Beloved American TV Shows That Started Out Bad But Became Great

The first season of a TV show sets the pace for the rest of the series. While some shows burn out after one or two seasons, others establish a long-term premise that lasts for years. But if a show has a rocky start, can it ever recover?

In the case of these beloved series, the answer is yes. Characters were retooled, and the overarching themes may have changed a bit, but the following shows received a second season so they could realize their full potential. Most aren’t so lucky. Here are 18 TV shows that sucked in the beginning, but got much, much better.

1. The Office

B.J. Novak, Rainn Wilson, Steve Carell, John Krasinski, and Jenn Fischer sitting around a table in a conference room on 'The Office'

The Office | NBC

  • Number of seasons: 9
  • Worst season per Rotten Tomatoes: (no score yet)

Hold on — we know this sound blasphemous, but hear us out. The U.S. remake of The Office lasted a lot longer than its British source material, due to finding its own way. But at first, it pulled too much from Ricky Gervais’ dry U.K. version, which didn’t exactly translate to the NBC audience.

Fortunately, this was quickly remedied: Steve Carell’s Michael Scott became a bit more of a lovable doofus than a jerk (in keeping with the actor’s true nature), and the other characters fell into their respective places around him. The show struggled to get back on its feet after Carell left in Season 7, but the final ninth season saw everyone get their happy ending.

Next: Viewers weren’t happy with another procedural crime drama.

2. Bones

David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel attend the Bones panel during Comic-Con International 2016.

David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel attend the Bones panel during Comic-Con International 2016. | Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

  • Number of seasons: 12
  • Worst season per Rotten Tomatoes: Season 1, 58%

Critics saw the first season of Fox’s Bones as just another police drama series used to populate its network. Dana Stevens of Slate may have said it best: “Watching attractive people poke at skull fragments is not inherently interesting.”

Emily Deschanel’s character, a forensic anthropologist, eventually gave the show a unique angle, and the ratings slowly ascended. The Los Angeles Times explained the eighth season, “Having proved that patience is indeed a virtue, especially among television executives, Bones has more than earned its moment of joy.” The 12th and final season concludes this year.

Next: This show needed to grow up. 

3. Parenthood

Ray Romano, Mae Whitman, and Lauren Graham act in Parenthood.

Ray Romano, Mae Whitman, and Lauren Graham act in Parenthood. | NBC

  • Number of seasons: 6
  • Worst season per Rotten Tomatoes: Season 1, 59%

This comedy-drama about a large, loving family could make a grown man cry. But only critics cried during its first season, as they cited too many cast members and story-lines. It had “no clear focus or tone,” wrote David Hinckley of New York Daily News.

Parenthood‘s second season made a swift comeback with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The show celebrated healthy ratings until it concluded in 2014. Hinckley wrote of its sixth and final season, “The parents of Parenthood, who include old-school TV guy Ron Howard, can be proud of how the kid turned out.”

NextThis show almost wrapped in one season.

4. Fargo

Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons in a kitchen looking at one another on 'Fargo'

Fargo | FX

  • Number of seasons: 3
  • Worst season per Rotten Tomatoes: Season 3, 93%

It’s become almost commonplace to see a TV series adapted from a film that is decades old. In the case of Fargo, the source material was highly acclaimed, but didn’t exactly offer up enough substance for multiple seasons. Thus, the crime element, location, and sensibility was borrowed from the film, but the characters and time period completely changed.

Season 1 did very well on FX, though there were bumps along the road. The mystery was wrapped up, as it was billed from the beginning as a limited series. When Fargo was renewed for a second season, it became a much-beloved anthology series.

Next: A change in direction saved this sitcom.

5. Grace and Frankie

Grace and Frankie sit on a beach looking shocked

Grace and Frankie | Netflix

  • Number of seasons: 3 (so far)
  • Worst season per Rotten Tomatoes: Season 1, 55%

With stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, and Friend’s creator Marta Kauffman at the helm, Netflix’s Grace and Frankie got a lot of early buzz. Few shows choose to focus exclusively on senior citizens, and it was a daring move, but if anyone could make it work, it was this crew.

