Don’t judge a TV show by its pilot: Five series that only get better with time.

Habitual TV show obsessives have often run into a problem when a new show just doesn’t cut it in it’s first 2 or 3 episodes. We’re left asking ourselves ‘is it worth it?’, either choosing to place faith in the shows creators and wait for things to ‘get better’ or giving up on it and listening with skepticism as the internet raves about season 2. This list is dedicated to those shows that have bucked expectations, dusted themselves off and picked up dramatically from humble beginnings.

Season 1 may not have been bad, but it didn’t inspire much confidence, and was nowhere near as engaging as subsequent seasons. So we aren’t saying these shows deliver a terrible first season, but rather a rocky start that requires a bit of patience; they all reward that patience with huge improvements whether it be in the story, the acting, the production, the direction, or all four. After all, Rome wasn’t conquered in a day, or something like that.

Person of Interest

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I’ve lost count how many times this series has made my jaw drop, rendering me completely paralysed for a few minutes after the end credits while I’m just saying “WOW” over and over in my head (and often aloud). I remember feeling uneasy during the first season, and I had to watch several episodes a few times because my attention would easily stray; it was choppy, inconsistent – only sometimes brilliant – and hard to get used to. In particular, Jim Caviezel as John Reese – the lead – was divisive at first, his whispered, excessively dramatic tone made it seem like POI was going to be stuck as a D-grade drama for a long time. Thankfully, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

There are many parallels to Batman in this series, from Reese’ gravelly voice to the proactive philosophy our ‘heroes’ take. Not to mention, Michael Emerson (Finch) would make a PERFECT Riddler. Oh, and the show’s creator is Jonathan Nolan, brother to Christoper and co-writer for The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises.

It took awhile for the show to slowly build up a complex mythology so it could start playing around with the deeper ideas of vigilantism, artificial intelligence, and a whole range of ethical issues. By the time season 2 hit, POI had become not just one of the best television shows currently on TV, but one of the best I have ever seen. I soon discovered that I wasn’t alone in my fascination for the show, websites like IGN and AV Club would constantly give episodes 9’s and 10’s, which only increased in frequency as the show moved on.

POI has continued to improved, as surprising as that is, pushing the boundaries of it’s often complicated plot and tongue-in-cheek, semi-procedural format. The cast have also done an incredible job, in particular Caiezel, Emerson, Enrico Colantoni, and the show-stealing Amy Acker.

The first three seasons are available on DVD, with Season 4 out later this year.

Hell on Wheels

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AMC’s slick and polished western action-drama about a small, corrupt community trying to build a railroad was really dull when it started. The trailer promised much more than we got, which was a hard-to-like story saved only by a superb cast. Anson Mount’s tough-but-fair Cullen Bohannon starts off as a man on an exciting mission that is constantly derailed (pub intended) by menial subplots, navigating a turbulent relationship with those of darker skin like Elam Ferguson (legendary emcee Common), his boss Thomas ‘Doc’ Durant (the brilliant Colm Meaney), the Indian tribes attempting to battle against the Union Pacific Railroad and it’s obnoxious construction, and last but definitely not least, the infinitely terrifying Thor Gunderson (Christopher Heyerdahl). The acting was top notch, and even surpassed more popular AMC shows on some weeks, but ultimately it just took to long to get to such a point.

With a season 1 finale that finally showed some life, the second season went from strength to strength, balancing smart storylines with those that were just down-right entertaining, and always ones you actually wanted to follow week after week. Action kicked up a notch too, not just saved for the latter half of the season and spread nicely throughout. Season 3 was a bit slower to start but picked up again and ended up being one of the best, despite a really, really underwhelming finale. Season 4 was quick to pick up but dipped a bit in the middle due to a big death that was unfortunately forced due to scheduling conflicts, but then it made up for that by giving us consistently great episodes until it’s explosive end.

At it stands now, Hell on Wheels is a show well worth your patience, and even if the ratings are a bit ominous (season 4 finale was around 2.17 mil viewers in the U.S), the creators can be proud of how much they improved since that abysmal first season.

All four seasons of Hell on Wheels are available on DVD now. 

Ray Donovan

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I can’t remember what got me through the first season of Showtime’s Ray Donovan. It was most likely, again, the excellent cast. This time there’s a formidable lead performance from Liev Schreiber (as Ray Donovan) and an equally brilliant showing from Jon Voight as Ray’s contemptible father Mickey Donovan. Together they deliver a tension that is so gloriously thick and intriguing that them alone is enough to chug through 12 episodes of a stale, unfocused plot. The season found it’s feet in the last two or so episodes, bringing in a wild card in Sully Sullivan (James Woods) but it was hardly enough to make up for the cheesy and rushed storyline that we had to put up with to get there.

