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September 30, 2014

Most Improved TV Shows: 10 Bad Shows That Got Better

by Gary Susman, posted Oct 21st 2009 5:00PM
Amy Poehler When it debuted last spring, 'Parks and Recreation' already seemed in need of some urban renewal. Sure, Amy Poehler was funny, but the rest of the ensemble didn't gel around her, the plotting was listless and the jokes fell flat.

In its second season, however, the writing has become sharper, the pacing has gathered steam and Poehler's bureaucrat with delusions of grandeur has become someone to sympathize with and root for.

'Parks' deserves a ribbon for improving on a rocky start; after all, few shows that stumble out of the gate are able to recover their footing and race to the forefront. Here are nine more that did ...Amy Poehler When it debuted last spring, 'Parks and Recreation' already seemed in need of some urban renewal. Sure, Amy Poehler was funny, but the rest of the ensemble didn't gel around her, the plotting was listless and the jokes fell flat.

In its second season, however, the writing has become sharper, the pacing has gathered steam and Poehler's bureaucrat with delusions of grandeur has become someone to sympathize with and root for.

'Parks' deserves a ribbon for improving on a rocky start; after all, few shows that stumble out of the gate are able to recover their footing and race to the forefront. Sometimes it takes better writing, sometimes a single winning moment ... and sometimes it takes Heather Locklear. Here are nine more that found that special Locklear factor:

Melrose Place Heather Locklear'Melrose Place' (1992-1999)
The rough start: The bland spin-off of Aaron Spelling's 'Beverly Hills 90210' was the tale of a bunch of dimwitted twentysomethings whose only commonality was their address, at the Los Angeles apartment complex of the title.
The Locklear factor: The vixen from Spelling's '80s series 'Dynasty' proved to be exactly what these young pups needed to whip them into shape. Generous servings of 'Dynasty'-style crazy (Explosions! Murders! Marcia Cross' horrifying reveal of a 'Frankenstein'-worthy scar beneath her wig!) also helped. Hmmm, could the new 'Melrose Place' use a bit of Locklear-ing? (Answer: Yes!)

True Blood'True Blood' (2008-)
The rough start: The show's central relationship between mind-reading waitress Sookie (Anna Paquin) and vampire Bill (Stephen Moyer) plodded along in a courtly, chaste manner. Yawnsville, especially in the midst of all the murder, mayhem and bed-hopping surrounding them in this Southern gothic stew. The vampires-as-uncloseted-gays metaphor was heavy-handed, and the whole mix of mystery thriller, social allegory, horror and post-Tennessee Williams character drama was a bloody mess.
The Locklear factor: Bill and Sookie's romance got hot -- in a we-can-show-this-only-on-premium-cable way. Even hotter: the emergence of bad, blond Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) as Bill's disdainful rival. Heaping helpings of humor, horror and humping helped 'True Blood' finally find the right tone.

Dollhouse'Dollhouse' (2009-)
The rough start: Sure, Echo (Eliza Dushku) looked hot while kicking butt, but who were these amnesiac operatives and why were we supposed to care about them? The series wasn't living up to its 'Charlie's Angels'-meets-Philip K. Dick promise.
The Locklear factor: After the first five episodes, the show moved beyond its mission-of-the-week formula and began to reveal more layers to the characters -- not just the "dolls," but their clients as well. The show began to deliver what Joss Whedon fans expect – explorations of the mysteries of identity, women discovering their own strength, and plenty of action and suspense.

The Office'The Office' (2005-)
The rough start: Americanizing the classic Britcom didn't seem any more likely to work than did translations of 'Coupling' and 'Men Behaving Badly.' Plots lifted wholesale from Ricky Gervais' original series seemed an awkward fit for the new characters and setting.
The Locklear factor: The characters evolved and came into their own as fully-fleshed individuals. It became clear that Steve Carell's Michael Scott was not Gervais' David Brent, that the Jim-and-Pam relationship would follow a different path from its English counterpart and that Rainn Wilson's Dwight Schrute was a thoroughly unique, all-American comic creation.

