Sunday, December 23, 2007

SDD's Top 100 Series of All Time: Places 20-11

20) The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite
CBS, produced 1962-1981

What: Walter Cronkite is the anchorman all others aspire to be. He combined solid anchor skills with just a hint of his opinionated nature but wrapped that all up with a generally avuncular nature. Cronkite saw the U.S. through nearly two decades, including some of the country's most trying times -- from the assassination of John F. Kennedy (a little over a year into Cronkite's run) to the civil rights movement to the Vietnam War to the turbulent events of 1968 to Watergate (an event he brought to national attention after The Washington Post broke the story). Cronkite also presided over other important stories, from man landing on the moon to the rise of conservatism, personified by Ronald Reagan. Cronkite reported all of these stories with a directly personable manner that went against the traditional style of the newsman being above it all. When Kennedy died, he cried slightly. When the astronauts stepped on the moon, he had to keep his huge smile from spreading across his face. And his editorial against the Vietnam War was one of the factors leading to Lyndon B. Johnson deciding to not seek the office of the presidency again. Though in recent years, Cronkite has come under fire from conservative commentators, who don't like his frequent comments from a left-leaning point-of-view, when he was on the air, his dedication to the news and his warm nature led to him being the most beloved anchorman of all time.

Why: I've probably seen only five to ten episodes of this show, mostly in mass communications classes in college, but it's easy to see everything Cronkite had that other anchors have tried to copy and failed. What seems most striking to us today is just how personally invested Cronkite seems to get in the biggest stories. There was a lot of criticism of news anchors on Sept. 11 for tearing up or for expressing their anger or frustration at being unable to do anything, but Cronkite was this way with so many big stories. And it's hard to deny that Cronkite's stiff, almost square persona nicely made these moments that much more shocking (especially when he had to break in with a news brief and remove his thick-rimmed glasses ever so briefly to keep himself under control). When Cronkite said the war in Vietnam was a mess, people listened (there's no one in the news industry with that kind of presence now). The reason his presence was so impressive isn't readily obvious, but I think it was just the fact that he didn't seem to be trying too hard. He was just going to read these news briefs he had for you, if you didn't mind. Cronkite's influence was deceptive -- because he seemed so non-threatening, he could get away with a lot, and much of the slowly turning public sentiment in the '60s and '70s can be tied to him, I think.

Best season: This isn't really horribly applicable.

Best episode: Check out some of the video of him reporting on the JFK assassination on YouTube, or see him talking about man landing on the moon in the movie In the Shadow of the Moon.

Did you know?: Cronkite didn't want to retire in 1981, but at the time, CBS had a mandatory retirement age of 65, so he ceded the chair to Dan Rather.

Available on DVD?: Here and there in other collections, but you're not going to find whole seasons of this or anything.

19) The X-Files
Fox, produced 1993-2002

What: Deeply cool and darkly paranoid, The X-Files was the perfect show to send out the millennium with and the perfect heir to the Twilight Zone throne. The show started out small on Fox Friday nights (as just another show trying to capture the brief success of Twin Peaks), but grew and grew as more and more people discovered it, many of them young and brooding, worried about the direction of the world. It turned into a massive hit after moving to Sundays, and something about its paranoia and willingness to believe in government conspiracies made it seem somehow more truthful about the world than any number of serious-minded workplace dramas. The series ran out of gas toward its end, and its alien conspiracy storyline grew too convoluted for anyone that wasn't a deeply dedicated fan to understand around its fifth or sixth season, but The X-Files blend of sci-fi, cool romanticism, paranoia, blinding terror and humor kept it dancing along. What other show could be a monster movie one week, a conspiracy thriller the next and then a deeply funny black comedy the next? The X-Files was all of these and plenty more.

