Like a fine wine, a great TV show often takes years to fully develop its various characters and complexities (a la Breaking Bad and The Wire). Unfortunately, most TV shows are more like champagne – all bubbles and excitement at the onset, which will inevitably go flat when enough time passes.
Meddling studios, unrealistic expectations, and an overall lack of story direction can plague a hit series. So we’re taking a closer look at the shows that were never quite able to recreate the heights reached by their debut season. That’s not to say that these shows became unwatchable, only that they seemed to lose the little spark that made them the topic of watercooler conversations in the first place.
Note: We’re only considering shoes that have A.) Completed their original run, and B.) Were at least three seasons long. So Twin Peaks and True Detective – which undeniably dipped in quality in their second seasons – will not be featured here.
Here is our take on 15 TV Shows That Peaked in Season One.
While some may think that Lost should be further up the list – and others will think that it doesn’t belong here at all – you certainly can’t deny that season one of the series was a cultural phenomenon.
Operating on a $14 million budget, J.J. Abrams created one of the most captivating pilot episodes of all time, throwing us headfirst into the aftermath of a horrific plane crash and introducing us to a large cast of enigmatic characters. Sure, two of the show’s most compelling characters, Desmond Hume and Benjamin Linus, didn’t show up until the second season. But seasons two and beyond also introduced us to Mr. Eko, Ana Lucia, and Nikki and Paulo, all of whom had terribly truncated character arcs.
Two of the show’s most captivating mysteries: “Is it a monster?” and “What’s in the hatch?” were also revealed fairly early in the show’s run. And once the flashback format starting growing tired in season three, the newly employed flash-forward and flash-sideways segments eventually lost their luster as well.
The first season of Lost established itself as a well-crafted character study with a dash of sci-fi suspense thrown in for good measure. But when the science fiction began to eclipse everything else in the last few seasons, our emotional connection with the characters started to suffer.
Premiering just two months after September 11th, 24 perfectly captured the countries sense of urgency when it came to counter terrorism. The nerve-wracking countdown structure of the show – where each season chronicled a day, and every episode an hour – received praise from critics, and the show went on to win the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series for its pilot episode.
During its entire nine season run, 24 experienced its fair share of ups and downs. With each season trying to up the ante from the last, the story became reliant on a number of somewhat unbelievable plot twists and turncoats. The season 6 reveal that Jack Bauer’s own father and brother were in fact terrorists conspiring against him elicited eye rolls from pretty much everyone watching at home.
In later seasons, the reliance on torture as an interrogation technique also received some backlash. A number of FBI interrogators even ended up meeting with producers of the show to explain that only a psychopath (i.e. Jack Bauer) could torture someone and not be affected by it. As a result, the torture became less prominent in the last few seasons of the series.
13. The Killing
The first season of The Killing provided a beautifully somber, rain-soaked alternative to your run-of-the-mill cop show procedural. Instead of casting your typical hard-nosed, booze-guzzling male detective as the lead, audience were gifted Mireille Enos, who went on to receive two Emmy nominations for her performance as the cool and crafty homicide investigator Sarah Linden.
Adapted from a Danish series called Forbrydelsen (The Crime), the first season of The Killing follows the murder investigation of a local teen and the political campaign that gets intertwined in the case. After the show premiered, “Who killed Rosie Larsen?” echoed the popularity of Twin Peaks‘ tag line “Who killed Sarah Palmer?” Both shows revolved around the murders of two high school girls and, unfortunately, both shows started to lose their way during the season two.
The show’s audience quickly became frustrated as the writers continued to introduce one not-so-subtle red-herring after the next. With Rosie Larsen’s murder left unsolved at the end of season one, the delayed gratification earned the series a second season, but it also cost the show a large chuck of its audience as a result.
Planet Express has had one hell of a bumpy ride.
After debuting on Fox back in 1999, Futurama was constantly shuffled around the schedule and failed to ever develop a consistant viewership. It’s possible that the network had expected something tantamount to The Simpsons in space, and wasn’t prepared for the outlandish, Slurm-fueled world of tomorrow that Futurama had to offer.
The show was cancelled after its fourth season, but thanks to its niche but rabid following, it was brought back to life amidst high re-run ratings and impressive DVD sales. Thus, Futurama found a new home on Comedy Central for its remaining three seasons.
While Futurama was able to maintain its off-beat brilliance throughout its seven season run, it lands on our list because of the fact that many of the show’s best episodes – “Love’s Labours Lost in Space,” “A Fishful of Dollars,” “I, Roommate” and “Hell is Other Robots” – all appeared in season one.
From Kill Bill, to Braveheart, to The Revenant, sometimes revenge is the only motivation you need to keep an audiences engaged in a movie. But basing an entire series off of a single emotion didn’t fully pan out for this primetime ABC soap opera.
