10) Freaks and Geeks
NBC, produced 1999-2000
NBC, produced 1999-2000
What: Every top ten needs a one-season wonder, and this is my choice for this list, an achingly real portrait of high school life as it actually is, seen through the eyes of nerdy overachievers and burnouts. Created by Paul Feig and executive produced by Judd Apatow, Freaks and Geeks captures a perfect slice of life in suburban Michigan, circa the early 1980s. Almost a reactionary piece to the Dawson's Creek-alikes that were clogging up the airwaves when this show first aired, the critically acclaimed series bounced from timeslot to timeslot before finally being canceled after one of the most flawless seasons ever put together for broadcast television. While the series was riotously funny, what sticks with you years after watching it is the sense of teenage alienation that the show absolutely nails, the sense of trying on new personas because there's really nothing else to do. Lindsay Weir, the show's main character and the only one able to easily traverse both groups in the title, is a terrifically nuanced portrayal of the ways teenagers question the underpinnings of their own existence. Played by a rock-solid Linda Cardellini, Lindsay confronts the death of her grandmother with an abrupt personality shift from overachieving do-gooder to someone who flirts with rebellion, only to never quite cross that line. Without sermonizing, Freaks and Geeks makes its points about the importance of family, the shifting natures of friendship and the petty sadnesses of just being a teenager. It's a marvelous 18 hours of television and the best pure high school show ever produced.
Why: Freaks and Geeks started the same year I started college. Though I had liked many teen shows before, I had never seen a teen show that just GOT the essential banality and the slow tragedy of growing up like Freaks and Geeks did. Most coming-of-age stories force the drama, but Freaks and Geeks always zeroed in on the most realistic aspects of its stories and allowed its characters room to breathe. An unfailingly generous show, Freaks and Geeks took even its most-cliched characters and found some new nuance in them over the course of the season -- be it the hard-edged coach having to make nice with the uber-geek Bill so he could date Bill's mom or the once-hippie guidance counselor coming to terms with just how quickly he had sold out his ideals. I've said it before on this list, but the best television shows don't just show us fascinating characters or tell us interesting stories, they create whole, detailed worlds, full of people who feel as if this world is inextricably their home. That you can't imagine the Weirs occupying any other fictional universe is a good thing. This specificity turned off many in the Freaks and Geeks target audience (teenagers tend to not be told about just how uninteresting and banal their lives are), but it won the show a dedicated cult and a place in the hearts of TV fans everywhere. As stated, the best shows create worlds, but Freaks and Geeks' genius came from creating a universally relatable world out of a very specific corner of suburbia. Seeing it now is like opening up a dusty old box in the closet that contains all your high school mementos.
Best season: Only season one ever aired. This might be a good thing, though, as we can never have our memories of it tainted by sub-par follow-up seasons.
Best episode: Every episode of Freaks and Geeks features one character or another altering their persona in some way to fit in with another group, but no episode has this happen as much as the series finale, "Discos & Dragons," a heartbreaker where Lindsay ends up disappointing those who love her most.
Did you know?: The show is one of the few to receive Emmy nominations a year AFTER it was canceled, as a handful of episodes received broadcast on NBC the summer after cancellation and on the Fox Family Channel in the 2000-2001 season, meaning the series was nominated for the Emmys in two television seasons, despite being produced in only one.
Available on DVD?: The whole series is available in a terrific set, though if you can find one of the more expensive ultimate editions somewhere, snap it up. It may be the best TV-on-DVD set ever produced (and I own one, so you should be jealous of me).
9) The Twilight Zone
CBS, produced 1959-1964
CBS, produced 1959-1964
What: At first glance, Rod Serling's sci-fi anthology just seems like a long series of clumsily allegorical stories with endings designed to make the audience go, "OH, SNAP!" (if we presume such a reaction existed in the 1960s), but, in many ways, it's the perfect cultural artifact of a world on the cusp of great change but not quite far enough along to effect that change just yet. The Twilight Zone was the last, great anthology series, and every attempt to revive it and the genre since has come up short, largely because its shadow looms so large over television history. While the series was never a huge hit during its initial run, a long run in syndication (that continues to this day) ensured that nearly everyone who has a television set has seen an episode of the show at one time or another, and some of the famous twist endings have become among the most famous bits of television ever -- what do you think of when I say "To Serve Man" or "shattered glasses" or "pig-faced people"? The Twilight Zone is occasionally painfully unsubtle, but at its best, the series is a look at a team of writers (led by Serling, one of the best writers in the mediums history) working out the deeply buried issues of a nation's psyche on a national stage. Revivals of the show have never worked both because it's so closely identified with Serling and because the strange allegories of the work call for the cool simplicities of black and white.