Why: Even though the show cribbed plenty from '70s cop shows, Twin Peaks and older sci-fi anthologies (like the aforementioned Zone), when it first started airing, it really felt as though there had never been anything on television like The X-Files, with its cool-as-ice tone and its dark color palette. But there was more to The X-Files than just being good, creepy TV (perfect for a dark weekend evening). It had two terrific performances at its center, from David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, and their unspoken chemistry kept the show rolling along, but also gave it a hint of will-they, won't-they that spawned a legion of "shippers" (and think of what a huge boon this show was to the Internet fandom community -- we wouldn't have the term "mythology" without it). The series' alien conspiracy episodes were fine, but the shows that really pop a decade later in syndication are the standalone mysteries, where the show indulged in pop philosophy and pseudo-science, as Mulder and Scully struggled with monsters both metaphorical and literal. At its best, The X-Files was an update of the very best kinds of ghost stories, its monsters rattling around on the dark highways and in the subconscious of the nation itself.

Best season: Season three is incredibly consistent and is anchored by three terrific Darin Morgan episodes, including the stunning "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" and. . .

Best episode: "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'" is one of my top ten television episodes of all time. A Rashomon-esque treatise on the unreliability of memory, a satire on the show itself and a moving story about the cost of loneliness, "Jose Chung's" features a terrific Charles Nelson Reilly performance and a sparklingly funny script.

Did you know?: The X-Files was to run for five seasons and a movie, but the show's runaway success meant that it ran longer, virtually obliterating the producers' plans for the alien storyline.

Available on DVD?: The whole series is available on DVD.

18) The Dick Van Dyke Show
CBS, produced 1961-1966

What: The Dick Van Dyke Show is the sitcom missing link. It contains in it genetic material from its ancestors -- the broad, slapstick-y sitcoms of the 1950s -- and genetic material it would pass on to its descendants -- the more verbal sitcoms of the 1970s. In its attempts to mix in new elements with the standard family sitcom (namely, by following Rob to the workplace), the show would begin an evolution that would result in the workplace sitcoms of the '70s and '80s. But the best reason to watch The Dick Van Dyke Show is that it's one of the few sitcoms of its time that remains deeply funny. Van Dyke is a true master of the pratfall, and his slapstick bits are terrifically timed and executed, but his work with the other characters -- from Buddy and Sally, his two cohorts at work, to his improbably sexy wife Laura -- offered a chance for Van Dyke to engage in some goofy, verbal humor. Created by Carl Reiner as a riff on his time working at Your Show of Shows, The Dick Van Dyke Show blends genre after genre into something at once amusing and immediate. The Dick Van Dyke Show is one of the few shimmering lights in a decade of lousy sitcoms.

Why: Most of the sitcoms of the '60s seem incredibly dated now, with their odd high concepts and corny humor. It's a wonder that The Dick Van Dyke Show, which was really nothing like the most popular shows of the time, stayed on the air for five seasons and was highly rated for most of them, but there you have it. Consistently popular in syndication since its initial run (one of the few black and white sitcoms to remain so), the series offers up the best of all possible sitcom worlds. The success of the show started with the infinitely expandable concept, which allowed a variety of "worlds" to draw stories from (and the best episodes usually combined these worlds in one way or another -- like when Laura revealed that Alan Brady wore a toupee on national television), but it also drew from the almost perfect ensemble cast, where every character filled a different role in the ensemble. Dick Van Dyke is one of the few shows of its type from that era that also had a world full of interesting characters and situations. Though the central ensemble was only five people strong, the series also had a number of recurring players, from Brady himself (a perfectly pompous Reiner) to Mel Cooley to Jerry and Millie next door. Dick Van Dyke wasn't as good as some of the shows it inspired, but its very inspiration opened the door for a whole new breed of sophisticated comedies, even if they didn't hit the air until a few years after it stopped broadcasting. Look at all of the types of shows it inspired -- from flashback episodes to dream episodes that take an excursion into another genre to workplace stories. This isn't just the best sitcom of the '60s; it's the best show.

Best season: By season four, the show was clicking on all cylinders, making the season a terrific example of a show bouncing plots from one setting to another.

Best episode: The aforementioned "Coast to Coast Big Mouth" is the best episode for causing Rob's home and work lives to come into conflict with each other.

Did you know?: There are actually THREE openings to the show -- one where Rob avoids the precariously placed ottoman, one where he trips over it and one, rarely seen version, where he avoids the ottoman, then trips over the carpet.

