Adventure Time began its run as a simple and comedic kids' show with a slightly connected plot and characters. It wasn't until the season 2 finale that the show began to take a much different turn. The overarching story became much more interconnected and characters gaining much more depth, even leading to some real Tear Jerker moments, later in the series.
While The Amazing World of Gumball was met with positive reception upon its debut, many fans will tell you that season 2's complex storylines and improved humor (especially certain episodes like "The Job") made the series really worth watching.
The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes introduced the main characters in a disjointed manner (the first five episodes having premiered online in the form of 20 shorts). The show started improving after the founding of the Avengers, and seemed to really hit a stride in the second half of the first season. By that point, the show started focusing less on finding new Avengers, and more on developing the eight they had, while still expanding their universe.
The Backyardigans from season two onwards; the character designs become cleaner and the animation is much smoother. Even the songs get better.
The Batman does this with its first season finale, when the characters began to gain some depth and it was not so blatantly Merchandise-Driven. Most notably, Joker shows his nasty side for the first time, Batman/Bruce goes through his first real trauma in his career, and one of the show's best villains (Clayface) is created (exceeding his comic and DCAU versions). It grew the beard again in the fourth season, which was not only a marked improvement over a decent third season that was nonetheless probably weaker than the second one, but probably the best for overall storytelling (as well as introducing their excellent version of Dick Grayson).
Bob's Burgers got better in its second season. The slow pacing of the show disappeared and the stories began to come to life and grab attention more.
In fact, Disney as a whole gradually grew the beard in the 30's, when Disney pushed for higher quality, more naturalistic animation, ditching the crude rubberhose style of the early cartoons for the most part, with the epitome of their beard growing being the first five Disney features: Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi. The studio artists grew from animating rubberhose cartoons to naturalistic, classical, anatomically-correct humans, animals, and scenery... in the span of 3 years!
If you ever find the shorts produced by Walt Disney's first animation studio, Laugh-O-Gram Studio (your best bet would be the Beauty and the Beast Blu-ray), watch them in chronological order. You may notice a gradually reduced reliance on Overly Long Gags, and a stronger desire to actually tell a story, featuring endearing characters. Even then, the visuals have nothing on the shorts and movies later produced at Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Walt Disney Animation Studio has fluctuated in quality throughout the years, but there's have been various definitive starting points for when their studio rebounds in quality. The first instance of this was Cinderella, the first film to come close to capturing the critical and commercial success of their first feature, Snow White. Before that, the studio was finding themselves struggling to find a strong titles. Disney would go on to have another string of successes until Walt Disney's passing signalled a decline in quality after The Jungle Book. Their next stage began with The Little Mermaid, which saw the starting point of the Disney Renaissance. This period led to Will Eisner's growth in power in the company, which would eventually lead to another dork age. The most recent and current period resulted in John Lasseter becoming the head honcho of the Animation Studio. Starting with Meet the Robinsons, the studio have gotten critical and commercial acclaim they had not seen since the 90's.
Code Lyoko starts out pretty formulaic in season 1, but in season 2 more substantial character development and plots occur, and the show becomes less repetitive.
It could be argued that the show grew its beard in Ghost Channel, which introduced us to something that wasn't XANA attacking and the team having to go into Lyoko to deactivate a Tower, and showed us just what kind of a threat this Omnicidal Maniac of a virus really was in a truly terrifying manner.
Before the 1st season finale, the show was a series of unconnected stories about five kids sticking it to the adults, and a certain bunch of kids who live down the lane. And then said kids whip out a cigar they found at the end of a previous episode....
The 2nd season finale ("Operation: E.N.D.") was also this to a lot of fans, for developing the organization more, putting the characters in more danger, and showing that not every operative is a good guy.
Then comes the splinter cell that comes into focus near the end of the series, followed by mysterious events happening to Numbuh One. It all leads up to a master plan that comes to play in the Grand Finale, "Operation: I.N.T.E.R.V.I.E.W.S.", giving the show a brilliant sendoff, albeit a Tear Jerker.
Although Daria was golden from the first episode, "Cafe Disaffecto" was the episode where the show began to hit its stride creatively with regards to Daria being a force of nature within Lawndale, wreaking havoc against the status quo in her own passive-aggressive manner, via causing a riot with her anti-communist "Melody Powers" spy stories after being pressganged into participating in a coffee house open mic night event by her parents and her school.
