4 Shows That Returned to Awesomeness After Sucking for Years

We all know lots of shows turn crappy after a while, but that's not what I'm writing about today. Or, to put it another way, we all know lots of shows turn crappy after a while, but that's not what I'm writing about today. Oh, did I put it exactly the same way? Yes, I did. And do you know what's amazing? I bet everything I own that you will see plenty of comments about shows that started out good but turned crappy. But here's the thing: although lots of shows turn crappy after a while, that's not what I'm writing about today.

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OK, you got my attention, but what are you writing about?

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Today's topic is shows that lost their way ... for a bit, before fixing things. Shows that started off fine before forgetting what made the show work and going down a wrong path for a while. Got it? Not just a gradual decline into garbage.

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4
Doctor Who

I believe I was the first Cracked columnist to write about Doctor Who, when I did my column three years ago explaining how Doctor Who became my religion. Quite simply, the show did nothing short of alter my conception of God. It's not a religious show by any means, but it is about an incredibly old and powerful alien who loves humanity more than all the creatures in the universe. He often fights for us. Most never know him. Most are never aware of everything he has done to perpetuate the world and keep us safe. And, sometimes, despite all his power and love, he loses himself, makes mistakes, and fails.


And he often can't dress for s**t.

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These days, Doctor Who has become a bit of a whipping boy, with Cracked's own Soren Bowie and Adam Tod Brown taking shots at the show, and I understand their criticisms, but I tend to disagree. I'd tell them myself if they would return my calls, but I'll tell you instead. And I will tell you as a fan who loves The Doctor. I'll also tell you as a writer who thinks that the last two showrunners, Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat, although not infallible, are full-blown geniuses.

Doctor Who is at its best when The Doctor is saving humanity or other worthy victims from evil, not with violence but intelligence and faith in others. Even though he is capable of great destruction, he tries to live by impossible ideals in a universe filled with unspeakable evil. His ability to regenerate means that even though he is now about a thousand years old, his persona has been portrayed by actors who look like old men and youthful dreamboats.

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What Went Wrong? Season 7 of the Reboot

Season 7. Season 7 went horribly wrong. Y'see, after 16 years of it being off the air, the BBC brought the show back in 2005 with a hip young Doctor portrayed by Christopher Eccleston. After a season, he was replaced by David Tennant. Tennant's Doctor was notable for his good looks, romanticism, and, perhaps most importantly, his ability to make me doubt my heterosexuality.


Swooooooon.

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Tennant made The Doctor sexy, and the show exploded in popularity in America. When Tennant left, they replaced him with an even younger actor, Matt Smith, who continued the explosion of fangirlism. And that was fine. Smith was a great Doctor. But in Season 7 we said goodbye to The Doctor's human companions Rory and Amy and found a new woman to take their place: Clara.


Hi, I'm Clara. I'm super hot and the important thing to remember about my character is ... uh, um, hmm, well, I'm sure I must have a character or ... something? No? I'm just a super hot plucky shell of a nothing character? That doesn't seem like a good idea ...

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No offense to the super dreamy and talented actress, Jenna Coleman, but the Clara character is the most underdeveloped companion of the series reboot, and it's created a lot of weird, unnecessary sexual tension with The Doctor. Season 7 gets cutesy in a way that made it seem like Moffat is pandering to hordes of new American fangirls. And it's not all about Clara. In Smith's final episode as The Doctor, he is moments away from regenerating -- the "death" of his character in its current form before taking a new, related but different identity. Logically, he should want to see his wife. (Yes, turns out The Doctor was married at some point in his 1,000-year life.) But instead he dreams of Amy -- his sexy companion from the previous seasons. Why? I dunno, because awwwwwwwww.

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How'd They Fix It?

Well, they haven't fully, but they're on the right path. The Doctor is now played by the much older and less romantic Peter Capaldi, who is bringing a touch more angry indifference to the role (at least on the outside). There is no longer any weird flirtation with Clara, as they have given her a boyfriend. And, best of all, it really seems Clara is on the way out -- hopefully replaced by a character who has, y'know, some character. If the show can do that and up the stakes on The Doctor being the savior he was meant to be, we might continue to see the improvements of Season 8 into a glorious Season 9. (At the time of writing, the season finale has not yet aired, but it seems like maybe we're on to something ...)

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3
Friday Night Lights

I'm sure I don't have to tell you about Friday Night Lights. I mean who doesn't love Friday Night Lights? Well, me actually. I'd never watched the show at all, but my buddy hipped me to it, and wouldn't you know it? It's actually the best entry on this list, because something super weird happened to the show. It's an adaptation from the film of the same name, and both are based on a nonfiction book about life in a small Texas town centered around a high school football team. Unlike most TV adaptations, where a successful movie is boiled down to the least common denominator, the film's director, Peter Berg, brought the project to television so he'd have more time to tell smaller and more intimate stories. Essentially, the show centers around high school football coach Eric Taylor, his family, his football team, and his community. The show also examines the interpersonal issues of an ensemble cast.


Who can forget the episode that centers on coach deciding between two brands of anti-dandruff shampoo?

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What Went Wrong? Season 2

Turns out that a quiet show about life in a small, football-minded Texas town was not the ratings bonanza you might expect. And some have speculated that the network began interfering in Season 2. Because, suddenly, a large part of the season deals with ... MURDER! Yep, in Season 2, viewers are treated to a storyline that features attempted rape and murder. Somewhere between storylines about accidental pregnancies and college recruiters, it was decided to liven things up with one of the students killing a man who tries to rape the coach's wife.

