Some TV shows, like long-running series "Friends" and cult fave "Firefly," are captivating right out of the starting gate. (And yes, Joss Whedon's sci-fi western series was amazing whether you count the actual pilot or the later episode FOX aired first.) Many television shows operate on a slow burn, however, and take awhile to overcome a clunky pilot or even several episodes of their debut season. Considering the "good ratings or die" attitude of most TV networks, it's amazing some of these entertaining series survived after their dismal beginnings.
"The Vampire Diaries": This CW melodrama still has its flaws, but it's transformed from an eye roll extravaganza to a truly entertaining guilty pleasure. The pilot's problems were numerous, the big offender being obviously adult actors woodenly reciting chirpy Valley Girl "OMG!" dialogue about deep things like having a "kick-ass" school year. Moody, diary-writing vampire Stefan (Paul Wesley) came across as a dumb jock who would scrawl "Duh!" at the start of every entry, if in some universe a guy like that would actually keep a journal.
Luckily for this fledgling show, there was enough of an intriguing mystery buried in the plot, and "Lost" actor Ian Somerhalder showed up at the end of the pilot to add some smoldering, hypnotic bad boy goodness that female viewers were willing to tune in again for. As the season progressed, the writing tightened up and the acting appeared more natural. Wesley warmed up to his character, no pun intended, and Nina Dobrev upped her skills to give us two distinctive doppelgangers, Elena and Katherine. If we'd given up after the pilot, we never would have been able to enjoy the enticing vampire/human love triangles and suspenseful, angsty adventures of "The Vampire Diaries."
"Without a Trace": It was yet another cop show from CBS in 2002, and this one was really bad. The pilot episode tried way too hard to be hip and edgy, and dumped way too many "married to the job veteran detective" and "hothead Latino" stereotypes on us at once. Lead Anthony LaPaglia looked uncomfortable, and Poppy Montgomery's acting ranked right up there with Paris Hilton. The whole series seemed stilted with largely unlikable characters, and if CBS had killed it after a few episodes, it wouldn't have been missed.
The show's main advantage was its focus on tracking down missing persons, rather than uncovering murderers and violent offenders every week. The chance for a happy ending made "Without a Trace" stand out from its more depressing counterparts, and thankfully the series smoothed out into a solid drama with some truly standout episodes. Montgomery improved dramatically and LaPaglia turned in some of his finest acting performances, earning him both an Emmy nomination and Golden Globe win in 2004.
"Star Trek: The Next Generation": The pilot episode, "Encounter at Farpoint (Part I)," was a truly clunky start to what would become a beloved series amongst "Star Trek" fans. The most jarring element was that Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) was not only the anti-Kirk, but he was a rather unlikable jerk. The pilot episode also crumbled under the weight of combining a space plot, gratuitous CGI (including some less than stellar SFX) and introducing a parade of characters.
The entire cast seemed lost in space, searching for their characters' vibes and motivations, with Marina Sirtis (Troi) falling victim to the "shout out obvious things" role. Stewart himself later said that he had no idea how to portray his character at the start, and thought he would get fired.
Luckily for us, he didn't, and the series eventually found its stride. Picard retained his practical, intellectual, and cultured personality, but warmed considerably. The characters developed into a family, and "The Next Generation" successfully melded entertaining space adventures with forays into philosophical and forward-thinking debates that "Star Trek" fans have always loved.
"Doctor Who": The first "Doctor Who" TV series, like the original "Star Trek," had a rep for low budgets but intriguing sci-fi storylines and beloved characters that earned a rabid fanbase. With a 2005 reboot, excited viewers were hoping those good stories would now be accompanied by better effects and a little more sophistication. Instead, our new doctor and his future companion faced off in the pilot episode with an attacking mannequin arm--that mostly involved the actors holding a plastic arm and pretending to fight with it. Then there was the unbelievable scenario where our heroine's boyfriend turns into a mannequin, and she doesn't notice the difference.
"Who" fans aren't really afraid of a few corny scenarios, however, and Christopher Eccleston successfully combined charm and childlike whimsy with a mysteriously dangerous vibe to create a Doctor worth watching. Billie Piper added the fiery passion and heart to the duo, and each successive episode became richer in storytelling and presentation.
The series truly took flight when David Tennant took over as Doctor Number 10, and the series began to weave the individual episodes into larger, overarching plots that spanned one or more years. Though it started small, "Doctor Who" is now one of the finest, most thoughtful series on television.
"Castle": This series still isn't brain surgery by any means, but it's definitely upped its game since the first episode. With a pretty contrived scenario to base a series on, "Castle" immediately struggled to make the idea of a crime novelist helping out the police a believable one. It didn't help that Castle was a bit too much of a caricature, the sexual tension got ramped up to 11 from the moment he met Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic), and the other guys in the police squad were merely a peanut gallery behind the two leads' banter.
The ridiculous amounts of charm Nathan Fillion possesses helped keep "Castle" on the air, hobbling along on good will until the series finally started to gel. The writing helped develop all of the characters into actual individuals we cared about, and the weekly mysteries became more intricate and less predictable. The series writers also found a way to better balance the macabre nature of a crime with the jokes that inevitably accompanied it.
Which of your favorite series had terrible pilots, or even terrible first years?