Hung'Hung' (2009-)
The rough start: In the current economy, who's more depressing than this comedy's protagonist, Ray (Thomas Jane), a guy who's suffered crushing, Job-like losses? There was little to laugh at in Ray's desperate turn to prostitution to make enough money to rebuild his incinerated house, or in the pathetic efforts of mousy poet Tanya (Jane Adams) to be an effective pimp for him. It took forever to get business going; where was the sex the show's premise promised?
The Locklear factor: Ray finally started getting some (business, that is). Tanya grew more assertive. The show's satire became clearer and more sharply focused. Natalie Zea livened things up as a lovably crazy client. And the first season took the premise to its logical, er, climax, as Ray discovered to his horror that his ex-wife had unwittingly hired him for an encounter.

The Comeback'The Comeback' (2005)
The rough start: Lisa Kudrow's follow-up to 'Friends' was this faux-documentary about a vain, washed-up sitcom star desperate to get back on the fame train, even if that meant a demeaning role as "Aunt Sassy" to a brood of younger, hipper TV stars. "I don't need to SEE that," became her catchphrase, one echoed by 'Comeback' viewers who'd hoped to see a variation on 'Friends'' sweet, lovable Phoebe.
The Locklear factor: Actually, the show never wavered in its black-comic conviction to paint a warts-and-all picture of celebrity. But critics (and a small cult of viewers) grew to admire the show for its grim persistence in playing its cringe comedy to the limit, even though that meant HBO canceled the show after one season.

Seinfeld'Seinfeld' (1989-1998)
The rough start: Early episodes were little more than illustrations of Jerry Seinfeld's "What's the deal with ... " stand-up comedy routines, which framed each episode. No wonder few viewers tuned in -- and the series was almost canceled.
The Locklear factor: The boys' club got a new member: Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who wasn't in the pilot episode. The writing became more inventive (remember the episode set entirely in a parking garage, or the one in the waiting area of a Chinese restaurant), which led to the intricate, circular plotting that became the show's hallmark. The writers of the "show about nothing" stuck to their guns and made sure the characters endured "no learning" and "no hugging." And the show became the most popular series of the '90s.

American Dad'American Dad' (2005-)
The rough start: Seth MacFarlane's 'Family Guy' follow-up looked like a cynical ripoff of his earlier success. For the most part, the characters were carbon copies of those from 'Family Guy' -- who were themselves faded copies of the Simpsons. That dad Stan was a CIA agent and rock-ribbed right-winger allowed for political humor, much of which was instantly dated by the long lead time required to make traditional cartoons.
The Locklear factor: The show pretty much ditched any effort to be topical and settled for just being absurd. By now the characters have evolved enough for Stan to distinguish himself from Peter Griffin, or for disguise-loving alien Roger to distinguish himself from talking dog Brian. Mostly, the show is content to float, like Klaus in his fishbowl, on its own wacky wavelength.

Late Night With Conan O'Brien'Late Night With Conan O'Brien' (1993-2009)
The rough start: Who was this gawky, awkward, pale, nervous beanpole who'd been yanked from the sunless writer's table at 'The Simpsons' to become a late-night talk show host? And who was his giggling buffoon of a sidekick? The flop sweat was evident in Conan O'Brien's early shows, and audiences were so repelled that NBC kept renewing his contract for just 13 weeks at a time.
The Locklear factor: O'Brien gained confidence as a performer. Andy Richter developed a sly wit that was deployed only seldom but to devastating effect. And Conan's willingness to try anything for a laugh, no matter how cheesy, absurd, or humiliating, paid off. Oddly enough, even though they're seasoned pros now, Conan and Andy seem just as nervous as they did 16 years ago, now that they've been given the historic platform of 'The Tonight Show.' Let's hope they grow out of their current awkward phase, just as they did before.


Sound off: Which shows do you think started out badly, then improved? Post them in the comments!

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