Creating a hit TV show is undoubtedly a difficult task, but it’s even more difficult to keep that show at the top of its game. It’s always a sad moment when it dawns on you that a favourite show is no longer what it once was and you’re only watching out of hope that it’ll get good again, and yet this is a surprisingly common occurrence in today’s world of shows getting recommissioned year on year if the viewing figures are still there.
There are many reasons why a series can decline in quality. Sometimes the writers run out of plot ideas and so jump the shark, replacing drama with silliness. Sometimes questions are set up that can never be satisfactorily answered. Sometimes key creative names, such as lead actors or writers, depart the show, and it’s never the same without them. And sometimes it’s all down to those pesky network executives, wanting to milk every cent out of a title that should have ended years ago.
With that in mind, it’s time to look back at fifteen such shows, consider what went wrong, and wonder what could have been had they just known when to stop.
Telling the story of a group of everyday people who discover they have superpowers, Season 1 of Heroes hit TV screens in 2006 to great acclaim, long before the Marvel and DC movies made superheroes the in-thing again. It was fun and pacey, with a great set of characters and a villain for the ages in Zachary Quinto’s Sylar.
But no show has fallen in quality quite so steeply. Hurt by the Hollywood writers’ strike, Season 2 was a slow-paced mess and went on many needless tangents. The show kept on declining, never managing to recapture what made Season 1 great. It had lost millions of viewers by the end of Season 3, and, while creator Tim Kring acknowledged complaints and promised Heroes would improve, this never came to pass.
The series eventually came to a halt after four seasons. An attempt to revive it as Heroes Reborn in 2015 was also, to be frank, rubbish. Heroes was less ‘up, up and away’ and more ‘down, down and off the to-watch list’.
14 Arrested Development
The story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together, Arrested Development ran for three exceptional seasons from 2003 to 2006 until its unfortunate cancellation. There was more story and more gags packed into each episode than you’d get from a whole season in some other shows.
Sadly, when the show returned for a fourth season as a Netflix (semi-)original, it was this pacing which was missing. By splitting up the Bluth family and focusing on just one of them each episode, Arrested Development was missing those great moments where all the strands of an episode came together. And with episodes being thirty rather than twenty minutes, it all felt rather slow.
Still, rumours are circulating about a potential fifth season, with all the original cast believed to be on board for it. After the criticism of Season 4, maybe Mitch Hurwitz and his team will be able to bring the show back to its former glories.
This modern reimagining of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories wowed us when it first aired in 2010. Sherlock featured stylish and witty updates of the Victorian detective’s most famous cases, bolstered by an excellent lead pairing in Benedict Cumberbatch’s sociopathic Holmes and Martin Freeman’s grounded Watson.
But from the third season onwards, Sherlock has focused less on the cases and more on the tight-knit group of characters at its centre, screaming out to be made into Tumblr gif-sets but seemingly forgetting about the solid storytelling that allowed these characters to be so popular in the first place. The abominable low point was The Abominable Bride, a shambolically plotted special which contorted the bare bones of a plot in various directions in order to indulge in one in-joke after the other.
This British show may have dropped severely in quality, but it did spawn an American version, Elementary, which has done a better job of remaining watchable – for one thing, they still solve crimes in it.
12 The West Wing
Aaron Sorkin’s fast-talking, fast-walking take on American politics – well, the first four seasons of it – is rightly lauded as one of the shows which marked a new age of quality television drama.
While the overarching character stories, including President Jed Bartlett’s struggles with a hidden illness, were heartbreaking and powerful, what was really remarkable was how the quality and wit of Sorkin’s dialogue made every individual episode, even when focusing on complex political issues which could easily be dry and boring, into something entertaining.
But Sorkin left The West Wing after Season 4. The show carried on without him, with the aim of completing the story of Bartlett’s two terms in office, but predictably declined without Sorkin’s writing. Working through the box set of these later seasons, sometimes you have to sit through four or five episodes before you get to one which isn’t, well, dry and boring. The show also suffered from the loss of Sam Seaborne, the character played by the charismatic Rob Lowe.
A classic example of a show that ran out of steam but kept on being renewed anyway, Dexter started out so well, with its genre-twisting concept of a serial killer who works for the police being an immediate hook with lots of potential.