Out of the gate, Revenge was a runaway hit. The pilot brought in over 10 million viewers – the highest performance for the network since Lost – and audiences became ensnared in Amanda Clarke’s (AKA Emily Thorne’s) plot to destroy every individual who played a role in her father’s death.
Much like revenge itself, the show became a guilty pleasure for many of its viewers, but as the second season began, the show was scheduled against the Grammy Awards, the Golden Globe, and an NFC Championship Game. The ratings never recovered, and the series finale was viewed by less than half of its original audience.
10. The L Word
Following the success of Showtime’s Queer as Folk, the network continued its goal towards wide-reaching small screen representation for all with The L Word, the first season of which is widely recognized as a watershed moment in television history for its portrayal of its predominantly gay cast.
The story follows the ups-and-downs of a close-knit group of lesbian and bisexual friends living in Los Angeles. At the time of its debut, same-sex marriage was becoming an increasingly heated topic as a result of the 2004 presidential race, and upon its release, The L Word received universal acclaim for its complex characters and nuanced portrayal of same-sex relationships.
However, the show’s remaining five seasons seemed less interested in pushing for equal rights and became overly preoccupied with eroticism and melodramatic subplots. As the characters became increasingly interested in living glamorous lifestyles, the dialogue lost the realism it had established during its debut. The show was even criticized for the unending jabs it took at marriage and the “horrors” of monogamy.
9. The O.C.
For many, the first season of The O.C. perfectly captured the teenage angst of what it felt like growing up the in the mid-2000s, especially if you lived in Orange County, California. The series didn’t make the mistake of pandering to its younger viewers. It sprinkled in subplots that dealt with the show’s adults and was commended for tackling serious issues such as materialism, alcohol abuse and domestic violence.
Though protagonist Ryan Atwood experiences a severe culture shock after relocating to the upscale and often vapid world of Orange County, he quickly discovers that his fellow peers can all relate to his feeling of isolation. And audiences were able to relate as well, as The O.C. pulled in an average of 9.7 million viewers weekly.
That is, until the show totally jumped the shark in season three by killing off Ryan’s principal love interest in a car accident. The death scene itself was unbelievably corny, particularly when the car explodes in a brilliant ball of flames in the background, while Ryan carries the half-dead Marissa slowly away from the wreckage, all set to a rendition of “Hallelujah”.
Glee was another hit sensation that struck a chord with younger audiences upon its debut. Similar to The O.C., Glee wasn’t afraid to tackle important issues, like teenage pregnancy, homosexuality, and self acceptance – the major difference being that they often confronted these issues through song and dance. It’s fair to say that there was no other show on the air that could be compared to the likes of Glee.
The series wowed audiences with its impressive musical performances (over 700 in total), and in its first season alone, Glee was nominated for a whopping twenty Primetime Emmy Awards. Jane Lynch even took home a win for her performance as the conniving cheerleading coach/principal antagonist, Sue Sylvester.
The show may very well have experienced over-hype, and Glee failed to maintain its own level of energy in the follow-up seasons. It was also criticized for shifting focus from the high schoolers to weekly celebrity guest stars, which were shamelessly promoted week after week.
Three years before Breaking Bad hit the airways, audiences were introduces to another unlikely drug kingpin: Nancy Botwin.
Following the unexpected death of her husband, Nancy starts selling marijuana to maintain her upper middle-class lifestyle and take care of her two sons. Hijinks ensue as Nancy gets drawn deeper into the criminal world, where she eventual brands her own strain of marijuana and outsells every other dealer in her territory.
Weeds became Showtime’s most successful series after its debut, and Mary-Louise Parker won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of PTA-mom turned one woman drug cartel. But the argument can be made that this was never really a series built to last. Ranging anywhere from screwball comedy to violent crime thriller, Weeds varied widely in its tone, and was never able to recreate the balance of its first season. In total, the show stuck around for eight seasons, a far longer timeframe than the story demanded.
6. True Blood
True Blood had a truly compelling premise at its onset, with a pretty awesome opening credit sequence to boot. Set in a world where vampires are campaigning for equal rights, Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic waitress from small-town Louisiana, falls in love with Southern gentleman (and vampire) Bill Compton. In this fictional reality, vampires aren’t just discriminated against, they’re hunted and killed for their blood, also know as V, which acts as a steroid and an aphrodisiac when consumed in small doses.
So where did True Blood go wrong? When the story drifted away from the vampire blood in exchange for faerie blood. Yes, you read that correctly. Faerie blood.
It’s later revealed that Sookie’s telepathic powers were a result of her being a half-human, half-faerie hybrid. Better known as a halfling, of course. Just add halfling to an overstuffed list that already included vampires, shapeshifters, werewolves and witches, and it’s no wonder that True Blood deteriorated in quality after season one. Here’s hoping the upcoming Broadway adaptation is a bit more focused.