Available on DVD?: The whole series is available on DVD. The sets are really quite beautiful.

17) The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
NBC, produced 1962-1992

What: Johnny Carson was the last of the great showbiz hosts. There were lots of pretenders to his throne during the long run of his stint on the Tonight Show, but none could match him for his genial way with a wisecrack or his ability to be both snide but welcoming about Hollywood. All after Carson were simply pretenders to his throne. It wasn't until David Letterman came along that the man had a true successor, and Letterman ran away from Carson (despite his love for the man), turning his show into an ironic deconstruction of the showbiz obsessed talk show. No one made being in love with the IDEA of stardom as entertaining as Carson, and his wittiness was the perfect way for millions of Americans to lull themselves to sleep every night. Carson had a great love of regular people too, and many of his greatest bits came from just hanging out with, say, an older woman who collected potato chips shaped like odd things or from messing around with animals. Into the '90s, Carson was something that was increasingly rare -- a taste of genuine Old Hollywood glamour. The Tonight Show had hosts before Carson, and it's had one host since, but no one will live up to Carson's ability to just have fun joking around with a whole nation.

Why: The late-night talk show is such a staid format, and Carson created a lot of the staidness that Letterman was forced to break up. And toward the end of his run there, Carson was getting a little hacky, running on fumes and unable to adapt to a world that was far more skeptical of stardom (and his show's power to make stars -- particularly in the world of stand-up). A lot of the show's bits could also be a little predictable (though when they were on, you have to admit, they were on). But there's no denying that the show was terrific in its early days, right up through its '70s heyday. Carson was just a fun guy to watch, and there was nothing malicious about him. He made Hollywood seem like a cool, fun place where everyone hung out together and busted each other's chops. And his benefit to the world of stand-up was considerable, as he launched dozens and dozens of comics to much greater fame. I don't love Carson as many of those who grew up with him did, but his stuff is really tight, and his impact on the industry as a whole was considerable. Plus, he made Midwestern geniality the thing every host aims for, which is a plus in my book.

Best season: Carson was at his best for probably the five years after he moved to LA, when he was snapping back and forth with Ed McMahon and band leader Doc Severinsen.

Best episode: There are tons of classic moments to choose from, but YouTube Johnny Carson potato chip. You're welcome.

Did you know?: When Carson inherited the show, it was 105 minutes long, and contained two separate introductions, one at the top and another 15 minutes in. This allowed NBC affiliates to have a 15-minute local news program or a 30-minute local news program.

Available on DVD?: Quite a few best-of sets are available.

16) Seinfeld
NBC, produced 1989-1998

What: The tale of four neurotic New Yorkers who were, perhaps, the most unsympathetic protagonists of a sitcom in TV history, Seinfeld was the dominant sitcom of the '90s and the most influential live-action sitcom of that decade as well. In a world where most sitcoms only had one big story and then perhaps a sub-story, Seinfeld gave every one of its four characters a story in every episode, giving the show a frenetic pace that often seemed like it might fly off the tracks but somehow hung on. Though the series had its ups and downs (particularly in the last two seasons, when the show lost the acerbic wit of Larry David and became far more self-consciously wacky), the best episodes of Seinfeld are unlike almost any other sitcom -- even the ones that ripped the show off. There was just something about the way all four plotlines would converge and diverge that was thrilling, and the pace of every episode kept you laughing at the sheer audacity of some of the things that would happen. Seinfeld also abandoned typical sitcom plots for more closely observational plots about the myriad reasons we break up or waiting to be seated at a restaurant or waiting to see who could go the longest without masturbating. The fact that Seinfeld seemed to toss most of the established sitcom rules out the window meant that it took a while to catch on, but it also became the biggest show of the '90s because once you started watching, it was hard to stop.

