1. Friday Night Lights (2006-2011)
Much like the Dillon Panthers, the high-school team at the center of a pigskin-crazy small town in Texas, NBC’s Friday Night Lights enjoyed a near-perfect first season. Loosely inspired by H.G. Bissinger’s seminal nonfiction book, the show was about more than the mangled priorities of a town too heavily invested in what happens on the gridiron. It was about marriage, family, religion, love, coming of age, and the attempts of bright young people to set a new course for their lives rather than cling to past glories and disappointments. But near-perfection came at a cost: Nobody could be convinced to watch the show, despite the persistent drumbeat of critics and fans. It seemed unlikely Friday Night Lights would even have a second season, but when NBC opted for renewal, it was clear from the first episode that the show would be running on the network’s terms. In a sweeps-ready subplot that nearly torpedoed the entire season, Landry (Jesse Plemons), the school’s resident awkward brainiac, saves Tyra (Adrianne Palicki), the object of his affection, from an attack by killing her assailant. The two dispose of the body, kicking off a multi-episode cover-up/investigation/love story so removed from the everyday conflicts of Dillon that it seemed like another, lesser show altogether. When Friday Night Lights won an improbable third (and later fourth and fifth) season through a deal with DirecTV, the show was allowed to be itself again, and the Landry/Tyra subplot was forgotten—so forgotten, in fact, that the incident was never mentioned again.
2. Lost (2004-2010)
Nothing did more to determine Lost’s fate than its creators deciding when the show was going to end. In the middle of Lost’s third season, when head writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse were struggling to come up with new flashback stories and fresh time-killing activities for the show’s growing roster of castaways, the duo went to ABC’s executives and worked out a roadmap for wrapping the fantasy/mystery series up in three years. Immediately, the show’s plot got out of stall mode, as Lindelof and Cuse starting filling in key pieces of mythology while forcing long-simmering confrontations to a head, culminating in a classic season-three finale that sprinkled in Lost’s first flash-forwards, which revealed the larger scope of the story. Disgruntled former fans will argue that Lost declined again in its controversial sixth season, in which the overall design of the show was revealed to be more haphazard (and much sappier) than Lindelof and Cuse had implied. But even the newly faithless can admit that Lost started great, began to meander for a bit, and then pulled itself together to such a remarkable degree that for about two and a half years it became one of the most exciting, thought-provoking dramas in TV history.
3. The OC (2003-2007)
In its first two seasons, The OC made a splash with its focus on character, self-aware sense of humor, and spectacular casting. (Peter Gallagher and Kelly Rowan should be included next to Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton on any list of all-time-great TV marriages.) And then in the first half of season three, it all collapsed in a deluge of twists, turns, and disposable interlopers like Jeri Ryan’s con artist, or Ryan Donowho as a doomed surfer/third point in a love triangle with Mischa Barton and Ben McKenzie. Creator Josh Schwartz lamented burning through so much story so quickly before moving on in 2007 to Gossip Girl, a series that would also see the brilliant flash of its early seasons diminish in ensuing years. But it never enjoyed a turning point like The OC’s fourth and final season. The death of Barton’s Marissa Cooper in the season-three finale granted those final 16 episodes some powerful ballast and a clean slate, giving McKenzie and costars Rachel Bilson and Adam Brody poignant material to work from while Schwartz and his writers went back to basics, devoting their last year in Newport Beach to defining who these characters actually were.
4. 30 Rock (2006-2013)
Storytelling was never 30 Rock’s strong suit. The Tina Fey-led show thrived on a moment-by-moment basis, a rare comedic alchemy whose finest half-hours successfully translated the densely packed gags of sketch comedy to a half-hour format. As such, the show’s fallow period—its fourth and fifth seasons—are a graveyard of discarded and/or unfruitful storylines, littered with the bones of Cheyenne Jackson’s Danny (a Canadian actor brought in to balance out TGS stars Tracy and Jenna, eventually subjected to the same disappearing act as Lonny Ross’ Josh) and Jack Donaghy’s long-distance romance with Julianne Moore’s Boston accent. According to Alec Baldwin, the fifth year’s dip in quality caused the most legitimate of his threats to leave the show, but season six turned the tides and cleared a path for the show’s triumphant seventh and final season. One key to that turnaround: Long-term plots that backgrounded the show’s gag-a-minute charms, rather than wrestling them for the spotlight. Note to future sitcoms: When a love story looks likely to hijack the show, just trap one half of that romance in North Korea.
