They’re the not-good-enough-for-the-fall winter series – better known as the mid-season replacements. Though TV shows tend to debut at almost any time of year these days, a stigma still exists for the winter debut network shows. If they’re so good, wouldn’t they already be on the air by January?
The answer is more complicated than that. Shows air at mid-season for reasons beyond quality. Maybe they were retooled and weren’t ready for the fall. Maybe they just didn’t fit in a time slot appropriate for their potential audience. Maybe the network wanted to make a bigger splash in January. It’s hard to say.
The truth is, for every handful of forgettable mid-season shows (remember last year’s Rake? Mixology?) there’s a good or even great one. In some cases, these perceived afterthoughts to TV scheduling proved to be hits that stuck around for a decade. In the end, nobody remembers that they debuted at a somewhat inglorious moment; just that they are great series. These are fifteen of the very best TV underdogs.
15. The Office (2005)
Few expected this remake of the acclaimed BBC series to fly in America. The track record for Americanized versions of British sitcoms was just not good, and it didn’t help that the pilot episode was an almost word-for-word remake of the Brit show.
Critics were not kind to the workplace comedy, and ratings plummeted after its opening night. But The Office surprised everyone by surviving its first season, quickly gaining fans and critical attention. In 2006, it won the Emmy for Best Comedy and it ran until 2013.
14. Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997)
The little WB network didn’t have many hits when Joss Whedon’s supernatural thriller/comedy series hit the airwaves in March of 1997. Though it drew a miniscule 3.7 million viewers in its shortened first season, it drew the ‘right’ type of audience – meaning a lot of the young, sought-after demographic watched it. Eventually even the critics came to adore this cult high school series. It’s often cited as a major influence on modern teen shows and the proliferation of teen-oriented supernatural dramas.
13. Married With Children (1987)
This lowbrow Fox family comedy practically kept the fledgling network alive in its early years. Debuting April, 1987, the show ranked only #142 among prime time shows in its first season. Which isn’t good – but good enough for Fox during the 1980s.
The Bundy family eventually caught on with audiences and, with the arrival of The Simpsons in 1989, it even wormed its way into the prime time Top 30. Though critics hated it from Day One, Married With Children lasted an astounding 11 seasons.
12. Grey’s Anatomy (2005)
The medical drama snuck onto prime time in March of 2005 with little fanfare. Most critics viewed it as nothing more than an ER wannabee. Viewers disagreed. They were immediately attracted by the show’s interesting young characters and eccentric plot twists. It was like ER, yes, but hipper. And younger. By the end of its first three month season, the show was ranked in the prime time Top Ten.
Eleven seasons later, it’s still on the air and going strong. How strong? Last year’s tenth season marked the first time the show had finished in the Top 20 in five seasons.
11. All In The Family (1971)
Norman Lear’s classic family sitcom took three pilot episodes, three casts and three years before it finally made it to air in January of 1971. It was worth the wait. The show became a controversial TV sensation almost immediately for the raw, often shocking language of the bigoted blue collar Archie Bunker.
But it was a good controversy, as the show rose to #1 in the ratings by the start of Season Two. It also earned Emmys for best new series, best comedy and best comedic actress (Jean Stapleton) in its fledgling year.
10. Malcolm In The Middle (2000)
This TV comedy was unique in many ways. It was shot on location like a drama, using one camera, and featured no audience or laugh track. It was also quite subversive, offering up a dysfunctional family like no other.
In the pilot episode, mom shaved dad’s back at the breakfast table. Audiences weren’t repulsed though. Far from it. Twenty-two million tuned in for the first episode (a good number for Fox), and 26 million hung around for episode two. Though it stayed on the air for seven seasons, its first season, when it ranked #18th among prime time shows, was its most popular.
9. The 100 (2014)
An apocalyptic teen drama from the CW, The 100 follows a group of delinquent teenagers several generations after humanity fled the earth following a nuclear war and set up camp in a large space station. With the facility failing, the teens are sent back to earth and an uncertain future.