Why: Like M*A*S*H, Seinfeld was a show that I saw the influence of but didn't particularly like until a few years ago, when I began watching the reruns in earnest and trying to unpack just what about the show it was that made people love it so much. Like Newsradio, Seinfeld isn't particularly interested in making you like its characters, and like that show, it's constructed almost mercilessly to extract laughs. This can make the show feel a little distant, but it also makes its best episodes funnier than almost anything in the history of television. Watching the show as a teenager, I wanted it to be more like my favorite sitcoms, ones that offered up characters that were easy to love and only had very slight flaws that were easily sanded down. Seinfeld wasn't interested in that at all. Watching it as an adult, especially one interested in television craft, I'm most impressed by how the show was structured (as mentioned above), and I'm in awe of the scripts from the best seasons of the Larry David era (probably seasons 3-5), where David and his staff were able to take mundane, everyday situations and turn them into terrifically funny art. Giving each character a story, all of which would dovetail in odd and surprising ways, meant that the show burned through a lot of stories in every episode, but it also meant that it was forced to find weirder and weirder facets of modern life to look at. Seinfeld has been rather inaccurately billed as a show about "nothing," but really, it's about the madness of living in an urban society and having to come in contact with other people, with ulterior motives to your own. It's about how you find yourself surrounded by a consumerist society (one of Junior Mints and Soup Nazis). How are you going to react to that? The Seinfeld gang reacted mercilessly to all of this, and depending on your taste for cold humor, they reacted hilariously.

Best season: The Emmy-winning season four is terrific and legendary, but for my money, season five is marginally better, though, honestly, both are worth a purchase on DVD.

Best episode: That said, I won't go against conventional wisdom here. "The Contest" is 22 minutes of sheer, ridiculous awesomeness, and it features all four of the characters at their best.

Did you know?: NBC was against Seinfeld, the lowest-testing sitcom in their history up to that point, from the first. After the pilot aired in 1989 to low ratings, the show looked dead, but the head of NBC's late-night programming diverted funds from his budget to make four additional episodes. After the network was convinced to air those episodes after Cheers (instead of on Saturdays at 10:30 p.m.!), the series garnered high enough ratings for a second season.

Available on DVD?: The whole series is available on DVD.

15) Sesame Street
NET/PBS, produced 1969-present

What: Modern children's television programming begins and ends with Sesame Street, which was basically a sketch comedy show for little kids (and one that aimed to teach them a little something in between the jokes and songs). Looking at Sesame Street today is sort of depressing, simply because it's become a vehicle to sell more toys of Elmo (surely the most irritating character in the show's history) than an educational program. Still, the best years of Sesame Street (the '70s and '80s) were an honest attempt to get into the psychological mindset of a child and an attempt to give a lonely child a little knowledge he or she might not come by by themselves (in the early seasons, the show was specifically pitched at kids from the inner city, according to Children's Television Workshop producers). And while there were lessons about letters and numbers, there were also lessons about how to act in society, how to be kind and about big topics like death and marriage and birth. Instead of having kids on the show, though, the series made Jim Henson's Muppets into the kids, and his creations for the show are legendary -- from inquisitive and wide-eyed Big Bird to the obsessive Count to the grouchy Oscar, the series had a roster of characters miles deep. In addition, the show offered lots of friendly adults who helped teach the lessons. Sesame Street created a whole world, one where kids could go and play daily and feel safe and loved. Now that the show's an institution, it's gone downhill, but it's still hard to imagine raising my children without turning on the adventures of Big Bird and friends.

Why: The best of Sesame Street is often riotously funny, for both kids and adults, even though the show isn't specifically a comedy. It's this humor that draws you in as a youngster, but what makes you stay is the show's vision of a peaceful world, where we all can live together, man and Muppet. It's like Star Trek if it was set in some impossibly peaceful section of Bed-Stuy and all of the aliens were little blue monsters. In the end, it's that warm heart that keeps me coming back to Sesame Street -- that willingness to sit down with kids and deal with them on a kid-to-kid level. I mean, has there ever been a better child surrogate than Big Bird? He gets the occasional whininess, the inquisitive nature and the struggle for decency of any child down, and his adventures become the adventures of the audience (even if, again, he's been supplanted by Elmo). Sesame Street was also willing to deal with surprisingly big concepts and themes and find a way to make them understandable to children (the episode where Mr. Hooper dies is still one of the best episodes dealing with the death of a regular character that I've seen). I don't think Sesame Street will ever be what it was at its height -- too many of the people who made it what it was have moved on or passed away -- but it's still a place where kids can go to just be kids for a little while, and it still spawned some of the most memorable stuff in television history.