Why: Like all anthology series, The Twilight Zone is hit-and-miss. Unlike most anthology series, though, its hits are so strong that they can overcome any number of misses. I know the inclusion of such a show goes against prior comments about a good show creating a "world," but the Zone is a world, sort of, one where social issues take on a sort of moral clarity when filtered through the lens of aliens and rocket ships and monsters on plane wings and one where the most ironic possible thing will happen to you at the least helpful moment in time. It's a world where little boys can wish you out into the cornfield or where an airplane can travel back to the time of the dinosaurs. To be fair, The Twilight Zone can seem hokey, and the formulaic nature of the show often made the twists too easy to decipher, but I think the series itself has a weight and bulk to it that is too easily dismissed when joking around about its lesser episodes. The Twilight Zone at its best was a smart, smart show that often took on the qualities of a dream removed just one step from reality -- it was so very obviously about the monstrous nature of mankind, but it allowed us the distance to reassure ourselves that we were not the brutes the show purported us to be. But then Serling's icy cool stare would return to shock us into submission, reminding us that even in the simply understood world of television allegory, we could be very, very bad and very, very wrong.
Best season: Most of the classics are from the first three seasons, and the best of those seasons was season three, when the show took several bold chances with its form.
Best episode: That said, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," from season five and featuring perhaps the finest performance by William Shatner, is still rather tense and frightening to this day, even after years and years of parodies have lessened some of the episode's shock value.
Did you know?: The producers of the show considered hiring Orson Welles to do the opening and closing narration, but he asked for too much money. Serling was added in at the last minute, and the show is now unthinkable without him.
Available on DVD?: The complete series is available on DVD, and the complete series set is expensive but has all kinds of awesome geegaws and doodads to make it worth your while.
NBC, produced 1982-1993
NBC, produced 1982-1993
What: The last classic sitcom to come from the MTM/Paramount school of comedy writing was also a master-class in how to blend romance, verbal comedy and slapstick into a brew that was at once hilarious and strangely moving. Cheers' greatest innovation -- the will-they/won't-they romance, which had never been tried at this scale before and has rarely been attempted so well since -- is not all that huge in the grand scheme of things, and the show was content all along to be nothing more than a very well-done sitcom, but the things it did well, it did fantastically. Watching Cheers is like watching a culmination of everything sitcoms had done so well in the 1970s and seeing that form perfected. You have the well-defined workplace comedy of Mary Tyler Moore colliding with the lovable losers of Taxi colliding with some of the insult-based stuff All in the Family did so well. Add onto that one of television's all-time great romances (Sam and Diane), and you have a show that could have withstood any number of terrible seasons based simply on the stuff it did so terrifically early in its run. Fortunately, the departure of Shelley Long after season five led to a series that was, in essence, TWO shows, the later seasons being much more explicitly a workplace sitcom (as the Sam and Rebecca pairing was simply never as interesting as the Sam and Diane one) but a very, very funny one. The best episodes of Cheers are notable not because they do any one thing particularly well but because they do EVERYthing well.
Why: If you asked me on any given day, I would probably say that Cheers is my favorite sitcom of all time. I don't think it's the greatest of all time, and it's certainly not the most influential (the Sam/Diane reverberations notwithstanding), but as a series, it's just so darn easy to love. Even today, twenty years removed from its original run, you barely have to adjust yourself culturally to get into its rhythms or understand its references -- there will always be bars, and there will always be losers to hang out in them. The show certainly has its share of problems -- toward the end, they made all of the characters caricatures and the portrayal of alcoholism was a little too jokey -- but I count only one outright dud of a season (the 10th) in the show's long run. The series is also one of the most famous examples of a critically acclaimed show taking a while to catch on but catching on big time once it did, though a lot of that was thanks to being on after The Cosby Show for so long there. Still, not all of the show's success can be attributed to Cosby. It was, after all, a sitcom with brains and a full, beating heart, a concoction that seems increasingly rare in this day and age.