I almost didn’t want to watch season 2, but I was bored one day so decided to binge. I’m glad I did. What I saw was a vastly improved and much more intense, high velocity crime drama as Ray’s job as a ‘professional fixer’ for L.A’s eccentric and corrupt rich folk began to take shape. Suddenly the show knew when to not take itself too seriously, almost reminding me of GTA in the way Ray would sometimes be sent on ridiculous, but fun missions. Mickey also became more complex, and likeable. While the other characters, particularly Ray’s brothers, were smartly underused. In particular, they began using Bunchy (Dash Mihok) at opportune times to explore a very dark and confronting type of psychology stemming from a topical childhood trauma; and it looks like Season 3 will continue with him on that interesting path. However, the other brother, Terry (Eddie Marsan) was awkwardly wedged into certain plots and only became interesting towards the end; again, making Season 3 something to look forward to.

Series One and Two of Ray Donovan are available on DVD now.

Parks & Recreation

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The first season of Parks and Recreation, much like the first seasons of the US version of The Office, seemed like a series that didn’t know where it was going. With the US Office too much like the UK Office, the original series Parks & Rec was too much like the US Office – a show which by this point had hit its own stride (something which, to be fair, didn’t last too long, but it had a couple of good years). In short, it seemed like it would be a show that wouldn’t last.

The ensemble cast was strong, but something was missing from the series – and if it wasn’t for the final episode of that brief six episode series (“Rock Show”), it may have disappeared fast from memory. Who knows if Chris Pratt would be in every blockbuster movie like he is now. But, as luck would have it, the show ended on a note that showed great potential. It seemed to finally have worked out all the pieces of a fairly basic concept strung together by Greg Daniels & Michael Schur – who brought us the US Office.

But on the promise of that potential, NBC rather surprisingly green-lit the series for a second season and though it never quite was the ratings gold that they may have hoped for, it enjoyed seven seasons and 125 episodes. The characters were fine tuned between seasons and came into their own within the first few episodes. And then, the introduction of state auditors Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe) and Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) was the catalyst that the show needed to become truly brilliant. And in spite of a fairly lazy arch in the sixth season, and the loss of some of the main characters along the way, the seventh and final season ended on a strong note both critically and in the ratings.

There have been few shows as consistently brilliant as this one… though we will end this list with one such show that does top it.

The first six seasons of Park and Recreation are available on DVD now. Season seven will be available later in the year.

Seinfeld

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And we end with one of the most iconic TV shows of all time: Seinfeld – though you may consider it to be a bit out of place on this list… and it’s been argued even in our own discussions that we’re opening up a can of worms by including it. But, while this was a show that seemed to start out strong, it had as rocky a start as any new show, and by the time it hit its final season, it was so much better than we could have imagined from the pilot. More refined. Funnier. There are few shows that can compete with its growth and consistency in popularity for the better part of a decade.

Not only did they last nine seasons, but by the time they hit their ninth and final season, this show about nothing was at its peak. It was never more popular, rarely funnier, and with the brief return of writer Larry David to help them say goodbye in their final episode, they blew those final episodes out of the park. Well, that’s still a contentious issue with some, but you can take our opinion on that for now…

It’s hard to imagine what would have happened if Seinfeld had taken the $110 million dollars NBC offered him to continue to show. So many shows before it have taken the money and seen the show lose its credibility, enjoyability and originality. The fact they lasted nine seasons was remarkable enough – let alone the fact that they “went out on top”. Few shows can say that – but few people have the balls to turn down that sort of money. And I think we’re all better off for it.

But let’s go back to the very first episode. For a time, it seemed like all there might be. The pilot was originally called The Seinfeld Chronicles (and is also known as “Good News, Bad News”), and aired on the 5th of July 1989. In the dead of Summer, this is a period where networks throw shows they don’t expect to do any business. Indeed, after negative test results, NBC executives decided they wouldn’t and threw it there to die a quiet death. But, 15 million viewers tuned in, critics loved it, and after initial reluctance, they decided to order 4 episodes of the series to air a year later, and give it a shot. It’s one of the shortest orders in TV history, and showed little confidence from the network. But the public responded… as did critics. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The complete nine series of Seinfeld are available on DVD now.

Larry Heath contributed to the final two parts of this article.