If it's crap ... We'll tell you
What is the best first season of television? The first season is tricky. You need to get people invested in a batch of characters while avoiding narrative shortcuts. You don't want to cheapen the characters or have the plot divulge into something uninspiring (Studio 60) or have overkill within the first couple of seasons (Dexter). Of course you want to make people believe that the show is elastic enough to go on for at least four or five more seasons by not simply producing a cliffhanger, but moreso producing a world that can allow conflict to arise at any moment. It's a rough tight rope to walk. So here is my list of shows that I have seen that have very great first seasons and I pick apart the best ones. Also these will only be for Dramas.
Here is a list of great shows that I have excluded for several reasons.
Justified- The first season starts off very unsatisfactory for my taste, but the end of the season is some of the best drama I have ever seen. The reason I exclude it is because as of now, I have only seen the first season and the first five episodes of season 2, and I cannot compare it to other seasons.
Boardwalk Empire- I don't remember all that much from this season except that season 2 was better. The plot twists were better, the character moments were better. I don't think I have much to say about the first season except it was an introductory season.
Mad Men- While it is very consistent with the rest of the series, I feel the first season along with the rest of the series requires a second viewing before I can send a definitive opinion on it.
Dexter- I don't have a strong passion for the show, but I did enjoy the S1 finale even though I predicted the twist before its reveal. Not a lot for me to say.
Now here is my list of my favorite shows' first season. In not really any particular order until the end.
Breaking Bad- I'll say this, the pilot alongside the following two episodes are great and most people love a Crazy Handful of Nothin' that sports the infamous "This is not meth" scene. While I love those four episodes, the season is brought down by two things, 1. There is no ending and 2. The writing and the acting is awkward. The former is actually the saving grace of the show. By ending the show early without a clear resolution or satisfactory cliffhanger, it isolates the idea that this is not a good stand alone season. However, that is probably a good thing considering that Vince Gilligan's original plans were to have Jesse killed, Walter torturing the guy who killed him, and Walt Jr machine gunned in the process. It sounds like overkill and it is and by season 2, the show would have changed radically. Without the writer's strike, we would live in an alternate universe where Breaking Bad is a forgotten show that ended after two (or three seasons) beccause of how ridiculous it became. People would remember it as, "Wow that show started off brilliant but then jumped the shark in the span of one season." Instead of being listed in the pantheon of our current pop culture along with the Wire and the Sopranos, it would be the show that could have been.
Now I'd hate to simply praise the Writer's strike for not having any of that happen. I acknowledge Vince Gilligan is one of the most intelligent writers in America, and I know by the second season he knew the characters and the story well enough to fully formulate the wavelengths of the story. Added to this, he became surrounded by smarter people by the second season who had just a big of a passion for the show as he did. There is a gigantic leap in quality in the second season. Skyler, Walt Jr., Hank and Marie are no longer treated as one dimensional stock characters that are meant to serve a secondary plot thread that adds little weight to the main story, they are now characters with serious issues that are hard to ignore. And going back and watching the first season, it's a little hard to ignore the strange places it could have gone especially seeing how annoying Skyler is, (in the commentary for Buyout, Bryan Cranston even mocks the writing and Anna Gunn's acting in the scene where Jesse is dragging Emilio's dead body, and commenting that that was a very different show back then.) how much of a big dumb goof Hank is (several people say they didn't like Hank in the first season because of how much of a jock he is), and how over the top Marie is, even I, at a certain point, referred to Jesse as a dumbass at a certain point.
Now the best defense I can give it is that the first time I saw the first season, my instinct didn't readily notice those flaws. I just notice it now knowing how great of a show it is that it is very easy to pick apart the ways the show can disappoint on multiple viewings. In fact when I first watched it, I was with it the entire way. I bought into its strange humor, but going back it just feels like a season of Dexter where the only interesting part of the show is the lead actor, so great that he pretty much carries the entire season or series. But as the show went on, Dexter only continued to use its tertiary characters as a way to fill time instead of really being involved in Dexter's life, and I remember being forgiving to that quality in the first season like I did with Breaking Bad, but by the third season it felt like a neverending pattern. Breaking Bad broadened its horizons which is far better than saying it started of great and then declined in quality and ultimately that is why the first season is forgiven. You still have people though who did not like the first or even second season who gave up on the show and have yet to see the enormous quality of storytelling that the third, fourth and fifth season produced because they can't get past how annoying the little details are.