The combination of scifi and teenage wish fulfillment (they’re in charge!) scored with audiences immediately. The March, 2014 pilot was the most watched CW episode in four years. Just this month, the series was picked up for a third season.
8. The Simpsons (1989)
The animated juggernaut was initially scheduled to debut on Fox in the fall of 1989. But when the animation of the first episode proved subpar, that was delayed. Eventually, the show debuted in December with its now classic Christmas episode. An immediate smash, the first season of the series ended up the first Fox series to ever rank in the prime time Top 30. And it’s still on the air, making it the longest-running scripted prime time series ever – it passed #2, Gunsmoke, more than five years ago.
7. Dallas (1978)
Few remember that this legendary primetime soap debuted in April of 1978 as a miniseries. The splashy, trashy tale of the Ewing clan proved to be a mild hit with audiences (it ranked #44 in the AC Nielsen ratings for that season), convincing CBS to turn it into an actual TV series.
It was a good decision. Dallas would last for 14 seasons in all, followed by several reunion movies and a reboot series in 2012.
6. Bob’s Burgers (2011)
Hopes weren’t high for this animated Fox family show initially. Debuting in January, with a special sneak peek air in November, the show about a family burger business received largely negative reviews.
Critics called it lazy, derivative and needlessly offensive. But by the end of Season One, the tide had turned. The critics got on board with this lovably dysfunctional family, and the audience increased. By Season Four, the series finally cracked the Top 100. Bob’s Burgers was recently renewed for a sixth season.
5. Twin Peaks (1990)
The David Lynch/Mark Frost mystery drama was the sensation of the spring season. ‘Who Killed Laura Palmer?’ became the big question around every water cooler. The two hour April pilot episode was the highest-rated TV movie of that season, attracting a third of the TV viewers. Critics loved the show. ABC renewed it for a second season. But audiences began to drop off almost immediately due to competition from NBC’s Cheers.
In Season Two, after multiple time slot changes, the show’s audience had all but abandoned the show. After identifying Laura Palmer’s killer, no one seemed to care anymore. Ranked at only 85th among 89 shows, Twin Peaks was cancelled. A Twin Peaks revival is set to air in 2016 on Showtime.
4. Castle (2009)
This mid-season replacement didn’t exactly jump out of the gate on fire. Perhaps it was a case of too many TV cop shows, but fans soon warmed to the budding relationship between no-nonsense cop Kate Beckett (Stana Katic), and egotistical mystery writer Richard Castle (Firefly’s Nathan Fillion). They finally got married this season – the show’s seventh. Though ranked #41th in Season One, the show’s audience has steadily risen over the years. It ranked #13th last year.
3. Chicago P.D. (2014)
A recent mid-season success, the cop show had the benefit of being a spinoff from a popular hit (Chicago Fire). It also had creator Dick Wolf, whose Law & Order shows have dominated the last two decades of primetime TV.
Although it received mixed critical reviews after its debut in January, 2014, the show carved out a macho, tough guy identity that was uniquely its own. Ranked in the Top 50 prime time shows at the end of Season One, Chicago P.D. was renewed for another year.
2. Happy Days (1974)
This January, 1974 mid-season replacement wasn’t an immediate success. In its initial 16 episode run, it was a gentle, nostalgic family show shot on location. But by Season Two, it had fallen out of the Top 30 and was in danger of being cancelled. So the show was changed – some say ‘dumbed down’.
It was subsequently shot as a multi-camera sitcom before a studio audience. The jokes were louder, simpler, and former support player Fonzie became its central character. It worked. By Season Four, Happy Days was #1. It would last 11 seasons.
1. Empire (2015)
Will Fox’s new hip hop drama be a mid-season hit? It’s too early to tell, but ratings have been encouraging for the Wednesday night show. According to Entertainment Weekly, the show did something rare following its pilot episode – its ratings rose. Most new shows typically see huge ratings out of the gate then drop off as the weeks go by before settling at a fixed level. Not Empire. It improved its ratings 5-per-cent in its second episode and easily won the night. Time will tell whether it can sustain the encouraging numbers, but critical response has also been enthusiastic.