5. Friends (1994-2004)
Like many long-running, massively popular sitcoms, Friends was handcuffed by the status quo in its middle years: The fear that shaking things up too much would cause the show’s delicate chemistry to fizzle colored developments like Phoebe’s surrogacy and the swift annulment of Ross and Rachel’s Vegas marriage. Wisely, the show’s producers used the lead-up to Friends’ eighth season to introduce life-altering events that couldn’t simply be waved away: The seventh-season finale, “The One With Monica And Chandler’s Wedding,” revolves around the nuptials of two major characters, but ends on a pregnancy cliffhanger for a third. The episode threw open doors for relationship-based storylines Friends had never tried before, while introducing a kid that couldn’t just be handed off to Phoebe’s brother and sister-in-law. This ushered in themes about the characters’ shifting priorities and desires, which energized the show’s final three seasons, ending in a series finale that boasted the fourth-largest audience ever for a series-ender.
6. Cheers (1982-1993)
Cheers’ “down period” was actually pretty short and consisted mainly of its next-to-last season, the 10th, when the series’ late-period trend toward all-out weirdness finally consumed the show whole. It was still a funny series, thanks mainly to its cast, but everything had gotten so broad that there was nothing recognizably human tethering the show to reality anymore. The Sam and Rebecca pairing had never had the sparks of the Sam and Diane pairing, and the show’s writers had wrung every possible laugh out of most of the other characters. Like many sitcoms, though, Cheers made a noble comeback in its final season, pushing aside a stupid cliffhanger as quickly as possible, then digging into the character relationships that made the show work in the first place. It also brought Sam Malone, one of the greatest sitcom characters ever conceived, back to the show’s center, making the final season about his hopes and fears as an aging playboy. By the time the solid series finale rolled around, every character was at a good, believable stopping point.
7. The West Wing (1999-2006)
The West Wing didn’t just fall apart after creator Aaron Sorkin departed/was removed as showrunner after season four. It utterly collapsed. The show had already been on shaky ground in its third and especially fourth seasons, with Sorkin’s political romanticism clashing against a post-9/11 reality. (Sorkin’s attempts to deal with terrorism or terrorist attacks were often laughable.) The show’s fifth season, then, was a gigantic mess, thanks to Sorkin leaving the show’s writing staff in an impossible position and that writing staff trying to write like Sorkin and mostly failing. The storylines were drab, and the show felt as if it were on its last legs. The solution? Create an entirely new show within the old show, then port over characters from the old show to the new show as needed. In its sixth and seventh seasons, The West Wing revived itself by telling stories about the election to find President Jed Bartlet’s successor, casting Jimmy Smits as an Obama-like young upstart and Alan Alda as the kind of Republican Hollywood could love. The Bartlet material never felt as vital as it had during the Sorkin years, but the election storyline was exciting enough to make the seventh season arguably better than the final Sorkin year.
8. Law & Order (1990-2010)
Dick Wolf’s wooly mammoth of a TV show seemed to last be relevant to the national conversation during the unfortunate embarrassment of the “Is this because I’m a lesbian?” moment. (Wolf’s inability to come up with moments of subtle character development remained consistent throughout the series.) The show’s slumping ratings and the fact that it was swallowed whole by “ripped from the headlines” storylines ultimately led to it slipping from the public eye, until it was unceremoniously canceled at the end of season 20 without a chance to do a proper series finale. The irony is that Wolf had assembled the best cast the show had had since its glory years in those final few seasons, with Jeremy Sisto showing unexpected chops as one of the detectives and Anthony Anderson proving to be a treat as his partner. Over on the “order” side of things, Linus Roache was terrific as the new ADA, with Sam Waterson stepping up to the big job of DA. Of course, nobody was watching, so nobody noticed, but the last three years of Law & Order are better than the seven or so that preceded them.
