In August, AMC’s tech drama Halt & Catch Fire officially tied the bow on its sophomore season. In covering the series for Paste, one of the unexpected pleasures has been observing how the show effectively course-corrected many of its biggest storytelling issues from Season One. In a market replete with TV programs of all shapes and sizes, it’s becoming increasingly rare for a struggling freshman show to get anything approaching a second chance once audiences tune out upon finding fault in either its premise or execution. As a result, a tragic amount of promising shows are never given the chance to reach their full potential.
In celebration of Halt’s impressive second-year turnaround, we take a look at some of TV’s best and most notable late bloomers. Whether it took a handful of episodes or entire seasons, these are the TV programs that had the ingenuity to locate and address their problematic areas, thus evolving into the shows their fans know and love.
“If you want to see a great pilot, watch the first episode of Cheers,” Tina Fey writes in her memoir Bossypants. “If you want to see an awkward, sweaty pilot episode, watch 30 Rock. I will not be joining you because I never want to watch that mess again.” Indeed, the 30 Rock pilot, as well as much of that initial season’s first half, finds Fey and Co. in a desperate scramble to find their footing and figure out what kind of show they want to make. With the notable exception of Alec Baldwin’s scene-stealing Jack Donaghy, however, most of the early storylines come across as a bit half-hearted, as if the writers were throwing various plots against the wall to see what would stick.
Fix: If the past decade has taught us nothing, it’s that Tina Fey is one of the sharpest comedic minds working today. Unfortunately, 30 Rock emerged at a turbulent time for the actress/writer (she had just given birth to her first child and was transitioning from her job at Saturday Night Live). Once Fey and her team found their bearings, however, it was only a matter of time before the show lived up to its promise, developing into one of the most tightly written, exhaustingly clever sitcoms of the 2000s. A big part of this involves an early creative decision to move the show away from being a semi-grounded take on the backstage machinations of a sketch program. Instead, the series embraced a more cartoonish sensibility that felt akin to a live-action version of The Muppet Show, complete with outrageous sight gags and nonstop meta digs at the program’s parent company. As Liz Lemon would no doubt say, “suck it, nerds!”
Today, Blackadder stands as one of the crowning achievements in British television—a rip-roaring period comedy combining smart, biting satire with the kind of absurdist farce that would have made the members of Monty Python green with envy. Over the course of four seasons, the show made a star out of both its leading man/co-creator Rowan Atkinson and head writer Richard Curtis (he of Notting Hill and Love Actually fame). So, how to explain that first year?
Now, to be clear, the program’s inaugural batch of episodes—which finds Atkinson’s bumbling Edmund unexpectedly thrust into a political power struggle after he inadvertently kills King Richard III—is not bad by any stretch, but it certainly pales in comparison to the show’s near-perfect other seasons. Much of this, unfortunately, can be tied to the creative team’s initial burst of ambition. Boasting a large cast and an even larger budget, a good portion of the scenes were shot on-location with the writers incorporating Shakespearean dialect into the script. Production proved to be a good deal of moving pieces and, frankly, you can see the resulting flop sweat. Many of the jokes fall flat and Atkinson’s Edmund character, whose subsequent incarnations became beloved for their pompous nature and ineffectual power grabs, just comes across as unlikable and genuinely unpleasant here.
The Fix: Sometimes less really is more. After some debate, the BBC authorized a second season but only after significantly slicing the budget. As a result, subsequent seasons found the cast and crew mostly confined to sets. This ultimately proved to be a great boon for the show as it allowed the actors and creative team to focus on crafting great comedy instead of being overwhelmed by shooting logistics. Moreover, Atkinson ceded his official writing duties to Ben Elton, whose background in the anarchic sitcom The Young Ones gave the series a needed burst of energy. The rest is history.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Perhaps appropriate given its titular teenage character, Buffy the Vampire Slayer experienced a period of major growing pains during its inaugural year. And while creator/showrunner Joss Whedon’s central conceit of literalizing universal high school experiences via dangerous monster was certainly a sound creative choice, the show had several major barriers to entry—namely, the baggage of its campy feature film forbearer, shoddy makeup effects, clumsy action and acting so wooden that our hero could probably impale a vamp’s heart with it (sorry, Season One David Boreanaz). And let’s not forget “I Robot…You Jane,” one of the most hilariously misguided takes on that early “Internet craze.”