Sadly, the first season received mixed reviews. Critics praised the cast, but didn’t feel that the writing was strong enough. Season 2 showed a vast improvement, and reviews became more positive. The third season has shown even more promise, and a fourth season is coming in 2018.

Next: This hit TV show redefined these actors’ careers — after the first season.

6. Breaking Bad

Actors Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston

Actors Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston from hit TV show Breaking Bad. | Mark Davis/Getty Images

  • Number of seasons: 5
  • Worst season per Rotten Tomatoes: Season 1, 79%

So Breaking Bad didn’t suck during its first season or two, but it improved so much we must include it. In 2008, the TV series premiered to mixed reviews. The Boston Globe’s Matthew Gilbert said, “The show tries too hard to be socially relevant,” and Melanie McFarland of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said, “Breaking Bad turns unnecessarily nauseating by the beginning of the third episode, turning off anyone who isn’t completely in by that point.”

Although its first season was a little forced and certainly gruesome, creator and Executive Producer Vince Gilligan worked with his actors and writer to create one of the most popular, well-written, and expertly acted series of the last decade. The rest of Breaking Bad‘s seasons received 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Next: This show had to change major elements to see success.

7. Cougar Town

Busy Philipps and Courteney Cox on a white balcony with their hands in the air

Cougar Town | ABC/TBS

  • Number of seasons: 6
  • Worst season per Rotten Tomatoes: Season 1, 46%

The name of Bill Lawrence’s sitcom turned many potential viewers off, and rightly so. For the show’s initial premise, the title fit: Courteney Cox plays Jules, a newly single mother of a teenage boy. She begins to date younger men, thus the “cougar” dual-reference (it’s also supposedly a nickname for the town they live in, but this is just barely addressed).

This concept was a turnoff for many, but fortunately, it was quickly corrected: Jules falls for her similarly aged neighbor, Grayson, and the pair begin a relationship. The series then focuses on the “Cul-de-sac Crew,” which is made up of Jules’ family, neighbors, and her assistant, Laurie. It’s a testament to the writers and creators that they were able to shift the tone just enough to allow the Sex and the City-in-Florida comedy to become a heartwarming sitcom about a dysfunctional, yet loving extended family.

Next: This Greg Garcia show struggled to find its footing.

8. Raising Hope

The cast of 'Raising Hope' celebrating with balloons and red cups

Raising Hope | FOX

  • Number of seasons: 4
  • Worst season per Rotten Tomatoes: Season 1, 83%

Greg Garcia created Raising Hope fresh off the wave of his previous hit, My Name Is Earl. Like its predecessor, Raising Hope follows a lower-class man with good intentions who often finds himself in precarious situations. The premise was fairly unique: Jimmy has a one-night stand with a serial killer, and ends up having to raise their daughter with the help of his parents and friends.

While it drew in viewers, the show took a little time to find its footing. Recurring characters, Barney and Maw Maw, became regulars in the second season, and the series began to explore themes beyond that of raising a baby, though that, of course, was still present. The natural evolution of the show’s relationships allowed for four successful seasons.

Next: This now-NBC classic almost died in its formative years.

9. Parks and Recreation

Co-workers in an office gather around a laptop computer and make faces with another stares at them

Parks and Recreation | NBC

  • Number of seasons: 7
  • Worst season per Rotten Tomatoes: Season 1, 57%

The mockumentary style of The Office was so successful that a spinoff was conceived, this one taking place in a small-town Indiana government office. The connection to its inspiration was quickly abandoned, but aside from the filming techniques, the series had something else in common with The Office: The first season struggled when it came to cementing the personality of the main character.

