I mostly keep Pixel Critique a videogame site, but occasionally something in the other worlds of entertainment compels me to use this little corner of the internet as a soap box to shout out my thoughts regarding it.
Today, that thing would be HBO’s True Detective. AKA, the absolute best show on TV at the moment, and one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen. Perhaps a more complete write up is in order down the line, but for now I feel comfortable in saying that when its first season wraps up in two weeks, it will likely join the greatest first seasons in the history of television.
But it’s not there yet, as that is a pretty elite class of shows that took what is consistently considered the growing years of a TV show, and hit the ground running right off the bat.
A great first season is by no means an indication of a show’s overall success, but those that have accomplished the rare feat of a debut collection of episodes that immediately compelled its viewers hold a very special place in my heart.
You only get one first impression, and for my money these are the 10 best in television history.
*Note: To avoid any gray areas, only shows that have more than one season qualify for this list.
Sorry Firefly and Freaks and Geeks fans. Just rest assured that otherwise, those shows would be included.
10. Monty Python’s Flying Circus
You’ll find that a theme throughout my selections is a preference for unique shows that needed a home run first season in order to properly introduce themselves to a shaky viewing public, and provide strong incentive for them to return week after week.
For few shows was that a taller task than it was for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Properly describing the show to a new viewer in 2014 is a nigh impossible task. Trying to imagine what it was like to convince someone in 1969 to tune in to the borderline psychotic antics of a troupe of grown men with a fondness for surrealism and cross dressing is even more daunting.
Yet Monty Python did just that, and became a worldwide cultural staple to boot. They did it through a show that you could never quite explain to an outsider, but just knew that whatever the hell was going on, it was simply the funniest thing you’ve ever seen. Flying Circus’ first season and its collection of textbook comedy sketches, perfectly exemplified what became one of the most bizarre cases of must see TV the world has ever known.
9. The Sopranos
Revolutions don’t happen overnight. Even the ones that seem the most sudden can usually be traced to a series of events that lead to the revolution’s big moment.
That is the case with the Sopranos, but that doesn’t change the fact that the very first episode of the show, and subsequently the first season, changed the television landscape overnight. It showed that our expectations of what dramatic TV was capable of from a storytelling and production standpoint, had been horribly insufficient for years. The story of this warped Jersey family, and their criminal patriarch, was a punch in the gut to viewers everywhere worthy of the thugs it so often revolved around.
The only reason this first season isn’t higher, is because the show hadn’t quite revealed its full potential in this initial offering. That being said, the first season of The Sopranos is as important, and enjoyable, as any collection of episodes as you’ll ever see.
8. Dead Like Me
If you’re going to try to win people over with a show about a girl who is killed by a celestial toilet seat, who is then tasked with fulfilling the role of the grim reaper, you’d better not miss a beat.
Dead Like Me did not. It’s as black of a comedy as has ever been attempted for television, meaning that right off the bat it was going to alienate a fair number of viewers. It minimized those viewing casualties through a mix of razor sharp writing, extraordinarily clever situations, and above all a confidence that made it impossible to consider that you were watching something absurd.
Featuring deep meditations on life, death and everything in between, the mythology of the universe created in this show, and the entertainment capabilities it was possible of, were firmly established by a debut season that never let up on the charm.
There is a very fine line between gimmick, and incredible concept in the world of television. It’s a line formed entirely by the execution of the concept itself.
24 drew viewers in with the unique premise of a show that operated in real time, but it kept them coming back week after week through a deadly combination of wise premise exploitation, and the kind of high speed action mixed with political intrigue that only the best of Hollywood blockbusters previously laid claim to.
Perhaps it’s not as smart or consistent as some of the other series on this list, but for one very special season it took television by storm. To this day that first season remains one of the most dangerous binge watching candidates you can find.
6. Battlestar Galactica (Re-Make)
It’s easy to forget how much of a disaster in the making Battlestar Galactica appeared to be on the outset. A remake of a cult classic 70s sci-fi show airing on a network famous for airing low-budget schlock amusing only in an inebriated capacity? No thanks.
But as many of you know by now, Battlestar Galactica is much more than a sci-fi show. Sure it does space battles, lasers and outer space adventures as well as anyone, but its the surprisingly deep political plots, and human elements in the show that took everyone by surprise, and gave them no choice but to keep watching.
Nowhere are those attributes more clear than in a first season filled with some of the greatest episodes, best moments and most drive that the series would ever know. Even non sci-fi fans would have a tough time not getting caught up in that first season.
5. Arrested Development
Arrested Development is a complex show. It’s a comedy that favors the kind of dry wit that TV usually burns at the stake, and most of its jokes will fly right over your head if you haven’t seen every single episode leading up to the one you are watching.