Another good example would be the third season's first (production-wise) episode, "Through A Lens Darkly", where the title character diverges from being an Invincible Hero-like protagonist and made her into more of the Broken Ace she would become in later episodes.
Batman: The Animated Series started off action-oriented, with early episodes like "On Leather Wings," "Christmas With The Joker" and "The Last Laugh" being primarily fast paced and minimal plot. "Heart of Ice," though, is generally regarded as one of the best of the entire series and legendary for reinventing Mr. Freeze as a tortured soul who lost his wife.
Justice League season 2 is considered a vast improvement over season 1. Mostly thanks to writer Dwayne McDuffie joining the crew, but also managing to seriously think a few plots through such as "A Better World" and especially foreshadowing of the events of "Starcrossed". This was all largely evident in the season opener "Twilight" which was more aggressive in scope and personal in the stakes than almost anything in the first season.
During the commentary track on "Twilight," Bruce Timm and those with him also say that starting with season 2 they wanted to push themselves more than they did with the first season. They use the metaphor of ringing a bell; that if you're going to ring a bell, do it as loud and as hard as you can.
There's also "Hereafter", where Superman gets sent onto a desert planet with a red sun and has to survive without his powers. Not only is the first part, where the people of Earth think Big Blue is dead, genuinely touching, but Supes' interaction with the only intelligent inhabitant of the desert planet is some of the best-written stuff the series saw. It broke the mold of him having The Worf Effect to showcase the other league and put him by himself in a hostile and unfamiliar environment.
Cartoon Network strikes again! The second season of Dexter's Laboratory boasts the most focused balance between the show itself and the Monkey and Justice Friends spin-offs and even offered the most easily relatable stories in the show which also helped introduce more inventions that Dexter would invent to make his life easier resulting in the most versitile season of the series.
Drawn Together became more versatile with its characters and storyline in season 2 and didn't put as much emphasis on its reality show theme. DT's first season was good. But its second season not only pushed the limits of taste, but also how good the show could possibly be.
The Duck Dodgers episode "Of Course You Know, This Means War (and Peace)" provided a very compelling, drama-laden episode that didn't break the tone of the rest of the series, the following episode actually being used for the snapback.
The characters in Ed, Edd n Eddy started to find more of their niche in their personalities and found more solid and witty stories for them to tell after Season 1.
Family Guy started off as rough around the edges with everyone falling into the typical stereotypes (sensible mother, bumbling dad with a good heart, bratty teenage daughter, dimwitted teenage son, talking dog, and a power hungry baby that wants to take over the world, being the only character that didn't fit into a mold). Many of the plots were edgy for its time but nothing shocking that would get people riled up. After the show came back on air from cancellation, the show dove head first into more risque plots and jokes that aimed to offend as many people as possible. The characters themselves also changed heavily due to Flanderizaton but they still retain some parts of the original personalities. While fans still argue over the quality of the show, most agree that Family Guy is better developed now than it was back then.
The third season (specifically, "Parasites Lost" and "Time Keeps On Slippin") is the first real glimpse of what Futurama is most highly regarded for — the ability to mix comedy and melancholy, which leads into its centerpiece plot.
Gargoyles started out as an above-average Action Adventure cartoon, but it really came into its own with the epic four-part story "City of Stone," which introduced detailed backstories for the major characters Macbeth and Demona (largely earning the show its reputation for multi-layered characters and complex story arcs), but also featured the first official alliance between David Xanatos and the gargoyles—definitively establishing Xanatos as an unpredictable power broker with no firm allegiance to good or evil.
Hey Arnold! (And how). The art improved, the character development was increased, the writing improved, everything improved. Helga, in particular, became more artistic, cool and complex and less emphasis was put on her sadistic, bullying ways. Season 1 was good, but the rest of the series was just plain better.
In another Cartoon Network example, I Am Weasel's focus strayed away from just "I.R. will never be as good as Weasel" to a wider array of storytelling which may have helped latch it off of Cow and Chicken and into its own show.
Johnny Bravo became wittier, funnier and easier to relate to in its second season. It also introduced the characters Carl and Pops which opened the door for more stories besides the standard "Johnny likes women" plot while Suzy evolved from a just a cute little girl with a crush on Johnny to someone more developed and mature and Bunny evolved from the standard mother figure to a louder, more actioney-type character.
KaBlam! was less random and fleshed out the characters more in season two.
