Streaming services have changed the way we consume content. Not having to rely on a broadcast schedule or cumbersome DVD box sets, you can watch TV on your time, whenever you want to. With ample time and tools to rewatch comfort shows over and over, it’s also never been easier to pick up an iconic show you may have missed out on during its original run. Watch out, though: even the best TV shows can have terrible seasons. And when you’re talking about long-running sitcoms with over 100 episodes, it’s almost certain that many of them will be dismal.
Nobody bats a thousand, especially in TV. Even the biggest moneymakers and fanbase shakers have episode clusters and story arcs that are completely forgettable (cough Game of Thrones). More often than not, a show’s first season is a dud in comparison to the rest, and the longer a show drags on the more likely its later seasons will also fall apart. Like the pilot, a sitcom’s first season has the rough task of introducing its characters and building a world the audience cares about while still packing in a significant amount of jokes. Tones often shift wildly in later seasons as the writers and cast start to find and hone the show’s voice and bring in new, more engaging characters and storylines. The final seasons tend to be the result of a show running out of steam, having no more interesting stories to tell and merely existing to collect a paycheck which offers nothing to the viewer.
While legendary, some of the most entertaining sitcoms have entirely skippable seasons. To make it easier to rewind the clock and dive into these shows, we’ve broken down when and where you should focus your attention. Do yourself a favor and Wikipedia around these seasons and dedicate your precious time solely to the essentials.
Available on Netflix
The Office is a dry satire on the mundanity of 9-5 office life in a middle-sized city. The show’s premiere was full of promises, riding the coattails of it’s British predecessor and Steve Carell’s newfound popularity. While hyped for the premiere, the first season was bad enough for me to write the show off for good. It was the season two episode “The Injury” that brought me back into what I, and many others, now consider one of the funniest American sitcoms ever made. The problem with season one is that it played too conservatively, its satire too subtle and its characters indistinguishable. When the humor is supposed to come from the relatability of boring office life, you have to elevate it somehow or else it’s just… well, boring. Once The Office started exaggerating and differentiating its character’s personalities, it really started to soar. While Dwight Schrute is the true standout of the show, Steve Carell’s Michael Scott was the main character and the glue that kept it together. Naturally the show fell apart after he left. They started reusing jokes and tragically ruined one of its greatest supporting characters, Mr. Andy Bernard, by making him too broad, too flat, and the new focus of the show, a burden his character was never meant to carry. Feel free to turn it off when you see Will Ferrell.
Available on Netflix
Parks and Recreation followed suit of its spiritual predecessor, The Office, in both storytelling style and early flaws: a boring first season that didn’t vary the actions or personalities of its talented cast. A common complaint early on was that Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope was a female, midwestern Michael Scott: dumb and the cause of all their problems. The show fixed that in the following seasons by showing Leslie as an eternally optimistic woman who is incredibly smart and passionate about her work and relationships, and that her failings and problems do not come from being bad at her job, but by assuming the best in people who don’t share her level of empathy. The city Pawnee is the Michael Scott of the show, not Knope, and it’s here where the show excels. The show started turning heads during season two’s “Hunting Trip” but it really hits its stride in season three when it introduces Adam Scott’s Ben Wyatt and loses the forgot-he-was-even-there Mark Brendanowitz. It does an excellent job of satirizing government bureaucracy and politician’s complacency and incompetence through the lens of a simple, small town parks department. While seasons three and four are some of the best crafted sitcom episodes, the show quickly fell off once the politics started leaving the Parks department. The show tries and fails to cast a wider political satire net a la Veep and still fit within its original premise. The jokes become lukewarm, the character arcs unfulfilling, and it almost completely forgets about some of its supporting characters, like the terminally overlooked Donna Meagle. Despite a 50-50 record, it’s still one of the greatest network sitcoms.
Available on Netflix
One of the more underrated sitcoms out there is That ‘70s Show. The network TV product was a rarity in that it featured a high school-aged cast that doesn’t rely on—and rarely ever goes into—classroom tropes. The show has little time for tired archetypes: the jock, the nerd, the cheerleader, the goth, etc. Despite not living through the ‘70s, the series is relatable for its down-to-Earth portrayal of suburban teens just hanging out in a pre-social media era. The jokes are sharp and plentiful, the acting incredible (young Mila Kunis steals the show), and the comradery palpable. Not every joke stands the test of time, as no show probably ever will completely, but the show’s real downfall lies in leading man Topher Grace’s departure. He was the glue in every way with his basement being the main setting for the show. No new characters fit the mold the show crafted and like many shows, the final seasons made it clear they were running out of ideas (for example: Jackie dating her third member of the main cast). Still, six solid seasons of TV is really more than anyone could ask for.
