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The Best TV Shows Critics Wrote Off but Then Grew to Love — IndieWire Survey

From "The Americans" to "Penny Dreadful," these TV shows got a second chance at winning over critics who weren't fans at first.

"Halt and Catch Fire," "BoJack Horseman," "Penny Dreadful"

“Halt and Catch Fire,” “BoJack Horseman,” “Penny Dreadful”

AMC, Netflix, Showtime


Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: What’s a show that you may have quit or written off, but were happy that you gave a second chance?

(This could mean a show that got better as it went along, a show that course-corrected, a show that you felt got lumped together with others and therefore didn’t get a fair shake at first, or one that you see differently because of some changed perspective in your own life.)

Pilot Viruet (@pilotbacon), Vice

This question is good timing because I just spent my weekend watching all of Halt and Catch Fire! I remember watching the first episode at a preview screening and struggling to stay awake (if only because Lee Pace was in attendance, and I did not want to disappoint him), and then having a similarly hard time during the actual premiere. I was so bored with the pilot that I refused to review it, and I kept ignoring everyone who reassured me that it does, indeed, get better. They were right, of course, and I finally gave in on Friday and finished that first season – most of which I disliked!- and then jumped right into the next two seasons, which I marathoned over two days. And those seasons are great, so great that I actually felt bad for writing off the show for so long. You can see how the series fixed itself, how it honed in on the character traits that were truly compelling, and how it became its own show – rather than the shadow of all the series that came before it. Of course, I have terrible timing: now that I am fully, 100 percent invested (I cried during Saturday’s premiere, of course), I only have a few more weeks before it ends.

Karen Gillan and John Cho, "Selfie"

Karen Gillan and John Cho, “Selfie”


Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), TVGuide.com

My relationships with shows usually go the other way: We start out strong, the honeymoon period ends, they do something terrible, and I break up with them. I did see the error of my ways with “Selfie” though. I, too, judged a show by its name, but I should’ve known by then that the ABC bylaws dictate its comedy gems be saddled with awful titles. “Seflie” was charming and adorable, Karen Gillan and John Cho were charming and adorable, and in some ways I’m glad it only got a short but sweet 13-episode season. There was nothing forced or artificial about Eliza and Henry’s relationship; if anything, its brief run made the show go all in on Gillan and Cho’s fantastic chemistry. But “Selfie” deserved more and better, and I’m sorry I doubted you in the beginning. Also, someone please give John Cho a show.

Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider

Even though I now call it the best show on television, I (gasp!) wasn’t a big fan of “The Americans’” first season. I was recapping it at the time and therefore had to stick with it, but in hindsight I’m certainly glad I did.

Plenty of people liked “The Americans” right off the bat, and though I haven’t gone back and rewatched Season 1, I can’t think of any specific flaws that it overcame later on — I just personally didn’t connect with it. Yet “The Americans” went from a show about spycraft that I wasn’t wholly invested in, to a show about a family that made my stomach tie up in knots and gave me anxiety while watching it (in the best possible ways). I spent time talking about and thinking about it even when it wasn’t on, and would say Seasons 3 and 4 are some of the best TV I’ve ever seen.

For the most part, just given basic time constraints, when I quit a show in its first or second season — either because I didn’t like it quite enough to keep watching, or too many episodes piled up on my DVR and I was avoiding them for too long — I don’t go back to it no matter how many people swear that it gets better (caveat: anthologies and apparently “Homeland,” which I can never fully quit despite my better judgment). I never actually quit “The Americans,” thankfully, but if you have then give it another shot; it’s one of the most unique and casually heartbreaking series on TV.

THE AMERICANS -- "Dyatkovo" -- Season 5, Episode 11 (Airs Tuesday, May 16, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: (l-r) Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings. CR: Patrick Harbron/FX

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, “The Americans”

Patrick Harbron/FX

Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com

Maybe it’s my instinctive hatred of shows set in Victorian England, but Showtime’s late “Penny Dreadful” was dreadf not that good in its first season. The series clearly had lofty ambitions early on, but came across as a blabbering novel rather than a pulpy monster mashup (or maybe I was still sour the show was so quick to kill off Proteus). But against my typical behavior I stuck with it due to the dry well of summer television in 2014, and thank Dracula I did! Around the end of Season 1, things turned around and by the time Season 2 got going, “Penny Dreadful” was offering up some of the most gorgeous sequences of the year and had gelled storylines together in a much more satisfying (and comprehensible) way that carried over to the final season. It went from sloppy letdown to one of the best shows of the year quickly. Also, excuse while I light my TV critic credibility on fire, but ABC’s much maligned “Cavemen” and NBC’s “Animal Practice” got a lot better in later episodes, but you wouldn’t know that because you were too busy dog-piling on them.

Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire

When “Episodes” first premiered, I dismissed it as an attempt by American writers to capture the spirit of British comedy — however, I finally gave it another shot just recently and was pleasantly surprised by how well it utilizes its cast, especially the brilliant Tamsin Greig. I wish I’d given it a shot sooner, but at least now I’m caught up for the final season.

