We all know that there have been many TV shows – way too many to count, actually – that have started off well and gone downhill. Sometimes it takes a few seasons for the seams to start showing, sometimes it takes just the second season. The show starts off brilliantly and it gets critical acclaim and then it all goes to hell. The show limps to its finish and you start to wonder what the hell happened.
But what about the shows that started off great, then had a season or two or three where things got bad, but then it rallied at the end to finish really well? What about those shows?
Here’s our list of five shows that went through that roller coaster.
The West Wing
The first four seasons of the NBC drama The West Wing could, arguably, be among the finest seasons of any show in the history of television. Great cast, terrific direction and even an inviting set design all conspired to create a beautiful show, and quite possibly the most accessible, fun show about politics ever. This was a show where you not only learned something about how government worked but you actually liked the characters doing that work. It was really a workplace drama disguised as a political drama.
But then something happened after the fourth season that changed the show for good: Creator and writer Aaron Sorkin left.
Seasons five and six of The West Wing, while still watchable and with fine moments, pale in comparison to the first four. Something happened after Sorkin left. Not only did the snappy writing vanish, the entire vibe changed. The show looked different (maybe it was the lighting?), it got more cynical and drama-heavy (instead of the romanticism that Sorkin brought to the show), and characters started doing things they wouldn’t do in the first four seasons. Supporting characters were killed off too, needlessly (like John Amos). Longtime fans thought the show would die in its last season a shadow of what it once was, tinkered with to the brink of “jump the shark” territory.
But then the last season happened. They decided to shake things up a bit. The show no longer revolved around the political struggles of President Bartlett and his staff. This was the final year of Barlett’s term so there was an election to be held, between Democrat Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Republican Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda). New cast members (including Stephen Root, Patricia Richardson, and Kristen Chenoweth) were brought in and really re-energized the show. It got so good you could actually imagine the show continuing on with a big new cast and a different administration. It wouldn’t have been the same West Wing but it would have been a good West Wing.
Something else happened in the last season that no one could have prepared for: John Spencer died. Leo McGarry was arguably the heart and soul of the show, so when he died a big chunk of the show went with him, and you knew it was over. But his death – written into the show – gave the last season even more gravitas because Leo was running for Vice President. This created a new subplot where they had to find a replacement for him.
The election storyline also provided the show with the opportunity to do a live debate in real-time. This wasn’t the typical debate you see on political shows and movies, this was structured and filmed like a real debate. In fact, if you didn’t know what the West Wing was on happened to turn to NBC that night you probably, for a few minutes anyway, would have wondered what office Smits and Alda were running for and when the election was. It was very well done (having real newsman Forrest Sawyer as moderator certainly helped).
Was the last season perfect? God no. Having Toby be the leak and then be written off the show (to save money) was a ridiculous move, out of character for the character and just plain silly (that wouldn’t have happened if Sorkin was still there). Bartlett wouldn’t have fired Toby like that either. So that left a bad taste in the mouth of fans, though it was great to see in the season opener’s flash forward that Bartlett invited Toby to the opening of his library, the two well on their way to patching things up. It wasn’t a perfect season but it was a fitting end to the show. A new President was elected (Santos, though the show flirted with actually having the Republican win), the new President flew off to retirement with his wife (thank God they didn’t have him die or get divorced – what a downer that would have been), and even Rob Lowe returned to the show! That’s a TV show plot-twist fans dream about but rarely get.
Yeah, The West Wing ended well after seven seasons. Even Sorkin made a cameo in the last episode.
That’s right, HEROES. You wanna make something of it?
We can all agree that the first season of NBC’s Heroes is pretty much brilliant from start to finish. It’s comic book-ish and fun and epic with a great cast. And every single episode ended on a freakin’ cliffhanger! It really was like a graphic novel come to life, and the show had an uncanny way of making viewers desperately want to see what was going to happen in the next episode. That’s actually rare on television.
The second season? That’s when things started to go downhill. It was almost a no-win situation for the writers. They couldn’t simply tell the same stories they told in the first season, no matter how well those stories worked. Characters on TV shows are supposed to “grow” or “move on.” You’re supposed to have new characters with new powers and new stories to tell. It all seems logical, and some good characters were introduced, but that first season spark was gone.
Personally, I never thought the show completely disintegrated. For me it never got to the “hate” level, it was more of a feeling that the show was muddled and didn’t know how to tell the same type of stories it told in the first season. But maybe that’s because the new car smell was gone. So much happened in that first season that the second season, where writers and producers tried to come up with new, bigger plots! and new, more exciting characters! that it just seemed to be too much. Viewers started to leave in droves and TV web sites were flooded with “HEROES SUX!” messages. By the next-to-last season fans who loved the first season had either stopped watching the show or continued to watch the show just so they could go on web sites and type “HEROES SUX” one minute after the episode ended every week.
The show made some horrible choices, like having Hiro stuck in old Japan for what seemed like 20 tedious episodes and screwing with what had happened on the show in previous seasons. Supervillain Syler became mopey and unsure of himself, and there were several times where you just wanted the damn cheerleader to die already.
The last season was better. While an evil carny wasn’t something that most fans would have chosen as the main villain and main plot for the probably final season, it actually worked to a point. Rob Knepper was great and it opened the door for more and more people with powers to come on to the show (and it was logical that they worked in a sideshow). And I’ll defend having Syler end up a (kinda) good guy. Since they opened up that possibility earlier in the show they had to go through with it at the end, it made sense that he would team up with Peter and defeat the carny. Would the good guy side of Syler stick for another season? Who knows. We can all speculate that either Syler went back to his evil ways because he couldn’t stand having a normal job again or maybe he became one of the good guys permanently, fighting a new bad guy intent on destroying the world.