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"Oh, cool, the team won its season opener and ... wait, who got murdered?"

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How'd They Fix It?

They resolved that storyline by having a heartfelt confession, and then never spoke of it again. Even better, NBC made a deal with DirecTV to co-produce the subsequent three seasons of the show on DirecTV's 101 Network. With that reduced production cost, it seems there might have been less pressure to deliver big drama storylines to this small show.

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2
Dexter

I can hear you already. You're saying, "No mom, I'm not abusing myself in the bathroom again, I'm just reading Cracked articles on the crapper." But you're also saying, "Jesus, Gladstone, I thought you said you weren't writing about shows that just turned to crap, and Dexter certainly turned to crap." Well, to you I say two things: 1) yes, the overall show turns to crap in later seasons, but we're focusing on the mediocre third season that precedes the awesome fourth season, and 2) you should really wash your hands after you wipe and before you touch your phone again, because otherwise you're just carrying fecal matter around everywhere.

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Eeew.

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For those who don't know, Dexter tells the story of a Florida medical examiner who has an extreme murderous blood lust, but he was raised by a cop who knew how to harness it. He gives Dexter a code to live by that ensures his murderous instincts don't get him caught and that he's not killing anyone who doesn't "deserve" it.

What Went Wrong? Season 3

So yeah, we already have sort of a hard-to-believe premise for Dexter, so you have to be careful not to push the show into completely bombastic parody. I mean, after the first season, where we watch Dexter track a serial killer while he, himself, carries out serial killings, we wondered, uh, just how many serial killers are in Florida? And how will they repeat this for every season? Serial killings don't pop up in the same location each and every year.

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The showrunners apparently realized that, and the second season is great. All of the bodies Dexter has been dumping are discovered, and the feds come to town to investigate. The investigation becomes the overarching story arc. Then Season 3 starts, and I guess everyone realized it would be hard to have a full-blown serial killer again, so they introduce a crooked DA who sometimes kills people, y'know, just to shore up a case.


And the DA is played by Jimmy Smits, whose presence typically signifies a show's end is nigh.

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Then, perhaps realizing that a crooked DA is kind of boring (and it sure is), they also introduce a character who likes to skin people alive, probably just to add some of the missing, creepy goodness. Except he is more like a gory hitman, not a serial killer, so ... yeah, it sounds silly to even type out. The show loses all focus and just kind of features random killing, because they hadn't figured out how to reinvent a new season.

How'd They Fix It?

With John Lithgow! Season 4 is arguably the finest season of Dexter, and that's because it finds a way to stick to the formula while raising the stakes. Season 4 has another serial killer, but to up the credibility, he is a killer that murders in seven-year cycles and moves around so we don't have to swallow that Florida is the serial-killer capital of the world, instead of just the batshittiest, gun-loviest place in the universe. Dexter wrongly believes Lithgow, the Trinity Killer, has found a way to work murder into his everyday life while heading a normal household -- Dexter's ambition. A mentor relationship gone awry. And unlike Jimmy Smits and some faceless hitman with a weird MO, Lithgow's Trinity is terrifying.

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1
The Sopranos

I've never been a huge fan of mob movies. Of course I recognize The Godfather and Goodfellas as significant works of art, but for every person who recognizes them as cinematic achievements, there are 10 guys with wife-beater T-shirts and too much cologne who get murder boners for organized crime. I don't approve of a show that glorifies crime. For the most part, The Sopranos does not do that and should not be blamed for those people who misguidedly make fictional New Jersey crime boss Tony Soprano their idol.

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So despite my deep discomfort with the glorification of crime, I greatly enjoyed the first two seasons of The Sopranos. Although the show takes you inside the day-to-day life of a murderous crime boss, it does not apologize for who Tony is. The show makes you watch it by filling episodes with interesting, if not likable characters. There is always a power struggle the viewer can watch without taking sides.

What Went Wrong? Season 3

By Season 3, it seemed the writers of The Sopranos started to like the characters as much as some of the show's fans. The wrong fans. The fans who hung up posters of Tony Soprano in their apartment and practiced smoking cigars like a badass in the mirror. Instead of engaging us by showing us the power struggle within the mob community, Season 3 seems to attempt to have the audience relate to the characters on a more emotional level. Nowhere is this more clear than the storyline about henchman Paulie Walnuts and his mother at the retirement home. Seems she just isn't satisfied with the care, much to the dismay of her put-upon son.

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"Oh, wow, even cold-blooded, vicious killers can have irrepressible moms. LOL!"

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Yes, The Sopranos shows us the mundane side of the mob, but it is best when that mundane side terrifies us. When it makes you realize that the guy sitting next to you at the PTA meeting might kill, torture, and extort as part of his day job. The majority of the show doesn't reveal everyday travails to humanize on an emotional level. But Season 3 features a different kind of emotional investment.

How'd They Fix It?

Well, they just cut that s**t out. After that hiccup, repeatedly, the characters are shown to be the criminals they are, despite owning some suburban homes. If need be, Tony has no problem killing ... [SPOILER ALERT] ... his own nephew, just like Michael Corleone of The Godfather has no problem killing ... [SPOILER ALERT] ... his own brother.

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The spoiler is that you're so whiny you think you can b***h about spoilers from five to 35 years ago.

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The Sopranos rights its course and finishes strong, up until that final scene that we will not discuss. At all.


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