Late Bloomers

October 24, 2011

When I wrote about Kojak last week, I argued that the popular cop show didn’t hit its stride until late in its second season.  That started me thinking: what other long-running classic TV series peaked late?  More often than not, great television shows experience an entropy effect.  They start strong and then gradually run out of ideas or begin to repeat themselves.  Here are a few that were still getting better in their third seasons, or later.

1. Studio One (1948-1958).  No live anthology made itself over as thoroughly as Studio One, which evolved from hoary stagings of the classics to gritty kitchen-sink dramas after the “Marty” revolution.  Producer Felix Jackson’s years on the show, which yielded “Twelve Angry Men” and “1984,” are probably seen as the high-water mark, but I prefer the periods produced by Robert Herridge (summer 1956), a cultivator of fragile, poetic writers, and Herbert Brodkin (most of 1957), who sought out edgy, topical material (like “The Defender,” pilot for the subsequent series).

2. 77 Sunset Strip (1958-1964).  The final season (1963-1964) of this six-year crime show was a reboot avant la lettre.  New executive producer Jack Webb jettisoned the entire supporting cast and moved the one remaining P.I. (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) off the Strip and into the historic Bradbury Building.  He also changed the tone, from goofy escapism to bleak, violent hard-boiled pulp.

3. Rawhide (1959-1966).  Like Studio One, Rawhide morphed into a different show each time it changed producers.  I’ve already written about my preference for the modernist (1962-1964) seasons produced by Vincent Fennelly and the postmodern half-year (fall 1964) stewarded by Bruce Geller and Bernie Kowalski versus the early, classical seasons (1959-1962) run by Charles Marquis Warren and then Endre Bohem.  Rejoice: CBS continues to herd Rawhide on its slow cattle drive to DVD, and the good stuff is almost here.

4. Route 66 (1960-1964).  George Maharis may have had more charisma, but his departure in the middle of the third season opened the door for a better actor: Glenn Corbett as Linc, whose recent discharge from Vietnam service motivated some of Stirling Silliphant’s best scripts.  Also, the 1961 Congressional uproar over televised violence, during which Route 66 was cited, enabled the producers to prune away some of the gratuitous fistfights that were the early episodes’ most conspicious flaw.

5. Mannix (1968-1975).  The initial format – Mannix as a rebellious corporate private eye – was a good idea on paper but a bust in practice.  A new producing team, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, revamped the show as a classical private eye story, albeit hyperviolent and with colorful sixties look.  The peak came around the third or fourth season, by which time Mannix had a roster of great genre writers contributing fatalistic, noirish stories, great directors (especially Sutton Roley and Paul Krasny) indulging in wild compositions and camera pyrotechnics that were too bold for most shows, and great supporting actors (like Hugh Beaumont and Robert Reed) recurring as Joe Mannix’s law enforcement foils.

6. The Bold Ones: The New Doctors (1969-1973).  The first three seasons were competent, intelligent medical melodramas with an emphasis (perhaps an overemphasis) on cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs in various fields of medicine.  For the fourth and final year, The New Doctors fell into the hands of young producer David Levinson (formerly of the brilliant The Senator), who recruited even better writers and turned the series into a Defenders-style social issues drama, with topical, ballsy episodes that addressed mental illness, homosexuality, impotence, euthanasia, and malpractice.

7-9. Cheers (1982-1993), Newhart (1982-1990), and Night Court (1984-1992).  All of these eighties ensemble comedies needed three or four seasons to assemble their perfect lineups.  Newhart discovered Julia Duffy (Stephanie) in its second year and Peter Scolari (Michael) in its third, and expanded the presence of its wacky supporting cast (especially William Sanderson et. al. as Larry, Darryl and Darryl) as it went along.  I’m ambivalent about Sam and Diane (Shelley Long) vs. Sam and Rebecca (Kirstie Alley), but young idiot Woody (Woody Harrelson), a fourth season replacement, was funnier than old idiot Coach (Nicholas Colasanto), and Frasier and Lilith (Kelsey Grammer and Bebe Neuwirth) were vital midpoint additions to Cheers.  Night Court ran through two public defenders and two elderly bailiffs before finding the right chemistry in the fourth season with sweet Markie Post and Marsha Warfield, whose character was so tough she wanted nothing more than to fight Tyson.  Of course, mortality necessitated many of these changes (Colasanto and Night Court’s Selma Diamond and Florence Halop all died during production).  Show business is harsh.