Kim Possible certainly started out strong, with a Action Girl self aware heroine and plenty of humor, drama and fight scenes not like Disney. However Kim herself was a bit of a problem: she was something of a Mary Sue, a little egotistical and the world seemed to exist to show how awesome she is. From the second season there's a wealth of Character Development and Kim becomes less up herself and more compassionate, and more focus is given to her relationship with Ron who grows from Butt Monkey to Let's Get Dangerous to good effect.
Looney Tunes: The early shorts started as shallow, musical oriented Disney ripoffs, but in 1935, Tex Avery and Bob Clampett decided to bring back the fun of old rubberhose cartoons (at a time when Disney was becoming a major force in the industry) which slowly led to the creation of beloved stars like Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, and the rest of the Looney Tunes ensemble, while previous Disney-derivative stars like Beans the Cat and Oliver Owl faded into obscurity.
While the Ralph Wolf And Sam Sheepdog cartoons were always funny, it wasn't until the third entry that the wolf and sheepdog were seen to be on friendly terms off the clock, which was the critical component of the series.
Most fans of MAD would say that the best episodes of the show would come since "Snot Pilgrim vs. the World". The art style for the "Spy vs. Spy" shorts and the traps that they used also improved. Season 2's "Kitchen Nightmares Before Christmas" even got nominated for an Emmy.
The Marvel Action Hour, the 1990s Fantastic Four and Iron Man cartoons both grew their beards in season 2; while not rejecting their first seasons, the shows suddenly took a leap forward in quality. Basically, the entire production crew from the first season was fired and replaced. The animation style changed for both shows and most of the Force Works characters from Iron Man were written out to concentrate on better solo stories.
The fandom mostly agrees that at some point My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic grew the beard. When exactly is debated, but generally it is believed to be sometime near the middle of season one, though some believe that it didn't fully grow the beard until season two.
The show was only moderately popular when it premiered in Fall 2010 and wasn't too big during its original run. It wasn't until around Spring/Summer 2011, a good time after season 1 wound down where the show's notability and popularity really exploded, with new fans discovering the show and watching the entirety of season 1 in their spare time. Know Your Meme backed this up, as MLP was an entry in a "Best of 2011" poll despite debuting in 2010. It also helped that the middle of 2011 was when The Hub aired reruns during the afterschool hours on weekdays, when older children and teens would have free time. The episodes commonly mentioned as the episode where the show grew the beard include "Dragonshy" (S1E7), "Winter Wrap Up" (S1E11), or "Sonic Rainboom" (S1E16).
A lot of people also identify "Bridle Gossip" (S1E9) as the turning point, due to the episode's brand of humor. In particular, quite a few fans identify Flutterguy's "Evil Enchantress Song" reprise as the scene that proved the show to be worth watching. Further solidified with the early episodes of season 2. Which gave us a god of chaosvoiced byQ, the return of Princess Luna and Twilight going temporaily insane. As well as the two-part season 2 finale, which was pretty much movie quality and had the best music the show turned out up to its release.
Another good candidate is "Lesson Zero" (S2E3), which shakes up the formula by allowing any of the main characters to write a letter on something they learned about friendship, rather than just Twilight, meaning the writers no longer had to put Twilight into a major role in every single episode, which was getting rather forced at times.
Most Phineas and Ferb fans consider the episode "Dude, We're Getting the Band Back Together!" the episode that made them love the series. After that, the animation got better, there was more character development on even the minor characters, and the show started adding more Parental Bonus and Continuity Nods.
Some of the rest, consider the episode just before it, "It's About Time!" for getting truly Genre Savvy in regards to Doof and Perry's dynamics. There is also "I Scream, You Scream", in which the writers show you just how self-aware the show is (plus the fanservice in B.U.S.T.E.D started quite a trend).
The Raccoons when the human characters were dropped in the second season and the setting changed to a fully Funny Animal world. With that new focus, the plots became more original and the characters more complex, such as Cyril Sneer becoming more sympathetic as an Anti-Hero.
ReBoot, mostly a highly episodic children's show in the first two seasons, abruptly became much deeper and somewhat darker in the third season, with a season-wide plot arc that made the show much more entertaining to an older audience. This is likely because they went into syndication in the third season and were no longer subject to ABC's Broadcast Standards and Practices which had constrained them up until that point (including giving Dot a "uniboob" because they didn't want things to be sexual at all).
Near the beginning of season three, Enzo loses a game which ultimately results in him becoming older and literally growing a beard.
Actually, it was near the end of the second season when the story began to pick up, starting with the introduction of Andria and culminating with the Wham Episode finale.
