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.
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.
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.
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.
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.