5. Desperate Housewives
Desperate Housewives was another show that redefined the 2000s. After the success of The O.C. the year before, ABC decided to greenlight the series after realizing that there was indeed an audience out there for primetime soap operas. The pilot alone was watched by 21.3 million viewers, quickly making Desperate Housewives one of the biggest small screen hits of 2004.
Taking place on Wisteria Lane, season one largely focused on the unexpected suicide of Mary Alice Young and the possibly involvement of her husband Paul Young. The series featured a charming cast that included Teri Hatcher, Eva Longoria, Ricardo Chavire, James Denton, and more.
By the second and third season, however, Desperate Housewives became too preoccupied with trying to top itself, and instead of further developing the characters, the story simply featured them doing horrible things to one another in an attempt to shock the audience into staying tuned in. Even showrunner Marc Cherry admitted that the scripts were becoming weaker, and by the eighth and final season (Seriously, how did this run for 8 seasons?) the show had lost over half of its original viewers.
Yes, we know that The Trinity Killer, AKA Arthur Mitchell (AKA John Lithgow in his Emmy winning turn as a serial murderer) featured in the fourth season of the show. There’s no denying that Trinity was Dexter’s one true archenemy, or that Lithgow’s performance elevated the series during his season as the guest star. But for us, the overall quality of the first 12 episodes, which was topped off with the earth-shattering reveal of the Ice Truck Killer’s true identity, solidifies season one as the show’s peak.
A major problem with Dexter is that the show largely changed its twisted tone when our favorite serial murderer started developing “feelings” somewhere in between the second and third season. The once cold and calculating killer gets married, has a kid, becomes a struggling single father, and engages in a few too many heart-to-hearts with the ghost of his adopted father. Pretty soon, Dexter is just another TV hero… who just so happened to enjoy killing people on the side.
The show’s format of stalk, kill, and cover up also grew predictable with each passing season. And as the bodies began to pile high, the murderers Dexter was stalking (aside from Trinity of course!) started to become indistinguishable. The fact that its final season is regarded by many fans as being the worst year by far would seem to indicate that, once again, Showtime pushed a series to stay on the air for way past its expiration date.
3. Veronica Mars
The quandary of revolving a story around a single murder mystery is, of course, where to take the story once the mystery is solved. Veronica Mars suffered a similar fate, and after the plucky high school sleuth finally figured out who murdered her best friend, the story struggled throughout seasons two and three to find an arc that was equally intriguing.
While the eclectic cast of characters remained likable throughout the series, the show took a significant dip in quality when it was moved from UPN to The CW. The season-length mystery format was abandoned, and by the end of year three, the show had resorted to a mystery of the week format. This was done in an attempt to attract more viewers, but the plan backfired in a major way, and the series was never renewed for a fourth season. What’s even worse is that the show became bogged down in relationship drama, not unlike many of its CW counterparts.
Season one of the series worked so well because when something tragic took place, it had a realistic impact on the characters that echoed throughout the following episodes. But when the show simply started resetting itself every week, it felt disingenuous to the characters we had come to love.
2. Prison Break
A man holds up a bank to get imprisoned alongside his brother, then once he’s behind bars, he plans to break them both out by using his tattooed body as a blueprint. If this story was pitched today, it’s likely that Prison Break would find a much better home as a mini-series on Netflix or HBO. In fact, at one point, the show was pitched to be a mini-series with none other than Steven Spielberg at the helm. But following the continued success of Lost and 24, Fox instead pushed to turn Prison Break into a renewable series.
Debuting to over nine million viewers, the show became so poplar in its first season that Fox actually decided to tack on an extra nine episodes – which included brothers Michael and Lincoln, along with six fellow inmates, finally breaking out of Fox River State Penitentiary.
In its second season, the show retained some of its intrigue with the inmates now on the lamb. But in seasons three and four, the show became preoccupied with government conspiracy theories that felt all too familiar and out of sync with the original hook. The ratings continued to drop, and Prison Break was not immediately renewed for a fifth season. Fox intends on bringing Michael Scofield back from the dead for a 2017 revival of the series, but it remains to be seen whether season 5 will be able to recapture the magic this series once possessed.
Unfortunately, Heroes remains the poster child for TV series that peaked during their first season. To put it simply, season one was a revelation, and everything else was a total mess.
“Volume One: Genesis” intertwines a number of stories about seemingly ordinary people who slowly discover that they have special abilities. The show was a massive hit, and was praised for being the most imaginative and well crafted series since Lost made its debut. The show was meant to simulate the structure of a comic book, and it was in “Volume Two: Generations” that the story quickly lost focus and seriously started to drag. Some might even say that the show began to loose its spark in the season one finale, where the heroes are all of a sudden drawn together for a final showdown in New York City.
Season three and four received increasingly negative reviews, and the once promising series was cancelled before season five, forever leaving a whole in our hearts for what could have been. (And let’s all just pretend Heroes Reborn didn’t happen. Sound good?)
So do you agree with our list? Did we leave out any of your favorite one hit wonders? Let us know in the comments!