The Fix: Really, much of Buffy’s abrupt rise in quality can be attributed to the fact that its creator was a fast learner. In Alan Sepinwall’s book The Revolution Was Televised, Whedon’s colleagues speak in glowing terms about how he was able to effortlessly adapt to his job, pinpointing and emphasizing the best elements of the show whilst smoothing out the rough edges in the process. When it came time for Season Two, Whedon put all he’d learned into practice, resulting in more compelling storylines, memorable villains, camerawork that doesn’t look as though it’s being shot through sunglasses and some of the most quotable dialogue in TV history.
As a self-proclaimed Whovian, I know this is going to get me in a bit of trouble. To clarify, the first installment of An Unearthly Child (and thereby the first ever episode of Doctor Who) still holds up as a beautifully atmospheric bit of ‘60s sci-fi. Then, the time-traveling Doctor and his companions arrive in cavemen times and it suddenly becomes very apparent how much our collective attention spans have changed in 50 years. Indeed, the plodding pacing and cheap effects that characterize these early installments make the show hard to truly invest in—even with historical context in mind. Not to mention, William Hartnell’s Doctor spends a good portion of the initial episodes acting like a grouchy, surly ol’ cuss.
The Fix: Whatever your tolerance for older, slow-moving sci-fi programs, the first few seasons of Doctor Who can be a challenging voyage. That being said, it can also a rewarding one, as the show offers prime examples of how a series can bypass budgetary and technical limitations so long as there’s a great, inventive story at the core. As the series developed, Who’s creative team chose to put its focus on crafting thrilling, suspenseful space adventures as opposed to delivering sugar-coated educational content as originally intended. And though The First Doctor never completely lost his crustiness, Hartnell and the writers later injected the Timelord with a sense of good-hearted levity that made him a hit with his young audience. By the time actor Patrick Troughton replaced Hartnell as the newly regenerated Doctor, it became clear that the show had become something much bigger than a cheap children’s program.
Before it became the channel’s flagship program, NBC’s The Office stood as little more than a curious oddity. A remake of the critically lauded British series of the same name, the show premiered to no shortage of skepticism. The first few episodes did little to alleviate this scrutiny, with the pilot serving as a carbon-copy of the British program’s first episode. What’s more, though history has shown that Steve Carell is a fantastic actor, it soon become clear that it would be impossible for him to convincingly embody the more caustic tendencies of original Office star Ricky Gervais.
Fix: Whereas the NBC version certainly didn’t shy away from depicting Carell’s Michael Scott as an insensitive jerk, the creative team also made the wise decision to lean into the show’s more emotionally rich elements, whether it be Michael’s increasingly desperate attempts to make people like him or Jim and Pam’s love-lorn exchanges. Though the series would reach an artistic plateau in its later years, The Office’s second and third season stand as the rare occasion when one of the most-watched shows on TV was also one of the best.
Parks and Recreation
The town of Pawnee, Indiana was not the only thing in need of major reform during Parks and Recreation’s first few hours on the air. Viewed by many as some kind of semi-Office spin-off, the show’s middling pacing and reliance on cringe humor drew unfavorable comparison to its “brother” program. Perhaps most hurtful for co-creator Michael Schur, however, was the fact that many viewers saw optimistic heroine Leslie Knope as little more than a female version of Michael Scott. Also, Ron Swanson was wearing a suit. That’s just wrong.
The Fix: Schur and Amy Poehler have readily acknowledged that Parks’ first season was a bit of a rough draft, whose production schedule was complicated by Poehler’s pregnancy. Upon approaching Season Two, Schur says he decided to pivot the show’s dynamic—not necessarily by changing Leslie Knope but by altering how other characters reacted to her. Suddenly, instead of simply being annoyed by her relentless go-getter nature, Leslie’s office mates demonstrated a begrudging respect for their boss (this also led to Jerry standing in for Leslie as the department’s punching bag). The creative team also began taking advantage of their show’s widened scope by creating an expansive, Simpsons-esque small town filled with colorful residents—a stark contrast to the insular sameness that had begun to hamper The Office.