In the end, I say the first season is the weakest of all the seasons of Breaking Bad, mainly because it's inconsistent with the rest of the show. But at the same time, the best parts I take away from the season is the weight of all of Walter's decisions that he is making episode by episode which is what will drive me to say Breaking Bad is one of my favorite shows ever created.
Final Rating: ***
The Wire- I feel of any show on the list, this will be the hardest to get people into. Alan Sepinwall in his book, The Revolution Was Televised, even comments on how unfocused and scattershot the first episode of the season was. Rather than properly introducing the characters, we are instead immediately thrown into their lives as if we were to have known them from a previous episode.
Like Game of Thrones (which I'll get into later) I feel like the first season is cleverly setting up the cliches you already know (angry lieutenant pissed at the rogue detective/cop; black drug dealers who are scumbags; drug leaders who are militant violent leaders; cops actively pursuing the dealers and getting results) and then turning all of those expectations that the audience has when watching a crime drama or police procedural. Probably the funniest moment from the first episode is a hungover Bunk Moreland yelling at a dead body at a potential crime scene "Don't you come back a murder on my ass! You hear me!" We have an angry Lieutenant Rawls tearing McNulty a new asshole, not for causing property damage, not for overstepping his boundaries, not even for not doing his job, but just because he talked to a judge that forced Rawls to do some work. These are not heroes who can cleanly solve a crime like on NCIS, CSI or Law and Order, these are people who are forced to work a 9 to 5 job on a daily basis who hate their job. You visit the gang leaders, they aren't about killing and going to war just because they are blood thirsty war lords, but because they grew up in that life and feel obligated to carry a legacy. You visit the dealers who cannot break out of their social norms, so they are obligated to simply make money by slinging drugs.
From the start the Wire is established as a very intelligent social commentary on the broken promises and decay of America's urban environment. And the Wire may be, more than many shows, one of the most consistent shows of all time. But like Breaking Bad, a lot of what I have noticed about the first season mainly comes from the rewatching of the first season rather than my initial reaction. My initial was a little more curious as opposed to intuitive. In fact it wasn't until season 2; we were introduced to Frank Sobotka, I had grown to like the characters after they had all recieved the shitty end of the stick after the events of season 1, and we were introduced to the new villains who are far more nefarious and threatening than anyone in the show. But my love of the show had peaked in season 3 and 4 (I even love 5 though I acknowledge its flaws.)
The first is a hard show to come by in its first viewing because you're not exactly sure where its heading. At the same time that was what captivated me the first time watching it. The show had displayed how incompetetent the police force is, how functional the Barksdale organization was, and the tone had grounded itself in a grime reality that it lent a very unpredictable conclusion. I had no idea how each season would end. The other major positive on my first viewing is the entire charm of the first season is seeing these group of misfits in the police department who have seemingly aimless lives slowly come together in the majore crimes unit and find a new devotion as they slowly unravel all the layers from their investigation. That devotion ironically damages their careers. So much I love about this show. It makes you think, it breaks you out of your ideas on how the world works, and if Breaking Bad, the Shield and Game of Thrones are comic book narratives, then The Wire is an excellent American Dickensian novel.
Final Rating: ***3/4
Six Feet Under- The reason I wanted to include this first season is because I have mixed emotions on the first season.
I will go to my grave (pun intended) saying that the pilot episode of Six Feet Under is my favorite pilot episode of any show. We are introduced to Nathaniel, Ruth, Nate, Dave and Claire as a dysfunctional family that rival the Lannisters. We seem to know them for about a couple of minutes in their normal state, and then tragedy strikes and everyone's life is in chaos. They each radically redefine their lives and force themselves to make changes based on who they believe they actually are. I enjoy seeing each character fall apart and having to either expose their true feelings, or bury their emotions even deeper which seems to send them more into a frenzy. I loved the first several episodes, they are some of the most confrontational episodes of television.
