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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cougar Town (ABC/TBS)
What was wrong at first: The premise and title were one and the same: lots of stories about single mom Courtney Cox dating hot young guys, and how embarrassing that could be.
It got better at: Cox dumped her young boyfriend in the sixth episode, and starting with the next one, Cougar Town became a sweet and funny, low-concept hang-out comedy that just stepped back and let a bunch of funny people be funny together.
Should you watch the earlier stuff?: No need whatsoever. Just go straight to the seventh episode, “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”
Breaking Bad (AMC)
What was wrong at first: Like The Wire, this was a show with a different — and much slower — storytelling model than the audience was used to. But there were also genuine flaws that needed to be corrected over time, particularly in the writing of all the characters who weren’t Walter White, and the writers finding the proper balance between thoroughly telling the story and dragging parts of it out.
It got better at: A Writers Guild strike prematurely ended production of the first season, and when Breaking Bad returned a year later, it was already well on its way to being an all-time classic, as characters like Jesse, Hank, and Skyler all become deeper and more complex, and as the overall arc had greater urgency even when things were moving slowly.
Should you watch the earlier stuff?: Yes. The pilot’s one of the best ever made, and if there are some stumbles after that, all of it is crucial to properly appreciating the slow-motion tragedy of Walt’s rise through the drug trade.
What was wrong at first: Just lots of trial-and-error for a comedy unlike any TV had seen before: Elaine wasn’t even in the pilot, George and Kramer took a while to become the characters we know, the writers needed time to realize all the stories should converge at the end, etc.
It got better at: There’s scattered genius throughout season two — particularly in the low-concept “The Chinese Restaurant,” which is just a half-hour of Jerry and friends waiting for a table for dinner — but season three is when it really starts turning into the Seinfeld we know and love.
Should you watch the earlier stuff?: Maybe skip the abbreviated first season — other than “The Stake Out,” which introduces George’s alter ego Art Vandelay — but by season two, it’s funny enough, often enough, to be worth the time.
The Simpsons (Fox)
What was wrong at first: Even the greatest TV show ever made had a learning curve, and the first season is at times unrecognizable from the show it would become: Bart is the main character, Homer sounds like Walter Matthau, the scope is much smaller, etc.
It got better at: There’s a significant jump up in quality for the second season, which has some incredible episodes like “Lisa’s Substitute” and “The Way We Was.” But it’s really at the start of the third season that The Simpsons enters its golden satirical period that no other comedy has come close to touching.
Should you watch the earlier stuff?: Yes. Even that primitive version of the show where most of the characters looked and sounded different was still remarkable; it just suffers in comparison to what would come soon after.
What was wrong at first: Not enough Boyd Crowder, mainly. After a great pilot episode bringing gunslinger Raylan Givens from page to screen, Justified meandered for a lot of its first season, trying to exist as a high-class procedural in part because Walton Goggins was off filming a movie.
It got better at: A lot of the earlier standalones were very good (“Long in the Tooth” in particular), but Justified started to really become Justified around the time of the 10th episode “The Hammer,” where Raylan stepped up his focus on the Crowder family.
Should you watch the earlier stuff?: There are a few skippable episodes (“Riverbrook,” “Fixer,” “The Collection”), but a lot of it’s useful to establishing Raylan’s relationship with his ex-wife, Boyd, the other Marshals, his father, and his own temper. And it’s very entertaining — just not quite there yet.
The Leftovers (HBO)
What was wrong at first: Depends on your definition of “wrong,” since the gut-wrenching first season was still my favorite show of that year. But even Leftovers boss Damon Lindelof admits the show was too dark, too humorless, and too aimless in its storytelling.
It got better at: Season two opens with a cavewoman. Several, actually. And that’s just the start of one of the most amazing two-season runs TV has ever seen, where the emotional intensity of that first year was combined with more audacious, surprising, and somehow fun storytelling.
Should you watch the earlier stuff?: You should, not only to understand the rules of a world where two percent of the population vanished into thin air without warning or explanation, but to fully appreciate the journeys all the characters go on in the later seasons. You may spend those early hours alternately sobbing on the floor and checking the time, but it pays off, enormously, and the later adventures aren’t nearly as effective without that grim foundation.
Five Current Shows That Got Better
The Americans (FX)
What was wrong at first: Nothing, really. The first season was very good television; it just wasn’t a clear future Hall of Famer at the time.
It got better at: The second season made a few minor tweaks — particularly in focusing more on the spies’ dysfunctional and secretive relationship with their kids, and on the emotional toll the job takes on them — that paid huge dividends.
Should you watch the earlier stuff?: Yes. Very good with the promise of greatness around the corner — and greatness that depends on seeing what came before — is more than worth your time.
BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
What was wrong at first: The early episodes come across as a mash-up of Adult Swim and a Seth MacFarlane show: a goofy animated Hollywood satire set in a world where anthropomorphised animals live and work alongside humans. Funny, but seemingly disposable, too.
It got better at: As the first season went along, we started to get hints that the story was a lot deeper — and sadder — than it first appeared, but it wasn’t really until “The Telescope,” where BoJack prepares for the death of his mentor, that it became clear just how powerful this ridiculous comedy about a horse-man could be.
Should you watch the earlier stuff?: Yes. It’s still amusing, and in hindsight the early episodes are setting us up for the pivot into much darker territory.
What was wrong at first: The whole first season got bogged down in a serial killer plot that, while adapted from a Michael Connelly book, played out like a very long episode of Criminal Minds. Plus, the emphasis was too heavy on Bosch himself, which made sense in the novels but on the show made the other characters seem like animate props.
It got better at: At the beginning of season two, the show not only moved into less-tired forms of murder investigation, but began treating the supporting cast as people worth following even when they weren’t interacting with Bosch. It became, to its great benefit, a TV show.
Should you watch the earlier stuff?: Season one’s not essential. The show already picks up midway through the events of the book series, so there’s a lot of backstory either way. But most of the important character arcs start up in season two or later.
Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
What was wrong at first: This ’80s computer drama started off seeming like a reverse-engineered riff on both Mad Men (charismatic mystery man is far more damaged than he appears) and Breaking Bad (aggrieved genius tries to get what’s owed him). Early episodes could feel lacking in form and stakes.
It got better at: The seventh episode, “Giant,” starts to bring the four main characters together, and also begins the shift to what the show was actually about — the early days of the internet, and how it can both bring people together and drive them apart — rather than the earlier quest to build an affordable IBM PC clone.
Should you watch the earlier stuff?: The acting is great from the start, and you’d miss some notable developments in the relationships between the leads. But you can easily go straight from the pilot to “Giant” (or even to the next episode, “The 214s”) and be satisfied that you’ve made it pretty quickly from, as one character puts it, “the thing that gets us to the thing” to the thing itself.
You’re the Worst (FX/FXX)
What was wrong at first: Like some of these others, less “wrong” than “finding its way while doing something different,” which in this case was telling a sincere romantic comedy story about two ironic jerks who would vomit at the thought of having real feelings for one another. In the first few episodes, it could come across as a bit too slight and/or mean.
It got better at: The fifth episode, “Sunday Funday,” was when the “it’s gotten really good!” conversation began on social media, but that’s an atypical episode that happened to do an entertaining job showcasing the whole ensemble. The episode that followed, “PTSD” — where Jimmy and Gretchen compete to see who can have more sex with people outside whatever their relationship is, then realize they’re not enjoying it — was where the show’s maturity and clarity about its own premise really started to become clear.
Should you watch the earlier stuff?: We’re only talking about four half-hour episodes, one of which introduces all the characters, all of which move along the main relationship and have some sharp dialogue. Stick with it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org