Do TV shows always get worse as they go on?
January 27, 2010 9:35 AM   Subscribe

Have there been any long-running television shows that have gotten better-regarded as they go on?

Whenever I hear about shows ending like Lost, I hear way more opinions like "it's declined as it went on" than "wow, it just keeps getting better and better". Is this confirmation bias? A new trend? Have there been any long-running shows that have been considered (by ratings or by critical consensus) to have gotten better and better right up until the end?

The only show I can think of that might buck this trend is M.A.S.H.
posted by Plutor to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (45 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Dr. Who, for one.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:39 AM on January 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

The first season of Blackadder is easily the worst of the four - it steadily improved with time (bar a few regrettable specials).

The Simpsons steadily improved over the first few seasons - I think the generally acknowledged "golden age" is seasons 4 to 9.
posted by WPW at 9:41 AM on January 27, 2010

It's been some time since I last watched it, but my recollection is that the fifth and final season of Six Feet Under was, in some ways, its strongest -- it meandered a bit during the middle seasons, but its finale was one of the most satisfying of any series I've watched. (The most satisfying, FTR, was the last stretch of "Avatar: The Last Airbender," but at three seasons it doesn't seem to qualifying as "long-running.")
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:43 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Daily Show

My personal rule of thumb is that scripted TV series peak during Season 3.
posted by mkultra at 9:44 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Had to chime in with my current guilty pleasure: Supernatural.

Started off as a pretty standard "Monster of the Week" type show, and evolved into some pretty epic story arcs.
posted by burntflowers at 9:45 AM on January 27, 2010

Not sure if these count, but I think Friday Night Lights had a very good first season, a mediocre second season, and excellent third and fourth (so far) seasons; and I would argue that The Wire's best season was its fourth--although all five seasons are excellent.

I also just read an interesting blog post arguing that The Big Bang Theory has improved from its first season because the writers shifted the lone female lead from a stereotypical male fantasy to a well-rounded character.

Both the mediocre second season of FNL and the first season of TBBT were interrupted by the writer's strike, so that could have something to do with it.
posted by sallybrown at 9:46 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

For those that watched the first 2 seasons, season 3 of Arrested Development may top the first two since it had so many other in-jokes to reference.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:46 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Office. I recently rewatched the first season and could barely get through it - gloomy, cringe-inducing, not particularly funny, and one-dimensional supporting characters. In a word, British.
posted by kookaburra at 9:47 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think there tends to be a sweet spot - the FIRST season (or few episodes) of a show are rarely as good as the show when it gets going. Lots of times the characters are stilted, and nobody is sure what's going on and there are unfamiliar extra people (who get written out, thankfully).

Lost is a notable exception to this, in that it was really good right out of the gate, but stumbled in the middle. BUT I personally think that Lost is as good now as it's ever been, and I am delighted to see the last season. If 6 is as good as 5 I weill plenty happy.

And that brings the larger point: the reasons shows start to suck toward the end of their lifespan is that sucking causes the end of their lifespan. With Lost the producers had the good sense, good luck or cynicism to understand that before they started to suck, and by drawing a clear line of "the show ends here" they have managed, I think, to avoid sucking completely. Well, other than a few episodes here and there, mostly in season 3.

And M*A*S*H? Those later, weird, super-sensitive, "Alan Alda in a West Village experiential theater workshop group" episodes totally sucked.
posted by dirtdirt at 9:50 AM on January 27, 2010

posted by greta simone at 9:50 AM on January 27, 2010 [6 favorites]

Well, most shows tend to follow an arc:

They're still finding their feet in the first and sometimes the second season, and then they hit their peak. (If you watch the first season of Seinfeld, it's very much a pedestrian, standard sitcom). And then, because network TV is driven by ad money, they keep going and going, as long as there's profit to be made. The Simpsons, for example, peaked around seasons 6-8, and is now on Season 20. The quality is horrific, but they're making money.

Another factor is that it's generally human nature to not stop doing something while you're doing it successfully. If people like doing something, they won't stop until they can't do it well anymore. Look at how many sports stars fail to go out at "the top of their game."

But yes, non-network shows and those with a fixed endpoint stand a much better chance. I agree on "Six Feet Under." "Extras" was, I thought, just getting better and better in the second, and last, season. "The Wire" debatably got better and better through season 4, although the last season was a mild disappointment.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:52 AM on January 27, 2010

The office. Parks and Recreation is only Y2, but they're heads and shoulders better.

