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Did ‘Picard’ Pull Off the Greatest Turnaround in TV History?

The ‘Star Trek’ sequel set out to eschew nostalgia and chart a new course. But after a disastrous second season, ‘Picard’ set a new heading and brought back its legacy characters—and just may have authored the greatest course correction in the history of the small screen.

Paramount/Ringer illustration

When Star Trek: Picard premiered in early 2020, there was one thing Patrick Stewart stressed about his new series: It was not a nostalgia act. “I wanted minimum looking back over our shoulders at what had been before,” Stewart said in one interview. In another, the Star Trek: The Next Generation star noted, “I didn’t want to be dipping back into the past to make this work.” He also disclosed that when he’d initially met with the would-be Picard creators (more as a courtesy than out of genuine interest in their pitch), “I explained to them all those elements of Next Generation which belong in Next Generation, and why I didn’t want to go near them again.” Later, he’d admit that he had, in effect, “put a veto on full TNG cast elements in this new series.” Picard producer Heather Kadin also emphasized, “We did not want it to be and especially Patrick did not want it to be a TNG reunion show.”

Picard Is Not a Next Generation Reboot,” declared the headline of my review, and for quite a while, it wasn’t. Alex Kurtzman, who oversees the Star Trek franchise for CBS Studios (and who cocreated and executive-produced Picard), explained that in deference to Stewart’s aversion to fan service, “A rule emerged that any legacy characters are only going to show up because the story cannot be told without them.” The first two seasons incorporated characters from TNG selectively, and only as special guests: William Riker and Deanna Troi here, Data and Wesley Crusher there—even Guinan, Hugh, and Q. Season 1’s main cast included no legacy characters save for Picard; Season 2’s added only Star Trek: Voyager’s Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), along with Data actor Brent Spiner in a different role.

Season 1 started strong but soon stagnated; tellingly, its strongest episode was the one in which Picard visits Riker and Troi. Then came Season 2. To be excessively honest: Picard’s second batch of 10 episodes formed one of the worst TV seasons I’ve ever seen from start to finish—and I watched all of The Walking Dead. By the end, the series’ IMDb user ratings had gone to red alert:

Those withering reviews called for evasive maneuvers, narratively speaking. In its second season, Picard didn’t come close to telling a compelling, coherent, and cohesive story without legacy characters—and so, per Kurtzman’s old quote, it seemed like high time for them to show up. Hence the series’ total pivot to the past in its third and final season, whose poster dispensed with any doubt about Picard’s potential to be a TNG reunion show.

Season 3—which featured not only Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Troi (Marina Sirtis), and Data, but also fellow TNG series regulars Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), and Worf (Michael Dorn), not to mention the dearly departed Enterprise-D—concluded on Thursday, with a capper called “The Last Generation.” And to quote one of Picard’s lines from the finale: “If ever there was better evidence that the past mattered, it’s right here.”

Picard’s belated embrace of familiar faces produced a justified and dramatic improvement in public perception (with an accompanying uptick in critical acclaim). “I’ve never been so happy to see so many wrinkles,” Troi says in the second-to-last episode. Picard’s audience seems to have felt the same way about the series’ successful assimilation (and reinterpretation) of TNG’s graying core cast.

It doesn’t take a Betazoid to sense a surge in support of this magnitude, but it does take some number crunching to determine whether Picard’s reversal of fan fortunes is one of the all-time TV course corrections. With help from data scientist Harish Swaminathan, I analyzed IMDb user ratings collected by Rating Graph. Our sample—which pulled in all multi-season scripted TV shows with at least 500 user ratings per episode, on average—consisted of 564 series and more than 2,000 combined seasons. Sure enough, no other qualifying series posted a season-over-season increase in average score that could rival Picard’s climb from 6.6 in Season 2 to 8.2 in Season 3. In fact, no other qualifying series came close, as shown by this histogram of every season-over-season change:

The histogram is centered at zero and skewed just slightly negative: On average, even multi-season series that were popular enough to qualify for our sample tended to rate a tad lower over time (which is true even of the transition from penultimate to final seasons among series that, like Picard, ran for at least three seasons). There are a few more massive drop-offs in average user rating than there are big bumps, too. That little bar all by its lonesome past the tick mark at plus-2? That’s Picard. (The even lonelier outlier near minus-4: the final season of House of Cards.)