After four seasons, however, the formula of a Dexter season, with a guest serial killer as each season’s villain, was starting to feel contrived, and the amount of storylines that could be told about Michael C. Hall's Dexter Morgan were starting to run out. It lost momentum, but kept on going anyway. Season 6’s weird and tacked-on religious theme was Dexter’s low point, seemingly desperate to be about something that it hadn’t explored before.
The end of Season 7 showed promise, as the show’s writers knew they were approaching the endgame; this allowed them to move Dexter’s story forward and mix up the character dynamics for the first time in a long while. But the final season somehow lost momentum again, ending Dexter’s story on an unsatisfying note.
10 The Office
Like Dexter, The Office ran for four excellent seasons and then declined. When the concept of a show is the things that go on in an ordinary, run-of-the-mill paper company, you just know it’s going to jump the shark at some point. Its plots became less and less believable, while relationship arcs started to repeat each other, with Andy and Erin’s ‘will they, won’t they?’ story being a poor remake of Jim and Pam’s.
It also suffered from the loss of several key figures. After Season 4, creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur departed The Office to work on their new show Parks and Recreation. But the real nail in the coffin was the departure of Steve Carell, who played office manager Michael Scott, in Season 7. The show tried out several replacement managers, but the spark was never the same.
The Office ended after nine seasons, with a touching finale episode that reminded us just how good it had been – and how far it had fallen.
9 The Walking Dead
OK, so this is an odd one, as the graph of The Walking Dead’s quality over time would be less of a downward slope and more of an entire mountain range.
But whereas early seasons – in particular Season 3, which masterfully built up the tensions between Rick Grimes’ gang and the sinister Governor of Woodbury – consistently gave us gripping drama, recent seasons have given us exceptional opening and closing episodes but a whole lot of padding in between. Across the recent first half of Season 7, The Walking Dead’s characters were spread very thin across a whole load of storylines, none of which felt very substantial or original.
The show had to rely on cheap tricks, such as Season 6’s fake killing-off of Glenn and the unpopular cliffhanger on which it ended, but there are only so many times these tricks can work before The Walking Dead becomes too much like one of its eponymous undead – shambling along, way past the end of its natural lifetime.
Starring Mary-Louise Parker as a suburban mom who takes up a double life as a pot dealer in order to make ends meet, the first three seasons of Weeds were a subversive and dark comedy.
Viewers loved the injection of the drug-dealing world into everyday life, with her suppliers also avoiding crime thriller stereotypes and members of the school PTA being among her customers. A constant comedic highlight came via the hilarious supporting performances of Elizabeth Perkins and Kevin Nealon.
At the end of Season 3, however, Nancy’s house and weed farm burned down, taking all evidence of her dealing with it. Which would be a great place for the series to end. But instead it carried on for five more seasons, with Nancy taking her kids on the road, constantly relocating, and the stories getting ever more ridiculous and ever less surprising. By the end, Weeds had become the overly sensational and seen-before crime series that the first three seasons had managed not to be.
7 Doctor Who
This tale of a madman travelling time and space in a police telephone box has been going for over fifty years, so it’s no wonder it’s had its ups and downs. When Steven Moffat took over as showrunner in 2010, introducing Matt Smith as the new Doctor, he initially built up the show’s success, making it into a worldwide phenomenon.
But Moffat soon lost control of his storylines, and Series 6 and 7 are the revived show’s low point. There’s a ludicrously complex story arc about the Doctor marrying his own assassin, and also helping raise her as a baby, which constantly contradicts itself in the search for another twist and features more plot holes than actual plot. The initially promising character of River Song becomes a one-dimensional list of catchphrases, defined entirely by her annoyingly unending love for the Doctor.
In the two recent seasons, however, the introduction of Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor has seen the show begin to improve again. Who fans can be thankful that this show changes so often that it never stays down for long.
6 The X-Files
Fox Mulder and Dana Scully were two names that everyone knew during the ‘90s. For seven seasons (and a film!), these two FBI special agents, played by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, investigated cases of a paranormal nature. Thanks to the way it tapped into the popularity of conspiracy theories, and also, of course, to the never-resolved sexual tension between the two leads, The X-Files became a worldwide phenomenon.
