1-3. Nip/Tuck, Glee, and American Horror Story
FX shocked viewers in 2011 by announcing that the poor, unfortunate Harmon family was but the first in a revolving door of American Horror Story victims. It was an occasion for rejoicing, and not just because this meant the permanent shuttering of the first season’s absurdly crowded haunted house. American Horror Story co-creator Ryan Murphy is TV’s current king of diminishing returns, a writer whose flashy premises burn bright for one season, then fade away as characters die, get paralyzed (and then un-paralyzed), turn out to be serial killers, and/or engage in increasingly convoluted sexual exploits. The recurring reboot plan was perfect for a guy like Murphy, giving him endless chances at self-contained first seasons.
It seemed especially refreshing in the fall of 2011, when Glee (co-created by Murphy with Ian Brennan and AHS collaborator Brad Falchuk) was already showing signs of a third-season devolution. (Remember how Sam moved to Kentucky? But then he didn’t? And then the Christmas episode was a too-faithful homage to two terrible holiday specials?) It was a far cry from the first season of the show, which told New Directions’ comeback story with the verve of an underdog-sports movie; similar problems plagued Nip/Tuck, the Murphy jam that began as an examination of American superficiality and ended as The “How Deeply Can We Torture Matt McNamara?” Show. Both could’ve been fascinating single-season stand-alones—and, unfortunately, American Horror Story could’ve been, too. Midway through its fourth season, however, it seems like annual reinvention isn’t enough to keep each new reiteration from repeating the same themes, stock characters, and shock tactics. Maybe AHS should’ve stayed in that haunted house after all. [Erik Adams]
It’s hard to believe after several years of soap opera romance and increasingly batty twists, but Homeland was once considered prestige drama of the highest order—a Showtime series that could finally be talked about in the same reverent tones as The Sopranos or Mad Men, instead of the eye-rolling tenor of Dexter. But then viewers fell in love with Damian Lewis and, as is so often the case at Showtime, the network balked at any tampering with success by refusing to let Nicholas Brody die. Instead, the traitor whose time-ticking mission made the first season so compellingly tense just kept hanging around, necessitating increasingly convoluted ways to have him in the story, and turning the taut cat-and-mouse thriller into an exhausting doomed romance (and, in its worst offense, subjecting viewers to countless Dana episodes). Homeland—once hailed as Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa answering their own 24 with a more sobering, intelligent look at counterterrorism and post-9/11 paranoia—is now just another twist-laden thriller about batshit people in power. That never would have happened had the series ended in its first season, preferably with Brody’s death. Even Brody agrees. [Sean O’Neal]
Long before the superhero movie craze started, veteran TV writer Tim Kring had a stroke of genius: a superhero TV show without any cape-and-tights silliness, in which ordinary people came to terms with having fantastic abilities. Plus, Greg Grunberg was in it, so people just assumed it was a J.J. Abrams show and gave it a chance. It worked like gangbusters. The first season balanced the thrill of characters discovering they have super powers with the drama of a superpowered serial killer on the loose. It made breakout stars of Hayden Panettiere, Masi Oka, and Zachary Quinto, and the show’s grand ambition, scope, and ratings seemed to make a case not just for superheroes on TV, but that network television still had a place in the golden age of cable drama.