9. Frasier (1993-2004)
Frasier never got especially bad, but because it’s hard for any show to maintain a consistent level of excellence over 11 years, the NBC sitcom did go through stretches where it seemed to be on autopilot, or where some storylines simply didn’t work. Radio psychiatrist Frasier Crane had a few long-term romances that were a bust, comedically speaking. Frasier also lost his job for a time and was unappealingly depressed; and actress Jane Leeves’ real-life pregnancy necessitated an awful subplot where her character Daphne Moon gained weight, somewhat ridiculously. Even the usually Frasier-loving Emmy voters agreed: The show’s prestige nods dwindled in seasons nine and 10, reduced to statuettes for editing and sound mixing and the like. But the Emmys jumped back on board for Frasier’s 11th and final season, sending the show out with nine more nominations and six more wins (including awards for Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce as the Crane brothers). And rightly so. Frasier ended well, giving its characters new challenges, from marriage to parenthood to unexpected murder trials. Mainly, Frasier’s last season grappled with the way that everyone’s life had changed dramatically over the past decade except for the title character’s—and so the show found a way to let even Frasier Crane enjoy a little forward progress.
10. Scrubs (2001-2010)
When the medical sitcom Scrubs debuted on NBC in the fall of 2001, it was refreshing for multiple reasons: for being cartoonishly wacky at a time when NBC’s comedies skewed more “sophisticated”; for having a thick sentimental streak at a time when too many sitcoms were following Seinfeld’s “no hugging, no learning” model; and for being a hospital show where the characters weren’t mopey and distant from each other all the time. But because Scrubs’ lead character, John “J.D.” Dorian (played by Zach Braff), was so exaggeratedly childlike, Scrubs tended to circle the same “When will J.D. grow up?” idea over and over, to the point where the show had become tediously repetitious by the time NBC canceled it at the end of a strike-shortened seventh season. Then ABC brought Scrubs back for what was meant to be a second “final season,” and creator Bill Lawrence and his writing stuff rallied, with a stretch of episodes as funny, creative, and sweet as any in the show’s entire run, capped off by a series finale that poignantly answered the show’s central question. Except that it turned out not to be the finale. ABC unexpectedly renewed Scrubs for a ninth season, and Lawrence retooled the show, making it largely about a new cast of young doctors. This third final season wasn’t as inspired as the second (in part because it was meant to extend the franchise indefinitely, which meant it didn’t have that sense of building toward something conclusive), but it was entertaining enough to send Scrubs out with a higher overall percentage of winners than losers.
11. All In The Family (1971-1979)
All In The Family wasn’t bad as it entered its eighth season, but it was decidedly on the downward slope. What had once made it so groundbreaking had spread all over television, particularly on shows from its head producer, Norman Lear, and the cast occasionally seemed as if it was playing some episodes by rote, a common occurrence on old shows. The solution for that eighth season—originally thought to be the show’s last—was to simply pump steroids into everything the show had ever done. More social-issues episodes! More family conflict! More stage-play-esque examinations of character dynamics! More, more, more! It’s rare for this approach to work on TV, but it did for All In The Family, and it led to a season filled with many of the show’s most classic episodes, including the famous “Edith is almost raped” episode and the one where Archie and Mike get locked in a storeroom together, the kind of episode that can only work after years of character details have gone under the bridge. The season worked so well that CBS brought Family back for one more season (minus Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers), then four seasons of spinoff Archie Bunker’s Place, to increasingly diminishing returns.
12. 24 (2001-2010)
The ratings were still there and the Emmys were still paying attention, but most agree that 24’s third and fourth seasons were missing something compared to the first and second. The twist-a-minute nature of the show meant it had burned through most of its good villains and was resorting to increasingly clichéd subplots (like Jack Bauer infiltrating a cartel and getting hooked on heroin). The fifth season turned everything up to 11, maniacally killing off cast favorites to really drill in the notion that no one was safe, and building to an insane, highly implausible (but extremely effective) twist the show could never equal. In retrospect, season five started the ball rolling for 24’s true decline, as it was impossible to top without going to laughable extremes, but it was a deserving (if surprising) winner of the Outstanding Drama Series Emmy, and is regarded by most fans as the show’s finest hour.