10. The X-Files (1993-2002).  The nine-season science fiction masterwork peaked somewhere in the middle, before its mythology became too complex but after creator Chris Carter and his writers gained the courage to make the one-off stories ever more off-beat (“Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”), avant-garde (“The Post-Modern Prometheus”), and visually stylized (“Home”).

11-12. The Wire (2002-2008) and Mad Men (2007- ) burst out of the gate as masterpieces.  But The Wire’s final season was also its finest, and Mad Men’s most recent was its best to date.  Both shows’ writing staffs created such fully fleshed-out, internally consistent fictional worlds that a viewer’s investment in the characters could increase exponentially over time; desperate alcoholics Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm), for instance, evolved from self-pitying sad sacks into tragic everymen.

Readers, chime in – what are some other shows that were at their best in the middle or at the end?

20 Responses to “Late Bloomers”

  1. Robert David Sullivan Says:

    Barney Miller: The later seasons with deadpan Steve Landesberg were better than the first few seasons with Abe Vigoda, who constantly mugged for the camera/studio audience. The writing also evolved from a Norman Lear-esque clash of different ethnic types to more nuanced look at universal human imperfections.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      My Barney Miller memories are vague but I believe you’re right about the writing. However, I must admit that I find Landesburg, and especially Ron Carey, kind of hard to take.

    • Larry Granberry Says:

      Totally agree! I thought Dietrich was one of the great sitcom characters of all time.

  2. The syndicated “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-1994) didn’t become interesting until the third season. That’s when the writers started to pull plot lines together and added a then wildly popular cliffhanger to the end of the third season.
    That season, 1989-1990, the show found its own ensemble cast strengths and relied more on a cadre of writers with institutional memory of the unique Star Trek “universe.” Viewer interest increased and it probably helped lead to the creation of the multiple (cash cow) Star Trek shows in existence today.

  3. Mike Doran (aka Lowbrow Crank) Says:

    I am in the wide minority in this view …

    M*A*S*H was improved by Harry Morgan replacing McLean Stevenson.
    It was further improved by David Ogden Stiers replacing Larry Linville.
    It was further improved by Jamie Farr dropping the drag angle.
    It was vastly improved when the recurring character of Col. Flagg (Ed Winter) was dropped.
    It was ultimately improved by having Hawkeye getting bitten in the ass by his own self-righteousness almost every time.
    These days I find the earliest episodes unwatchable because of their joke-joke-joke structure and their reliance on strawman characters like Frank Burns and Col. Flagg.
    The later episodes were better darma than the early episodes were comedy – one of the great ironies of TV.

    As I said above, this view is the minority one.
    I hold it firmly and proudly.

    • Phil Nichols Says:

      It was also improved by allowing Hotlips to become Margaret, and by the replacement of Trapper by BJ. Most of these character changes add up to a shift from shallow comedy to characters with depth.

  4. Russell M. Says:

    “Emergency!” picked up after the first season, primarily because it took the actors (especially Kevin Tighe and Randolph Mantooth) several shows before they got the medical jargon to flow as smoothly as the other scripted dialogue.

    Similarly, it took a few seasons before episodes of “The Simpsons” began to flow like water, from the scripts to the voice acting.

    I’m in agreement with “Barney Miller” and “Star Trek: the Next Generation”.

  5. Stuart Galbraith IV Says:

    I’d add more favorites: St. Elsewhere, Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, The Rockford Files….