Then it all fell apart like Green Lantern in the crowd at a Pittsburgh Steelers game, starting with the first-season finale. Heroes had been building up to a super-battle that fizzled when it hit the screen, and the show backed down from killing off Quinto’s popular supervillain, Sylar. When it returned for a second season, the well-hidden cracks in the formula had burst wide open—some characters were far too powerful, the non-powered characters didn’t have much to do, the ensemble was too disconnected. Kring’s efforts to solve these problems just made things worse—characters lost their powers for long stretches, ill-considered storylines stuck some characters in the past with no contact with the rest of the cast, and the show kept adding new characters, making it abundantly clear the writers had no idea where the show was going. Had the show aired for one season—or even killed off Sylar and then stayed focused on a new villain—it’d be remembered as one of the ’00s’ great TV successes, instead of one of its great debacles. [Mike Vago]
6. My Name Is Earl
When this vehicle for Jason Lee’s laid-back charms debuted in 2005, it started strong, powered by a great premise. Not so much the show’s ostensible setup—that Lee’s amiable, befuddled redneck wins the lottery, and decides to earn this bit of good karma by using the money to right old wrongs—the true genius of the show was what lay behind that premise. Earl genuinely wants to do the right thing, but because he’s spent his life as an irresponsible ne’er-do-well, he’s hilariously bad at it. He tries to get an old lady to quit smoking by kidnapping and torturing her; he makes up for spoiling his father’s run for mayor by tricking him into running again against his will; and when he meets a genuinely terrible person who seems to have everything going for him, Earl decides to set his karmic balance right by punching the guy in the face. But by the end of the first season, the show had lost that note of cynicism, and the central theme of righting wrongs and helping others got treacly (and less funny) fast. Things got even further off track with a season-long arc that put Earl in jail for a year. The show also began as an affectionate sendup of redneck culture, but by the time Giovanni Ribisi joined the cast, the jokes came across as Hollywood Scientologists making fun of the rubes from flyover country. [Mike Vago]
7. Twin Peaks
When news broke that David Lynch and Mark Frost were reviving Twin Peaks for Showtime, the online consensus was largely excitement with a dash of caution—a reaction that comes from the qualitative gap between the show’s two previous seasons. The first season of Twin Peaks redefined the medium, injecting David Lynch’s worldview into the broadcast drama to create memorably quirky characters and situations. However, the show’s second season saw Lynch and Frost moving away from their hands-on involvement, reluctantly going along with network pressure to identify Laura Palmer’s killer, thus eradicating the show’s prime talking point. Without the Lynch/Frost vision, Twin Peaks began to embrace the soap opera twists and turns it had once expertly subverted, marginalized its entire teenage ensemble into even worse narrative dead-ends, and spiraled into some of the most memorably awful side plots ever to grace television. (Benjamin Horne becomes a Civil War enthusiast! Deputy Andy takes a surly orphan under his wing! Nadine Hurley regresses to high-school age and becomes the town’s strongest cheerleader!) Twin Peaks always asked the question “What on earth are we watching?” Unfortunately, between seasons, the tone of that question turned from mystified fascination to confused disgust. [Les Chappell]
Despite running for eight seasons, Bewitched never again reached the heights hit in its first year on the air, during which it was a legitimately great sitcom. Flirty and fresh, the show used witchcraft as a metaphor for a rising societal issue: women tapping into their own power and refusing to continue existing in the shadows of men. Though Darrin may have looked like he wore the pants in the family, the audience knew the true power player was witch Samantha, a concept expressed perfectly in the scripts from season-one scribe Danny Arnold. Following Arnold’s departure, Bewitched devolved into a generic gimmick sitcom, sadly never again rekindling the magic of that premiere season. [Libby Hill]
9. Miami Vice
Although many of its finest episodes appeared in season two, the first season of Miami Vice made the greater impression on pop culture. The show’s lush and vivid visuals (sculpted by series producer—though never episode director—Michael Mann) made it one of the first television series that could truly be called “eye-popping,” while the terse scripts had the air of modern film noir. Unfortunately, such cinematic intensity couldn’t last, and the show grew less tethered to recognizable reality with each passing season. But the season-one version of Miami Vice remains a landmark television series, proving cop shows could be both brutal and stylish. [Libby Hill]
10. Desperate Housewives
Debuting in the fall of 2004, Desperate Housewives was an immediate smash, averaging 23.7 million viewers an episode, a tally bested only by American Idol and CSI. It appeared as though Americans were all in for the return of soapy, sexy, dark comedy, and the adventures of Wisteria Lane did not disappoint. The show burned through plot and twists and turns, and it all made for great, campy TV, underlined by the idea that life in the suburbs is a lot more grim than colorful exteriors might suggest. But camp will only get you so far. (See also: Ryan Murphy.) After that frothy first season, not even that ridiculously talented crop of lead actresses could keep Marc Cherry’s series from flying off the rails and landing in a much more unpleasant neighborhood. [Libby Hill]
11. Rescue Me
When Rescue Me debuted in the summer of 2004, it was groundbreaking: By delving into the lives of New York City firefighters, it was one of the first TV shows to throw itself into the United States’ post-9/11 psychology. It dug around in the messy aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, what it means to be left behind, and what it is to wake up each day haunted, sometimes literally, by what was lost. Created by Peter Tolan and Denis Leary, Rescue Me’s first season provided an often amusing window into a work environment infused with testosterone and posturing, while simultaneously examining how those elements made it that much more difficult to process any kind of emotional healing. Sadly, the insight and humor eventually gave way to misogyny and misery porn as the show churned through six more seasons. [Libby Hill]
12. Modern Family
The first season of Modern Family was something of a marvel—a fun and funny new sitcom embraced by critics and audiences alike, at a time when such consensus hits were increasingly rare. Within the confines of that original season, the humor in the series was kinetic and slightly manic, but not shrill. There was a dramatic tension at work within the show, based in the difficulty of maintaining positive family relationships in the face of multiple challenges, like incorporating new family members and the natural frustration of trying to love people you don’t necessarily like. Much of this tension is lost in later seasons of Modern Family, as the show settled into tired family-sitcom tropes, with each character degrading into the worst, most base caricature of themselves.
