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.
Beavis and Butt-Head
The animation on the first few episodes of Beavis and Butt-Head was so crude that it was downright terrifying. And the voices sounded like someone doing a third-rate Beavis and Butt-Head impression. Most of the early episodes were just the two characters huh-huh and heh-heh-ing along to things like farts, asses, and of course, frog baseball. The show later became slightly more nuanced without losing too much of its elementary humor and grittiness. The later episodes had at least some semblance of actual plots. Or to quote another Mike Judge project, “they had stories so you cared whose ass it was and why it was farting.”
You can’t blame Married…with Children for being a bit rough around the edges in its first season. Being the first primetime series to ever air on FOX, it didn’t really didn’t have a path to follow. So the writers made up their own rules. And man, did they. Fat jokes, misogynist jokes, and poverty jokes abounded. Its crudeness led uptight viewers to boycott the show’s advertisers until they pulled funding. But eventually, America came to accept and even love the Bundys as the country’s most honest representation of blue collar America since All in the Family.
Parks and Recreation
Going back and watching the first season of Parks and Rec is like watching a first place baseball team on a night where all the top players are on the DL. Not only were the show’s current stars Adam Scott and Rob Lowe missing, but the writers clearly didn’t realize the talent they had on their hands with actors like Aziz Ansari and Nick Offerman who went underused. Eventually, Parks and Rec moved away from being the Leslie Knope Show and focused more on the stellar ensemble cast. Yes, that even includes you, Jerry.
That 70’s Show
For the pilot episode and much of its first season, the punchline to just about every joke on That 70’s Show was, “Get it? …Because it’s the 70’s! Isnt that funny?!” But it really wasn’t. It wasn’t at all funny. It was zero funny. Eventually, the relationships between characters became more tenuous and complex and gave viewers a reason to tune in beyond the jokes about perms. (Get it?! Because people had perms in the ‘70’s!)
The Daily Show
If you heard “the first season of The Daily Show” and pictured a young Jon Stewart, you have already forgotten that the show was originally hosted by Craig Kilborn and was more or less a 30-minute knock off of SNL’s Weekend Update. In his penultimate episode in 1998, Kilborn did a torch-passing interview with Stewart and in between making jokes about his height, asked Stewart what changes could be expected. Stewart replied, “Changes? By God, this is The Daily Show, man! Why don’t I just draw a mustache on the Mona Lisa for God’s sake!” But clearly, over the last 14 years, he has changed the format, dropping the “5 questions” interview style to more serious talks with politicians and newsmakers. The opening segment also switched from one-off jokes about the day’s headlines to more in-depth segments on specific issues. It seemed to pay off because the show has given birth to stars like Steve Carell, Ed Helms, and Stephen Colbert while managing to win something like 16,000 Emmys.
The King of Queens
People love to look down their snobby little noses at The King of Queens which is unfair given that the show was always good for a few chuckles, usually in the form of food jokes. (Kevin James is a bit overweight, if you haven’t noticed.) The show’s stigma might date back to the growing pains of the series’ first season when it didn’t even have a proper theme song. Characters were shuffled in and out until the lamer ones were eventually given the axe, like Carrie’s half-sister, Sara, and Doug’s suupah New Yawwk tawwkin’ buddy, Richie, who musta went off and gotten some pizza and nevah came back, eh? Ayy, fuggedaboutit.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The problem with the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was that every episode was a one-off. It was just Buffy and pals fighting a new monster every week like the Scooby Doo gang. (It’s worth mentioning that in addition to Buffy, Sarah Michelle Gellar also played Daphne in the Scooby Doo movie.) After some new regular characters like Spike and Angel were introduced, the show became a proper series and the plots became deeper and stopped magically resolving themselves each week to start fresh the following week like a vampire Etch-A-Sketch.
South Park’s early appeal was that it was largely considered offensive and pissed off parents everywhere with episodes about things like anal probes, a talking Christmas poo, and Cartman’s dirty slut mom. But over the last 17 seasons, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have seemed intent on making those early episodes look like Sesame Street by comparison. Parker and Stone continue to pound hot button issues and relentlessly poke unsuspecting celebrities on a weekly basis. So while an Ethiopian exchange student may have been offensive in 1997, South Park is now on to bigger topics like murder porn.