In the era of Peak TV, audiences have never had shorter attention spans when it comes to new shows. For many people, there’s simply too many great TV shows available to stick with a show that struggles in its first season.
That’s a shame, because many of the greatest shows in TV history have had underwhelming debut seasons. When making traditional television, the first year of a show is almost always something of a test run, the show’s writers and actors trying to get a handle on the show’s worldview and aesthetic. Thematically ambitious shows often have the hardest time with this, as they try to marry practical, technical hardships with more creative ones.
And while modern audiences are reluctant to stick with struggling shows, the dawn of the streaming age has made it easier than ever to binge and catch up when they find out something has turned the corner creatively. This new paradigm has made it increasingly difficult for networks to know when it’s time to pull the plug on a show; it might actually be worth enduring a rocky first season if they can eventually sell five good seasons to Netflix. Most of these shows existed before the days of streaming, and had to overcome much longer odds to transform into the great shows they would eventually become.
These are the 15 Worst First Seasons Of Amazing TV Shows.
It’s fairly clear what Fox’s expectations were for Fringe when it debuted: a new, massively accessible version of The X-Files. Produced by Hollywood heavyweights J. J. Abrams, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman, it was a big, flashy procedural with an impressive cast and movie worthy production values. It was also pretty boring, more of a rehash of The X-Files than an homage.
The show eventually found its identity when it dug deeper into its own mythology and fully embraced serialized storytelling, exploring the ideas of alternate timelines and parallel universes. Sadly, as the show got more interesting, Fox increasingly lost faith in it, shunting it into fatal timeslots and always leaving it on the precipice of cancellation.
Friends is a bit of a curious case among the entries on this list. It was an instant sensation; a massive hit for NBC that anchored their immortal Thursday night lineup in the ’90s along with Seinfeld and ER. The inherent charms of its cast were on display pretty much right from the start.
And yet that first season is largely unrecognizable from everything that came after. It relied heavily on the “will they/won’t they” chemistry between Ross and Rachel, which was never going to be a longterm solution to sustaining a story.
The show would go on to chronicle the more realistic, volatile relationship between Ross and Rachel, as well as greatly improve the way it portrayed the show’s other cast members, making them among the most three dimensional, well defined sitcom characters ever.
13. Star Trek: The Next Generation
Star Trek: The Next Generation was supposed to fail. At the time, the notion of a Star Trek show without Kirk and Spock was generally considered a suicide mission. Series star Patrick Stewart famously said he was so sure the show would be canceled that he lived out of a suitcase for the first several months of production.
The show’s early quality did nothing to allay his fears. The first season of TNG was famously troubled, with franchise creator Gene Roddenberry battling behind the scenes with the show’s producers as they struggled to find an identity for the series and its characters. The first season’s stories ran the gamut from innocuously dumb to wildly racist. The characters made little sense from episode to episode. It was a disaster, and it largely continued through the show’s second year.
Roddenberry’s influence was eventually minimized as producers Rick Berman and Michael Piller took firmer control of the series in its third season, which is the point when it became the classic show that so many people cherish. The irony that Star Trek had to essentially jettison its creator to thrive is not lost on the franchise’s fans.
12. The Simpsons
The Simpsons is, of course, one of the greatest television shows of all time; its influence unavoidable in virtually all of modern pop culture. The first decade of the show’s ongoing run – it recently started season 29 – is generally held up as one of the greatest achievements in entertainment history.
However, including the show’s debut season in that run of greatness is a bit disingenuous. The show’s razor ship wit was still a year or two away, relying instead on more traditionally cartoonish plotting and characterization, only slightly edgier than the average sitcom of that era. The iconic voice cast was largely in place, but they sounded off; Dan Castellaneta’s Homer still sounded like a poor man’s Walter Matthau. The first season infamously suffered through production headaches, forced to endure sloppier animation than they felt comfortable with.
Angel was always going to be perceived by a lot of people as the less vital spinoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and for most of its first season it lived up to that expectation. David Boreanaz’s titular vampire was too one-dimensionally brooding to carry a show, and supporting characters like fellow Buffy alum Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) and newcomer Doyle (Glenn Quinn) simply weren’t enough to fill out the show’s ensemble.