In Season 2, Leslie Knope underwent major changes, shifting from ditzy to earnest and intelligent. The object of her affection, the much-revered Mark, was written off the show, and Rob Lowe and Adam Scott took his place as Chris and Ben, both proving to be much better fits (and romantic interests) for the series. Parks and Rec lasted several more seasons on NBC before coming to a natural close.

Next: This controversial animated series almost didn’t make it.

10. South Park

Cartoon characters in the snow surround a sign reading 'South Park'

South Park | Comedy Central

  • Number of seasons: 20 (so far)
  • Worst season per Rotten Tomatoes: Season 13, 67%

Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s acclaimed animated series is now part of our cultural landscape. However, at one time, it was the center of a massive controversy. The first season of South Park, while a ratings success, garnered mixed reviews. A bunch of elementary school children with potty mouths addressing political issues? Nothing like this had been done before.

But South Park quickly found its place. As the show has grown, so has its scope. And in later seasons, they’ve even begun to form multi-episode narratives, a rarity for any animated show, let alone one where multiple colossal events can occur in 22 minutes. Though ratings have waxed and waned, this show marches on.

Next: This AMC series struggled to gain attention.

11. Halt and Catch Fire

The cast of 'Halt and Catch Fire' in a messy room with the words 'Welcome to Mutiny' spray painted behind them.

Halt and Catch Fire | AMC

  • Number of seasons: 3 (so far)
  • Worst season per Rotten Tomatoes: Season 1, 78%

Breaking Bad and Mad Men were mega hits for AMC, but Halt and Catch Fire hasn’t received the same level of attention. Set in the ’80s and ‘90s, the drama series stars Lee Pace as a computer engineer in the early days of the World Wide Web.

As a whole, the series has garnered positive reviews from critics and audiences. However, the first season had a number of issues. As Gizmodo’s Leslie Horn wrote in 2014, the characters were flat and the story lacked depth. However, Season 2 saw the series come into its own, and it improved upon this in Season 3.

Next: Low viewership hurt this critically acclaimed show.

12. Enlightened

Laura Dern in Enlightened with her hands and face between a closing elevator door

Enlightened | HBO

  • Number of seasons: 2
  • Worst season per Rotten Tomatoes: Season 1, 79%

Not every show continues to grow after an improvement. HBO’s Enlightened followed a character played by Laura Dern, a woman who goes back to work after a nervous breakdown, with a new outlook on life. The cast was fantastic, and the first season received good reviews, but low ratings.

Things improved in the second season, with an even more positive critical response. Unfortunately, the series was then canceled. It’s hard to say whether more viewers would have led to a renewal, but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt this critic’s darling.

Next: This show struggled until its fourth season.

13. Supernatural

Jared Paladecki and Jensen Ackles stand next to each other in Supernatural

Supernatural | The CW

  • Number of seasons: 12 (so far)
  • Worst season per Rotten Tomatoes: Season 8, 63%

This long-running horror series has many devout fans. However, it took a little time to get things off the ground, as the show suffered from the week-to-week consistency of similar fantasy shows such as Buffy.

Though the merger of The WB and UPN was a downfall for some of the network’s offerings, Supernatural was at an advantage. The formation of The CW allowed for a bit of an adjustment, as the show began to drift away from its formulaic origins.

Reviews were still mixed, but somehow, Supernatural continued to get renewed. The fourth season was where it finally began to pick up speed, with the introduction of Misha Collins’ Castiel, who quickly became a fan favorite.

Next: This Rowan Atkinson series struggled with high production costs.

14. Blackadder

The cast of Blackadder in medieval costumes staring ahead

Blackadder | BBC1

  • Number of seasons: 4 series
  • Worst season per Rotten Tomatoes: (no score yet)

British programming has long set the stage for anthology shows on TV. Blackadder, for example, is comprised of four separate series, though all follow the same titular character, played by renowned comedian, Rowan Atkinson. Like Fargo, each series is set in a different time period.

The original series, The Black Adder, was the most unusual of the lot. Set in the Middle Ages, the production costs were very high, and because of this, there was a significant period of time before Blackadder II.