We knew it would be a different show from the last scene. Claire the cheerleader demonstrated her powers in front of several TV cameras, which meant that another season would have had the heroes being known to the public. That would have been interesting to see, but we’ll have to leave that up to the comic books and online fan fiction.
The structure of 24 was both its strong point and its weak point.
It’s clever and different to have a show, supposedly, unfold in “real” time, as we see a clock on the screen and a split screen to show different angles to the action happening or what each different character is doing before the commercial break. But this also meant that after the first season, to have agent Jack Bauer get into another incredible situation over the course of yet another 24 hours would seem to be stretching things a bit. Some fans would make the usual jokes about a show like this (“when does he have time to go to the bathroom??,” as if you’re supposed to worry about things like that in a show where the hero can survive gunshots and massive explosions), but as the show went into a fourth, fifth, sixth season, it did sort of start getting ridiculous. And even in the seasons where you bought everything that was happening, you could see the show getting to be too much. There was the season where everyone except a few people thought Jack was dead (of course); there was the TV-movie (made after the writer’s strike), talk of a big-screen movie (which never happened), and a lot of fans weren’t thrilled with the plots involving Jack’s family.
Season six is the one a lot of fans disliked the most, but the show finished strong with seasons seven and eight. The finale felt final but still left the door open to a big-screen movie, which hasn’t happened yet (but hope springs eternal for fans).
The show lasted for eight seasons, but if you think about it that means we only saw around eight days of Jack Bauer’s life. Imagine the adventures he got in the other days of those years. That’s probably when he went to the bathroom.
Will & Grace
OK, let’s get two things out of the way right off the top. One, Will & Grace lasted way too long. It should have ended after 5 seasons. And two, the last season had one of the worst plot devices in TV history, having Will & Grace drift apart FOR YEARS, only getting back together near the end of the final episode when their kids just happen – just happen! – to live across the hallway from each other in college. This is a massively depressing development – having Will and Grace not be friends for years I mean, though one could argue that having a plot as contrived as their kids going to the same college and living in the same dorm is depressing too – and it’s a development that we should just forget about. Pretend it never happened and the show’s finale works better.
So those are two things that you can hate about the final season. The good news is it had a lot going for it.
One was the live episode. Yeah, those special episodes can be forced and unfunny, but they can also be fun. Let’s face it, live scripted TV is rarely done anymore, and it’s interesting when it happens (like with Clooney’s Fail Safe remake or last season’s 30 Rock live episode). Seasons six and seven of the show are pretty bad. We had awful plots to deal with – everything from Stan dying and Grace and Leo’s “will they or won’t they?” to Karen’s romance with a Brit (yeah, it was John Cleese, but still), not to mention a really embarrassing, lame parade of guest stars brought on just because the show was popular and, well, they were guest stars. And the death of Will’s dad? Several seasons earlier they had a great episode where his dad (Sydney Pollack) came to terms with Will being gay, and now they have him die after we find out he didn’t really accept it like we thought he did? That was a downer and a needless tampering with the show’s history.
And can we talk about what happened to Jack in seasons four through seven? Sure, he was always excitable and flamboyant and scattered, but for some reason in these seasons Sean Hayes decided to play him as a handicapped Muppet. The voice changed, the mannerism changed, and his lack of direction and playfulness went from funny to unbearable. I’d love to find out why Hayes decided to play Jack this way in those seasons when he was so different in the first three or so seasons.
But again, the last season fixed some of those things even though it had problems. We found out (in the season seven finale) that Stan was still alive, we got that live episode, Leo came back to Grace (so great the show didn’t just have Grace find someone new, they actually had a character from her past be the one she’d end up with), Will ended up with Vince (ditto), and even Jack and Karen got an odd yet somewhat touching development in their lives (they ended up together). And while we can hate that plot where Will and Grace don’t talk to each other for years, we also have the scene of them seeing each other again and a final shot of the four friends in the old days sitting at the bar from the first episode. Not a perfect season but it’s one fans could be happy with.
Please, for those of you who found the finale disappointing and/or confusing, bear with me.
The first season of Lost is one of the great TV seasons, from it’s spectacular, expensive pilot to it’s completely unnerving season finale. But like a lot of shows like this, you know that the show has to go a little off the rails at some point. Let’s face it, the writers truly didn’t know where the story was going to go, and by the third and fourth seasons it started to go in directions no one could have foreseen in that first season.
So we got too many scenes of castaways trapped in cages or separated, too many scenes of mysterious things happening with Locke and his visions, and the less said about the horrible duo of Nikki and Paolo the better (though you have to smile when you see how the writers listened to fans and killed them off in a quick and clever way). Things got stretched out to the point where longtime fans didn’t even believe there was a plan to the show and were confused when they weren’t frustrated. Though, wow, the season three cliffhanger was one of the top ten shocks in the history of television if you didn’t see it coming.
The final two seasons of Lost are very well done. Sure, fans will always be divided as to whether the show strayed from its origins too much by the introduction of time travel and having some characters get off the island and the overall direction of the show. But there’s a lot of great stuff in those two seasons, and the acting is great. The last season – and the series finale in particular – has been debated to death, and it always causes arguments and hair-pulling pissing contests, so I won’t rehash that intense debate here.
Except to say one thing: THEY WEREN’T DEAD THE WHOLE TIME!