But after Season 7, disputes with Fox led to Duchovny taking a backseat, and he only appeared intermittently in the eighth and ninth seasons. The characters who replaced him never really lived up to Mulder, and the series’ ongoing ‘mytharc’ was getting tired by this point. With ratings declining, The X-Files ended after Season 9.
There was a brief revival of The X-Files last year, for a six-episode mini-series. While this once again paired up Mulder and Scully, it lacked the spark of the original series. No further returns have been confirmed.
Following the employees of Sacred Heart Teaching Hospital, the fast-paced and surreal humour of Scrubs made it one of the funniest sitcoms of the noughties. Praise was heaped upon the talented comedic cast, which included Zach Braff, Sarah Chalke and Donald Faison. After barely dropping in quality over eight whole seasons, Scrubs came to a perfect closure with My Finale. Guess what happened next.
The show returned for a ninth season, with most of the main cast gone and the focus on a new group of medical students. The idea was that Faison and John C. McGinley’s characters from the previous seasons were now medical professors, and would act as mentor figures to a rotating group of students.
But these new characters never stood out as half as interesting or funny as the ones we were used to, and the recurring appearances from those old faces only made it more difficult for Scrubs 2.0 to find its feet. After the lukewarm reaction to this season, Sacred Heart finally closed its doors.
4 The Killing
Making its debut in 2011, the first season of The Killing was an enthralling mystery drama. Not only did the investigation into who killed Rosie Larsen keep us guessing, but it explored the psychological impact of such a murder on a community. Viewers were engrossed by the dark atmospheric style, which was influenced by the show’s Scandinavian origin, and by the lead character of Sarah Linden.
While the finale of Season 1 frustrated many viewers, The Killing generally kept up this high quality throughout its second season. But once Rosie’s killer had been identified and Linden had moved on from the case, the show started to contort itself in order to keep things interesting.
The result was that, over the third and fourth seasons, the show drifted away from its initial realism, replacing psychological depth with melodrama and silliness. It’s such a shame, as the show would have been perfect if left at its logical endpoint, but instead it was allowed to go stale and tarnish its initial quality.
3 True Blood
It’s (thankfully) the only show on this list for which the lead cast posed naked and covered in blood for the cover of Rolling Stone, which sums up one of the reasons why True Blood captivated viewers – its sexy and subversive take on the vampire mythos made for a truly enthralling fantasy show. It had depth, too; set in a world where the existence of vampires is known to the public, the bloodsuckers’ struggle to be treated as equals was an allegory for LGBT rights.
But showrunner Alan Ball departed after Season 5, and so the final two seasons disappointed fans and critics alike. With less character depth, these seasons shifted to a more action-oriented tone, which wasn’t helped by the increasingly messy plot and the series’ declining production values.
Characters we’d grown to love never got the send-off they deserved – what more is to be said about an ending which marries off its lead to a character who never even got a name?
2 The Simpsons
When a show’s been running for 28 seasons, you can’t expect it all to be gold. In the case of The Simpsons, however, it's been far from gold for far too long.
The first nine or ten seasons are regarded as the show’s golden age, in which the all-American family created by Matt Groening redefined animation. It was a show that appealed to everyone; with effective character-driven stories, The Simpsons showed that animation wasn’t, like Itchy and Scratchy, just something you put on to shut the kids up.
Sadly, since the turn of the millennium, the quality has declined, with touching stories being replaced by zaniness for the sake of it and with an over-reliance on celebrity cameos and other pop culture references.
The Simpsons and their friends are so ingrained in pop culture that it seems unlikely the show will ever be cancelled, but given that all of the best episodes are around twenty years old... perhaps it should be.
From the minds of J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof and Jeffrey Lieber, Lost started out as a thrilling drama about the survivors of a plane wreck, giving us some great characters in the group of survivors as they began their new life on the isolated island.
And then it added more and more sci-fi twists. This gave the show a fascinating mythology for a while, making Lost one of the first series to be feverishly debated online. But if you’re going to build your show around an increasingly complex mystery, you’d better have answers to all your questions. The polar bears, the smoke monster, the split realities... it all built up, as did the amount of characters we were struggling to follow.
By the time the survivors reached the Temple, even those who’d seen this show as a religion were starting to lose faith. Which makes it ironic that, rather than give us answers, the finale revealed that Lost had been a religious parable all along. Not exactly a satisfying ending.
Sources: EW; Variety; THR
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