13. C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-present)
Early in its run, C.S.I. was legitimately one of TV’s coolest shows. Coming out of nowhere—specifically the Friday-night lineup—with a noir-ish sensibility and nicely deadpan humor, the show unexpectedly became a linchpin of the CBS lineup, garnering praise from mainstream publications like Entertainment Weekly and grabbing a handful of Emmy nominations. The show aged as series typically do, gradually losing its edge (the start of the show’s decline can be pinned to when star William Peterson starts wearing a big, floppy hat in seemingly every other scene), but it entered a potentially disastrous, series-ending period when it cast Laurence Fishburne as its new lead. Fishburne’s a tremendous actor, but his dour energy was all wrong for a series that had once made crime-solving seem vaguely playful. The show rebounded—though not to its previous highs—by replacing Fishburne with Ted Danson, of all people, who made the show more lighthearted than it had been before, a welcome respite from the gloom of the Fishburne years.
14. The Simpsons (1989-present)
Any show that runs for more than two decades is going to go through its share of rough patches, and despite being immune to the kind of concerns that would plague a live-action show—such as whether the actors playing children are getting a little long in the tooth for their roles—The Simpsons is no exception. The first time there were serious whispers about a decline in quality came during the fifth season, after writers and showrunners Al Jean and Mike Reiss defected to create The Critic for ABC. The show righted itself, though, and sailed on confidently for another few years, until people began complaining that, after eight seasons of more-or-less consistent excellence, it had lost its internal compass and cracked up on the shoals of too many celebrity cameos and too much random wackiness. Those complaints became gospel among many discerning Simpsons aficionados, though many of those would cite Jean’s return to the position of showrunner, starting with the 13th season, as the beginning of a return to form. By now, The Simpsons has joined the ranks of legacy shows like SNL, and its fluctuating reception reflects that. Some Simpsons fans watch religiously so they can give informed opinions about how it hasn’t been good in years, while others drift away for long stretches, only to have it brought back to their attention on special occasions like The Simpsons Movie, which was so long-awaited that many fans were happily surprised to discover that they really had been awaiting it.
15. The Walking Dead (2010-present)
The first season of The Walking Dead delivered a mix of horror, action, and character-driven drama that made a strong case for the viability of the zombie-apocalypse narrative on television. It wasn’t without its issues—like a tendency to let the plot run in circles and inconsistent character motivations—but they didn’t ever get in the way of the zombie fun. The second season started off with a strong première, but then quickly unraveled, letting those same two issues get out of hand. The plot slowed to a crawl as the show all but abandoned any sense of danger from zombies and became a tiresome slog through the capricious soap-opera dynamics of a group of abrasive morons trying to coexist on a farm. After six interminably dull episodes, the show finally snapped out of its funk with the final episode before the mid-season hiatus. That episode moved the plot forward more than the half dozen that preceded it while reintroducing both the zombie slaughter and emotional trauma that had fueled the show’s best moments. Since then, the show has maintained a much quicker pace and kept the action setpieces coming at a nice clip. Sure, there’s still too much inconsistent character development and it’s kind of dumb at its core, but at least it’s dumb fun again.
16. ER (1994-2009)
As TV’s top drama hit, ER wasn’t going to go anywhere, even as its original stars (George Clooney, Anthony Edwards, Julianna Margulies) began to exit the show in dribs and drabs. But the middle section of the show’s 15-year run feels muddled and confused, lacking a compelling lead character (Noah Wyle was never quite enough on his own) and shuffling around its increasingly crowded ensemble to try and replicate the chemistry of its glory days. The core cast of Goran Visnjic, Maura Tierney, Mekhi Phifer, Linda Cardellini, and Parminder Nagra, who dominated the final six years of the show, may not have generated the zeitgeist-grabbing attention that their predecessors had, but their era is a distinct and memorable one, with many an underrated plot arc.