Best season: I'm going to cheat and pick two since, as I said, the series was essentially two different shows. The terrific third season is the height of the Sam and Diane chaos and introduces Frasier Crane (a character Kelsey Grammer would receive Emmy nominations for on three different series). Season seven is the best of the Rebecca years and the height of the show's late-period lunacy.
Best episode: The first season finale, "Showdown, Parts 1 and 2," is a perfect example of how to slowly escalate the chemistry between two characters until there's nothing left for them to do but kiss. Which is exactly what happens.
Did you know?: It took a long time for the series to land on a bar in Boston -- the original setting was to be a hotel, but the creators then realized most of the action centered on the bar and ditched the hotel element. From there, they considered setting the show in Barstow, then Kansas City, before landing on Boston. Ted Danson and Shelley Long were also the third choices to play their roles.
Available on DVD?: All but the last three seasons are available on DVD. Sadly, there are no plans to release those seasons.
7) Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The WB/UPN, produced 1997-2003
The WB/UPN, produced 1997-2003
What: Though it's become a little overrated in recent years (and I realize I'm adding on to this overrating), Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a delectable genre mash-up that took the coming-of-age story and reimagined it as pure opera, though the witty dialogue and pop culture references were pure 1990s teen drama. At first glance, the series seems completely imbecilic -- it's the story of a teenage girl who fights the world's demons, who stand in metaphorically for her problems -- but creator Joss Whedon's updating of the old "the REAL hell is growing up!" chestnut proved to have the durability of a comic book and the originality of a medium that was finally figuring out just how far its wings could spread. The last few seasons of Buffy were almost impossible to watch if you hadn't seen everything that came before, but unlike something like Arrested Development, that was due to the accretion of time and the deliberate design of the storytelling. Every character took on added layers in Whedon's grand designs, and every season piled on more and more for these characters to deal with. Even though the production design never matched up to, say, The Lord of the Rings or a big-screen tale of the fantastic, Buffy legitimately earned its stripes as an epic tale of how the hardest thing to do in this world is to live in it.
Why: As much as I think Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a great, defining television drama, I've ranked it this high because of all of the shows I loved when I was younger, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the one that got me interested in why television does what it does. It was the first show where I became so completely invested in the mythology that I could quote it backwards and forwards. It was the first show where I so idolized the writers (and the staff has become one of those legendary ones -- right up there with the gang from The Sopranos or The Simpsons writers from the mid-90s or the Hill Street Blues staff or the All in the Family writers from the early 70s and on and on) that I analyzed what an episode might be like based on who was writing it. And it was the show that pushed me, irrevocably, into trying to be a television writer and a television critic. I can see where Buffy looks silly if you've never seen it before, but it's also perhaps the most accurate representation of just how damn much it HURTS to grow up, just how much it tears out of you. Freaks and Geeks was more blatantly realistic, yes, but Buffy got the emotions right. And then it threw monsters on top of that. What's more, the show was one of the more thrillingly cinematic ones of its time, taking its limited budget and using that as an excuse to try all sorts of weird things to disguise the limited production design. And when the show became a legitimate cult hit and had a budget to match, Whedon and his writers piled on the experiments, from a silent movie episode to a dream sequence episode to a musical episode. There was even an episode about death that felt like a European art film. What got me the most about Buffy, though, was the storytelling. Whedon's bravura story turns have also become the stuff of legend (even if you've never seen the show, you probably know what happens after Angel and Buffy sleep together), and the show's dedications to its themes of the trials of growing up and the creation of an ad hoc family to get through that kept it going through even the sporadic lean patches (mostly concentrated in the sadly underwhelming final season). At its best, Buffy was a deeply moral television epic, a tale of the sheer cost of doing the right thing in a world filled with evil.
Best season: I always say season three, but I think I'll switch it up and say season five, which has its rough patches but also has that magnificent finale (with Buffy's greatest sacrifice), the playfulness of figuring out just who Dawn was and. . .