Yet those that took a chance on the show’s debut were rewarded with a first season that carved a network of plots, characters and events that would make all but Game of Thrones and The Wire blush.
More than that, it was a season filled to the brim with all time classic TV moments (everyone should know there’s always money in the banana stand), and arguably the best comedy to be found in either the entire run of the series, or the entire run of any series.
Much like Dead Like Me, Arrested Development seemed to fully embrace its role as an outsider in TV land. Only its debut was something even greater.
Save the Cheerleader, Save the World. Like 24’s use of time, that was the simple hook that NBC used to draw viewers into a show that promised the most grounded look at people who could fly (among other things) that TV had ever known.
For one glorious season, it looked like Heroes would trounce the curse that said such a set up would never succeed on network television. While a part of that was due to the simple pleasure of watching superheroes on your television week after week, the greater factor to the show’s success was the brilliant construction of a net of plotlines and characters that would all come to know each other, and resolve each others stories in ways that actually managed to satisfy the often times fantastical set ups that led to them.
You’ll have to work hard to find a season that tells its plot as deftly, and in a way immediately satisfying as the first season of Heroes did.
Most of you probably knows what happened next. It turns out Heroes was, in fact, a one season wonder, with highlights in its reaming years appearing few and far between, and never as bright as the weekly ones found in its debut episodes. Unlike your Vanilla Ices of the world, though, revisiting Heroes glory days reveals a piece of entertainment still very much worth your time.
By the time that Dexter hit airways, the concept of an anti-hero as your protagonist was no longer a taboo notion. But then again, Dexter wasn’t an anti-hero. He was a psychotic serial killer with only a loose moral code allowing him to fit in to society. Dexter was a villain.
Dexter’s premise managed to disturb even the most steadfast fans of things beyond the social pale. It’s oddly humanizing look at a man and his demon only disturbed viewers more and more as the shows first season wore on, and found many fans beginning to not only understand the motivations of Dexter, but sympathizing with them. The main plot point involving the pursuit of the notorious ice truck killer (and its various implications) was merely a compelling cherry on the top of the wicked web that Dexter’s style captured fans with.
By no means would I call Dexter a one season show. That being said, if someone had viewed the first season and none other, I’d safely be able to tell them they’d witnessed the best that not only that show has to offer, but one of the greatest examples of dramatic television’s golden age as well.
2. Twin Peaks
I’ve mentioned other high-concept shows that rely on a hook, or gimmick to draw in that initial set of viewers. Twin Peaks doesn’t exercise that storytelling luxury. It’s world is so bizarre and its plot so methodical, you’d swear at times that it’s some experiment on how many viewers one television show can alienate.
But then something happens. It’s not a singular event in the show’s plotline (in fact it can happen at any time for anyone) but at some point Twin Peak’s esoteric horror world disguised as a simple murder mystery will compel you to keep watching, simply to see what odd depths it will inhabit next.
Using the murder mystery plotline as a life saver to keep the viewer vaguely afloat, Twin Peaks rocks its audience with a world that seems formed at times by the bad chemicals in a mad man’s brain, but at the same time vaguely familiar and undeniably intriguing.
There are many who compare True Detective’s own brand of twisted reality theatrics with those of Twin Peaks. The comparison is apt. While Twin Peaks eventually became too bold for its own good, the first season of the show maintains a certain indescribably quality that ensures viewers 20 years from now will be drawn into it exactly the same way everyone else has to this point.
I knew Lost would be on here. I knew it would be in the top three. Even then I struggled with its exact placement.
I suppose the reason it stands to me as the greatest first season in television history is because its a loose sort of “best of” of all the aspects that got the other nine entrants on this list. It drew viewers in with mysterious hooks, it wove a tale that forced you to pay intimate attention weak after week, it threw more at the viewer than networks traditionally thought they could handle, and laughed with glee as those same viewers asked for more.
But Lost is much more than just a footnote of what makes a good first season. It’s writing (from screenplay to dialogue) is impeccable. It’s Lord of the Flies mixed with supernatural mystery setting remains one of the greatest in all of entertainment. It’s storytelling methods were as bold as they were capable. But remove all of that, and its massive set of characters and the stories that led them to their current plight would have been enough to make Lost’s debut season can’t miss viewing.
All of the things that made Lost great were at their peak during the show’s first season. Much like Twin Peaks, it may have become overwhelmed by the weight of its own hubris, but season one is such a fully realized vision of the capabilities, that even after watching it aware of the show’s eventual downfall, you’ll find yourself overcome with a temporary amnesia that will have you immediately starting season two, blissfully unaware that something flying so high could ever possibly crash back down.