However, the second half of the season was something that kinda damaged my love of the season. They focused on a storyline involving Billy Chenowith, Brenda's brother. To me it turned into an over the top drama that wasn't exactly offering anything new. I felt like I was just watching Fatal Attraction, and it takes up so much time that I was a little bothered by it. At the same time I was still engaged w/ Dave's storyline, and Claire's high school antics that really put the show on the map. It was just the love triangle with Nate, Billy and Brenda kinda took me out of the show because of how it felt stretched out. I do get it. It's about are we willing to sacrifice pain for love? I just didn't find it readily interesting. But everything else was so good, that it willed me on to keep watching the show. And while I was bored by Billy's storyline, the way brought him back and teased his instability was kinda humorous and added another layer of depth to the show. I never found myself disliking a storyline more than that one. There were some boring ones that didn't pay off, but I wasn't annoyed by them. Otherwise I really enjoy the show, though I don't think its consitently brilliant like the Wire.
Final rating ***
Game of Thrones- To me this is not a show that you cannot readily define in the first couple of episodes or even the first season for that matter. For a couple of episodes, it is hard to define where the show is going. We see its a murder mystery on what happened to the former hand of the king, we see Viserys prostitute his sister to a tribal leader just to lay siege to the King's Landing and gain the throne, we see Tyrion and Jon Snow travel to the Wall to admire its massive scope. There is a point where the first season feels aimless. The first episode is great and then its three or four episodes of introducing characters who explain the history of Westeros. It feels pretty straightforward. And then everything goes wrong.
This is the same thing I said about the Wire. We are introduced to Ned Stark. An honorable lord of Westeros who raises hostages like they are his own son. He is a family man, a charismatic leader, a hero. He is a devoted friend to King Robert. He does not like seeing people overruled by corruption. So when we see Ned Stark's world crumble around him, it filters into our minds that what we are watching is a postmodern outlook on our expectations of medieval times. Our ideas of everyone interacted like clockwork in a Feudal society out of honor and dignity is flawed. In a world full of evil, unknown forces, incest, and child murder, our idea on a perfect society is simply an oversimplification. The idea that this story has a blend of a realistic mindset of how ugly people really were back then with Tolkein fantasy adds to the unpredictability of what power really is.
The first season is very consistent yet very different from the other seasons. It's a little more focused with a slower pace to add to the weight of bad decisions that happen in the later seasons. The first season has a couple of problems. I feel like there are some scenes where actors gratuitously have to show off the makeup jobs on their wounds. They die and then unnaturally lean their wound to the camera to show off how nasty it looks. It's a nitpick, but very repetitive. I also acknowledge the show is the only show on the list with an established direction on where it will go because it has several seasons of material already written. So this first season establishes the bleak world. I love it because in the end, it is only a small part of a bigger story whereas most first seasons try to be as over the top as they can.
Final rating ***1/2
The Shield- More than any show, this show is consistent. It's first episode is great, the finale of the first season is great, the second, fourth, fifth and seventh season are all great (three and six are really good, but a little lacking) and the finale is amazing and isn't too different from how the show started. The idea that a show went seven years and with such a strong start actually found ways to keep itself relevant every following year is very rare. The Wire had a weaker final season, Breaking Bad had a less than stellar first season, The Shield fills in those blanks. While I think its the weakest show between the three, I never feel like I'm watching a different show, at the same time each season has a different feel.
The thing that sets this first season apart from other first seasons is there isn't a running plot thread from beginning to end. Sure we have Aceveda wants to take down Vic Mackey and the Strike Team, and that story rears its head at least once every episode but in the end, each episode is its own story. We have an episode centered around Lem, several around Dutch, one around Claudette, a running story with Julien, some great stuff with Danny, Shane and Aceveda. It feels that every character in the first season got their time to shine and it was a perfect setup for everything that happens in the coming seasons. Most of the individual storylines were so great, particularly with Dutch becoming obsessed with a female serial killer. There is also the Shield strange brand of dark humor peppered throughout the season like Shane becoming attached to a chicken that he will use in an underground Mexican cock fighting ring.
To me the reason it works so well, is because they don't overexaggerate the characters to the point of being cartoonish, at the same time, they don't shroud them in so much mystery that you lose interest with them. To me this is where Dexter fails, they want to have it both ways with the smaller characters by making them take up so much time in an episode while not allowing the audience to take themselves seriously. They have no bearing on the overall theme of the show. You are with them, all of them, its not just the Vic Mackey show in the first season, it's a strong ensemble of characters whose greatest strenghts also happen to be their greatest weaknesses. And you can't help but to see the damage that each character will go through in the following years.
Final Rating: ****