A classic staple of American pop culture, The Simpsons began life as a reasonably edgy, crudely animated family sitcom on a burgeoning channel called Fox. These early episodes suffer not necessarily from a lack of quality but more from the burden of expectations. If a Simpsons neophyte were to watch several of the show’s first season episodes, for instance, they would no doubt quickly wonder what all the fuss was about. Between their stocky visuals, a more lax pace and somewhat understated humor, these entries simply lack the zest and dazzlingly layered writing that would come to define the show.
The Fix: While I’m not well-versed enough in behind-the-scenes Simpsons lore to know the specifics of its creative uptake, I can still point out the obviously—namely, that the show’s writers and animators had spent a good couple of years perfecting a production process and feeling out the world of Springfield. By Season Three, all the kinks appeared to be worked out and the writers seemed able to embrace a zippier pacing. As such, production became a nonstop barrage of classic episodes.
What started as a slapdash little experiment in shock value that made early Simpsons episodes look like Hayao Miyazaki in comparison has, over the past 18 or so years, become an undeniable cultural and political phenomenon. Again, like the Simpsons, you don’t get that sense from South Park’s first entries. That’s not to say the episodes aren’t funny—a sentient piece of poop and Mecha-Streisand can never not be funny—but viewers could be forgiven for thinking that the show would quickly run out of content and burn out sooner rather than later.
The Fix: This is not so much a “fix” as adding on to what was already there. While the show retained its gleefully crude tendencies, Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Co. begin using more and more topical events as launching pads for their crass sitcom. In doing so, they did more to expose societal hypocrisies than any number of politicians, articles, books or cable pundits. Though this led some to dub the show as overly preachy, the duo’s newly mature approach also elevated it to another level of scrutiny. The troublesome punk kids had suddenly became Class Presidents. As such, people were listening to them. The result was surreal but awesome nonetheless.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Next Generation had the unfortunate burden of carrying on the legacy of the original Star Trek, a series whose cancellation basically gave birth to modern TV fandom. Trekkies are nothing if not a discerning bunch and, for its first few years, Jean-Luc Picard and his crew did little to earn their notoriously fickle love. Incidentally, a big part of the show’s problem may very well have stemmed from its reverence to the original series. With the exception of a few key episodes, Next Generation suffered from lethargic pacing, and the sort of heavy handed plotlines that characterized its 1960s brethren. Not helping matters is Jonathan Frakes’ goatee-less face and the character of Wesley Crusher who—sorry Wil Wheaton—really is the worst.
The Fix: To paraphrase Fleetwood Mac, the creative team needed to go their own way. After two seasons of varying quality, the show suddenly hit a stride in its third year with the addition of the late great Michael Piller and future Battlestar Galactica helmer Ronald D. Moore. More and more, episodes took on the stylings of a Horatio Hornblower adventure yarn. The franchise’s signature cerebral elements were still there, of course, but the series’ writers and directors suddenly felt more assured and confident in endowing their story with a more experimental, daring spirit (see the exceptional Season Three finale) as well as a healthy dosage of good old-fashioned action.
There was a time circa 2010/2011 where Vampire Diaries stood as one of the best dramas on network TV. For anyone who sat through the first part of the show’s chaotic first season, this notion would be nothing short of laughable. Initially pegged as the CW’s attempt to ape the success of the Twilight franchise, the series at first appeared to be exactly that. A troubled young girl in a sleepy town finds herself falling in love with a hunky loner who turns out to be a century-old vampire. Cue stilted, lovey-dovey dialogue, painful instances of middle-aged writers trying to sound like hip teenagers and endless sequences of the central character writing her flowery thoughts into that titular diary.
Fix: At a certain point in their first season, the writers decided to take a strategy best exemplified by The O.C.—throw in everything but the kitchen sink, then go ahead and toss the actual kitchen sink. As the series’ mythology grew, the twist and turns grew more shocking, moving the story into darker and darker territory. Granted, the writers could only keep up this momentum so long before they hit “burn out” levels, but—for a good two-and-a-half years, this was the unexpected show that made the CW a force to be reckoned with.