Here’s what Picard’s improvement (the long, red, dotted line) looks like compared to the rest of the top 50 increases.

And here’s a tabular look at how it laps the field—along with the series at the other end of the spectrum, whose seasonal scores fell the furthest.

Top Season-Over-Season IMDb Rating Increases (English-Language)

Name Initial Season Subsequent Season Initial Season Avg. Subsequent Season Avg. Rating Increase
Name Initial Season Subsequent Season Initial Season Avg. Subsequent Season Avg. Rating Increase
Star Trek: Picard 2 3 6.6 8.8 2.2
Red Dwarf 9 10 6.4 7.9 1.5
Riverdale 6 7 6 7.4 1.4
Torchwood 2 3 7.9 8.9 1.1
Endeavour 8 9 7.7 8.7 1
Legacies 3 4 7.4 8.4 1
Fear the Walking Dead 5 6 6.6 7.6 1
Another Life 1 2 6.1 7.1 1
The Walking Dead 8 9 7 8 0.9
Community 4 5 7.4 8.3 0.9
Fleabag 1 2 8 8.9 0.9
The Sinner 3 4 6.6 7.5 0.9
The Americans 5 6 7.9 8.8 0.9
Only Fools and Horses 5 6 8.2 9.1 0.9
Warrior Nun 1 2 7.6 8.5 0.8
Lucifer 3 4 8.2 9.1 0.8
Parks and Recreation 1 2 7.2 8 0.8
The Walking Dead: World Beyond 1 2 5.7 6.5 0.8
Only Fools and Horses 7 8 8.4 9.2 0.8
Samurai Jack 4 5 8.4 9.2 0.8

Top Season-Over-Season IMDb Rating Decreases (English-Language)

Name Initial Season Subsequent Season Initial Season Avg. Subsequent Season Avg. Rating Decrease
Name Initial Season Subsequent Season Initial Season Avg. Subsequent Season Avg. Rating Decrease
House of Cards 5 6 8.2 4.2 -3.9
Master of None 2 3 8.7 6 -2.7
Game of Thrones 7 8 9 6.4 -2.6
Scream: The TV Series 2 3 7.9 5.5 -2.4
Scrubs 8 9 8.1 6.3 -1.8
Two and a Half Men 8 9 7.8 6 -1.8
Doctor Who 10 11 7.7 6 -1.7
Fear the Walking Dead 6 7 7.6 6 -1.6
Torchwood 3 4 8.9 7.4 -1.6
Altered Carbon 1 2 8.1 6.6 -1.5
Billions 5 6 7.7 6.2 -1.5
Only Fools and Horses 8 9 9.2 7.7 -1.5
Masters of the Universe: Revelation 1 2 6.7 5.2 -1.5
The Terror 1 2 8.2 6.9 -1.4
SpongeBob SquarePants 3 4 8.8 7.4 -1.3
Bloodline 2 3 8.3 7 -1.3
Killing Eve 3 4 7.8 6.6 -1.3
True Detective 1 2 9.2 7.9 -1.3
The Dragon Prince 3 4 8.7 7.4 -1.2
Dexter 7 8 8.7 7.5 -1.2

Picard’s ascent in perceived quality is so steep that even if we remove the constraint of consecutive seasons and simply look for the biggest rating hikes between any season and any subsequent season, it still easily tops the list. In other words, no qualifying series—including famous slow starters such as The Office, Breaking Bad, Schitt’s Creek, Seinfeld, Parks and Recreation, or even Star Trek: TNG itself—has ever raised its game in spectators’ eyes as substantially from one season to another over any part of its run as Picard did in adjacent seasons that were shot back-to-back.

