The mammoth HBO hit "The Last of Us" was the talk of the small screen this season, and heaps of awards surely await the show and its stars Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey (pictured in my illustration). But anyone familiar with the gaming origins of "The Last of Us," from which it’s adapted, will recognize that the HBO writers have their work cut out for them. That’s because the second iteration of the game, released in 2020, broke with a lot of its previous storytelling orthodoxy. That new release threw in controversial time-jumps, split narratives, and even some unsavory character resolutions that quickly became controversial to gaming fans.
Following such plotting in the TV show’s second season could be asking for trouble, knowing that frustrated audiences can turn on a franchise as fast as fingers can type a Tweet. And while writing for such a popular show is likely the envy of most writers in Hollywood, there’s still a large part of the complicated task that is unenviable.
Writing a follow-up—second seasons, sequels, even series finales—is tricky stuff. What do you keep, what do you change, and can you capture lightning in a bottle again and again? It’s not just a question of whether you can equal a previous success, but can you better it? And one of the most worrisome fears for writers is that they could end up penning something that damages ‘the brand.’
Ant-Man was a franchise in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that was humming along just fine until its misbegotten sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, destroyed a lot of the goodwill. That botched entry also sent the MCU into a panic. The film was so damaging, CEO Kevin Feige decided to re-evaluate the rest of his company’s 2023’s slate of films, as well as hold off on many of the MCU’s TV shows that had been scheduled for the Disney+ streaming platform.
Bad writing certainly damaged the reputation of the once vaulted series "Dexter" on Showtime. It was a huge hit from 2006-2013, well-respected and showered with awards. But after its badly conceived series finale aired, the show took a drubbing from critics and audiences that it’s never recovered from. Its misbegotten return in 2021, entitled "Dexter: New Blood," only further destroyed its standing. Now, the Dexter name, which once was mentioned in the same breath with other adored, dark TV series from the time, like "The Sopranos," "Mad Men," and "Breaking Bad," has been forever sullied.
That’s the kind of fallout that can give writers self-questioning nightmares for the rest of their professional lives.
So, how can a writer avoid the pitfalls of screwing up so badly? It starts with a writer being keenly aware of the strengths of the original property so and where things can bend versus break.
Every writer wants to make his mark, even on existing properties, but warping a good thing for the sake of ownership tends to be a foolish motive. The writers for the past 20 years of "The Simpsons," now in its 34th year, have been duly criticized for straying too far afield from its glory years in the 90s, turning the show into more of a structureless parody than the tightly written narrative it once was.
True, the original show was conceived as a cartoon riff on sitcom families, but sometimes any sense of such a grounding can feel lost in latter seasons. Still, the writers on "The Simpsons" get a long leash because it is animated. And because cartoon characters never really age, or rarely even change clothes, a lot of rules can be bent without breaking. Thus, its crazier tangents of the last decade can be more readily forgiven. And it’s still funnier than most sitcoms on any network or platform.
Still, it would behoove "The Simpsons" writers to keep the show grounded more than they do, recognizing that the world of Springfield should remain recognizable.
Those TV series that forget where they came from in their way often “jump the shark,” as the term has come to be known. That term was coined by writer/critic Jon Hein when he talked about the creative bankruptcy that he felt occurred in the "Happy Days" sitcom back in 1977. That year saw main character, Fonzie, perform a waterskiing stunt where he, indeed, jumped a shark to prove his bravery. And ludicrously, Fonzie did it while wearing his leather jacket with his swimsuit and skis. It was utterly silly, even buffoonish, especially since it went against the character’s cool. Fonzie would never feel the need to prove how masculine he was in such an asinine way.
It was a perfect example of the writers rejecting the truth of the property they were adapting and thus, harming the show’s legacy.
One sitcom of that era that didn’t make such an error was "M*A*S*H." Despite running 11 seasons, the comedy treated its Korean War setting seriously. The series finale even went out of its way to remind viewers that war is hell by showcasing the nervous breakdown of lead character Dr. “Hawkeye” Pierce in that episode. Even though the war ended, Pierce and his fellow medics would go home with the horrors of war forever baked into their souls. Dexter, on the other hand, was almost glib in how cowardly its serial killer lead abandoned his child by leaving him in the care of another serial killer so he could escape getting caught by authorities in his hometown of Miami. It was conceived to be noble, but it struck most viewers as shallow and even out of character.
Screwing up franchises needed be as blatant as Fonzie’s stunt or Dexter’s cowardice. "Big Little Lies" failed in its second season because it beat the previous season’s resolved plot into the ground. There was no reason to continue the investigation of the death of Celeste’s abusive husband when it was clearly resolved in the first season finale. The housewives of Monterey got their happy ending as no one was arrested and the events brought them all closer together.
