Weekend Roundtable: TV Shows That Started Poorly but Got Better

As the television networks roll out their new shows for the fall and we judge which ones are worth following and which deserve to be tossed to the wayside, it’s important to keep in mind that not every TV series starts off on the right foot. In the history of the medium, a great number of shows have premiered weakly but somehow managed to pick up steam as they went along. In fact, some genuine classics have this problem. For this week’s Roundtable, we’re going to look at our picks for TV series that improved the most after bad starts.

Aaron Peck

I think ‘Seinfeld‘ is a perfect pick for this. ‘Seinfeld’ is widely considered the best sitcom ever since it influenced almost every facet of American culture. It’s hard to believe that the show that redefined the American sitcom had a really shaky five-episode first season. If you go back and watch that first season, it’s a wonder how the show didn’t get canceled. As a matter of fact, after the pilot, the show actually was canceled, but then brought back by an NBC executive who believed in the series. The first season continued with four more episodes that weren’t all that funny compared to the latter seasons of the show. However, once the second season started, ‘Seinfeld’ hit its stride and never looked back until its lackluster series finale.

Luke Hickman

One of my very favorite current television series started off shaky: ‘Justified‘. The first six episodes of Season One came across like little more than an average cop show with stand-alone storylines. What I didn’t realize is that those first six episodes were introducing and establishing the characters necessary bring the season to a boil. Perhaps standalone in story, they were building the relationships that make ‘Justified’ far better than most other series out there. Now two seasons deep, even though the show may not appear to, it has one huge storyline that ties all of the smaller ones together. Season Three can’t come fast enough!

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

I couldn’t exactly picture myself liking a series called ‘The Vampire Diaries‘. I grabbed the first season set on Blu-ray anyway, I guess just so I could make a bunch of snarky jokes about ‘Twilight’ in the review I was supposed to write. The series premiere was pretty much exactly what I thought it would be: slow-moving, sweepingly epic relationship stuff in some ridiculously compressed timetable; a bland, pretty high school girl and her bland, pretty vampire boyfriend; and… yeah, diaries. Lots of diaries. I braced myself to slog through another twentysomething episodes of that, but then a funny thing happened. ‘The Vampire Diaries’ got really, really good.

Just about every genre series I’ve gotten obsessed with over the years took nearly the entire first season to find its footing. ‘The Vampire Diaries’, meanwhile, was on really solid ground by its third episode, faster than just about anything I’ve ever watched. The manic pace crams in three or four seasons’ worth of plot every year, but the writers juggle all that without it ever feeling rushed, overwhelming or confusing. Because of the sheer volume of stuff that’s going on, there’s no room for filler. Characters aren’t awkwardly shoehorned in or handed pointless subplots just so the folks in the opening credits will have something to do. On the complete other end of the spectrum, it seems like half the supporting cast winds up slaughtered or monster-fied every season. There is some soapy relationship melodrama along with a love triangle and all that, but the steam engine pacing never relents, even when its characters are standing around and talking about their feelings. Its sprawling cast of characters is lavished with an impressive amount of personality and depth, and as pretty as the actors and actresses here are (c’mon, it’s The CW, after all), they really do have the talent to match. A series as smart and well-crafted as ‘The Vampire Diaries’ shouldn’t be shrugged off as a guilty pleasure. If the pilot made you cringe… well, you really ought to give the show another look.

Mike Attebery

I was really excited for ‘Parks and Recreation‘ when it was first announced. (Originally, there was talk of it being a spin-off of ‘The Office’.) Then the show debuted and it suuuucked. It sucked BAD. I went from looking forward to its debut, to cringing at the ineptitude on display with each new installment. The timing was all wrong. The jokes were… well, there were no jokes. It was just sad. Then, just when I was ready to write it off completely, the show did a complete turnaround and became the second funniest comedy on television (after ‘Modern Family’). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show go from one extreme to the other so quickly.

M. Enois Duarte

For me, ‘Weeds‘ came with a pretty shaky start. The first two episodes weren’t bad enough to stop watching. In fact, I kinda like the idea of the show starting after Judah’s death and Nancy already in the business of pot dealing. But it almost seemed like the creators were treating the series like a typical sitcom about bumbling idiots, with a woman way over her head in the center. It was cool to see the attempt at uncovering the darker side of suburbia, but the jokes weren’t all that funny and the show lacked edge, playing it far too safe. Thankfully, as it progressed, between episodes 4 and 6, things finally starting picking up with a nastier sense of humor. The Andy and Celia characters were also better developed. The seventh episode started picking up the pace and is probably my favorite of the first season. ‘Weeds’ finally convinced me of its potential for dark comedy and some interesting tension at around the eighth episode, when Nancy breaks down while at a street light. Eventually, the season ended with a decent twist which really complicated things for the Botwin family, but the second season is when I really started to enjoy the show.

Josh Zyber

A lot of the TV shows I’ve watched over the years have suffered this malady. That’s why I’m willing to give most new series I watch at least a second chance before writing them off completely. The poster child for this syndrome would have to be ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘, which started its life on poor footing as the spin-off from a quite awful movie. Nonetheless, creator Joss Whedon loved and believed in his concept enough to build a TV series around it. The first season of the show (really season-and-a-half) was pretty rough, to put it mildly. Fortunately, the series showed potential and quickly established a group of characters endearing enough to put up with cheesy production values, dodgy plots, and too much reliance on Whedon’s too-clever-to-live teen-speak dialogue.

‘Buffy’ didn’t really kick into gear until the back half of its second season – specifically, the two-parter of episodes ‘Surprise’ and ‘Innocence’, which introduced a genuinely unexpected plot twist and finally pulled the emotional component of the story together in a stunningly compelling way. That is the precise moment where all of the elements of this series started to gel. From that part forward, the show got better and better, until it eventually ranked among the best television series ever made.

