It's a well-known phenomenon that even the greatest television shows can be subject to horrible endings. Sometimes it's hard to finish an amazing run with the perfect grace note. But what about the inverse, the less discussed issue of great shows that got off to horrible starts?
It happens more often than you think: even some of the most groundbreaking high watermarks in TV have had pilots that almost doomed their chances, from premium cable darlings to commercial network staples.
Maybe the creative teams on these shows didn't have time to realize their initial vision. Or perhaps the cast didn't have the proper grip on their characters just yet. Sometimes you have to work out the kinks to get to greatness, leaving the audience as beta testers. And in these 15 instances, viewers' patience gave each series on our list the time to breathe and grow into the iconic shows we know and love today.
So let's take a look at great shows with extremely rocky starts, dissecting just why the pilots were often painful to watch, be it a rush job, a case of miscasting, rookie mistakes, or any other number of questionable decisions. Here are 15 Amazing TV Shows That Survived A Terrible Pilot Episode.
15 Game of Thrones
How can HBO's smash hit Game of Thrones make both our lists of best pilots AND worst? It's because the series' original pilot episode was never broadcast--and for good reason, because by all accounts, it was an unmitigated disaster.
Series creators Dan Weiss and David Benioff screened the initial pilot for friends, who showed tough love with their honest assessments, with Weiss recalling that "Watching them watch that original pilot was one of the most painful experiences of my life. I mean, it’s probably like appendicitis."
Reactions included confusion over basic plot points (no one realized that Cersei and Jaime Lannister were siblings), and the overall negative vibe led to the roles of Catelyn Stark and Daenerys Targaryen being recast. Obviously the retooling worked, and the series rose from the dead like Jon Snow to fight another day. It was the rare case when polishing a turd actually worked.
14 Parks and Rec
NBC's Parks and Rec became one of the most celebrated cult comedy hits of the '00s, but the less said about its wretched pilot, the better. Although, we're going to say some things now...
Parks and Rec's troubled start made the series look like a poor man's version of The Office (more on that show in a moment). The mockumentary interview scenes felt forced, and the cast of characters felt more like one-dimensional sketches than believable and engaging personalities. It was often cringe-worthy, to say the least.
Even beloved Saturday Night Live alumnus (and series lead) Amy Poehler wasn't immune to criticism, with The Washington Post declaring “The premiere is not without laughs, and yet it is almost without interest, except as an answer to the question, ‘I wonder what Amy Poehler is up to these days.’ As it turns out, not quite enough.” Ouch.
13 The Office (U.S. Version)
Remakes of any popular television show are tricky. Make it too different and you risk losing what made the original incarnation tick; but if you try to make it too similar, why bother in the first place? The latter was the original fate of The Office, which transplanted Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's popular British work comedy to the States.
The problem was totally avoidable in retrospect: British humor often has an entirely different set of sensibilities than American humor, and jokes that killed in the UK often fell on deaf ears to American audiences (with the exception of appreciative anglophiles).
Not only that, but Gervais and Steve Carrell have entirely different approaches in terms of delivery and timing, and Carrell (understandably) couldn't replicate what made Gervais' character work so well in the original series. Luckily the creative team got back on track by the second season, distilling the original into a new dynamic that worked well for the American cast and audiences alike.
12 How I Met Your Mother
CBS's popular ensemble sitcom How I Met Your Mother lasted an impressive 10 seasons, but if everyone had given final judgment of the show based on its pilot episode, you'd be forgiven for thinking it should have been axed upon its first season.
Canned jokes, stereotypical characters (featuring a particularly grating Neil Patrick Harris as the womanizing Barney) and annoying subplots abound in the opening outing for MacLaren's most frequent customers. And Ted and Robyn's on-again off-again romance wasn't nearly a charming story centerpiece as it was in the early stages (mainly because Ted was annoying as hell). It was painful to watch.
At least in the early stages, that is. While How I Met Your Mother isn't the most consistent series on this list, it was leaps and bounds better than its sub par beginnings. But the pilot crashed and burned so badly that the show is lucky it even got a second chance to prove its merits.
11 The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon
After the bloodbath that removed Conan O'Brien from The Tonight Show, NBC went with their safest bet for a replacement: Jimmy Fallon, the SNL vet who had previously filled in for Conan after he left his Late Night slot to seize Jay Leno's coveted territory. And his opening night was...well...eh.
