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?