Things would get better in the back half of that inaugural season, as Wesley Wyndham-Pryce (Alexis Denisof) joined the cast and Angel himself started to loosen up. By the time Charles Gunn and Fred Burkle joined the cast in later years and the show streamlined its storytelling themes, there were more than a few arguments being made that Angel had actually surpassed Buffy.
10. Legends of Tomorrow
The third DC superhero show on the CW had a rocky liftoff. The seeds for the time travel series were planted in earlier episodes of The Flash and Arrow, introducing the majority of Legends of Tomorrow‘s cast as supporting characters in other corners of the Arrowverse. This had the unfortunate side effect of making the crew of the Waverider feel like a random grab bag of second-stringers.
Some of the characters simply didn’t work: the soap opera drama of Hawkman and Hawkgirl dragged the show down, and Vandal Savage was among the most disappointing villains in the Arrowverse. The series’ time travel rules seemed to change on an episode by episode basis.
But the show pulled off a major turnaround in its second season, discarding both the Hawks and Savage. The Legion of Doom were a gigantic step up in the villain department, both menacing and highly entertaining. The show even leaned into its biggest weakness, embracing the nonsensical nature of its spin on time travel, discarding hard science fiction rules in the name of gonzo shenanigans.
9. The Office
It’s difficult to remember now, but when it was announced NBC would be adapting Ricky Gervais’ cult U.K. phenomenon The Office for stateside audiences, virtually everyone thought it was an awful, doomed idea. The show’s first few episodes seemed to back up those doubts; the show awkwardly reused plots from the U.K. version and struggled to find its own identity. The cast seemed apprehensive, and Steve Carell’s Michael Scott was so deeply unlikable it seemed impossible he could conceivably headline an American sitcom for any stretch of time.
The show eventually figured itself out, slightly softening Michael and leaning into the charms of its considerable cast, particularly the “will they/won’t they” chemistry between Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) and Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer). That relationship would become the show’s beating heart, making the cringe-worthy humor and Michael’s bad behavior more tolerable.
Seinfeld almost never happened. A pilot called The Seinfeld Chronicles was created for NBC, who thought it was lousy and rejected it. However, NBC executive Rick Ludwin saw something in the pilot seemingly no one else did, and granted the show four more episodes for its initial season.
Even in its earliest days, Seinfeld was unlike any other sitcom on television, but its acidic, cynical wit was still not quite there yet, and its iconic characters were not particularly well defined, coasting on the cast’s talent more than the writing. The show managed to earn a second season by the skin of its teeth, and quickly began to find its signature voice and integrate the brilliant writing of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David with one of the best casts in the history of television.
7. The Leftovers
The Leftovers, writer/producer Damon Lindelof’s followup to Lost, was a dark, sorrowful meditation on loss and depression, telling the story of a world where 2% of the planet’s population disappears with no explanation.
In the show’s first season, the Sudden Departure is still an open wound, destroying families and wrecking some of the basic tenets of society, as the world starts to lean dangerously in the direction of nihilism. This is best encapsulated in the show’s two leads, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and Nora Durst (Carrie Coon), whose lives were ruined by the Sudden Departure in completely different ways.
The first season was critically polarizing, with some applauding its stark exploration of such dark themes, and many others decrying it for simply being too depressing. The show would win over virtually all of its detractors in its second and third seasons, when it found a dark sense of humor in its embrace of its inherent absurdism, and became one of the most emotionally affecting shows on television.
6. Halt and Catch Fire
Halt and Catch Fire’s first season was a fairly bald-faced attempt at making a version of Mad Men set in the 1980s. Lee Pace’s Joe MacMillan was presented as the mysterious, brilliant, “complicated man” archetype that found its apotheosis in Don Draper, mining the earliest days of home computing for personal fulfillment. It was heavy-handed and not particularly original, but the show had an unquestionable strength in its ensemble cast.
By the end of the first season, the show was leaning much harder on the idea of Joe, Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), and Donna Clark (Kerry Bishe) serving as a four-headed protagonist.
