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February 27, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Lists | February 27, 2009 |

Earlier this week, I caught a lot of flak from the Whedonites for dissing on “Dollhouse,” after watching only two episodes (it’s all I had to work with, people). Most of Whedon’s most ardent fans plan on sticking it out (as will I, for a while), because both Whedon and Eliza Dushku have promised that the show will eventually find its legs, around Episode Six (presumably, that’s when Dushku is killed off?). If it does, as they promise, find its way at the season midpoint, it won’t be the first show in recent memory to gain its steam after its initial episodes.

There was a time, in fact, when network television had considerably more patience than it does now. When a show had the right ingredients to be a great show, a network was capable of suffering a few weeks (or an entire season) of low ratings to see if the show would eventually take off creatively and find an audience. Here are five of the most notorious examples from recent television history:

5. “The X-Files”: Like “Lost,” which had a considerably better first season, “The X-Files” struggled in the beginning to create its mythology. Monster-of-the-week episodes dominated the first season, as Chris Carter aimed to expand the show’s premise beyond paranormal phenomena. The alternative government plot was poorly fleshed out, and the mystery behind the abduction of Mulder’s sister wasn’t particularly compelling. More importantly, it took several episodes before the kinks in Mulder and Scully’s chemistry would work itself out. Indeed, it wasn’t really until “The X-Files” started introducing tertiary characters that would eventually become series’ regulars before the show really took off, especially in season two. Nevertheless, FOX — which had little else to air on Friday nights at the time — stayed with the show through two seasons of basement ratings before it eventually found a growing audience in season three.

4. “The Office” (US Version): The pilot episode of the American version of “The Office” was dreadful — a half-baked remake of the British version. It was impossible, in fact, in the first few episodes to separate the characters from their British counterpoints, and the American cast stacked up poorly. Fortunately, after two or three episodes, Greg Daniels smartly decided to take the American version in its own direction. It stopped borrowing plotlines from Ricky Gervais’ version and Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott settled in to what he is today, while the Jim and Pam fledgling romance got some legs under it. “The Office,” a midseason replacement when it debuted, had fairly atrocious ratings that first year, but NBC saw enough potential to let it live another season, and now it’s their biggest remaining comedy.

3. “Seinfeld”: The cornerstone for many years of NBC’s “Must Watch” Thursday nights, “Seinfeld” actually started out terrible, like those old Bugs Bunny cartoons. In fact, it debuted as “The Seinfeld Chronicles” and was even bumped from the schedule for a while. Indeed, there’s a reason why the first season is rarely shown in syndication. Kramer’s hair was flat. Both George and Elaine overacted even more than they did in subsequent seasons, and Jerry couldn’t act at all (he had not yet turned that into a positive for the show). The first season felt horribly sit-commy, relying far too heavily on the laugh track. The timing was off, the characters had not yet fallen into their personalities, and the “show about nothing” premise had not yet been fully implemented. It wasn’t until Season Three, even, that the show fully found its legs before transitioning into seasons four through six, arguably the best three-season arc of any sitcom in television history.

2. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”: I’m not entirely sure if I share the consensus opinion on this, as I came to “Buffy” very late. I also very nearly quit after the first season, and had I been watching it on a week-to-week basis on TV, I’d have never made it further than five or six episodes. It started with that Nerf Herder song, which was, is, and will always be atrocious. The show looked cheap; the production values were shit; and it all very much felt like a generic Lifetime show, only its central character was a vampire slayer. The acting was awful, the writing was clunky, and it was all very embarrassingly campy. Indeed, after having watched subsequent seasons of “Buffy,” if you go back, the first season will likely make you cringe. But, it did set the stage, and eventually, Whedon’s cast matured into their characters and the show mythology took off. Still, the first season exists only to be owned by completists, but never to be watched.

1. “The Wire”: For the many of you who have attempted to watch “The Wire” from the beginning, only to run afoul of accessibility problems, know this: I watched the first four episodes of “The Wire” three times before I could make it to episode five. It wasn’t that they were bad (they were amazing, in retrospect), it’s that it was difficult to tell what was going on. It took a while to adjust to the fact that “The Wire” wasn’t an episodic series, as much as it was 13-hour movies broken down into one-hour increments. In the first four episodes, David Simon laid the foundation for the story, and introduced the characters, although in the moment, it felt like a lot of nothing was going on. In fact, my experience with “The Wire” is why I’m going to stick it out with “Dollhouse.” The latter will never be as good as “The Wire,” but it is reasonable to believe that the first half of the season is merely the exposition to something that could be better. It was, in the case of “The Wire.” It was episode four, in fact, that was the turning point for me. When McNulty and Bunk did a crime scene investigation, and for an entire scene only uttered the word, “Shit,” I was hooked by the brilliant interplay, although it’d take another episode or two before I fully absorbed the narrative.

A Seriously Random List LX / Dustin Rowles

Lists | February 27, 2009 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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