not technically be the finest season of its series. If forced to pick, I'd probably choose season four ahead of it, and maybe season three as well. But a case can very easily be made for this season and the near perfect way it concluded one of the greatest TV shows in recent memory. Look at the exact wording of the fifth season theory. If this doesn't qualify as "very close", what does?

So, am I wrong, or is there something about fifth seasons that makes them so consistently brilliant? We'll get to see if that holds true for two more shows this year, as Breaking Bad will be starting its fifth season (though not finishing it until summer of 2013) in JulyAnd Sons of Anarchy should be back later in the year, assuming season five begins around the same time the previous season did.

Will these shows exemplify the fifth season theory as well as Mad Men has this year? Obviously there's no way to be sure. Breaking Bad's first four seasons - particularly the last two - are going to be hard to top, but it would be foolish to underestimate it. As for Sons of Anarchy, I'm actually fairly optimistic about season five in spite of how much I disliked last year's finale.

We'll find out soon enough, I suppose. In the meantime, I'm curious if you think there were any great fifth seasons left out. Or do you think this is complete nonsense?


  1. I agree with this theory, it helps that byt then the characters are well established and by then the writers know what to do with the characters and and aren't afraid to take risks (something that you mentioned, but i had to bring it up since its the only reason I can think of that explains it).

    PS, I started on Breaking Bad a few weeks ago, just started on season 3 and I'm hoping Netflix will have season 4 soon.

  2. I am.

    Oh, and I just got cable, anything you recommend?
    Keep in mind I'm too poor for HBO.

  3. don't get HBO either. Always have to wait for the DVDs. Not a big deal, but it's a little annoying.

    Among cable shows that aren't on the premium channels, "Breaking Bad" would be the first one I'd recommend. So you've already got that one covered. After that, I'd go with "Mad Men" and "Louie", if you haven't seen them. I know former is on Netflix Instant, and the latter might still be as well. Both are terrific shows.

  4. Both of them are on Netflix, I'm actually watching the current season of Mad Men (I didn't feel as if I needed to see the previous seasons, plus I read some season recaps that EW provided), so far, not seeing that previous seasons of MM haven't ruined my experience of it (Its been very good so far, and I've been also watching The Killing, not bad.)

  5. I've heard this season of "The Killing" has been pretty decent, but I just don't have any real desire to watch any more of it. As great as the acting was, that first season seems worse and worse the more I think about it. Just have too much else to keep up with right now. You'll have to let me know if it ever gets really good.

  6. It gets adequete, nothing really special, but I don't mind.