It’s that time of year when the new crop of fall TV shows feels the swift, cold hand of Network Darwinism. TV execs examine the ratings of pilots and initial episodes and start giving the axe to poorly performing shows that barely got a chance. Some shows make it a full season before getting chopped, but some only live to see a few short weeks. ABC recently cut Lucky 7 after only two episodes. Two episodes! In Walking Dead time, that’s hardly even long enough to make a long, drawn-out run for supplies.
But it may be unfair to judge shows before they’ve even had a chance to find their footings. After all, there have been lots of terrific, long-running shows with lackluster first seasons. Here are 12 shows that had rough starts but ended up righting their ships.
The writers of Friends clearly had their character types established going into the show: Chandler was the funny one, Phoebe was the hippie, and Ross was the wet blanket WHO RUINED EVERYTHING, SERIOUSLY ROSS WHY DO THESE PEOPLE HANG OUT WITH YOU? But they didn’t yet understand how to make the characters interact with one another. After the first season, relationships became more seamless until eventually, they got a little too comfortable and the show got incestuous and gross.
While not nearly as rough as its unwatchable beginnings on The Tracey Ullman Show, The Simpsons’ first season lacked a certain something. The animation was crude, the voices were gruffer, and yes, Smithers was black. While the first season’s episodes were well-written, they relied too heavily on Bart’s catchphrases like “Don’t have a cow, man” and “Eat my shorts.” But the main thing the early episodes lacked was the quick-witted humor, textured comedy, and heartfelt middle-class family sentimentality that would become that would become the show’s trademark quality. The Simpsons started to hit its stride by the second season and by the third, it was off and running as an unparalleled benchmark of TV comedy greatness. Tragically, the show ended in the year 2000 and no lackluster episodes that would besmirch the series’ legacy were ever aired after that. …That’s what the diehard fans choose to believe anyway. In actuality, even creator Matt Groening recently admitted that he doesn’t watch the show anymore and hinted that it should end soon. Despite the criticism, the show was just picked up by FOX for a ridiculously unnecessary 26th season. Ay carumba.
With only three seasons under its belt, Workaholics is the shortest-running show of this list but arguably the one that saw the most drastic improvement. The show’s premise was nothing out of the ordinary: slackers who hated their office jobs. So the first season wasn’t anything people hadn’t seen before in Office Space or The Office. But by the second and third seasons, Workaholics started experimenting and things got weird. Really weird. Cyborg fantasies starring Tom Green and doing LSD with your boss in a hotel room weird. But it took almost that whole first season for the show to craft its unique, identity, while still somehow being completely stoned.
In 1989, Seinfeld, the most celebrated sitcom of all time, was picked up for the smallest sitcom order in TV history: Four episodes. And it’s amazing it even got that many. Originally titled, The Seinfeld Chronicles, the show tested terribly with focus groups who felt it was “too New York” and “too Jewish.” Anti-semitic critiques aside, the show also lacked its famous bassy theme song and a character you may remember named Elaine Benes. The show’s original female cast member was a waitress at Pete’s Luncheonette (not Monk’s Cafe, mind you) named Claire. The character was rumored to have been dropped after the actress playing her made some unwelcome suggestions about the show to Larry David. And can’t you just see David getting upset over that? And while Kramer was a main character in the pilot, he was originally named Kessler and seemed to be agoraphobic. (Jerry mentioned that he had not left the apartment building in 10 years.) Also, Kessler owned a dog named Ralph who was never seen again. Poor Ralph.