A strong first impression can be enough to make a TV show a hit for years. That’s not always a good thing though, and with very few new series having an end goal in sight, and even the ones that do often being postponed or rethought if they get popular enough, more often than not beloved shows will be dragged out for longer than their plots and characters deserve.
Consequently, there are some iconic TV shows that started with a bang, firing on all cylinders and instantly going down as fan favourites, but drove that potential into the ground as the years went by. Still revered for their glory years, fans and critics fondly bring up their past successes in the hopes that one day, if they’re lucky, these once-great series might be able to get back the magical spark that made them so memorable and interesting in the first place.
Sadly though, at some point you’ve got to call time and accept that it’s never going to happen. There’s no taking away what these TV programmes managed to accomplish when they were at their creative peaks, but if we take them as a whole, there’s no denying that they’ve been bad for longer than they were ever good.
For two whole seasons, Sherlock could do no wrong. Over those first six episodes, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat created one of the best detective shows ever, not only striking gold by casting Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson, but also having the narrative chops to create some genuinely compelling crime mysteries.
After wrapping up the main narrative at the end of the sixth episode though, which saw the series-long villain Moriarty commit suicide and Sherlock faking his own death, the creators had trouble finding a way to justify even more adventures for TV’s best dynamic duo.
Consequently, while the next two seasons (and the Christmas special) still have their moments, the quality of the plots and the overall writing couldn’t hold a candle to those earlier episodes, leaving the two leads to do most of the heavy lifting.
Where it used to promise a tight and concise crime thriller every single week, by the time the fourth season came around the narratives themselves played second-fiddle because of just how bloated the episodes had become, with the characters themselves being the only reason to justify tuning in every week.
Back in 2011, there wasn’t any TV show quite as biting or as current as Homeland. Placing their sights squarely on contemporary terrorism, the writers at Showtime tapped into the fears and anxieties of viewers with a great central hook: a former CIA agent taken prisoner by al-Qaeda has returned to America, but who are they really working for?
This brilliantly juicy setup led to a couple of incredible paranoia-laced seasons that, while never smartly written in the conventional sense, were still able to deliver some mind-bending twists that more than did the pulpy premise justice.
Once the second season wrapped up though, the charm had run dry. Instead of capitalising on its daring premise and following it through to its natural conclusion, the third season made a few U-turns and head-scratching creative decisions that weren’t in service of the plot, but were seemingly only there to keep the actors and the story chugging along without changing things up too much.
It was the beginning of the end for the flash-in-the-pan series, and although the creators eventually started to trim the fat and put the focus on Clare Danes’ Carrie, Homeland had already transitioned from being an enjoyably dumb popcorn thriller to being just plain ol’ dumb.
9. True Blood
Debuting back in 2008, Alan Ball’s smart and sexy True Blood marked itself out as a genre show that had more of a bite than other supernatural-themed series at the time. The first run of episodes weren’t quite there, but they established a solid foundation that the second season was able to turn into something truly special.
Despite being an instant hit – and riding the wave of interest in dark supernatural love stories in the late 2000s – the show’s quality quickly declined, before jumping off a cliff entirely in the final couple of years. The warning signs were always there looking back on it though, with daft and exploitative subplots like the introduction of rapist werepanthers (yes, that’s a thing in this show) in season 4 indicating just how much True Blood could veer off base at times.
Sadly, the more the series started to plod along, the more the logic behind these side-stories started bleeding into the central mythology, completely derailing an otherwise over-the-top but seriously entertaining genre show and resulting in a final season where virtually every character was mangled beyond recognition.
Back when procedural crime shows were all the rage, Dexter attempted to stand out from the crowd by making its main detective a serial killer. Excelling in both its case-of-the-week investigations as well its wider mythology, the early seasons of Showtime’s series were a breath of fresh air in an ailing genre, led by the always excellent Michael C. Hall.
However, you could argue that Dexter was doomed from the start, as casting your lead protagonist as a serial killer leads to some problems the longer a programme like this continues. The more you watch Dexter, the more you empathise with the character, and the more his rough edges come to be smoothed out. Likewise, a show with a premise like this only has one logical conclusion: one way or another, Dexter’s got to pay for his actions.
The creators wrestled with these big issues as the series wore on, which were compounded by increasingly silly plots that were nowhere near as risky or as daring as some of the show’s most memorable episodes. It was an undeniably great start, but after somehow becoming both more convoluted yet more rote year after year, Dexter declined in quality right up until its inevitable anticlimactic end.
Although it will seemingly never be cancelled now, there was a time where every season of Supernatural was a fight to stay on the air, resulting in the creative team putting out some of the best genre material TV had seen in years. The true spiritual successor to shows like The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the first five seasons of the show (under the tutelage of Eric Kripke) were pretty damn flawless.
However, Supernatural was always planned as a five-season story, and once the original creator had wrapped up his narrative by having the protagonists literally prevent the end of the world by beating the Devil, the show had written itself into a corner it couldn’t get out of.
Consequently, season 6 experimented with a few ideas to reboot things, but ultimately only created a web of convoluted narrative threads that didn’t come together in the end, while the seventh run marked the show’s biggest dip in quality to date, boasting a main villain who was literally a walking dick joke.
