Television shows often take a bit of time to find their footing, with series like The Expanse, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Steven Universe only getting better with each passing season. Then there are the shows that peaked early. Like, really early.
These are our picks of the 10 genre TV shows where the first season was the best of them all. Sometimes, it was because the showrunners failed to come up with a solid game plan beyond the debut, or maybe the series just failed to match the hype and buzz of its origins. In one case, it was actually because of forces outside of their control. No matter the cause, the result was the same: A series that started well but failed to capture the same amount of lightning in their bottles.
We had a few caveats for TV shows to qualify for this list; they needed to have at least three seasons (which means shows like Pushing Daisies didn’t qualify) and they also needed to be generally well regarded during their series’ debuts. That means if a show kinda sucked at first, like Charmed, it wouldn’t really matter if it got worse later on. And for the most part, we stuck with shows that have already ended, but there are a couple on here that are ongoing. That means they could turn things around, but we kind of doubt it.
ABC’s Lost was one of those shows that came in like a wrecking ball. The first episode alone was an incredible experience, with the crash of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 introducing us to the show’s overwhelming cast of characters and the strange surroundings they found themselves in. Much of the first season was spent leading the audience down the rabbit hole of mysteries on the island; things like the infamous Smoke Monster, the strange inhabitants known as “The Others,” the metal hatch in the ground, and all the circumstances that led each person to end up on the plane.
Unfortunately, the more we learned about the island, the less interesting it seemed. The answers constantly failed to match the questions, which made the whole experience feel disappointing when all was said and done. And don’t even get us started on the finale. Lost co-creator and executive producer Damon Lindelof recently shared that he wanted to end the show a lot earlier but ABC’s executives disagreed, which could help explain why everything was so weirdly paced.
Once Upon a Time is a prime example of a show that knew exactly how it wanted to start, but had no idea where it wanted to go. The first season is a near-perfect fairy tale, telling the story of a woman who finds herself in a town inhabited by storybook characters who don’t know they’ve been transported into the real world. Their lives and stories intertwine in surprising ways, challenging not only what we know about these characters but also the fairy tales they come from. There’s tragedy, triumph, and, most of all, the true power of love.
However, as the show continued on, it didn’t seem to know what it wanted to do with the world it had built. Character relationships became weirder and more convoluted, contradicting things established in previous seasons. Having run out of options, they started throwing everything Disney-related at the wall to see what would stick. At least we got emo Captain Hook out of it.
“Have you ever seen anything so full of splendor?” The first season of Westworld was one giant mystery the world wanted to solve, with Reddit communities debating over the possibility of multiple timelines, the true identity of the Man in Black, and why Dolores was so darn special. The result was immensely satisfying—but that feeling hasn’t been replicated since. Season two tried to up the ante by introducing a more disjointed timeline, which came across as confusing rather than inspired, and season three failed to wow audiences with its take on the real world. Things could shape up in the future, but it seems like we’ve given Westworld enough time to amaze us beyond its debut.
True Blood is one of those shows that was never that good, but it also didn’t matter. It was a sexy Southern Gothic romance between a vampire and a waitress... who also turned out to be half-faerie. Hold up, what did you say? Yeah, that was a later-series reveal that kinda came the crap out of nowhere. This was a show that just kept throwing so much stuff at us, to the point where the romance between the waitress and the vampire hardly seemed to matter anymore. Sure, some of the later seasons were based on the books in Charlaine Harris’ The Southern Vampire Mysteries, the novels that True Blood was based on. But as we learned from the Dune miniseries—just because something is in the book does not mean it has to be on the show.
Now, this one isn’t entirely its own fault. NBC’s Heroes was an original story of people learning they have superpowers (a pretty rare feat nowadays considering the prevalence of Marvel and DC). The first season wasn’t always perfect but it was exciting, managing to introduce us to some really cool characters as they were slowly brought together by the Doomsday Clock of the season. The second season started out promising enough—and then the Writers Strike of 2008 happened.
As a result, the larger plan for season two was scrapped, and instead it got a clumsily written conclusion that created more problems than it solved. After that, the show never managed to get back the spark it had first ignited. Later seasons of Heroes also suffered from an increased dependence on the character of Sylar (Zachary Quinto), who started out as a villain but eventually became the show’s most important figure. It makes sense, as Quinto was a rising star, but it came at a cost to the story.
Daredevil’s first season didn’t just set the standard for what to expect out of Marvel and Netflix’s then-bold collaboration, it excelled to make itself stand shoulder to shoulder with any of its MCU contemporaries on the big screen. From Charlie Cox’s pitch-perfect Murdock (matched by a killer Kingpin in Vincent D’Onofrio) to some absolutely incredibly framed and character-driven combat, Daredevil’s first season hit the ground running, knocked you on your feet, and then demanded that you get up and keep running with it. There are great parts of season two and three, for sure, but nothing could compete with the highs the first season’s arc took us on.
The second season of David Lynch’s groundbreaking series is uneven, but it still has some important moments (the big reveal of Laura Palmer’s killer, for instance); the 2017 “return” is a daring experiment that pushes the boundaries of what TV is capable of; and feature-film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is its own majestic beast. But Twin Peaks’ first season, which ran just eight episodes in the spring of 1990, remains the show’s zenith.
It instantly sparked a cultural frenzy with its completely original, highly influential tale of a small town in the Pacific Northwest where a shocking murder shakes some very dark secrets to the surface. Kyle MacLachlan’s unusually intuitive, coffee-and-pie loving FBI agent led a cast of characters whose quirks offset the story’s tragic and often sinister elements, with the dreamy town—where any number of strange things are possible—providing the perfect atmospheric backdrop.
Tatiana Maslany was always top-notch as the multiple “sestra” clones at the center of Orphan Black, but that doesn’t mean the show always did her justice. It started out strong even within the first five minutes, with Sarah trying to figure out why a woman who looked exactly like her chose to die by suicide in front of her. This led her down a rabbit hole of conspiracy until she eventually found out she was one of several clones, who’d all been leading their own lives—totally obvious of the fact that there were others who were genetically identical to them. The subsequent seasons weren’t bad, but they failed to match the extremely promising debut season—adding weird plot points like the boy clones and an island commune filled with what can only be described as “genetic fanatics.”
The Handmaid’s Tale started out as more than a show: it was a cultural movement. The series won several Emmy awards and spawned real-life action. People dressed up as handmaids to protest government restrictions on women’s rights, with “Under His Eye” becoming the catchphrase of the oppressed. That’s because of how well it adapted Margaret Atwood’s chilling tale of a country that had been taken over by religious extremism—leading to the abduction and forced servitude of thousands of people, and the genocide of so many others. It was only enhanced by Elisabeth Moss’ commanding performance as June/Offred (and the election of a certain president).
When the first season ended as the book did, with Offred being taken in a van to an unknown destination, we were left wondering what would become of her. It turns out the answer is... who the heck knows? The series has floundered in subsequent seasons, afraid to leave Gilead or make Offred face real consequences for her actions. It could turn things around in season four—especially if they incorporate the events of Atwood’s sequel The Testaments—but it’s going to take a lot of good faith to make this story better.
Yes, this show has been on for over 10 seasons. And yes, it’s still one of the most popular series on television. But I’ll be damned if anyone can tell me one season that holds a candle to the first. The show has had its ups and downs—many of them, in fact—but it will never reach the highs it set for itself in its debut. You know it, I know it, Rick Grimes floating away in a helicopter knows it.
Additional reporting by James Whitbrook and Cheryl Eddy.
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