A good amount of the Recess fanbase say that while season 1 was good, season 2 is when the show started to get really good, with the characters begining to use their catchphrases and more Character Development to Miss Finster and Ashley A., among others.
Regular Show also began to tone down the focus on its main protagonists. The focus on Mordecai's developing relationship with Margaret gives the show a sense of continuity, and highlights both Mordecai's weaknesses and Rigby's snarkiness. The lowering of the focus on completely absurd plot twists is somewhat refreshing once in a while.
Rocko's Modern Life spent most of its first season focusing on just Rocko himself. Things picked up starting in season 2 when Filburt evolved from a background character to a third friend and the series fleshed out the perspectives of the other characters as well and not just Rocko's. We witness Filburt and Hutchinson get married and have children, Heffer become a cop only to get arrested himself, Mr. Bighead evolves beyond a standard Butt Monkey to a more easily relatable character and even gains an artist for a son. Heck, Season 3's Wacky Deli is considered the best episode of the show (At least by Murray himself).
While not considered bad, the first season of The Simpsons seems jarringly different than other seasons to more recent viewers, due to the show's slower pace, Homer's voice, the quirks of the animation style, etc. The show really picks up in the second season, and then really hits its stride by the third season. The reason was largely financial: the initial Tracey Ullman shorts were done on the cheap (starting with a two-man animation team, one of whom was Matt Groening), and improved as more funding was added. The first season was a half-length trial - with the second season, they got a full whack of funding and were able to set down a regular writing and production cycle and firm up the designs.
Sitting Ducks was much better in its second season than it was in its first. The slow atmosphere of the series disappeared and the characterization improved. Bill evolves into a suprisingly braver duck, Ed, Oly and Waddle gain more episodes dedicated to them and they even did better storytelling with Aldo fighting his craving for ducks.
Some South Park fans argue that seasons 4, 5 and 6 were the golden age of the show and the time during which it really kicked off, subtly combining the crude humor of seasons 1, 2 and 3 with the extreme Author Filibuster of later seasons.
The first few episodes of Space Ghost Coast to Coast were boring and awkward. It picked up towards the end of the first season/beginning of the second season, and the third and fourth seasons are where many people think it really started getting hilarious.
In the first season of Spider-Man: The Animated Series, most of the episodes were self-contained and centered around the villain of the week. In other words, it looked just like Batman: The Animated Series except in all the noticeable ways in which it was inferior to Batman (cruder animation, less exciting violence, less complex villains). The second season kicked off with a season long story arc, "Neogenic Nightmare", and the show became a multi-part soap opera that was less about the villains and more about Peter's personal life, the effect his powers had on his personal life, and the supporting cast. It's this format that has helped this show be fondly remembered...and helped it regularly trounce Batman in the ratings.
SpongeBob SquarePants in the second and third season with consistent episode plots, improved humor and art styles, and lots of Character Development of the main cast and characters. Season 4 was received less positively, though.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars started out with some good points of praise alongside a lot of elements that fans did not care for, such as the goofy battle droid humor. The first season episode "Rookies" is generally cited as the moment the show improved because it introduced the coldly efficient commando droids and was an atypical story focusing on a small squad of clone troopers. It also had two uses of the word "hell" as a swear, stunning most of the viewers who believed it was watered down for kids. However, it didn't slip by the radar for long and got removed from the dialogue on-air.
Street Fighter: The first season was mostly stand alone episodes, with a few recuring elements (i.e. Guile's love interest). The second season has several character arcs through its episodes (i.e. Blanka's accidental further mutation, a growing rivalry between Ken and Ryu, Cammy's brainwashing, and Bison's aquisition of an ancient healing statue that, over the course of the season, drives him to world-destroying insanity). All this and Final Fight, too!
Super Friends grew its beard multiple times such as when the combat useless Wendy and Marvin were dropped for the superpowered Wonder Twins, then "Challenge" for bringing in the classic supervillains and finally in the final two incarnations with better written stories taking advantage of well developed comics characters like Firestorm, Cyborg for teen identification and using Darkseid and his New Gods minions as the major recurring enemies.
The 2012 TMNT show started off generally humorous, but with hints of a darker story arc, though the humor and seriousness was a bit unbalanced at times. Episode 9 shows significant improvement in the show's writing style, finally fully introducing The Shredder and how dangerous he is to the Turtles, with most of the episodes afterwards as of current figuring out how to balance the humor and seriousness, and focus on the story arc rather than the Monster of the Week format a majority of the previous episodes had (said monsters becoming more of a Rogues Gallery, though this was likely planned from the start).