The show would hit a new, unexpected gear in its second season, which reframed Joe as, for all intents and purposes, the show’s antagonist, pitting him against Cameron and Donna, with Gordon caught in the middle. The show would essentially reshuffle the drama of that quartet every season, and its made for one of the most compelling (and criminally underwatched) dramas of the last decade.
Justified’s first season was not exactly terrible; it just in no way signaled the all time great series it would become. Initially presented as a high-end procedural starring Timothy Olyphant as Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens, the show delved into Raylan’s personal life as he confronts crime in the Kentucky hometown he long ago abandoned. That probably would have been a perfectly serviceable show, but something unexpected started brewing as early as during production of the show’s pilot: Boyd Crowder.
A friend of Raylan’s from his youth, Boyd was intended to be a one-off character, a white supremacist bank robber slated to die at the end of the pilot. The pilot was hastily re-edited so that Boyd survived. The show’s producers realizing they’d stumbled onto something special in Walton Goggins’ dynamic, wild eyed performance.
4. Parks & Recreation
Staffed with plenty of The Office veterans, Parks & Recreation made essentially the same mistakes as that other NBC mockumentary sitcom. In its first year, the show couldn’t quite crack the code on its tone, which felt weirdly cold and hostile. Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope was basically a crazy person, terrorizing her coworkers and pushing herself on people who were uninterested in her help. It was critically derided and little watched. It’s a minor miracle NBC renewed it for a second year.
But oh, how lucky we are that they did. The show almost immediately corrected itself, retooling Leslie into a much more sympathetic character who was very easy to root for. Most crucially, it figured out how to utilize its incredibly talented supporting cast, including Nick Offerman’s iconically rugged Ron Swanson, Aubrey Plaza’s dark weirdo April Ludgate, and Chris Pratt’s human Labrador Andy Dwyer.
3. American Dad!
When American Dad! debuted in 2005, it was impossible not to compare it to co-creator Seth MacFarlane’s other, more popular Fox animated sitcom, Family Guy. During its inaugural season, the comparisons weren’t kind.
American Dad! was something of an uneasy hybrid between the social/generational gap commentary of All in the Family and the lower-brow hijinks of Peter Griffin and company. It also felt like the famously liberal MacFarlane venting against George W. Bush era conservatism, making family patriarch Stan Smith a tone deaf, oafish neocon.
The show would find its footing in later seasons when it abandoned those stale sitcom tropes to indulge in much weirder, much more experimental storytelling avenues. Roger, the eccentric alien who lives in the Smiths’ attic, ended up becoming one of the strangest, most fascinating characters, enabling the show’s writers to take detours into absurdist territory rarely seen on network television, let alone on an animated sitcom.
2. The Good Wife
The Good Wife seemed like a perfectly acceptable CBS procedural when it debuted in 2009; a competently acted, unremarkable courtroom drama that would serve as ideal background noise for old people like much of its CBS brethren. The cast was slightly above the usual network procedural fare – featuring ER’s Julianna Margulies in the title role as Alicia Florrick, Chris Noth as her disgraced politician husband Peter Florrick, and Josh Charles as the charming, bad boy lawyer Will Gardner – but there was nothing in that first season that promised anything particularly unique.
But something happened as the series progressed. The direction and score became much more cinematic, the plotlines abandoned the case of the week format to tell serialized, compellingly personal stories, and the show took shocking risks that simply don’t happen on network television. That this all emerged from a vanilla lawyer procedural is a minor miracle.
1. Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad’s slow start is part of the show’s mythology at this point. The series’ first season consisted of only seven episodes, cut short by a writers strike. After introducing us to the personal plight of Walter White in its break-neck pilot episode, the show’s pace slowed to a crawl, pulling back on some of the pilot’s dark thrills in an effort to give greater context to Walter and his world.
This was incredibly frustrating for audiences at the time, but would eventually prove to be a deft creative choice; the slower, quieter first season was essentially a prologue, giving the audience a glimpse of the end of Walter White’s normal life, and the birth of his new life as the drug kingpin known as Heisenberg.
The slow burn only made the show’s eventual narrative fireworks much more satisfying. The late, great Tom Petty once said the waiting is the hardest part. With Breaking Bad, the wait was worth it.
Are there other amazing shows that got off to rough starts? Let us know in the comments!
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