Not long running, but still.
posted by unixrat at 9:53 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm not really looking for personal opinions here. There are plenty of individuals who think that Lost (for instance) has gotten better over time. What I'm looking for is shows that were widely (if not universally) regarded as getting better and better and then going out with a bang. The Simpsons is a bad example, since it got better, hit a peak, and has been phoning it in for a decade since then. Arrested Development is a borderline one since it had such perennially bad ratings.
posted by Plutor at 9:53 AM on January 27, 2010

Cheers is considered a show that was pretty mediocre at first, but "given a chance" to develop and get better, and it did. Which for many years led to the cry that the networks weren't doing the same for other shows, pulling them before the ratings had a chance to go up (See "Freaks and Geeks" and "I'll Fly Away").
posted by Melismata at 9:53 AM on January 27, 2010

Sienfeld didn't really peak until it's 4th season. It pretty much maintained that steam for the next 5 years, even after the departure of Larry David. The finale was the third most watched in T.V. history (after M.A.S.H. and Cheers) but of course was considered a huge disappointment.
posted by NeonBlueDecember at 9:54 AM on January 27, 2010

This is known as Growing the Beard on TV Tropes (careful, it'll suck you in).
posted by Oktober at 9:56 AM on January 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Star Trek: The Next Generation didn't really hit its stride until the third season, and although I don't know if you could say it kept getting better and better up to the end, but seasons 3-7 are all regarded as being very good.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:58 AM on January 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seconding Buffy
posted by RussHy at 9:58 AM on January 27, 2010

I don't know if I'd consider the US version of the The Office long-running, but it has really come into it's own.
posted by Syllables at 10:04 AM on January 27, 2010

The only show I can think of that might buck this trend is M.A.S.H.

I'd really argue that point. I watched M*A*S*H through its original run and I recall the last few seasons being pretty un-entertaining, having become more Alan Alda's ego trip, rather than a sharp ensemble production. All the characters seemed to have become phoned-in caricatures. YMMV, of course.

Agree with Buffy.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:06 AM on January 27, 2010

I'd say Star Trek: Deep Space Nine improved dramatically in its later seasons. The first season was especially weak.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:08 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia definitely got better after season two, when Danny DeVito joined the cast. They're on the fifth season and it's still very good.
posted by yaymukund at 10:13 AM on January 27, 2010

The first year of the Avengers, Steed was a secondary character and didn't have a female sidekick. Even after that, it was a few years before it evolved in the series most of us think of.
posted by octothorpe at 10:14 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

nthing DevilsAdvocate on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
posted by royalsong at 10:25 AM on January 27, 2010

30 rock really picked up big time in the last two seasons.
posted by litleozy at 10:31 AM on January 27, 2010

I think South Park is much better than it was in Season 1; though perhaps not as good as the middle seasons.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:34 AM on January 27, 2010

Nthing the above for Star Trek: TNG and DS9 especially. Voyager improved in later seasons, but I dont think it was particularly watchable even then.
posted by BobbyDigital at 10:39 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Depends. Some shows have a set story arc from day 1 that is intended to span multiple seasons.

For example, the show Babylon_5 spanned 5 seasons and was consistently good throughout. From the wiki article on the show:

Though conceived as a whole, it was necessary to adjust the plotline to accommodate external influences. Each of the characters in the series was written with a "trap door" into their background so that, in the event of an actor's unexpected departure from the series, the character could be written out with minimal impact on the storyline.

On the flip side, Heroes has floundered. Sylar's gone from good to evil and back again more times than I can count. Sylar was supposed to be killed off at the end of season 1, but he was so popular with the fans that the writers kept him around. Unfortunately, the writers don't seem to know what to do with him.

The Wire's good throughout.
posted by malp at 10:50 AM on January 27, 2010

Seconding Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
posted by languagehat at 10:53 AM on January 27, 2010

I think that usually, no, this doesn't happen. TV is a business. You have something good, you run it til it's bad. If you cut it when it's good, it's usually not gotten better over time (though some have, after cancellation i.e. Dollhouse), but because it is not performing, so hasn't had a chance to even get there (i.e. Firefly)
posted by CharlesV42 at 11:00 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Babylon 5 was designed to be 5 seasons long - JMS knew this when he pitched it to WB, and that was a selling point, that it would end with oompf, and not a whimper of old age. The show definately improved season to season, but when Season 4 looked like it would be the last one, he wrapped it up in a hurry... then Season 5 was approved, and he had to throw in lots of filler.

So it SHOULD have met your criteria... but the Network Execs prevented it. ;-)
posted by GJSchaller at 11:17 AM on January 27, 2010

For example, the show Babylon_5 spanned 5 seasons and was consistently good throughout.

Most fans seem to feel that season 5 was considerably weaker than the first four, in my experience.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:17 AM on January 27, 2010

I am surprised that with the several references to Star Trek serieseses above, No one has mentioned Enterprise. In the fourth (and, as it turned out, final) season it was given to Manny Coto who ran the show in a very different fashion from the previous three years. It seemed that up to that point, it was more or less Generic Space Show #28 with barely anything to connect it to Star Trek; in the final year there were numerous episodes that had resonances with the chronologically later shows. It was as if he realized that they would never capture huge audiences by being all things to all people, so he may as well make it good for the people who were watching.

I don't know if that answers your question: the general audience had tested it and moved on by that point, but the devotees seemed thrilled with the development.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:40 AM on January 27, 2010

Again: Buffy. The first season is difficult to get through. The second is enjoyable but the show doesn't hit its stride until season 3. It's really all uphill from there. I don't think it ever jumps the shark. The critical acclaim only increased after the show ended now, years after it's over and done, people take BtVS courses in college.
posted by dchrssyr at 11:58 AM on January 27, 2010

Nthing Star Trek:TNG and DS9.
posted by Vorteks at 12:19 PM on January 27, 2010

I can think of a few, including Six Feet Under, which started strong and then somehow improved, ending perfectly.