Under the guidance of a new showrunner, season 8 picked up the pieces a bit, but repeated plots and a disregard for the series’ lore meant that, year after year, Supernatural slowly transformed into a pale imitation of its former self.
6. Doctor Who
For a show that’s essentially been on TV for over 50 years, it’s impressive just how much life there still is in Doctor Who. Thanks to a revival in 2005, nuWho has continued to make the long-standing series relevant for modern audiences, birthing a new generation of fans and creating some bona fide stars in the process.
However, if you look at the long history of Doctor Who’s time in the spotlight, there have been more duds than there have been hits. While the amazing run in the mid-1970s birthed some particularly excellent seasons, the ’60s didn’t fare so well. With so many episodes produced – often over 40 a season, many of which were lost in the depths of the BBC – a lot of the early run lacks the focus and overall quality of later years, despite standout episodes still making them worthwhile.
Even in the more recent revival series things haven’t always been rosy, with the latter half of Matt Smith’s run as the Time Lord in particular being an abysmally bloated low point. It’s still iconic, and there are gems to be found, but Doctor Who is a frustrating beast when taken as a whole.
5. House Of Cards
One of the first TV shows (along with Orange is the New Black) to truly put Netflix on the map, House of Cards hasn’t really stopped being a critical darling since its debut.
However, while it started strong, the series which was once praised for its authentic realism has slowly transformed into a cartoon parody of itself, becoming so overblown with its political narrative and moustache-twirling villains that it’s difficult to take seriously.
Arguably, Netlfix’s crown jewel hasn’t been the same since season 3, dipping in quality with every following year on the streaming service. The talent on show made it worth keeping an eye on, but there’s probably a reason why the show couldn’t retain the majority of the great actors that joined its cast.
For obvious reasons, it looks like the series is going to go through a major shake-up going forward, so let’s hope that a new direction could bring about a creative renaissance, or it might just be better if Netflix cancels it completely.
4. The Walking Dead
Unlike some of the other TV shows on this list, The Walking Dead doesn’t have one moment you can point to and say “this is where the creators shat the bed.” Instead, the quality of the show has always been in flux, beginning with the big dip between the phenomenal first season the disappointing second.
Still, there have been peaks in the show that have proved that The Walking Dead can still be excellent when it wants to be – the back half of season 4 through to season 5 immediately comes to mind – but for every stellar string of episodes, there’ll always be a terrible run like the back half of 3, the beginning of 6, or the entirety of 7 that makes you wonder why you continue to stick around.
While there are standout episodes in between the dirge like Too Far Gone or Pretty Much Dead Already, the seasons just don’t come together as a satisfying whole.
Likewise, while it’s too early to say for sure, season 8 hasn’t gotten off to a great start either, improving on the previous year but still being dragged down by some core storytelling and production issues that have plagued the series for ages now.
3. American Horror Story
With its first season, American Horror Story quickly established itself as must-watch television. Telling a stylised but gripping haunted house tale that covered everything from urban legends to stories of mass shooters and suicide, the anthology series’ original run threw everything at the wall, and while not everything stuck, it made for a chaotically fun time.
However, after finishing that self-contained season, the series could never quite recapture the anarchic magic that made it so compelling. The follow-up run attempted to tackle more serious themes of abuse and religion, and while it gave fans great performances from Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson (as well as the greatest piece of filmed media in recorded history), it lacked the same creative spark of the original.
Season 3 was a minor improvement, embracing camp rather than the oppressive atmosphere of previous episodes, but its brief quality reprieve was completely shattered the year after with Freak Show, and the series has never recovered since.
2. Marvel’s Netflix Universe
Although it got off to a cracking start, with the excellent first season of Daredevil and the masterpiece that was the entirety of Jessica Jones’ initial run, Netflix’s Marvel universe started to come apart during Daredevil’s sophomore season.
After four stellar episodes focusing on the titular hero battling The Punisher, the latter half of the season completely shifts gears to focus on more supernatural threats, arbitrarily splitting Matt from the rest of the cast and lumping him with Electra for the remaining episodes.
From there on, every new show that followed was worse than the last, with Luke Cage showing glimmers of hope in its first half before squandering its potential, Iron Fist being a complete write-off from the get go and the long-awaited Defenders failing to meet expectations.
As it stands, Marvel’s slate of Netflix shows are in desperate need of a course correct, but at least there’s Jessica Jones season 2 and The Punisher dropping soon to hopefully bring things back around.
1. The Simpsons
You don’t need me to tell you that The Simpsons should have ended a long time ago. Depending on who you talk to, the series hasn’t been good since around season 12, with some arguing that the iconic animated comedy lost its lustre even before then.
Moving away from the heart that made the show resonate with millions of people across the globe, later seasons adopted a more surreal and mean-spirited comedic spirit incongruous with the identity it cemented in its earlier years, increasingly becoming a shell of its former self.
Still, despite being ridiculed and criticised for longer than it was praised, The Simpsons continues to be an immovable cultural object, with the quality of its peak years being enough to solidify its position as one of the greatest shows of all time.
Agree with this list? Which TV shows do you think have more bad seasons than good? Let us know down in the comments.