  6. Christopher S. Says:

    Adam-12. By the fourth season, the action has moved out of Universal’s generic standing sets and onto the actual streets of Los Angeles. There are fewer recognizable character actors, and suddenly a show that was built on the premise of realism actually has some, and becomes vastly more interesting.

  7. Naked City, which started off as a half-hour series starring James Franciscus and John McIntire, evolved into THE Naked City, the far more enduring one-hour version that starred Paul Burke as Adam Flint and featured guest appearances by the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, William Shatner, Robert Duvall. This one-hour version was really revolutionary television, penned by left-leaning writers (including onetime blacklistees) who used the police genre to explore the social and psychological roots of transgressive human behavior in contemporary urban America. GREAT TV!

  8. Larry Granberry Says:

    The Fugitive started off strong and had a terrific final episode to wrap the series up nicely, but for my money, the second and third seasons were the best, and really set the bar for the show. By this time, David Janssen and Barry Morse had their characters nailed, and the interplay between the two (especially in episodes like “May God Have Mercy” and “Ill Wind”) were unparalled in sixties TV.

  9. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Interesting. Not sure about The Fugitive, but a good point regarding the Kimble/Gerard relationship. Even though the fourth season was a little subpar, I always thought it was a good idea that the three parties (including the one-armed man) encountered each other more often, so that the finale wasn’t totally out of the blue.

    David, you’re right about the hour-long Naked City (again, almost a “reboot” in the modern parlance) being superior to the half-hour. And I’d go even farther than that, arguing that Howard Rodman, Abram Ginnes, and Marion Dougherty did better work in the final two seasons than the first. The Defenders is also a “bell curve” show, with the second and third seasons markedly better than the first or last.

    And speaking of that, Star Trek: The Next Generation is a perfect bell curve: as Shelby points out, it found itself in the third season, but I’d add that the last two were often flabby and repetitive (*cough* Brannon Braga *cough*), leaving the three middle years as the best.

  10. bobby J. Says:

    Night Gallery’s second season was vastly better than the first, which only had ‘The Academy’ and ‘They’re Treating Down Tim Riley’s Bar’ as stand outs. ‘Seinfeld’ also took it’s time, though it never bad and had small seasons to begin with. Probably the most consistently good comedy of them all.

  11. Brian Says:

    I thought the last season of Lou Grant was best, particularly in allowing the viewer to feel close to the characters.

  12. Lynn Reed Says:

    Northern Exposure greatly improved in its full seasons (starting with 3 — 1 & 2 were short seasons) and, I believe, hit its peak in Season 5, before the inevitable decline following Rob Morrow’s departure in early Season 6. As you mention with Mad Men, Northern Exposure needed time to build up the complexities in its characters so that its subtle storytelling style could have more impact.

  13. jdee28 Says:

    Gunsmoke is another show that should be mentioned, peaking from the latter half of season 2 through to season 6.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      I have a Facebook friend who makes a great case for some of the color seasons of Gunsmoke — I’m not sure which ones, but I’m guessing about 1968-1972 — as being quite brilliant, and I was hoping he would chime in here.

  14. Barbara Says:

    “Dharma & Greg” was a cute, enjoyable opposites-attract comedy for its first season or two, with a hidden-gem pairing of Susan Sullivan and Mitchell Ryan as wealthy inlaws. Then in the third season it developed the courage of its own demented convictions, taking episode concepts all the way to their climax without hesitation. As an example, I cite the episode in which Dharma gets Greg to join her in one of her ‘role playing’ shopping trips, as Southerners. They attract the interest of a homesick Southerner who turns out to be the new judge in front of whom Greg will soon argue. You watch the whole episode waiting for the impostiture to implode, humiliating Greg or teaching everyone ‘lessons’, but it never does. It ends with a high-camp visit to the now Southernized family members (including Ryan’s CEO dressed as Col. Sanders), and the judge returning to Mississippi none the wiser.

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