Most interesting about the change in Modern Family’s makeup is the fact that there may actually be an explanation for it. The devolution of the show may be an unintended consequence of a strained working relationship between creators Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, wherein the two now run the show on alternating episodes, leaving a mangled, shapeless product in their wake. If only the show had been able to continue existing in that place where creative conflict resulted in creative genius (and Shelley Long was still hanging around.) [Libby Hill]
13. Human Target
By the end of its first season, Human Target had found its niche. Inspired by the comic-book series of same name, the show followed an assassin-turned-private contractor named Christopher Chance (Mark Valley) in his efforts to protect the unprotectable. At its best, the show played as a throwback to action-adventure series of the 1980s, albeit with better action, better writing, better acting, and better production values. The ratings were just good enough to avoid cancellation, but not quite good enough to prevent some behind-the-scenes meddling. Human Target’s second season—while keeping Valley and his two excellent associates, Chi McBride and Jackie Earle Haley—brought in two new regulars, Indira Varma and Janet Montgomery. The influx of women to a previously dude-centric world seemed like a good idea on the surface, but the forced attempts at romance between Chance and his new boss, Varma’s Ilsa Pucci, were painfully contrived. By putting the rogue operative into a clunky, unconvincing workplace drama, the focus shifted from globetrotting and intrigue to typical squabbles about who’s following whose orders, tamping down the escapism and possibility, and doubling down on clichéd battle-of-the-sexes tripe. Worst of all, though, was the decision to chuck Bear McCreary’s fantastic opening-title theme music and replace its swooping, old-school lushness with a generic rock riff. Maybe that last was a blessing; it warned fans of season one that the fun times were gone for good. [Zack Handlen]
Dollhouse’s first season was a contemplative examination of personhood and identity, explored through the “dolls” of the Dollhouse as their minds were repeatedly wiped blank and programmed with false memories and personalities to fulfill the desires of others. There was plenty of sex and roundhouse kicking, sure, but showrunner Joss Whedon seemed much more interested in introspective questions. In that first season, ethics were considered, power dynamics tested, and lost memories slowly restored as Echo (Eliza Dushku) became self-aware despite constant memory resets. The second half of the season, especially, matches the quality of Whedon’s best output. Hopes were high for the second season, even though Fox reduced the show’s budget; that might have contributed to the switch from shooting on 35 mm film, which was used in the first season, to high-definition video in the second. That, along with a new cinematographer, gave season two a decidedly different feel.
Then, less than half way through the slated 13-episode run, Fox canceled the show, resulting in a disappointing downward spiral. Without time to tease out the Big Bad, it seems one was picked at random to fulfill the role of the evil corporate entity and push the show to its conclusion. Worse than the hasty, shoddy ending was the final “Epitaph” episodes (the first one came at the end of season one but was not aired in the U.S.), wherein the cast ends up in a post-apocalyptic near-future where mind-wipe technology is used to remotely wipe the entire population. This finale put war-zone action and drama over the original premise of the show, which was less interested in flashy fight scenes than in the subtleties of human identity and the nuances of trust and control. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]