So, why go there again? Couldn’t writers Liane Moriarty, adapting her own novel, and David E. Kelly, found new problems for the women to confront? Absolutely. The show’s abrupt end and dying down of any call for a season three proved that sometimes writers need to know when to not just bend the premise but break from it in the right way.
The women’s angst was the foundation, not the murder. That was the framing device, not the essence of the drama.
The best subsequent seasons of TV series, or movie sequels for that matter, tend to keep their main characters grounded in scenarios that are similarly themed as their predecessors, but add some variety to the mix without betraying its essence. Add complexity to the story, yes, but stay true to the characters and their core plight.
The Godfather Part Two sequel succeeded spectacularly because authors Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo maintained the original narrative concerning Michael Corleone’s fall from grace that guided the story in the first film. Even the introduction of his father Vito Corleone’s origins story in the sequel was done to compare and contrast with Michael’s story. Vito, you see, rose to become the godfather to save his neighborhood while Michael destroyed all of enemies and even his family merely to save himself.
On the other hand, sometimes films should just be one and done, with no need to draw the story out any further.
The original conclusion of the thriller Dirty Harry saw him quitting the police force when he realized he broke his code of conduct to bring the serial killer antagonist to justice. (Spoiler: He killed him in cold blood at the end, firing off the sixth and final shot of his .44 Magnum.) It was the perfect ending to the melancholy film, but because it became a big hit, the studio ordered sequels. Unfortunately, none of them felt right and failed to come even close to capturing the qualities of the original.
Thankfully, studios don’t always push for sequels to big hits. There were none ordered for such great movies as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Pulp Fiction, and Ex Machina, just to name three that could’ve easily yielded them but didn’t. Of course, sequels are going to be ordered for superheroes, especially since such franchises stem from long-running comic series, but writing sequels for them can easily go wrong despite decades and decades of continuing narratives serving as precedent.
2004’s Spider-Man 2 was a worthy sequel to the 2002 original because it kept Spidey’s nemesis to one bad guy—Doc Ock—and found the humanity within that villain to keep audiences invested in his character. Three years after that though, Spider-Man 3 failed as a proper narrative because it threw too many baddies into the mix. Harry Osborne’s Green Goblin, Eddie Brock’s Venom, and Flint Marko’s Sandman were all elbowing each other for screen time, as well as trying to thwart our hero. Marko’s Sandman, in particular, came up short with too little screen time to get a decent bead on him.
Obviously, the filmmakers felt the bigger and better, but as is often the case, more isn’t always more, even in superhero extravaganzas.
Finally, regarding finales … few writers will ever get handed such a prestigious script to pen, but for those who do, be very, very careful. Just as in any story, a proper ending is vital and a problematic one can potentially damage that which has gone before it, just like in "Dexter" and some others that have stumbled. (The series finales of "Lost" and "St. Elsewhere" spring instantly to mind.)
At the time of the "Seinfeld" series finale, writer Larry David was roundly rebuked by critics and audiences alike for sentencing his four main characters to prison for their antisocial behavior. In 1998, the year of its original airing, such punishment seemed too harsh, but by 2023’s standards, not so much. In an era where so many breaking the law go unpunished, or we wait and wait and wait for them to be indicted, David’s brand of justice seemed fitting for his characters’ ‘crime’ in retrospect with audiences catching up with his way of thinking. Indeed, the characters Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld created seem all the more immature and foolish with time and distance, adding even more courage and clarity to David’s vision.
Time has yet to tell just how the series finale of the beloved HBO franchise "Game of Thrones" will be remembered, but when the show finished airing in 2019, critics and fans were not impressed. To spend all that time investing in Daenerys’s quest for power that she was legitimately owed only to see her become a mad tyrant was disheartening. Even worse? Seeing heroic Jon Snow relegated to killing her to stop her reign. What a way to end their love story angle. And even worse yet? Handing the Seven Kingdoms to Bran Stark, a woefully underdeveloped character, felt wholly misplaced. Sansa Stark should’ve been given the reigns as arguably her arc over eight seasons was the most dramatic, turning from teenage naïf to coolly calculating ruler.
What were Game of Thrones creator/writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss thinking with such poorly-judged moves?
Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the whole season wasn’t an adaptation of one of George R.R. Martin’s books in the strictest of terms. Instead, the plotting was mostly invented by showrunners left to their own devices since Martin had yet to conclude his story in literature. (We’re still waiting for his final book as of this writing.) They proved just how tricky it is to pen sequels, subsequent seasons, and series finales. And to any writer wading into such intimidating waters, even those as wildly successful as Benioff and Weiss, it’s best to proceed with great caution.
After all, sharks are there, lying in wait.