I'd say The Sopranos also was on an ascending track, ending, again, simply perfectly.

Also on my list are some oldies, including the original Star Trek, which attracted some amazing writing talent as it went along, The Sopranos, The Honeymooners, Car 54 Where Are You, and the Addams Family.

I also think 24 has improved over time. *ducks while MeFis throw brickbats for liking this show*
posted by bearwife at 1:16 PM on January 27, 2010

including the original Star Trek


Season 3 is almost universally regarded as being considerably worse then seasons 1-2.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:31 PM on January 27, 2010

Supernatural. The first season made it seem like a fun freak-of-the-week show about two brothers who drive around the Midwest killing demons and ghosts and all manner of other things that go bump in the night. That is, until the season finale, when things got much more serious. It's been pretty balls-to-the-wall since then, and if you look around you'll see a lot of other TV critics recognize this.

I guess you could throw Dollhouse in here too. The first season suffered from a whole lot of executive meddling, but this season (the second and final one, sadly) has become something chilling and wonderful. I think this show was ahead of its time, and in a few years I think more people will recognize that.

bearwife: "I also think 24 has improved over time. *ducks while MeFis throw brickbats for liking this show*"

I'll agree with this, although season six was absolutely dreadful. Seasons seven and eight (at least to this point) have definitely made up for that.
posted by andrewcilento at 2:10 PM on January 27, 2010

I'd say The Sopranos also was on an ascending track, ending, again, simply perfectly.

Pretty sure this is as far from a universal opinion as you can get.
posted by cosmic osmo at 2:18 PM on January 27, 2010

All of the following shows became much more popular after they were cancelled, and I assert that each of them is more popular now than they ever were before:

Star Trek, the original series
My So-Called Life
Freaks And Geeks
The Prisoner

And for shows that are still on, but have only gotten more popular over time:

Sesame Street
posted by bingo at 4:13 PM on January 27, 2010

Certainly Supernatural. A lot of people, including me, starting paying attention to it just last year (4th season) and some critics have started recognizing it, too.

From Wikipedia:

"The Chicago Tribune's Maureen Ryan named Supernatural among the top ten shows of 2009, stating that the "thoughtfully crafted show got bolder and more creative in 2009, coming up with hilarious and innovative episodes and taking risks with its storytelling."

Mike Hale of The New York Times also named the series on his top ten list for the year: 'Supernatural is currently among the wildest and most entertaining series in prime time.' "

Since most shows don't get better over time, I imagine this is due to (1) the main actors improving, (2) addition of new, great characters and (3) the writers starting to write some batshit insane stuff because they can, and it actually working.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 4:16 PM on January 27, 2010

I don't know if I'd consider the US version of the The Office long-running, but it has really come into it's own.
It's on its sixth season. That's pretty long by today's standards.

It's one of my favorite shows, but while the 2nd and 3rd seasons were better than the 1st, it's because the first season were mostly remakes of episodes of the British version. I'd say most people think it has been declining since the start of season 4.

I think Always Sunny has been declining since season 4 and a lot of my friends agree.

I think the English show the IT Crowd (it only has 3 seasons) has gotten funnier over time.

Honestly, I can't think of any long-running shows that kept getting better until the end.
posted by ishotjr at 5:23 PM on January 27, 2010

I've never heard anyone claim that anything beyond the first two seasons of M.A.S.H. was better than what came at the beginning of the series. Bizarre.

Friends evolved from being Ross/monkey gags in the first season to a long run of consistent crowd-pleasing and critically respected episodes.

I would tentatively disagree about the IT Crowd, aside from the Internet episode, I thought the last four episodes were fairly weak. Hopefully they'll prove me wrong with new episodes though.

A lot of British shows have consistently brilliant, but short runs. Some interesting thoughts on this phenomenon from John Cleese here.

Season 7 of Curb Your Enthusiasm was pretty good, not sure if it fits the criteria of "keeps getting better" though.

Possibly: The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Twilight Zone, and South Park.
posted by Locobot at 9:56 PM on January 27, 2010

I am very surprised people are citing Buffy as a show that got "better and better right up until the end" considering the last season is not very well liked.
posted by smackfu at 6:19 AM on January 28, 2010

Main one I can think of is Deep Space Nine. It was pretty boring and then got interesting and very non-Trek at the end. I always recommend the last couple DS9 seasons if I'm talking to someone looking for some extra Star Trek but who didn't warm up to DS9.

The Wire was good throughout. Also I'd say South Park has been consistent.

Anyone thinking Battlestar Galactica, Buffy and The X-Files didn't go downhill is just... I don't know.. what. BSG and X-Files are my prime examples of a series going downhill. Buffy made me quit just by being too sad.
posted by frenetic at 10:56 PM on January 30, 2010

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