Top Any-Season IMDb Rating Increases (English-Language)

Name Initial Season Subsequent Season Initial Season Avg. Subsequent Season Avg. Rating Increase
Name Initial Season Subsequent Season Initial Season Avg. Subsequent Season Avg. Rating Increase
Star Trek: Picard 2 3 6.6 8.7 2.1
Torchwood 1 3 7.4 8.9 1.5
Red Dwarf 9 10 6.4 7.9 1.5
Only Fools and Horses 1 8 7.8 9.2 1.5
Riverdale 6 7 6 7.4 1.4
Inspector Morse 1 12 7.4 8.7 1.3
Mystery Science Theater 3000 1 6 6.7 7.9 1.2
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power 1 5 7.8 9 1.2
Parks and Recreation 1 3 7.2 8.4 1.2
SpongeBob SquarePants 7 10 6 7.1 1.1
The Owl House 1 3 8.2 9.2 1.1
Seinfeld 1 8 7.4 8.5 1
Samurai Jack 2 5 8.2 9.3 1
Endeavour 8 9 7.7 8.7 1
Legacies 3 4 7.4 8.4 1
Fear the Walking Dead 5 6 6.6 7.6 1
BoJack Horseman 1 6 7.8 8.8 1
The Walking Dead 8 9 7 8 0.9
Another Life 1 2 6.1 7.1 0.9
Star Trek: The Next Generation 1 6 6.8 7.7 0.9

Even the new and improved Picard was far from perfect. The exposition and technobabble were onerous even by Star Trek standards. Every other scene seemed to end with two characters staring at each other as the dramatic score swelled. The show still largely didn’t know what to do with Raffi (Michelle Hurd), the lone holdover original Picard character. And the constant callbacks to TNG and its sequel films would have been baffling to anyone who hadn’t seen them (or revisited them in the past few decades). On a shot-by-shot, line-by-line level, Picard’s camerawork and script can’t stack up to the best of prestige TV.

Yet there’s much more about the series to celebrate, and not just in contrast to the painful lows of Season 2. Some of the season’s appeal is a testament to the combo of comedy, catharsis, and pathos dished out by writer, director, and Star Trek superfan Terry Matalas, who served as sole showrunner in Season 3 after teaming up with the, um, inconsistent Akiva Goldsman in Season 2. (Michael Chabon oversaw Season 1.) Of course, a cook is only as good as his ingredients: Much of the scripts’ special taste is attributable to the cast, from Stewart on down. The old guys (and gals, and androids) have still got it. And some of the excitement stems from the special effects, which make large-scale space combat look as convincing as it ever has in Star Trek.

In the abstract, there’s something slightly deflating about a character who made his mark by boldly going where no one had gone before failing to escape the gravity well of a series that went off the air almost 30 years ago, and about a cast whose last big-screen turn together came more than 20 years ago. That Picard had to reach for the memberberries to right the ship is part and parcel with the other recent triumphs of Star Trek TV: the old-school structure of Strange New Worlds (a prequel to The Original Series) and the animated, TNG-worshipping sitcom Lower Decks. Both of those shows, whose second and fourth seasons, respectively, will air this summer, are utter delights. But although they put their own spins on the franchise’s episodic formula, they’re also love letters to Trek shows of old, as is Picard’s third season. Meanwhile, Picard’s earlier attempts to put the past behind it floundered, and the trailblazing Star Trek: Discovery’s leap 900 years into the future yielded the lowest-user-rated season in Star Trek history.