Best season: If the "Old School" DVDs are any indication, Sesame Street was at its creative best in the late '70s, which was, coincidentally, when Henson was also working on The Muppet Show.

Best episode: I do really love that episode featuring Mr. Hooper's death, and you can find bits and pieces of it up on YouTube.

Did you know?:
Warnings on the Sesame Street: Old School DVDs say that they are inappropriate for children, and the show's producer says there's no way they could get away with creating a character like Oscar nowadays. Pity.

Available on DVD?: The Sesame Street: Old School DVDs collect many of the best bits from the show's first decade.

14) Twin Peaks
ABC, produced 1990-1991

What: There are relatively few two-season shows that legitimately changed everything, but Twin Peaks was one. The brainchild of film director David Lynch and cop-show writer Mark Frost, Twin Peaks changed more than you might think it did, from making it safe for television directors to shoot more cinematically (as Lynch shot many of the episodes himself) or for television shows to slow down the pace to a point where it could seem langorous. Twin Peaks' influence can also be felt in just how odd it was and just how little it felt the need (at least in its first season) to explain this weirdness -- it's really hard to imagine something like Lost ever making it to the air without Twin Peaks, at least in its current form. And yet at the base level, Twin Peaks is just a quirky small town soap, like Peyton Place with killer demons, dancing dwarves and log ladies. Lynch's genius in film has been to take overused genres and unpack them slowly, showing us all of the inherent weirdness in these Hollywood ideas, and Twin Peaks is no different. The second season actually gets kind of a bad rap. It's not up to the level of the first season, but it's still good television, aside from a few bad episodes immediately after the killer of Laura Palmer was revealed. Still, I kind of prefer the original plan for the show -- where Lynch and Frost wanted to not reveal who killed Laura Palmer (which I suspect they had little-to-no idea about) until the series finale and spend the other episodes slowly building up the twisted relationships within the town itself. While fan demand meant they had to reveal the killer far sooner than they wanted to, their initial plan resulted in a slew of series that have big, overarching plots and no immediate plans to conclude the stories. They'll get around to it. Peaks didn't invent serialized television, but it made it a lot more stylish.

Why: Twin Peaks is the most-influential short-lived show of all time. Since it was initially a pretty big hit, networks felt safe in greenlighting odder stuff, and that led to all manner of shows, including The X-Files and, as mentioned, Lost. But the show's charms don't just lie in its influence. It's legitimately terrific television as well, featuring Lynch and Frost's vision of the small town as a nexus between heaven and hell -- the end of the world as the sort of thing you might stitch in a sampler and hang up in your kitchen. Frost (who gets far too little credit for the success of the show) had grown tired of typical TV show plotting and longed to do something odder and more distinct. To that end, hooking up with David Lynch was a good move. The two quickly cracked the interconnected nature of the show's relationships and added on the murder mystery that would make the show a huge hit. Twin Peaks caught on because it was legitimately like nothing else that had aired on television to that point, and that was the same reason it quickly fell off in popularity (though the fact that the network moved it to Saturdays couldn't have helped). Still, to watch Twin Peaks now is to see the very building blocks of what television drama could become being set in place, even in the unjustly maligned second season. Yes, the ride can be a bit bumpy, but there's some real terrific stuff in Twin Peaks, including some of the downright scariest stuff ever broadcast on the small screen.

Best season: I keep harping on how the second season isn't as bad as its reputation, but it's still not as good as the first season, which is a nearly perfect seven episodes of television, languidly stretched over eight hours.

Best episode: "Episode 2" (the one with the dream revealing the Killer Bob) is great, but I don't think you can beat that odd, disorienting pilot for sheer inventiveness.

Did you know?: At the height of Twin Peaks mania, a Japanese coffee company hired Lynch and several cast members to fly over there and make a bunch of Peaks-y commercials for their coffee. The first of them can be viewed here.