Fallon at his worst is cloying and overeager to please, and his scattershot need for acceptance came across as a little desperate on opening night. It's understandable after all the late night drama that preceded him inheriting the gig, and most critics were careful not to bash him too hard. Take Brian Lowry's review for Variety, where he noted that the affable Fallon "comes across as eager to please almost to a fault, and he treated his Tonight Show launch very much like a guy auditioning to be accepted into homes."
Fallon got into his groove rather quickly however, becoming a ratings darling with his celebrity game segments and musical skits...until Colbert's Trump skewering made him the (current) top dog of late night.
10 Late Night With Conan O'Brien
Speaking of Conan O'Brien...after David Letterman's stellar run as host of Late Night With David Letterman, NBC realized they had big shoes to fill. But producer Lorne Michaels took a huge gamble--avoiding any major names in comedy to replace him. Instead he turned to Conan O'Brien, a behind the scenes writer for comedies like Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. To say the pilot episode was awkward is to put it mildly. It was one of the most cringeworthy moments in TV history.
O'Brien and sidekick Andy Richter seemed completely ill at ease on their maiden voyage, and not even affable first guests like John Goodman, Drew Barrymore, and Tony Randall could steady the ship. It was uncomfortable to witness. And the next night wasn't much better, with Mary Tyler Moore acting like a concerned mother.
In the end, Michaels' instincts were correct, and O'Brien's surreal, outlandish comedic gifts flourished as he grew more comfortable, and he's still killing it on his show Conan on TBS.
9 30 Rock
Tina Fey's loving satire of her days as a Saturday Night Light writer and performer was both a critical darling and commercial hit, but the pilot was like that one weak SNL skit that never ends. The show had yet to find its footing and played things a bit too close to the vest, coming across more like an indie dramedy than the gut-buster we know and love today.
Between fellow SNL veteran Tracy Morgan's curiously restrained performance, a severely distracting case of shaky cam, and a lack of the wacky, surreal, pop-culture reference magic that made Liz Lemon's adventures such a kinetic kick, things felt off. But Fey, a consummate professional, studied both the pilot and the first season's lackluster elements, eventually giving 30 Rock that consistency and comedic rapport more perfectly suited for the show's spectacular cast.
8 Family Guy
Seth MacFarlane's animated comedy Family Guy did not receive a warm welcome when it first debuted in 1999. In addition to accusations of ripping off The Simpsons, it also just wasn't very funny, largely lacking the subversive, unsparing satire it would eventually exhibit. Or. as Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker described it, the show felt like "The Simpsons as conceived by a singularly sophomoric mind that lacks any reference point beyond other TV shows."
Perhaps the main problem of Family Guy is that it was too overstuffed for its own good: McFarlane blasted out so many jokes that they didn't have time to land, and the duds outnumbered the keepers.
To be fair, the pilot episode of Family Guy isn't nearly as bad as some of the other episodes on this list. It's just aged worse in retrospect, and lacks any of the memorable gags that has helped the series develop such a large and loyal fan base over the years.
Easily the most polarizing addition to this list, the pilot episode of Cheers wasn't particularly terrible on a scale of quality, but it lacked the charm and wise cracking banter that made the series so memorable. In many ways, the pilot (called "Give Me A Ring Sometime") had a sentimentality (revolving around Shelly Long's character Diane) that felt like a downer, lacking in big laughs.
This was echoed in a 2009 assessment by Just Press Play's Lex Walker that it was "sadder and more sentimental," and focused "less on character development and more on Diane restarting her life as a waitress after the loss of love."
It clearly didn't light the world on fire: Cheers barely survived its first season due to low ratings. Luckily, NBC head Brandon Tartikoff's belief in the show paid off when it found its second wind.
6 Doctor Who
BBC's Doctor Who reboot has received justifiable acclaim for its modern take on the venerable character, but the pilot episode featuring Christopher Eccleston wasn't anything to get excited about. It's painful to watch, frankly.
The humorous aspects felt forced (except for the appearance of The Autons, whose goofy appearance was funny for all the wrong reasons), and Eccleston looked ill at ease in the part. The T.A.R.D.I.S. looked shoddy, and everyone involved looked like they weren't quite sure of the direction they wanted the show to go.
10 years later, the kinks have all been worked out and Doctor Who is one of the most popular sci-fi series on TV. Sometimes patience is rewarded, and such is the case for those who endured the show's troublesome genesis.
