It’s okay for a TV show to take a little while to find its feet. Most viewers are happy to tolerate a slightly shaky start to a show if there’s potential for it to get better, or if they’ve heard that it picks up as it goes along. And in general, it seems easier for the majority of TV watchers to forgive an imperfect start to a show than it is for them to forgive a flawed ending.
When it comes to the following eight TV shows, all of them picked up significantly after their first season, and became classic shows as the writers got into the swing of things and the cast came to best understand their characters. It doesn’t mean all these shows had bad first seasons (some are very good in their own right, and were followed by even better seasons), but they all demonstrate that in the world of TV, sometimes slow and steady wins the race.
‘Breaking Bad’ (2008-2013)
Make no mistake: Breaking Bad did start pretty great, but without a doubt, it got even greater from its second season onwards. Walter White’s turn from a mild-mannered chemistry teacher to a violent, often sociopathic criminal kingpin made for compelling, intense television. Generally, the further Walter plummeted morally, the more intense and gripping the TV show became.
It was largely circumstances that were out of the writers’ hands that forced the first season to be the “worst” of Breaking Bads five seasons. The industry-wide writers’ strike of 2007-2008 caused the first season to be only half the length of the show’s other seasons, and it’s this shortened length that makes the first season feel a little more simplistic and anti-climactic than the show’s other four excellent seasons. It’s a lesser example in that regard, but it was still a show that went from good to great, between its first and second seasons.
‘BoJack Horseman’ (2014-2020)
BoJack Horseman started as a fairly silly comedy series. It could definitely be fun to watch, but a great deal of the humor came from constant animal puns and some fairly predictable (though sometimes still amusing) sitcom-style humor. Eventually, it became a surprisingly emotional character study/dramedy, with a range of notoriously devastating episodes, but for a good deal of its first season, it had very little drama.
By the end of the first season, there were a few more dramatic elements that started popping up. By season 2, things were more evenly split between comedy and drama. The characters deepened, the themes got heavier, and things just generally felt more “real.” Of course, the humor and silly animal-related puns remained, but there was a deep sadness to the show and its characters that made it – post-season 1 – so much more than just another animated sitcom.
‘The Wire’ (2002-2008)
The Wirelike Breaking Bad a few years later, is one of those great TV dramas that started as a superb TV show, but then somehow got even better. In The Wire’s case particularly, that really has to be emphasized, as the first season is still excellent television. But arguably, much of what comes afterward somehow manages to be even greater television.
The first season does throw the viewer straight into the deep end, with a ton of characters and storylines to keep track of. By the end of the first season, viewers should more or less have a handle on it all, and from there, things become more engrossing. The later seasons also have the benefit of expanding the scope of the show. While the first season mostly focuses on a squad of police officers and a single street gang, subsequent seasons add dockworkers, politicians, school students, additional gangs, and a group of journalists to the people and institutions covered, making it surprisingly epic television. Plus, the latter seasons increase Omar Little’s role in the show, and who doesn’t love Omar?
‘The Office’ (2005-2013)
The US version of The Office started off trying to all but remake the original UK version, just in an American setting. It really didn’t work, as the dry humor and bittersweet qualities, and cynicism of the UK version simply didn’t translate, and it makes the first season of The Office rough.
Thankfully, it’s a mercifully short season, at just six episodes. Come season 2, the show started to go off in a different direction from the UK version, and it became a funnier, more confident, and more enjoyable show to watch. Sure, the last couple of seasons get a little rough in spots again, but the vast majority of the episodes that follow the show’s initial, somewhat awkward season are significantly better.
‘Parks and Recreation’ (2009-2015)
ironically, Parks and Recreation was originally conceived as a spin-off of sorts to The Office. Like that show, it also had a short, fairly rough first season, where there were some ingredients for a good sitcom present, but something was just a bit off; the potential wasn’t realized.
Things got better in the full-length second season, with the cast seeming more confident, and the characters becoming more likable and funnier. Then, by the end of the second season, Rob Lowe and Adam Scott both entered the show, boosting its overall energy considerably, and allowing it to take off and further grow into a beloved sitcom by its third season (and onwards).
while Seinfeld grew into one of the most legendary sitcoms of all time, it had a shaky start, being on the brink of cancellation throughout its first couple of years on the air. The short, somewhat underwhelming first season might be a reason for this. The handful of episodes that make up that first season aren’t terrible, but they don’t come close to representing Seinfeld at its best.
Season 2 is an improvement, running for a dozen episodes as opposed to the five in the first season, and giving the show its first truly classic episode in “The Chinese Restaurant,” which is 23 minutes of the gang (minus Kramer) simply waiting for a table at a busy Chinese restaurant. And then by the time seasons 3 and 4 come around, the show never really looked back, growing into an example of near-perfect TV comedy.
‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (1997-2003)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer grew as a show alongside its characters, who start the show as high-schoolers and end it as adults. The first season runs about half the length of the other six seasons, and is overall more episodic. There is a single looming threat in the background, and some character development of course, but most of season 1’s episodes are standalone.
Once season 2 came around, the show became more confident with giving each season a prominent storyline. There were still one-off episodes, but the number of episodes that contributed to an overall season storyline became more frequent, in turn making Buffy the Vampire Slayer more compelling and more emotional. Also in the show’s favor: the budget picks up a little after season 1, and while the effects are never perfect throughout the show’s run, they’re definitely better from season 2 onwards.
M*A*S*H was, for its first season, a comedy that only occasionally got serious. In covering a group of army doctors working in the Korean War, it was initially a fairly straightforward comedy, with hints of drama and some more serious subplots occasionally to remind viewers that there was a war raging around the main characters.
But the writers behind the show realized the potential in blending more drama with the comedy, and after M*A*S*Hs first season, more dramatic elements begin to creep into the show. By the end of the third season – with its infamously shocking finale – the show’s status as a dramedy was sealed, and the mid to late seasons that split things evenly between comedy, drama, and war represent the classic 11-season long show at its best.
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