Available on DVD?: The whole series is available in the indispensible gold box collection, which puts the pilot on DVD in the U.S. for the very first time.

13) Homicide: Life on the Street
NBC, produced 1993-1999

What: Based on the crime reporting of David Simon (who would go on to create The Wire), Homicide: Life on the Street is a grim, dark look at the aspects of cop life that television usually ignores (or, at least, it was for its first three seasons). Centering around the complicated personalities in one Baltimore squad room, the series often moved at a glacial pace, and, occasionally, cases weren't even solved, as the cops would sit around the squad room, waiting for something to happen or waiting for inspiration. The series' greatest asset was its original cast, a group of actors who weren't conventionally attractive by television standards but did look like they had spent ages on the streets of Baltimore. The performance by Andre Braugher as Det. Frank Pembleton is one of the all-time greatest performances on television, while the work by Kyle Secor as his partner Bayliss is similarly good (Bayliss' series-long chase of the murderer of a young girl named Adena Watson was a harrowing story of obsession on par with Ahab and the whale). But the real treasures here were the scripts. Dense, literate and openly dismissive of regular television structure, Homicide's scripts offered up a look at a grim, unsettling world -- even more unsettling was that that world was in the most prosperous nation on earth.

Why: This tier was, originally, to be for influential shows I liked that just didn't impress me enough to make my top ten, but I slipped Homicide in here simply because I didn't have room for it up there, but it WAS one of the best series of all-time, and it's sadly underwatched today, even though the current fascination with crime shows would seem to indicate it would do well on one cable network or another. Homicide's depiction of the life of a dedicated police officer was one that would only be bested by The Wire for its dedication to the details of cop life -- from the all-night sessions in the squad room to the way not catching a killer might eat away at someone. Homicide's finest hours were often confined to one set (and, indeed, the best episode took place almost entirely in the interrogation room) and a handful of characters. No show was better at just using characters economically than Homicide. While the show fell apart toward the end (largely based on notes foisted on the show by the network) and the shaky cam spread out from the show to everywhere in pop culture seemingly, the series is still a television essential and one that continues to be sadly underrated. Homicide did a lot of the things that The Wire would nail later on, and while it didn't quite get them down completely, it at least did them first.

Best season: Season three is the best season before NBC started forcing the show to do more arcs about capturing serial killers and the like. It gets the edge over the similarly consistent seasons one and two from having the most episodes.

Best episode: "Three Men and Adena" is a heartbreaking episode, one of my top ten episodes of television of all time. In it, Pembleton and Bayliss come the closest they ever will to catching Adena's killer when they haul the main suspect in for the last chance they'll ever get at making him crack. Did he do it? Didn't he do it? The show never tells, and that makes it devastating.

Did you know?: The series' order for a second season was for just four episodes, the smallest order in the history of American television. Boosted by an appearance in one of the episodes by Robin Williams, the series scored decent enough ratings to return for a third.

Available on DVD?: The whole series is available on fairly bare-bones sets from A&E Home Entertainment.

12) All in the Family
CBS, produced 1971-1979

What: Oft-imitated but never bested, All in the Family was television's definitive portrait of a nation in transition. One of the highest-rated shows in television history, All in the Family started out in the lower reaches of the ratings but soon caught fire as the show spoke to a nation evenly divided between conservative Archie Bunker types and liberal Mike Stivic types. All in the Family's genius came from its unwillingness (after its first season) to simply make any of these characters caricatures. Archie could be a bit of a racist, but he was fiercely protective of his family, even the much hated Meathead, and this made it hard for anyone in the audience to dismiss him. Likewise, Mike could be a bit of an unthinking hothead, but he was also committed to his marriage and oddly devoted to his maddening father-in-law. All in the Family's devotion to examining the fraught political climate in the U.S. in the 1970s means that it hasn't aged as well as some other sitcoms of the era, but the characters remain vital and interesting, and the approach of Norman Lear (who developed the show from the British original) to the sitcom is something that still turns up from time to time, though no one has taken a frank look at the ways politics divide and unite us that could quite match up to this one.

