Between the firing of Dan Harmon on Community and the endless retooling (and eventual cancelation) of Up All Night, NBC has filled the current TV season with dread and frustration. But it wouldn’t be the first time a show has been in trouble. With that in mind, here are five great shows that nearly jumped the shark but managed to rebound and reclaim their former glory.
Twin Peaks may have been the water cooler event of the early-90s, but after a remarkable first season, showrunner David Lynch succumbed to network pressure and revealed Laura Palmer’s killer. With no central mystery tying the show together, Lynch exited, leaving Peaks’ writing staff without a clue on how to continue. So they did what any confused writing team does: They turned the show into a joke. Characters would routinely get amnesia, causing them to believe that they were confederate soldiers or in high school. Others were locked in literal and figurative romantic imprisonments, which prevented them from doing anything entertaining. It was a tragedy. The show that changed television was a shadow of its former self.
Sometime around the last quarter of season two, however, Twin Peaks got its groove back. Kyle MacLachlan retook center stage and dove back into the engaging and weird mysteries that originally defined the show. Rather than creating twelve diverging plots, Mark Frost, the show’s unsung hero, connected the town through another murder and brought some intrigue back to the Pacific Northwest. By the time the last episode rolled around, David Lynch was back in the director’s chair and the show jumped down the lucid rabbit holes that made the first season so great. Unfortunately, the dip in quality was too much, and the show was not brought back for a third season.
A sacred cow, for sure, but at least Arrested Development was willing to admit that it came close to jumping the shark — and we’re not talking about Henry Winkler’s literal jump over a dead shark on his way to Burger King. Season three of Arrested Development follows its flawless predecessor with a slight retooling and a bizarre plot about a mysterious family. For five episodes at the onset of season three, the Bluth Family pretty much abandons the idea of staying together and joins an extended James Bond parody involving a new character, Rita, Michael’s mentally challenged love interest, played by Charlize Theron.
Even “bad” Arrested Development at this time is better than any other show, but compared to the rest, these episodes are easily the show’s weakest. Of course, this wasn’t entirely Mitch Hurwitz’s fault. Thanks to the tremendous lack of support from Fox, Arrested Development made cuts to the series as early as season two, causing the Mr. F arc to stick out like a sore thumb.
It wouldn’t last long, though. The final seven episodes are as good as any, with the final four parodying every Jumping The Shark trope in the book. Guest stars and 3D abound, Arrested Development finishes its initial run in fine form.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Seasons one through four saw great development in the mythos and budget of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The show, which started as homemade pilot, now had one of TV’s biggest stars, Danny DeVito, and a budget that could set characters on fire. But by season five the vivid colors of HD had replaced Sunny’s dark video grime. Then, the sponsors moved in. From a gag about a Coors sign reminding customers of the Paddy’s Pub’s fresh Coors to setting scenes under the shadow of Subway’s new breakfast menu to a plot about replacing American currency with Dave and Buster’s points, the gang had officially sold out.
Season six and seven got back on track. Kaitlin Olson and Glenn Howerton finally matched the energy of breakout star Charlie Day, and Rob McElhenney gained 25 pounds. Solid all around. Sunny may show signs of wear, but it has yet to fall back into season five’s worst moments.
30 Rock was a breath of fresh air when it premiered in 2006. Following the untimely demise of Arrested Development, no other show was as fast or smart as Tina Fey’s parody of her time at SNL, and for the first three seasons, it seemed like nothing could slow it down.
Then the show hit a lull. In 30 Rock’s attempt to actually capture an audience, the show added catch phrases, turned Jenna, Tracy, and Kenneth into caricatures, and ended every episode proving Liz Lemon’s corporate overlords right. A failed attempt at a live episode and some very formulaic character turns didn’t stop 30 Rock from becoming the very thing it used to parody.
The show was, for the most part, consistently funny, though. So for the final two seasons, Fey put the focus back on characters. As things wrapped up, the show put its best foot forward, with the final episode becoming one of the series’ best.
The American Office has been far more sordid affair than its British counterpart. After a dismal first season, the show went on to be not only one of the most popular on television, but also one of the funniest. As seasons three, four, and five pressed on, the show hit a comfortable groove and hit two suitable endings: Pam and Jim’s wedding and Michael Scott’s departure. Having lost its star and primary emotional arc, and despite massive speculation, The Office continued.
Drops in quality can be seen as early as the wedding, but the show really went into a tailspin after The Office lost its boss. As other series regulars began to leave, and every season seemed destined to be its last, it took an official final season to bring back original showrunner, Greg Daniels, to sort out this mess. It’s not perfect — primarily in the onscreen sound guy department — but it’s certainly an improvement.
The jury’s still out on whether The Office can hold it together, but it’s hard to deny the slight return to form of the last ten episodes.