Available on Netflix
Sometimes, dead is better. Arrested Development for years had stayed at the top of everyone’s “cancelled too soon” lists, but the post-cancellation seasons are nothing to write home about (or here). Season four’s gimmick of viewing a singular plot through each character’s POV one-at-a-time became tedious and tiresome after a few episodes. The charm of the Bluth family wasn’t enough to keep your interest. Stick with the original run, stair car, chicken dancing, banana stand and all.
Available on Disney+, FXX
Three seems to be the magical number, the number of seasons it takes for a show to blossom. The Simpsons is one of the most popular shows across all genres, nations, and eras, a success story that’s produced over 30 seasons. However, more than half of those are drastically less funny than its golden era product. The show that perfectly mixed cartoonish absurdity and witty sight gags with quick one-liners and everyman satire both subtle and delightfully on-the-nose has become a shell of its former self. It’s been stretched too far, transforming itself into a giant dad joke. The first seasons are also skippable, almost primitive in both animation and story. For me, the show doesn’t start humming til season four but season three is a must-view for episodes like “Homer at Bat” and “Flaming Moe’s.” [And hey, let’s hear it for season two, which has some legit classics.—Ed.] While many Simpsons enthusiasts insist on stopping around season 10 or 12, 13 and 14 are solid enough for a rewatch, featuring such overlooked gems as “Jaws Wired Shut” and “Bart vs Lisa vs the Third Grade.” But anytime you see a member of the Simpsons family holding an iPod or a flatscreen TV falls off the wall, run away.
Available on Hulu
Futurama benefits from the years creator Matt Groening honed his skills on The Simpsons. Futurama was often slept on, being in the shadows of its more successful brother, but is equally impressive and entertaining with wonderful sight gags unburdened by a need to tether to reality, witty one-liners, and playful-yet-sharp parody. Like Arrested Development, this is a series that might have been better off cancelled. Its semi-comeback—three mini-movies that are now considered season five—fell completely flat and served as further proof that we really don’t need longform versions of our favorite shows, as the format routinely robs viewers of everything that made the show great. While the following two seasons created under Comedy Central were fun, they just don’t compare to the original with no individual episodes standing out. You don’t have to stop after season four, but know what you’re getting is decaf Futurama. And for your own good, absolutely skip “Jurassic Bark.”
Available on Amazon Prime
Now, if you want to go way, way back to shows you missed out on as a child—and want to understand where the hell all these memes came from—you can stream Spongebob Squarepants. A show I don’t think anyone expected to take off like it did, Spongebob is a fixture in the zeitgeist for a reason. It’s silly and stupid in the best ways a children’s cartoon, or even an adult one, should be, while injecting a fair bit of humor nuggets in there for the adults in the room. With many animated shows, you can usually detect the inevitable decline in quality once a feature film starts going into production or there’s a noticeably more glossy change in animation. Both happened with Spongebob. Stick to the first three seasons for the show’s best episodes.
Available on Hulu
Speaking of shows that took a while to find themselves: Seinfeld was barely recognizable as Seinfeld in its first, mercifully short season. The characters and the show’s unique rhythm start to solidify in the second season, but even with “The Chinese Restaurant” airing late that year—easily one of the show’s best episodes, and the one where Seinfeld really becomes Seinfeld—it still isn’t completely there. Season three starts one of the best and most important sitcom runs of all time, with season four being perhaps the greatest season of any live action sitcom ever. That’s the season where slight serialized elements come into play, in a way rarely seen from sitcoms at the time. Unfortunately the longer Seinfeld ran the more cartoonish and stereotypical its core characters became; once Larry David left after season seven, it became hard to watch. Although still capable of being hilarious, it stopped feeling fresh or unique, and grew content simply treading water.—Garrett Martin
Sitcoms that you can binge in whole, with no worries about a dip in quality: Cheers, The Bob Newhart Show, King of the Hill, The Good Place
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.