The pilot for Friends fell flat. Many critics and viewers felt the series was Seinfeld-lite: it was yet another show about neurotic New Yorkers with dysfunctional friendships and messy love lives. The only difference being a younger cast...and weaker jokes. And for a show targeting sullen, cynical Generation X, it was a bit too clean-cut and predictable.
And we haven't even touched on the show's tone, which was wildly uneven, with a pass-the-mic approach that made the cast all appear one note, lobbing one joke to the next without much consistency or depth. It felt rushed and unusually abrupt. And the pilot even includes a spit-take, which was pretty old-school even for the mid-90s.
This resulted in meh reviews, like the Houston Chronicle, which said it revolved around a "stiflingly dull social circle...short to the point of painful in brainpower." So if you were ask the cast "How you doin?" after the pilot, the answer was not so hot. Obviously, those jitters were soon resolved.
4 Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Joss Whedon's beloved television series of female empowerment had a rocky start. Instead of focusing on its dogged protagonist quest to destroy vampires and other supernatural threat, the pilot episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer felt like Beverly Hills 90210 with the random moment of horror and fantasy. It was meh by all accounts. For those who were already confused why a minor movie hit was being resurrected as a TV series, it didn't inspire much confidence for a full-fledged series.
Everything in the wonky first episode feels off, as it's full of awkward teen comedy tropes and other tepid elements. Sometimes even the best shows suck out of the gate, and Buffy definitely didn't prove to be an exception. Luckily for all involved, the now (rightfully) revered show course corrected, and the weak pilot (and uneven first season) can be forgiven.
3 Star Trek The Next Generation
Star Trek TNG's Captain Jean Luc-Picard is forever immortalized by his catchphrase "Make it so." But you could paraphrase that to "make it so...lame" in describing the pilot episode of Gene Roddenberry's second Star Trek television series.
The first episode of TNG is listless, slack, and just flat-out boring as hell. The characters weren't much to write home about either, lacking the dimension, depth, and humor that would later make them fan favorites. This is a problem that affects many pilot episodes, but TNG's opening salvo was a notable dud.
Part of the problem was Roddenberry's "no conflict" mandate for TNG--hypothesizing that in a future utopia, sentient beings would forego petty squabbles and major disagreements. But given that all great stories thrive on conflict, it made for one hell of a dull show. This ironically created "conflict" for the creative team and cast. It would take a lot of trial and error and Roddenberry cajoling before the show could find its legs and narrative flow.
2 The Wire
David Simon's acclaimed HBO series The Wire is one of those critical darlings that never attracted a large audience during its four season run. And for those who wondered why a show of its caliber had such a decidedly small following, look no further than its pilot episode.
While sites like Entertainment Weekly blamed the series' poor ratings for the show being too complex for mass audiences, the truth is that the series put its worst foot forward with one of the dullest pilots ever made.
Simon's labyrinthine storyline got off to a milquetoast start, looking just as clichéd and formulaic as any other cop show of the era. It felt like a standard issue Law and Order knockoff, with little to differentiate it from the competition, and Dominic West's maiden voyage as Detective Jimmy McNulty seemed like a bargain basement loose cannon cop that had been on TV so many times before. It felt stale, basically.
This problem would prove short-lived, and The Wire would go on to greatness, but you can't blame anyone for bailing on a pilot that showed poor potential.
Seinfeld isn't just the best sitcom of the '90s--it's arguably the best of all time. But you certainly wouldn't have picked up on that if you could only judge the iconic series by its dreadful pilot episode.
In many ways, the first episode of Seinfeld (then known as The Seinfeld Chronicles--there's a snappy title for ya) resembles a Woody Allen film on Ambien. It's a sluggish affair where Jerry and George have their patented banter, but instead of their classic rapid fire repartee, its turgid and stagnant. Elaine is absent completely (she was only added later in the season when network brass deemed the series too male-centric), leaving an unbalanced ensemble.
And Cosmo Kramer wasn't even Kramer--he was then known as Kessler. So there's a reason Seinfeld didn't get good until later in its run, because yada, yada, yada, IT SUCKED. Thankfully it was given time to grow, eventually becoming the master of its domain.
That wraps up our list of the best shows with worst pilots! Which of your fave shows had a terrible start? Tell us in the comments!
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