Honorable mentions for me would include ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’, ‘Rome’ and the ‘Battlestar Galactica’ reboot.


  1. Jane Morgan

    ‘The West Wing’ had a weak pilot, and a painful miscast with Moira Kelly.

    I also hate that Season 1 is locked at 1:33, while 2-4 are at 1:78.

  2. Mike Attebery

    The West Wing is actually available in widescreen on itunes. I’m hoping they eventually release it on BD, but who knows. I never got an answer from WB on that one.

    • Jane Morgan

      All seven seasons are HD and widescreen at iTunes and Amazon.

      The video transfers, however, are worse-than-dvd. And, in several episodes, whole scenes have been edited out.

      It’s almost like movie studios don’t care about selling high-quality HD.

    • Jane Morgan

      ‘Star Wars’ only sold 515,000 blu-rays in its first week.

      ‘The West Wing’ I’m guessing wouldn’t even sell 1/100 of that.

      How much would it cost to remaster seven seasons of TV for blu-ray?

  3. EM

    When Buffy first started airing, I caught it only sporadically. At the end of the episode “Nightmares”, when Xander spouted some dialogue about everything turning out OK, I wondered whether that would be the shape of the series: the typical case of the week wrapping up neatly with a bow. Fortunately, the series managed to transcend such clichés and corniness.

  4. Ian Whitcombe

    I still have no idea why the first season of The Simpsons was so rough. The shorts were good, Jim Brooks has always started a show well, and there were no showrunning changes between seasons one and two.

    I liked Community since the beginning, but those first two episodes have so little to do with the series as is that they hold little introductory purpose anymore.

    Breaking Bad’s first season doesn’t have the driving narrative that we associate the later seasons with.

    All anime in general is tricky with this. Rarely do these series have nuanced pilots or strong opening arcs.

  5. Zaserov

    I’d have to nominate ‘Dollhouse.’ I always liked the ideas behind the show, but the first set of episodes really were more of an Eliza Dushku variety hour. As the show got more serialized, though, the interesting ideas got to play out a bit more, most of the characters were less stereotyped, and the good side actors got bigger arcs. Also, Epitaph 1 and 2 are great.

    On another note, I have to defend the pilot of ‘Justified’. The episodes may have dropped in quality after that, and there may be some quick-set nostalgia going on, but I remember the pilot being tense, exciting, and kind of funny. Probably going to rewatch this weekend, now that I’m thinking about it.

    • I’d echo this. I wasn’t sure I was going to keep bothering with Dollhouse after the first handful of episodes. But once I got past those, this became a fast favourite. Whedon’s best by a mile. I never found Buffy that great (Fun, but never great), and Firefly I never made past a handful of episodes.

    • I was thinking of ALL the Star Trek Series. They ALL had weak first episodes. My experience seems to be that the first 5-10 episodes of any Star Trek show are pretty bad, then the show picks up. TNG is easily the best example, but DS9 had a couple of dud episodes as well, and Voyager went almost an entire season before it started getting good.

      Enterprise seems to be the exception. The show started out with a bang, then got all weird when they started adding all the temperal cold-war stuff into the mix.

  6. doctor who. when i was a kid it would play on the local PBS station on the weekend afternoons and friends would watch it. i thought it was a load of garbage. fast forward to 2005 /2006 and the new one came on and it was on sci-fi channel and just could not get into the new one. then i found torchwood on netflix and after that run i watched the doctor again and now i think its the best show on television today.

    • Prydie

      I have to agree. The US pilot was just a rehashed version of the UK pilot, including recycled jokes. But the show really found its legs in the second season.

  7. Jon

    I thought Battlestar Galactica came flying out of the gate in the first two seasons. Season three was the rough one there.

    • Josh Zyber

      The initial miniseries pilot of Battlestar Galactica was kind of weak. The series didn’t show what it was capable of until the first regular episode, ’33’.

  8. that1guypictures

    I’m gonna go with 30 Rock. I hated most of the first couple of episodes, but I saw the potential the show had. Eventually around the Black Tie episode (which guest-starred Will Forte and Paul Reubens) the show found its zany footing and kept it for several seasons afterword.

  9. Wyatt

    I agree with Mike Attebery, Parks & Recreation’s first few episodes were pretty bad, they tried too hard to be like The Office. Amy Phoeler’s character was the female version of Michael from The Office. Thankfully the writers revamped everything and made her character into a straight shooter as oppose to another dumb blond. Now I think it’s the funniest show on TV.

  10. Jane Morgan

    ‘The IT Crowd’ took quite a few tries to realize its true girth.

    But once you get past the gag reflex, it goes down smooth.

  11. Josh Zyber

    Watching the new season premiere last week, it occurs to me that Fringe is a good pick for this topic. The show started out as an obvious X-Files knockoff, and took quite a while to establish its own identity and unique mythology.

  12. Wow, I don’t agree with Seinfeld or Buffy at all…I thought both those shows were good out of the gate. Did they get better? Certainly. But they weren’t bad to begin with.

    I’m going to throw FRINGE into the mix…I hated (and still do) the Mark Valley episodes…and actually quit watching the show, only to come back to it later and become a big fan.

    I could probably come up with a lot of shows where the pilot was poor but what followed was fantastic (CBS’s BLUE BLOODS is a great recent example).

  13. Kevin

    Definitely “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. How the show wasn’t given the ax at the end of the first season, with such “gems” as “The Naked Now”, “Code of Honor”, “Justice”, and “When The Bough Breaks”, is beyond me.

    Even more astounding is when one jumps ahead just two years, to the show’s third season, and the quality increased so dramatically to where it almost feels like a completely different series, with the same group of actors.