A Short History Of Classic Shows That Took Time To Get Good

Senior Television Writer
07.10.17 26 Comments

WB/AMC/NBC

As companion to my essay about how much harder it is to be patient with shows that people insist only get good after X number of episodes, I picked out 10 completed classics and 5 current shows that required varying degrees of patience to get to the best parts:

10 Past Shows That Got Better

NBC

Parks and Recreation (NBC)

What was wrong at first: Leslie Knope seemed delusional and sad, the supporting characters seemed too mean, and the show as a whole felt like a watered-down copy of The Office.

It got better at: The first season finale, “Rock Show,” when Leslie and the others started to feel more human, and the other characters started to act intimidated by her, rather than disdainful. She didn’t change much, but their response to her changed everything, and Parks became one of TV’s greatest comedies as a result.

Should you watch the earlier stuff?: It’s useful to get to know the characters, and it’s only 5 half-hour episodes, so go for it.

WB

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB/UPN)

What was wrong at first: Lots of early stumbles in Joss Whedon’s first stint as showrunner, as he tried to figure out how to make his “monsters as metaphors” formula work every week without seeming silly, how to coax big league performances out of several inexperienced actors (David Boreanaz in particular is terrible at the beginning; it’s amazing he developed enough to carry two different series and counting), work within the microscopic budget he was given, etc.

It got better at: The first season finale, “Prophecy Girl,” was as self-assured and smart as much of what Whedon has done later on huger stages, with vastly more dollars at his fingertips. And that led into seasons two and three, which are pretty much perfect.

Should you watch the earlier stuff?: There’s only one outright bad episode — “I, Robot… You, Jane,” about a demon on the internet — and Whedon’s gift for banter is there from the start, so it’s not a tough watch. But you could very easily just hit the pilot, “Prophecy Girl,” and maybe “Witch” in between and move straight onto season two.

HBO

The Wire (HBO)

What was wrong at first: In this case, “wrong” could probably be translated as “different.” The Wire was the first — and still best — show to abandon the traditional episodic storytelling model in favor of something more like a book or film. That meant that everything was intensely serialized, but also that you were expected to absorb large chunks of information — including the names and functions of several dozen important characters played by unfamiliar actors — and hang onto it as the story kept growing and changing. The pilot’s deeply unsatisfying on its own, not because it’s bad, but because it exists solely to set things up that become much more satisfying later.

It got better at: Less “better” than “more understandable,” which happens circa the fourth episode, which is just enough time to understand who all the key players are and exactly what the stakes are. From there, if you’re in, you’re in forever.

Should you watch the earlier stuff?: Yes. The show is gibberish if you try to skip any of it. To quote Lester Freamon, all the pieces matter.

Paramount

Star Trek: The Next Generation (Syndicated)

What was wrong at first: The first live-action Star Trek spin-off was a mess at the start: characters who could be charitably described as two-dimensional, stories that the cast still make fun of to this day, and too heavy an editorial hand from Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (who was strongly against conflict between the regular characters), among many other problems. Without the connection to the original series, it would have been gone and forgotten quickly.

It got better at: An easy way to gauge if a rerun you’ve stumbled across is safe to sample is to look at the uniforms. If they’re the one-piece Spandex jumpsuits of the first two seasons, best to stay away. If Picard has to pull down his tunic every time he stands up from the captain’s chair, you’re in season three or later, and your odds are much higher of seeing something good, since Roddenberry had taken a step back and the other writers had developed a much better sense of what made the characters, and this version of the Enterprise, tick. It was never perfect, but if you jump in around season three’s “Déjà Q” and stay a while, you’re in for some great sci-fi — and franchise-best acting from Sir Patrick Stewart.

Should you watch the earlier stuff?: There are some notably good (and important to future developments) episodes in the second season, particularly “The Measure of a Man” and “Q Who” (which introduces the Borg, the most famous modern Trek villains), but if you want to skip from the pilot (to learn the characters, and because it becomes important much later) to season three, you’re safe.

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