In practice, though, it’s hard to feel despondent or cynical about this recycling, and not just because it’s not unique to Trek. For one thing, Star Trek is still trying some new things, including the kid-centric Prodigy, the forthcoming, teen-oriented Starfleet Academy, and the just-announced Section 31, which will star Michelle Yeoh’s Discovery character and touch off a planned series of streaming movies that may make up for the sorry state of the stalled film franchise. Even Picard finds time to introduce new blood. Although the breakout character of the first two seasons, Cristobal Rios (Santiago Cabrera), is—unlike almost every other jettisoned character and plotline from pre-reboot Picard—sorely missed, Ed Speleers is sympathetic and dynamic as Jack Crusher, Todd Stashwick makes a great foil for seat-of-their-pants Picard and Riker as by-the-book captain Liam Shaw, and Amanda Plummer brings a mesmerizing Forest-Whitaker-in-Star-Wars-meets-Gary-Oldman-in-The-Fifth-Element energy to new Changeling villain Vadic.

What’s more, while Picard does dip into and look back at the past much more than Stewart wanted it to when he signed up to reprise the role, it’s not stuck there. (Unlike Rios, who chose to stay in the 21st century when Picard and Co. literally traveled into the past in Season 2.) The season stays true to the essence of Star Trek (in contrast to, say, Star Trek Into Darkness) without being a pure rip-off (like, um, also Star Trek Into Darkness). The returning TNG icons, Picard prime among them, evolve in major, meaningful ways, reckon with the consequences of their past actions, and deliver long-awaited closure for themselves and the audience. They’re old characters, but they’re not the same old characters. The Enterprise-D may look almost identical—which makes its retro bridge a sight for Star Trek fans’ sore eyes—but Picard is different as a dad, Data is different as a fully feeling being, and Worf is different as a meditative peacekeeper.

Picard unapologetically revels in getting the gang back together, from its nonstop audiovisual Easter eggs to its many meta acknowledgments of the cast’s gratitude about being back together again to its lingering, loving looks at the Enterprise, a tradition that dates back to the spacedock scene in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. At times, Picard leans almost laughably far into nostalgia through its use of actual clips from TNG, its contrived “only the olds can save a compromised Starfleet from the Borg” twist, and its vast assemblage of guest stars and cameos. (Tuvok! Ro Laren! Elizabeth Shelby! The Borg Queen! Anton Chekov! Professor Moriarty!) Yet it’s all so earnest that it feels more like appreciation than pandering. It’s hard not to have a good time with a cast that’s clearly having such a good time with one another. That on-screen camaraderie works because it’s rooted in real life: By all accounts, the cast members really like one another and value their shared work, so we know it’s not a Galaxy Quest situation. I’ll be darned if watching the crew play cards with Picard isn’t just as satisfying and heartwarming the second time.

“It was touch and go at times, wasn’t it?” Stewart said in an interview after the finale. He was referring to Jean-Luc’s prospects for survival at the season’s climax, but the same could have been said about Picard’s prospects for holding an audience after Season 2. Yet the series stuck the landing despite its incredibly turbulent flight, giving this group the final bow it was denied by the box-office flop of 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis. “What began over 35 years ago ends tonight,” Picard declares in the finale; later, Riker remarks, “I hate to say it, but I think this is the end of the road. We closed this place down. Again.”

Or did they? “The Last Generation” goes to some lengths to set up a possible spin-off starring Seven, Jack, and Sidney La Forge. Cast and creator alike are stumping hard for this still-hypothetical series, which they’ve dubbed Star Trek: Legacy, and Stewart has said that he’s open to appearing as Picard part-time. The Star Trek TV-verse is ever expanding, and Strange New Worlds spun off from Discovery. If the ratings are strong enough—not just IMDb’s, but Nielsen’s—perhaps Picard can repeat the trick, and the generational cycle can begin again.

Whether or not the story seeds planted this season sprout into a continuing mission, Picard proved, just in time, that there was life left in a long-dormant, deeply beloved property. In the end, the sequel’s resistance to picking up the mantle of TNG was futile. And for fans of Star Trek, resistance to the charms of what might be the most improved series of all time is probably futile too.

Thanks to Harish Swaminathan and Zoltán Hajdú of Rating Graph for research assistance.