The first season of Teen Titans was slow, Anvilicious, and couldn't escape the label of "Justice League lite." Something at the end of season 1 just clicked and showed that yeah, they can do drama. Then season 2 said "Yeah, we can also do superhero comedy!"
In particular, "Masks", the episode that kicked off the Robin story arc at the end of the first season, introduced the Not So Different dynamic between Robin and Slade, and started developing Slade's motives and plans beyond the generic evil of his first few appearances really marked the moment of beard growth for many.
Total Drama had a few of these in its first season, such as "Basic Straining" and "Brunch of Disgustingness".
Though a divisive Retool, Season 3 of the original Transformers cartoon (as well as the movie that preceded it) started to feature more sophisticated continuity and backstory for the Transformers mythology, and some surprisingly mature episodes like "Dark Awakening".
Transformers: Beast Wars was very episodic, though still enjoyable, in its first season, but the first season finale and follow-up in the second season began an "Epic kick". By the third season the plot threads were woven much more tightly and characters gained depth. It may not be incidental that the first season was also the longest (in fact as long as both of the other two together).
Transformers Animated was fairly disliked early on for its exaggerated animation style, the episodes were merely decent but not spectacular. "Thrill of the Hunt" introduced some of Ratchet's backstory in the original Autobot/Decepticon war and the results were both shocking and mature. It also introduced a popular rivalry between Prowl (Ninja) and Lockdown (Pirate).
"Megatron Rising" is also a possible point for Beard Growth, setting up the more sustained arcs of the second season.
Transformers Prime started off fairly strong but some people complained that it was too reminiscent of the Transformers film series in both look and story structure (although with a greater focus on the robots). Once the initial miniseries was over and the series proper got started, fans started to really pick up on the high-tension/horror-themed episodes like "Scrapheap," "Predatory," "Operation: Breakdown" and "Rock Bottom." Those episodes in particular started to show how dedicated the series was towards balancing both story and characters. "Partners" is also where there was a sense of a Myth Arc forming, where Starscream defects from the Decepticons and becomes neutral.
While most of those examples will result in arguments, the "One Shall Fall" and subsequent "One Shall Rise" three parter was almost universally praised for some intense action scenes, powerful characterizations and a story twist that turns the classic mythos on their head.
Ultimate Spider-Man's season one finale has earned a more glowing reception than expected after previous episodes. After it, season 2 got slightly better compared to the previous one, giving more Character Development and bringing Spider-Man villains, though the quality remains highly contested.
The Venture Bros. started off a merciless Jonny Quest spoof/parody with a good deal of crude humor. Towards the end of season one, the show gained some depth into a Deconstruction of the entire "youth adventure" genre. The focus of the show shifted from the Venture boys onto their father, Dr. Thaddeus "Rusty" Venture, and the theme of "failure" became the central element of the show. By the end of season two, Character Development and Hidden Depths were abound, and the episode plots became deeper, more dramatic, more complex, and more intertwined. If there is a character you could point to as a prime example for the series as a whole "growing the beard," (similar to Riker from the Trope Namer,) it would be The Monarch, who transformed from a lame joke villain at the start of the series to a truly terrifying supervillain via his quest to win Dr. Girlfriend back from Phantom Limb throughout season two.
The first season of W.I.T.C.H. was okay, but then Greg Weisman was called upon to produce its second season, which many consider to be a vast improvement. Sadly, the show was cancelled afterwards.
The early Woody Woodpecker shorts have not aged well, and it's easy to see why: in Walter Lantz's attempt to imitate Tex Avery and Bob Clampett's fast-paced slapstick style of comedy, he missed the point. The gags were very Warner Bros. derivative and presented without much conviction, Woody didn't have much consistent characterization, the timing was slow and mushy, and the animation was some of the sloppiest of any cartoon from The Golden Age of Animation. Fans agree that things got much better when Disney veteran Dick Lundy arrived at the Lantz studio in the mid-1940s and took the director's rein. Lundy improved everything: the timing, the animation, the pacing, the gags, everything, bringing the series to what is considered its peak with classics like "Solid Ivory", "Banquet Busters" and "Wet Blanket Policy". And before Lundy, Shamus Culhane also beefed up the quality and direction of the series over Alex Lovy.