Even the best TV shows go wrong. A misconceived plotline winds up bogging down a whole season. (Wait, Landry killed somebody?) A new character fails to gel with the rest of the cast. (See: Every new desperate housewife not played by Dana Delany.) The writers just start repeating the same story beats — oh look, Marissa’s falling in love with the wrong guy again! — or, even worse, they conjure up a potentially exciting twist that pushes the show too far outside of its comfort zone. (See: Abu Nazir, in the tunnels, acting less like a terrorist and more like a horror movie monster.) Most of the best shows of the last two decades have been good because they’re willing to make bold moves — and sometimes, those bold moves backfire.
But TV shows can also course-correct. Sometimes, that course-correction is gradual. But sometimes, it happens all at once — and few things are quite as satisfying as the Show-Reviving Episode, when your devotion to a show going through a rough patch is suddenly rewarded. The most famous recent example of a Show-Reviving Episode was “Pretty Much Dead Already,” the midseason 2 finale of The Walking Dead. The episode came after one of the most misconceived of all misconceived plotlines: the Search for Sophia, a time-consuming arc which basically amounted to six episodes of characters meandering through a forest screaming, “Sophia!” “Pretty Much Dead Already” ended the whole Sophia arc with a bang, revealing that the adorable little youngster had been transformed into an adorable little zombie; the episode ended with show protagonist Rick Grimes putting a bullet through her head.
That single twist reinvented Walking Dead as a show that was fully willing to take bold chances and kill off cast, ideally in the worst way possible. (Since then, the show has practically made a game out of offing its main characters every few episodes.) Lots of long-running dramas use the Death Twist to reinvigorate a show. Grey’s Anatomy rounded out a meh sixth season with “Death and All His Friends,” which sent a shooter loose in Seattle Grace to kill off the show’s least essential characters. Likewise, 24 came back strong from a cuckoo season with its fifth season premiere, which heartlessly killed off two of the show’s main characters in the first 10 minutes, a move that kickstarted the show’s best season. And anyone who was still watching The O.C. in its later years knows that the show radically improved after “The Graduates,” the third-season finale which which metaphorically took showkiller Marissa Cooper behind the barn and metaphorically shot her.
It’s not always about death, though. Friday Night Lights‘ third season premiere brought the football series back to glory by essentially ignoring everything that happened in its awkward second season. The fourth episode of Glee‘s current season, “The Break-Up,” shuffled the narrative deck by ending four of the show’s relationship in one fell swoop. The Office ended an aimless series of episodes — not its first, and not its last — with its fourth season finale, “Goodbye Toby,” which introduced Amy Ryan’s Holly Flax. It’s impossible to underrate how completely Holly changed the dynamic of the show — even when she wasn’t on the show, her existence redefined Michael Scott’s whole character arc. Ally McBeal had a similar brief-but-potent redemption moment when Robert Downey Jr. joined the show in its fourth season premiere.
Mad Men and The Sopranos were never in a rut as deep as those other shows. But both series did have long, slow, moody passages — and both shows share an ability to shock themselves out of those slow passages. Mad Men‘s third season was its wooziest and least plot-heavy… until the season 3 finale, “Shut the Door. Have Seat,” which featured more plot than most seasons of Mad Men and basically wound up rebooting the entire series. Likewise, the first half of The Sopranos‘ final season is famously digressive — Oh, Vito — but the show started its final run of episodes with “Sopranos Home Movies,” one of its best and tensest hours. (Weirdly, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner co-wrote “Home Movies.”)
And then there’s Lost, a show that had one of the ruttiest ruts in TV history: Hydra Island, Polar Bear Cages, Nikki & Paolo, Jack’s tattoos, etc. It’s actually hard to tell when the second Lost renaissance began: Some date it to the Locke-centric “Man from Tallahassee,” although you could also point to “The Brig” (which paid off on Sawyer’s initial story arc in the freakiest way possible) or “The Man Behind the Curtain” (a mythology-dump episode focused on the fascinating Ben Linus.”) But everyone agrees that the season 3 finale, “Through the Looking Glass,” was the moment when the show confirmed it was back, with a final-act twist that boldly redefined the whole vision of the show.
Ironically, The Walking Dead is actually in the midst of another rough patch right now; after a thrilling first half of the season, the zombie series has settled into a repetitive slog in the long lead-up to the battle between the Governor and Rick Grimes. But The Walking Dead gives good finale, and with the end of the third season coming this weekend, it’s possible we’ll see a whole host of Show-Reviving tactics. (I’m betting on a death twist and a possible location move. Alas, Robert Downey Jr. is probably unavailable, even though I’m sure him and Andrew Lincoln would have great chemistry.)
Fellow TV fans, now it’s your turn. What are your favorite Show-Reviving Episodes? The Alias season 2 finale? Chuck‘s Chuck saying “I know kung fu”? The beginning of “Fugitive” arc on Heroes, the brief but wonderful moment when it seemed like that show might come back from the brink?
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