The first series is considered the least funny, even by the creators themselves. Atkinson, formerly a writer, continued only as an actor, and several character and filming adjustments were made.

Next: This ABC favorite made huge changes.

15. Boy Meets World

Eric, Cory, Topanga, and Shawn leaning against a brick wall

Boy Meets World | ABC

  • Number of seasons: 7
  • Worst season per Rotten Tomatoes: (no score yet)

Fans of ABC’s ‘90s gem, Boy Meets World, may forget the first season entirely. Remembered now as a show with so many inconsistencies it could make your head spin, we didn’t know any better back then. So while the series began with the characters in junior high, we thought nothing of it when, suddenly, Season 2 saw them starting high school.

Season 1 was different in several ways: The premise was a bit goofier, Eric was a jock (and a bit of a jerk), and Topanga was a full-on hippie. The following seasons saw drastic career and character changes for all of the Matthews and their pals, and things got a bit more serious. Cory and Shawn even seem to somehow skip a grade (or two)!

Regardless of the adjustments large and small, we can all agree that the best seasons of the series occur during the high school years.

Next: A Marvel spinoff with a rocky start

16. Agents of SHIELD

Cast of Agents of SHIELD stand next to one another in front of the SHIELD emblem

Agents of SHIELD | ABC

  • Number of seasons: 4 (so far)
  • Worst season per Rotten Tomatoes: Season 1, 85%

The major success of The Avengers paved the way for Marvel’s television takeover. First up was Agents of SHIELD, which focuses on the agency that works alongside the superheroes in the fight against Hydra and other evil forces. With Avengers writer and director, Whedon, at the helm, the series seemed like a surefire win for ABC and Marvel.

But Whedon quickly backed off, leaving the project to his brother and sister-in-law, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, whom he’d worked with numerous times before. This, coupled with the return of Agent Phil Coulson, who had supposedly died in the MCU, made for an awkward start. The first season’s reviews were mixed, though ratings were high.

As time went on, this shifted: Viewership has gone down, but critics continue to praise the series’ evolution. With more Marvel offerings popping up every few months, who’s to say how long the original will hold out on TV.

Next: This Joss Whedon series almost didn’t make it off the ground.

17. Buffy the Vampire Slayer

The cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer | The WB/UPN

  • Number of seasons: 7
  • Worst season per Rotten Tomatoes: (no score yet)

Joss Whedon’s groundbreaking female-led series is still referenced as one of the greats. But the first season suffered from a common flaw in the sci-fi genre: the monster-of-the-week formula. Made popular by The X-Files, this storytelling method has a tendency to stunt character growth and forgoes the season-long arc, which often causes the viewer to lose interest.

Season 1 of Buffy relied a bit too heavily on this, and paired with its campiness — both a strength and weakness of the series — made for an awkward introduction. Fortunately, the finale of the abbreviated season helped to pull everything together, and made the transition to Season 2 a smooth one, setting the pace for the rest of the series.

Next: This Buffy spinoff struggled at first.

18. Angel

The cast of Angel stands together in a nice office

Angel | The WB

  • Number of seasons: 5
  • Worst season per Rotten Tomatoes: (no score yet)

With Buffy’s increasing success in Season 2 and 3, Whedon was given a spinoff shaped around Angel, the vampire with a soul on a quest for redemption. This premise was reinforced repeatedly in the marketing campaigns and the opening credits … everything about the show said, “Angel is dark, mysterious, and brooding, but he just wants to be good.” Quite frankly, it was a bit exhausting.

But things began to take a turn after Doyle, the kind half-demon with the powers of a seer, sacrifices himself, giving his abilities to the self-centered human, Cordelia. This sparks a change in her character, which paired with the reintroduction of former Watcher Wesley and a growing sense of humor seen in Angel, made for a more pleasing dynamic. Subsequent character additions and a physical move to a hotel office completed the much-needed transition from mediocre spinoff to compelling standalone series.

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