Why: I had always heard that All in the Family didn't age as well as other '70s sitcoms, which is why I was surprised when I first saw it in the late '90s and found that the show still worked, even if you didn't care about inflation or the union Archie belonged to or anything like that. Many of the issues the show dealt with were still around, and the basic idea of politics dividing the older and younger generations of a family was one that was essentially timeless. The series gained so much from its excellent ensemble cast (every member of which won an Emmy at some point) and especially from the work of Carroll O'Connor, who found the character he played abominable but invested him with tremendous weight and realism. The series wasn't always consistent, and it often went from being really, really good to really, really bad, even in the course of a season. What's more, the episodes after Gloria and Mike left were kind of anemic, as though the show had lost an essential element (it had). But Norman Lear's vision of tackling the problems of the nation at the kitchen table of one family still works, and the show's influence over television sitcoms is inestimable. All in the Family seems simple at first, until you watch another political sitcom and realize that the careful calibration on display in the show was arrived at through long hours of work.

Best season: Season three is a hit show at the top of its game, as the series tackled tons of issues but also deepened the portrayal of the Bunkers, the Stivics and everyone else in their neighborhood.

Best episode: "Everybody Tells the Truth" is one of the earliest examples of television trying a Rashomon-style story where everyone's perspective on an event is different, and it's still one of the best. The final version (Edith's version) still packs a punch after all these years.

Did you know?: Though the series was lowly-rated in its first season (so low-rated that the chief of CBS was surprised it spawned virtually no complaints from its first episode), it quickly shot to the top of the charts in season two, thanks to a skit on the Emmys, where the show took home several trophies.

Available on DVD?:
The first six seasons are available on DVD, and the excellent seventh season will come out sometime next year.

11) I Love Lucy
CBS, produced 1951-1957

What: The first great sitcom, I Love Lucy is also the most influential television series of all time. The series practically invented the half-hour sitcom format (while it wasn't the first, most of the structural and formulaic elements in the show persist to this day), but it also was the first show to shoot on film in front of a live studio audience and the first to be syndicated successfully, resulting in an after-market that has powered the television business economically for the past 50 years. As important as the show is to the history of television economically, it's just as important to the history of the medium artistically. I Love Lucy's simple stories of a young couple in love and how the wife was kind of a bumbling fool are sort of sexist, to be sure, but they're still largely funny as well, thanks mostly to Lucille Ball's inspired performance and handiness with slapstick. Still, the show lays down so much of the groundwork for the family sitcom (husband and wife with husband and wife neighbors, wife wanting to be involved in the husband's business, wacky adventures) that it's hard to hold too many of the attitudes of its time against it. And the series' truly classic episodes are legion in number, especially when the show would probably make any classic TV list simply for the candy conveyer belt or Vitameatavegamin alone. I Love Lucy hasn't aged as well as, say, The Honeymooners, but for its overall influence and for the episodes that have aged well, it places just outside of the top ten.

Why: As mentioned above, there are things about I Love Lucy that haven't aged particularly well. Lucy's kind of a flighty idiot, and her husband always knows best, which makes the show sort of uncomfortable to watch for those of us raised in the world post-women-in-the-workplace revolution. What's more, the show's reliance on slapstick may strike some as a bit schticky, especially in a world where verbal humor tends to rule the day. But to watch I Love Lucy is to understand the difference between good slapstick (which Ball could perform seemingly while asleep) and bad slapstick (which is what most television slapstick is). The series can feel a little hokey to modern eyes, but its genius lies in some of the smaller sketches (since, let's face it, the overarching plots are pretty predictable) and moments -- after all, what is the candy machine but a classic comedy routine somehow turned into a plot for an episode? The series also made TV history by surrounding Ball with an equally capable cast, including her real-life husband, Desi Arnez, and the wonderful Vivian Vance and William Frawley. I Love Lucy had television's first classic ensemble, in addition to a world of other firsts.

Best season: Seasons one and two are the best of the run, but I'll give the edge to season two, which invented the idea of a continuing storyline in a sitcom by accident -- when Lucille Ball got pregnant and the show decided to write it in. Plus, you get the candy machine episode!

