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 is the most surprising TV show hit of a show that you didn’t think would do well?
(This is inspired in part by the “Roseanne” revival but is not confined to just ratings success. Basically, you expected something to do poorly or at best, just OK, but instead viewers went nuts or it became part of the pop culture conversation.)
Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com
As soon as I saw Shaun’s mental diagrams pop up in the pilot episode of “The Good Doctor,” I thought it would be laughed into a quick cancellation and never spoken of again. Well, I was a dummy. I still don’t know why it’s so popular, or why it works with audiences but say “The Resident” doesn’t (people would rather watch nice doctors, I guess?), but its success won’t keep me from my annual thinking that this is the year that procedurals are done. I’m also baffled about why “This Is Us” does so well since it is exactly what I would write up if I wanted to create my own slow oatmealization of my brain via emotional manipulation. I guess this is why I am not a network executive.
Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), GoldDerby
Since I watched my, like, ninth episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” ever last week just for Scott Speedman (how great that Ben Covington did indeed become a doctor!), I have to go with that. “Grey’s” has never been my cup of tea, partially because “ER” is my ride or die. (“ER,” predicted to crumble against “Chicago Hope,” is another option here.) I remember being bombarded with ads for “Grey’s” during “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” way back in March 2005, and I more or less expected another serviceable midseason replacement that might last a couple of years. Nothing special, you know? I was not completely shocked that “Grey’s” became a hit and I totally get why people immediately latched onto it — its soapiness, romantic permutations and McVernacular were a breath of fresh air just as “ER,” while still good, was getting long in the tooth — but I doubt anyone foresaw the 14-seasons-and-counting cultural phenomenon it’d become. Its peak second season was appointment television in my dorm and I was forced to watch the finale with all the girls on my floor, which was honestly one of the longest nights of my life. I used to be incredulous/in denial that “Grey’s” could surpass “ER” as prime time’s longest-running medical drama, but I made peace with the inevitable long ago. I respect “Grey’s” endurance — through cast turnover, behind-the-scenes drama, changing viewing habits, and ridiculous, nonsensical storylines — and it’s going to outlive us all at this rate… well, maybe not “Supernatural.” “ER” is still the better show though.
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Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter
“ALF.” Nah. That probably doesn’t count, both because it’s before my time, pundit-wise, and who wouldn’t have predicted great things for that adorable cat-muncher! This is a tough one. And a broad one. Generally I can make sense of what succeeds, which isn’t the same as being able to predict stuff accurately all the time. Of course I’m surprised by EXACTLY how big the “Roseanne” premiere was and anybody who says they predicted those exact numbers is a liar. “The Good Doctor” felt like a pretty disposable medical procedural to me, toplined by a very fine actor coming off of a cable show that was NOT a hit. But look at it! It’s big-time! I can’t say I’m surprised that “Criminal Minds” was a hit in the first place, but after a decade, I’m amazed there’s any audience at all for repetitive woman-in-peril unsub-porn. But there it is! The same is kinda true of a “Grey’s Anatomy” or a “Survivor,” shows that get “That show is still on?!?!” tweets if you mention them on Twitter, but are FAR larger, even in their aged years, than dozens of supposedly “cool” shows.
You wanna know what TRULY surprises me? Shows that build. Because the “Cheers” effect is such a unicorn. We talk about it ALL the time, but shows that actually grow are so darned rare in today’s TV landscape. I suspect if you looked at the overall body of statistics, 80 percent of shows probably have their biggest audience in Week 1 and then there’s probably another 15 percent that get a higher rated episode thanks to a trick of lead-in or guest star or something. So when a show is like a “Scandal” or an “Empire” or a “This Is Us” start off solidly and build an audience, even if they subsequently fall off a cliff, that impresses me. Along those lines, I guess I was REALLY surprised when “Breaking Bad” went from niche-y critical favorite that only was discussed by my circle of friends to being a huge popular culture thing. I know the Netflix effect and all of that, but there are a TON of shows that have had their back catalogues on Netflix and haven’t suddenly blown up. But that one blew up and it blew up overnight. So… Let’s say that’s my answer. “Breaking Bad.”
Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire
I confess I was quite emotionally struck by the pilot for “This Is Us,” but my reaction when watching it, months before it premiered on NBC, was “this isn’t a TV show.” Like, the actors were great! I cried a lot! I was even pretty down with the twist! But I didn’t see how it would work as an ongoing series, coming up with new stories every week… needless to say I was wrong about that. That said, while the show is still cooking along after two seasons, I do wonder how much of a game plan there is for beyond Season 3. (Fingers crossed for a scene set in the future where Sterling K. Brown gets a jetpack.)
Marisa Roffman (@marisaroffman), Give Me My Remote
Oh, “This is Us”…you puzzling creature. Yes, there have been bigger hits and more undeserving hits—and, of course, bombs that still break my heart—but I still laugh a bit when I think of *how* big this show is. When we saw the ambitious pilot, it felt like “Parenthood” 2.0, with a timeline twist that would drive many network television viewers away. Instead, people jumped on the show, embracing its heart, but also diving deep into the “how did Jack die?” mystery until its post-Super Bowl conclusion. (One could argue leaning into that mystery was manipulative, but clearly many viewers responded.) But hey, almost any show that reminds people that network television is still kicking is ultimately a good thing.
Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com
I could say “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” a show many people underestimated but went on to become one of the greatest, most iconic TV shows of all time. I could also probably say “Breaking Bad,” a show that started small but eventually took over the entire world. But I was not actually surprised by either of those things. In fact, there’s really only one show that has ever truly surprised me in terms of its success: “Jane the Virgin.” The show has never been a ratings or commercial success, but every season I find myself pleasantly surprised by how good it is on a regular basis. I remember laughing at the premise when The CW first announced the pilot; how could a show about a virgin who was accidentally artificially inseminated be any good? I was so judgmental! I was so mean! I absolutely made fun of the show and its title every single time it came up. And it came up a lot! Now, I will never stop apologizing to the show, to creator Jennie Snyder Urman, to star (and Golden Globe winner!) Gina Rodriguez, to literally everyone involved in the production. It’s one of my favorite shows. It brings me joy and happiness — even when it’s also making me sad — and as Season 4 is winding down, it remains one of the best shows on TV, regularly delivering heart and humor through its many layered, compelling relationships. I never expected “Jane the Virgin” to make it this far when it was first announced, but now I’m eternally grateful that it has. I’m not ready to entertain the idea that the show might be heading into its final season, but it does feel like a good time to officially apologize for ever making fun of the show simply because of its title. Honestly, given how much I believed in “Buffy” from the start, I really should have known better.
Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox
I’ll be honest: I didn’t really think “This Is Us” stood a chance. I liked the pilot just fine, but family dramas of its type have almost always crashed and burned, despite the family drama being among my favorite TV genres of them all. And the show’s complicated timeline structure seemed to me to be exactly the sort of thing viewers would tire of quickly, nor did I know if the series could sustain the twist it dropped at the end of the pilot.
And, listen, my opinion of “This Is Us” is probably more negative than most of America’s, but I have to give the show props for not just finding but hanging onto an audience. Against all odds, after decades of family dramas flailing in the primetime lineup, here’s one that isn’t just surviving but thriving. People are crazy about the show, in a way I didn’t realize was still possible for a broadcast drama. There are plenty of other recent broadcast hits that have shocked me (most notably “The Good Doctor”), but I keep coming back to the way I so prematurely wrote off what is now one of TV’s biggest shows.
April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics
Most surprising for me is “NCIS,” the “JAG” spinoff that started in 2003. It just doesn’t die. Now into 14 seasons in on CBS, yet I know no one who watches it and certainly, among TV critics I speak with, it’s never brought up in conversation as a show to follow. When it first came on I tried to stay with it, but it had no hook for me. I never thought that one would last, and here we are, viewers went nuts for it and watch it.
Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine
I continue to be thrilled that “The Magicians” has managed to become what it has. From the pilot, I was smitten but saw it as a hard sell for mainstream audiences. Not everyone wants to spend time with A) millennials, some of whom are dealing with B) mental health issues, C) sexual assault, and D) magic that’s not “Harry Potter”-ish. Fantasy alone is tough enough to get right. Mixing genres shouldn’t look as good as it does here.
Now in its third season, it’s clear the crowd has assembled for the adaptation of Lev Grossman’s books and it’s just as clear as to why. The cast is uniformly fantastic, the themes, while inky dark at times, are handled with piles of smart humor and, because the show has veered from the source material, we never know what is coming our way from one episode to the next, much less season after season. And another sign that it’s become a hit? Hot Topic now carries a line of “Magicians” merchandise. That makes me happy for all of the hedge witches, Travelers, and Quentin Coldwaters out there who have finally found their tribe.
Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire
Somewhere out there in the world is an analysis I wrote of “Breaking Bad” Season 1 that would be highly embarrassing if discovered. But since this week I’m embracing humiliation (apparently), I’ll just say it here: I absolutely thought “Breaking Bad” was going to get axed after Season 1. My piece incorporated elements of a review and ratings reports, arguing that the show was absolutely brilliant, but that I still had to stop watching as a preemptive strike against its inevitable cancellation. I simply couldn’t see how, at a time when shows like “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars” were dominating the ratings, anyone would choose to spend time with a dying chemistry teacher who turned to drugs. I didn’t have enough faith in prestige TV fans, in part, because prestige TV was just becoming a thing people talked about, nor did I properly respect the blooming original space on cable, where ratings weren’t the only thing to keep a show on the air. (“Mad Men,” after all, was never a ratings behemoth either.) Obviously, I couldn’t be happier to have been proven wrong: the Netflix effect and critical raves turned “Breaking Bad” into a massive hit, but my doomed prediction is still out there… and now it’s here.
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
A: “Trust” (four votes)
Other contenders: “The Americans” (three votes), “Atlanta,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” and “The Magicians” (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.