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

This one is going to unavoidably require cheating, because there are lots of answers. I tired of what I saw as grim irony in the first season of “Breaking Bad” and stopped watching before catching up in the third season. No regrets. I watched an episode or two of “The Shield” and stopped watching it because although I respected it, I’m just not the biggest police procedural fan. That one I didn’t go back to until it was over, but then I binged the whole series in a month. I never quit on “Bates Motel,” but I was pretty close and I was just going through the motions and then it finally got good in the fourth season and I was glad I’d stuck with it. I think probably the best answer I can give “Bojack Horseman,” where Netflix only sent out five-ish episodes initially and they were promising-but-unremarkable and I put it in the, “Life’s probably just too short and that’s OK” pile. I didn’t finish the season until months later, I think when the surprise holiday special dropped, and then almost immediately I felt annoyed that Netflix let me underestimate a show that was in my annual Top 5 both of its subsequent seasons. And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Look at the show’s Metacritic and RottenTomatoes scores and you’ll see a first season that earned a mixed response and then SUDDENLY the show was a critical darling for the next two seasons, almost unanimous. I think in terms of numbers, “Halt and Catch Fire” is similar, but I liked and appreciated that show from the beginning. But I wasn’t that prescient on “Bojack.”

Bates Motel Season 5 Episode 6 "Marion" Rihanna

“Bates Motel”

Cate Cameron/A&E Networks LLC

Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine

This is my secret shame: I wrote off “Supernatural” after its first couple of episodes, not because I thought it was bad, but because I was covering two other sci-fi/genre shows that premiered during the 2005 fall season — “Threshold” and “Surface” — which kept me too busy to keep up with the Winchesters. Of course, both of those flopped bigly and by the time they were finally dead, it felt like I had missed the “Supernatural” boat. Every season, I swore I was gonna catch up, binge on the DVD sets, do something to get on board. After all, I loved the two stars and am a horror fiend. But there always seemed to be another show that kept me from adding Sam and Dean into the rotation. Finally, I found the syndicated repeats aired at about the same time I would get to the gym about eight years ago, so I made morning dates with the demon-hunting brothers and while the pounds didn’t exactly fly off, I did eventually figure out exactly how this show has lasted so long and why it has such a devoted fandom, of which I now count myself a member (although not one who screams at everyone else over various ‘ships. That’s just bullshit.)

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

“Ray Donovan” on Showtime, Season 1. It was one I was ready to chuck out with the bathwater and wanted to love out of the gate but did not in the beginning.

Abby Donovan’s (played by Paula Malcomson) jarring accent could have been helped if she only watched the YouTube series “The Real Housewives of South Boston.” The Showtime series went from so-so to amazing really fast in Season 2. Fantastic, well-written performances turned in by an older talented cast, led by Jon Voight as Mickey Donovan was the main reason why.

Voight’s conniving paterfamilias came to life in Season 2, as the FBI turned up the heat on his son Ray (Liev Schreiber). Add to that the well-crafted character of Sully Sullivan (James Woods), and the Los Angeles bureau chief (Hank Azaria) whose wife Sherilyn Fenn (we need more Ms. Fenn on TV, casting people!) blazed as the kinky married couple who appeared as straight arrows.

Wendell Pierce as Mickey’s parole officer, perfection. Mickey down in Mexico, hilarious. Boston reporter (Vinessa Shaw) tempting Ray out of his marriage, sultry. Ray’s encounter with mysterious June Wilson (Ann-Margret) from Ezra’s (Elliott Gould) past, delightful and interesting cameo. What a phenomenal cast! No kids! A percolating story and sophomore save (not slump) that made up for the cardinal sins of a torpid Season 1… and made me a series fan.

"Ray Donovan"

“Ray Donovan”


Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

As part of the IndieWire by-laws dating back to 2014 (and the unspoken agreement all writers have in regard to Wikipedia referencing), I’m obligated to mention “BoJack Horseman.” After seeing just the first six episodes, I tossed aside the Netflix animated comedy for being a bit too familiar, a bit too episodic, and for not fulfilling its satirical potential. Well, Raphael Bob-Waksberg has proven me wrong every episode since, and I couldn’t be happier. Season 4 is easily my most anticipated post-“Leftovers” TV series of the foreseeable future, and “BoJack” topped IndieWire’s list of the best TV shows from 2016.

That being said, this kind of second-guessing is a significant source of anxiety for me (and I imagine for many more critics, as well). Because I don’t want to appear uninformed, I make sure to watch all the episodes provided for review, barring unforeseeable restrictions. It feels like part of my job, but it also perpetuates a never-ending cycle — especially when something like “BoJack” pops up: If I feel obligated to watch five of 10 episodes because that’s what I’m given, why not watch the final five episodes once they’re released? Shouldn’t the season be judged as a whole, not individually? What if the season improved? What if there’s another “BoJack”?

There will always be another “BoJack,” but as Emily Nussbaum and more critics annually argue when the end-of-year lists roll out, there’s simply no way any one person could see all the TV out there. If it weren’t for “The Leftovers,” which is so good it makes critics want to quit their jobs, it would be impossible to claim, “This is the best TV show of 2017,” simply because no one has seen them all.

But — to paraphrase the great coach of a wretched sports team — even though perfection is unattainable, we can catch excellence in its pursuit. By revisiting “BoJack,” I caught it once. What excellence am I missing out on now? For better or worse, I’m addicted to the chase, woe be to my health.

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “Twin Peaks” and “Game of Thrones” (two votes each)

Other contenders: “Halt and Catch Fire,” “Insecure,” “The Lowe Files,” “People of Earth,” and “Survivor’s Remorse” (one vote each)

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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