Best episode: Still, my favorite Lucy is "Lucy Does a TV Commercial," which features the terrific Vitameatavegamin bit (shown above). While it seems slow by today's standards, Ball still nails the landing, and it's one of those bits that's completely timeless.

Did you know?: Lucille Ball took her popular radio show to television mostly as a way to keep her bandleader husband close. In the process, the two became the original television moguls and started a company, Desilu, that provided the money for many classic shows, including Make Room for Daddy, Star Trek and The Andy Griffith Show.

Available on DVD?: A recently released DVD set collects the entire run of the show, and there are season sets as well.

The list so far:
11) I Love Lucy
12) All in the Family
13) Homicide: Life on the Street
14) Twin Peaks
15) Sesame Street
16) Seinfeld
17) The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson
18) The Dick Van Dyke Show
19) The X-Files
20) The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite
21) Star Trek (the good ones)
22) Newsradio
23) Playhouse 90
24) Arrested Development
25) Taxi
26) St Elsewhere
27) Roseanne
28) Battlestar Galactica
29) The Honeymooners
30) My So-Called Life
31) Northern Exposure
32) Late Night with David Letterman
33) Barney Miller
34) Moonlighting
35) Survivor
36) Lost
37) The Wonder Years
38) South Park
39) Gilmore Girls
40) The Muppet Show
41) Wiseguy
42) Rocky and Bullwinkle
43) Your Show of Shows
44) 60 Minutes
45) The Andy Griffith Show
46) The Daily Show/The Colbert Report
47) Michael Mann's crime trilogy
48) Mystery Science Theater 3000
49) Buffalo Bill
50) The Ed Sullivan Show
51) Jeopardy!
52) Mr Rogers' Neighborhood
53) SportsCenter
54) thirtysomething
55) Soap
56) Friends
57) King of the Hill
58) The Larry Sanders Show
59) The Odd Couple
60) Get Smart
61) Saturday Night Live
62) 24
63) The Shield
64) The Dick Cavett Show
65) Monday Night Football
66) Mad Men
67) The Rockford Files
68) Undeclared
69) CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
70) 30 Rock
71) NYPD Blue
72) Sports Night
73) The Phil Silvers Show
74) The Office (US)
75) Green Acres
76) Frasier
77) The Waltons
78) Friday Night Lights
79) The West Wing
80) M*A*S*H
81) The Bob Newhart Show
82) Everybody Loves Raymond
83) Sex and the City
84) The Price is Right
85) Big Love
86) The Amazing Race
87) Futurama
88) Everwood
89) The Cosby Show
90) Beavis and Butthead
91) Firefly
92) Leave it to Beaver
93) Alfred Hitchcock Presents
94) Picket Fences
95) Veronica Mars
96) WKRP in Cincinnati
97) Project Runway
98) How I Met Your Mother
99) The Adventures of Pete and Pete
100) Aqua Teen Hunger Force

Did you miss?: I posted the overrated list earlier today right here.

Today's Christmas tune: Everybody loves a mambo! Remember the voyage of the big red guy this Christmas Eve with this mambo-riffic version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Tomorrow: 30 (yes, 30, Merry Christmas) series that almost made one of these lists but didn't.


Kenny said...

Sure, the control Ricky seems to have over Lucy is sexist, as is his senseless refusal to let her do things when he should know that her attempts to circumvent him will only cause more trouble. But after decades of bumbling dad/perfect mom comedy, watching Lucy the wife play the idiot is downright refreshing, even progressive. In adhering to the politically correct notion that men are fools and women know best, we have robbed comediennes of all the best comedy roles. Morons are usually the funny ones and it's not fair that women hardly get to play them anymore (see the sexism charges leveled at Knocked Up, where the guys have all the fun and the women are sad shrews shouldering all the grown-up responsibilty). Jamie Pressley plays one of the funniest female characters on TV right now because she is permitted to be a moron. King of the Hill's Peggy is another rare funny wife, because of her ridiculous ego

apple said...