Expectations for the final season of Game of Thrones were higher than the Red Keep’s tallest spire, and, unfortunately, fans and critics alike were not universally impressed with the way creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss ended the story. Unlike the previous seven seasons — all of which are Certified Fresh with Tomatometer scores well into the 90s — season 8 is not only the lowest-scoring season on the Tomatometer, it is also the first-ever Rotten season of HBO’s fantasy series.
How does that work? Let’s do a bit of math: While the average score of each of season 8’s episodes is a Fresh 68%, a number of season-level reviews (those that consider the season in its entirety) published following the finale have brought the overall season score down into the Rotten range.
“This final season was all about big-huge set pieces, and a lot of the complexity burned away,” wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Darren Franich of the season as a whole. And Slate’s Willa Paskin noted in her review of the series finale, “Benioff and Weiss organized their entire series around an ending that they didn’t write to.”
But Thrones is not the only beloved series that critics felt whiffed its final at-bat. Series with high expectations for their final episodes include everything from HBO’s bro-tastic showbiz satire Entourage to PBS’ prestige TV detective drama Sherlock. And though those expectations might not have been quite as high as the dizzying, dragon-y heights that GoT needed to live up to, both of those series similarly seemed to let down longtime viewers.
Below, Rotten Tomatoes has gathered a list of beloved series whose early seasons were high-scoring and usually Certified Fresh — meaning they all received a large number of reviews, with many from top critics, and a score of more than 75% on the Tomatometer — and whose last season or two descended into Rotten territory. Some shows, like The Office, The West Wing, or How I Met Your Mother, managed to turn Rotten penultimate seasons around into Fresh final ones (which is why those three are not included below). But others, including Game of Thrones, Dexter, and Arrested Development, take their place among history’s best-reviewed shows with poorly reviewed endings.
A note: We’ve only included series with robust scores, and we would also like to reiterate that this is not an indictment of the included series, but rather a numbers-focused presentation of score drops.
While showrunners Benioff and Weiss were never going to please everyone, critics pointed to the series’ penultimate episode, “The Bells,” as a prime example of how “a transportive, well-acted, smartly written drama even non-genre fans can appreciate” (per the RT Critics Consensus for season 1) could devolve into such a divisive experience for fans. The Critics Consensus for “The Bells” in particular echoes a common complaint from the show’s closing moments: “too much plot in too little time muddles the story and may leave some viewers feeling its conclusions are unearned.”
Seasons 1, 2, 4, 5, and 7 of Showtime’s serial killer drama are all Certified Fresh, but seasons 6 and 8 plunged into Rotten territory. The Critics Consensus for season 6 counts “heavy-handed symbolism, an unimpressive villain, and a redundant arc for America’s favorite serial killer” among the reasons for its low score, while the season 8 summary calls it a “a bitterly disappointing final season that is so hesitant to punish its anti-hero for his misdeeds, it opts to punish its audience instead.”
The dark comedy followed suburban widow Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) as she began to deal pot to make ends meet following the unexpected death of her husband — and eventually transformed into an international drug kingpin. But while the first season was Certified Fresh and the subsequent ones were generally well-liked, RT’s Critics Consensus for the eighth and final season notes that the “final installment burns the series’ remaining goodwill down to a sorry roach with perfunctory plotting and a sense that this story no longer resembles the one fans fell in love with.”
The Seattle-set slow-burn mystery pursued by homicide detectives Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) started off with “thoughtful writing, believable characters, and realistic horror, even if its season finale was unsatisfying,” per the first season’s Critics Consensus. By the fourth season, resurrected by Netflix following AMC’s cancellation, it succumbed to “silliness” and strayed into “distractingly overwrought territory.”
HBO’s vampire drama, based on the Southern Gothic Sookie Stackhouse book series by bestselling author Charlaine Harris, took a few seasons for critics to warm up to it (it started at a barely Fresh 61% in season 1 and reached a series high of 95% in season 3). But the third season’s “graphic thrills, steamy romance, and biting satire for its fans” made way for a Rotten final two seasons, as the series ran out of steam and its seventh season was “content to limp along on familiar plot points.”
Highest-rated season: Arrested Development: Season 1 (2003) 100%
Final season: Arrested Development: Season 5 (2018) 55%
Drop: 45%, though the drop from season 1 to season 4 was even more drastic at 73%
The first season of the formerly short-lived Fox gem is among the rare seasons Certified Fresh at 100%, and the subsequent two seasons that aired on the broadcast network are also strong with 94% and 100% Tomatometer scores, respectively. Netflix’s revival, on the other hand, can’t quite “live up to its own past.” At least the series’ fifth season (55%) was a bit of a second chance for the cast and creators, as season 4’s Critics Consensus put it simply: “They’ve made a huge mistake.” (Though the series has not officially been canceled, there’s no word on whether Netflix plans to make another season.)
All three seasons of the dark, Bachelor-skewering drama that aired on Lifetime were Certified Fresh and brought renewed respect to the female-focused network. The fourth season, however, “fizzled out” and went directly to Hulu (“but the clever antics, confidence, and high energy” remained intact, per the season 4 CC).
The first three full seasons of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s modern Sherlock Holmes adaptations were all Certified Fresh with scores in the 90s. But the 2015 Christmas special wasn’t quite as well-received, and the fourth season, which came four years after season 3, was marred by “the lofty expectations created by the series’ lengthy hiatus.” Hm, sounds familiar…
While the Hollywood antics of heartthrob Vinny Chase (Adrian Grenier) and his hangers-on were mostly well-received — most seasons of the HBO comedy are sitting comfortably in the 70s — the seventh season saw a turn as poorly received as Chase’s fictional epic, Medellin. As season 8’s Critics Consensus put it, “With Entourage‘s best stories behind it, the series finale feels like a merciful end.”
The Fox drama’s self-explanatory title meant that the series was always going to have to fight against its own premise — there are only so many prisons to break out of, after all — but after a Certified Fresh debut season and a second installment that maintained the series’ “propulsive momentum,” per season 2’s CC, things went downhill. The third and fourth seasons were both Rotten at 50% — and while the original series finale delivered closure for fans, “the season’s ludicrous, plot-breaking twists betray the feeling that this saga should have ended a jailbreak or two before.” Fox’s 2017 revival nearly a decade after the series’ original end, didn’t fare much better: “familiar faces and frenetic action aren’t enough to make up for a plot that manages to bore while beggaring belief,” per the Critics Consensus.