TV is a fickle business. Every year there are so many fresh pilots for hopeful series that it’s vital for a new show to make an immediate first impression. If the people aren’t interested and ratings are down, the network executives will waste no time in canceling a struggling program and open the doors for something else to capture the zeitgeist. It’s the nature of the industry, but it’s not always a fair practice.
Sometimes, a show is so doomed from the start, it needs to be put out of its misery. But more often than not, the show runners are simply trying to find their stride in the early going, using a series’ first batch of episodes as an outlet to iron out kinks and flesh out aspects that go on to define our favorite shows. Sometimes, patience is a virtue more people should subscribe to. Screen Rant presents 10 classic television series that struggled in Season 1. Presented in no particular ranking or order.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Almost two decades after it left the airwaves, Star Trek finally got its proper follow-up series in 1987. Star Trek: The Next Generation garnered plenty of ratings attention at first airing, but time has revealed its first season to be somewhat problematic. Questionable costuming choices, bizarre tonal digressions, and clichéd plotlines are definite factors in the season’s lackluster feel.
However – as will become a recurring theme in this piece – a lack of clear direction and chemistry among its cast makes season 1 of The Next Generation look much paler in comparison to its later episodes. Large ensemble casts often take some time to gel properly – and when Star Trek: The Next Generation became more used to its players, the improvement was immediately noticeable.
Parks and Recreation
Simply put, Parks and Recreation‘s first season is neither as funny nor as charming as its later entries. Though the narrative connection went out the window during planning, the series was originally pitched as a spinoff of The Office. Parks and Recreation retains much of the former show’s tone and comedic timing throughout season 1; as a result, the season has a far harsher, drier, feel to it.
Additionally, the characters that audiences would come to know and love are far more one-note – especially Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope, who comes off as far less likeable during her first appearances. Fortunately, later seasons of the series would treat its characters much more sympathetically, resulting in what is simultaneously one of the most good-natured and sharply satirical comedies of the last decade.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Joss Whedon (Avengers: Age of Ultron) may be a cultural force of nature today, but in 1997 he had to struggle in order to get Buffy the Vampire Slayer onto television. A follow-up to the mostly forgotten movie of the same name, Buffy‘s first season is a strange beast in comparison to where it would eventually end up.
The fights tend to be poorly choreographed, the camerawork can get rather claustrophobic, and a serious whiff of cheese permeates the proceedings. Of course, nothing is inherently wrong with a little narrative cheddar – but the contrast between the pacing and tone of initial episodes (when compared with later seasons) is jarring.
While it would go on to be one of the most influential and well-loved science fiction properties of the ’90s, Babylon 5 was initially derided as something of a knockoff. Released right around the same time as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5 spent its first season somewhat clumsily trying to distinguish itself from the elder franchise.
Not only did it often suffer by comparison, Babylon 5‘s cast was a long way from settling into their roles – so much so that the cast structure was retooled in season 2 and nominal series lead Michael O’Hare (Law & Order) was replaced with Bruce Boxleitner (TRON: Legacy).
This entry feels like something of a cheat, because the 2005 “season 1” of Doctor Who was merely the revival of a series that had been a BBC staple since 1963. However, the modern Doctor Who returned a television icon to the airwaves after a 16-year absence – and the result is emblematic of so many awkward first seasons. Like other entries on this list, Doctor Who‘s inaugural episodes feel like an experimental run – as if showrunner Russell T. Davies (Torchwood) is dipping his toes in the water rather than jumping right in.
Full of divisive episodes and a neck-twisting amount of tonal whiplash, Doctor Who‘s first 13 episodes are a mixed bag, at best. Granted, Christopher Eccleston (Thor: The Dark World) seems more than game to adapt to the material, but the constant sway between wacky and maudlin does the usually stoic actor few favors.
For a period in the late ’90s, the weekly cases of Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) were absolutely mandatory television. This wasn’t immediately apparent, however.
Though they are hardly as scattershot and flailing as its final seasons, the first episodes of The X-Files can be fairly rough in retrospect. Still feeling out the relationship dynamic between its leads, season 1 of The X-Files plays fast and loose with characterization, sometimes showing off sides of its leads that were later abandoned. Perhaps more distressingly, season 1 features little of the spritely wit or full-on dread of the series’ truly great middle seasons. Indeed, there are few episodes from that first run that land on any “best of” lists.
The Walking Dead
Make no mistake: The Walking Dead has always been ratings dynamite. That said, the truncated first season of the series now plays very oddly – and not just because most of the characters have subsequently died in any number of horrible ways. After an admittedly crackerjack pilot, season 1 tends to feel more like a tentative experiment rather than a fully realized show.
Sleepy pacing, meandering digressions, shallow characterizations, heavy-handed foreshadowing, and a head-scratching finale all combine to create a narrative that fails to live up to the show’s open-ended premise. This isn’t to say that season 1 of The Walking Dead is horrible – just oddly unfocused for a run of only six episodes.
It took some time before American Dad was able to escape the shadow of its much more successful companion series, Family Guy. Indeed, early episodes ape Family Guy‘s style to the point that the show almost becomes something of – to borrow a video game term – a re-skin of the former series. Without much unique to call its own, American Dad bled viewers already growing jaded by Seth MacFarlane’s brand of animated vulgarity.
Fortunately, American Dad would eventually shuck off the storytelling conventions of Family Guy and move in a far more fantastical direction, embracing a world of alien empires and CIA shenanigans only vaguely hinted at during season 1.
The adventures of Sam and Dean Winchester – demon-hunters extraordinaire – had to go through some growing pains before they actually clicked with audiences.
Unlike later seasons’ sprawling story arcs and frightening recurrent villains, Supernatural‘s inaugural run is (mostly) made up of disconnected monster-of-the-week episodes. Moreover, the winning chemistry between series leads Jensen Ackles (Batman: Under the Red Hood) and Jared Padalecki (Friday the 13th) is only in its nascent stage in Supernatural‘s first season – meaning the series’ trademark breezy humor is in short supply. Clearly, it took a couple of seasons before Supernatural‘s writers and performers hit their stride.
The infamously acerbic King of Sitcoms had to work out more than a few kinks before it could reach the heights of “The Contest” and “The Chinese Restaurant” (the latter of which is often cited as the show’s first true moment of greatness).
If anything, Seinfeld‘s first season suffers because it plays like many other sitcoms from its era. During its run, we see little of the existentialist humor and absurd sight gags that came to define the series. Perhaps most importantly, Seinfeld is slow to completely embrace its central, driving premise: that these four New York semi-professionals might actually be really bad people. Without that, Seinfeld just doesn’t have the same bite.
If anything, these examples of all-time-great series with uncertain starts proves that television is an extremely tricky medium to produce. Casts must be brought together without having much of a feel for how they will interact onscreen. Scripts have to adapt to programming schedules, actor availability, budget concerns, and any long-term plans for the series – all of which can land at a moment’s notice.
Of course, our list is not meant to be all-inclusive, so be sure to share some of your favorite TV shows that struggled in season 1 in the comments below.