Best episode: "The Body," which on good days, I might call the best television episode of all time (it's between this, "Marge Vs. the Monorail" and "Boy the Earth Talks To," so you know). The series' searing examination of the thin line between death and life comes to a head in this, its least supernatural episode of all time.
Did you know?: After a screening of the dismal movie the series was based on, Whedon's wife, Kai Cole, reassured him that he would get to remake the story as he originally intended someday. He told her, despondent, that things didn't work that way in Hollywood. So much for THAT theory.
Available on DVD?: The whole series is, and the complete series set is a worthy purchase if you have the cash.
6) Hill Street Blues
NBC, produced 1981-1987
NBC, produced 1981-1987
What: The one show in the top ten I'm willing to wager many of you haven't seen more than a handful of episodes of (if that), Hill Street Blues is also the most influential television drama of all time, an attempt to take an often stagnant genre and move it closer to the rhythms of real life. Watching Hill Street Blues now is to be surprised by how completely so many of its progeny took its lessons and ran with them, but the series still manages to be moving, entertaining and funny. Set in an unspecified city (though it certainly seemed to be Chicago), Hill Street Blues created an entire inner-city world that its cops moved in, and it populated it with a believable cross-section of characters, from all walks of life (from the upper levels of the city's legal system to the criminals that legal system was created to give a fair shake). The foremost innovation of Hill Street, however, didn't come from its attempts to tell stories about social issues or its efforts to create a living, breathing world. No, the foremost innovation of Hill Street Blues came from its storytelling. Before Hill Street, every episode of a drama series was separate from every other one. To create stories that drifted from one episode to the next was to get into the frowned-upon realm of soap opera. Creators Stephen Bochco and Michael Kozoll, however, took the ideas of continuing storylines and wedded them to the cop drama -- the individual cases might be wrapped up in an episode or two, but the relationships would be built on prior knowledge and events between the characters. This was a relatively simple idea, but its impact on the television landscape is seismic. Without Hill Street Blues, you don't get the great wave of television dramas of the '80s, '90s and 2000s. Simple as that.
Why: For a while now, despite its considerable acclaim, Hill Street Blues has been kind of like a best-kept secret between those who've seen it. The show simply isn't rerun very often anymore, and the series' DVD releases haven't sold very well. It's a pity, though, as the drama of Hill Street Blues holds up to this day, once you get into the rhythms of the show (like you might have to adjust your cultural perceptions to enjoy a Hollywood movie from the 1940s, say). The problem with Hill Street Blues is the problem with all influential things -- its innovations just don't seem that impressive anymore, thanks to how thoroughly every other show has copied them (heck, even sitcoms do continuing storylines now). I could run down a laundry list of the show's innovations (how it focused on the disparity between private and public life, the use of handheld cameras to give the show a feeling of "reality," the attempts to adhere to reality as much as 1980s production codes would let the producers), but none of that would speak to you as much as just sitting down and watching a season of the show or one of its finest episodes. In the end, Hill Street Blues is remembered most for its innovations, but it should be remembered for all of its terrific characters and the ways it put them through the believable trials of the life of a cop -- they were shot at and put through romantic entanglements and forced to concede they didn't always do the right thing. Television drama before Hill Street Blues usually assured us that everything was all right, but Hill Street Blues, in its own way, said that we were fallible, that mistakes would be made, that the world was a dangerous place. Still, this made the show that much more comforting, somehow. In its attempts to portray the real world, Hill Street Blues gave us a fictional world that was just close enough.
Best season: Season two took the innovations of season one and deepened and improved upon them. The writers' confidence in what they were doing surges through everything the show does in this season, and it introduced the world to a talented kid named David Milch, maybe the best television writer of all time.
Best episode: "Grace Under Pressure" bids farewell to Michael Conrad, who was the show's soul in many ways. Without him or his "Let's be careful out there," the show was never quite the same.
Did you know?: The series' attempts to cram so many stories into the pilot led to actress Barbara Bosson remarking that it might work better if some of the stories continued in other episodes. From that inadvertent remark, a television revolution was born.
Available on DVD?: The first two seasons are.
HBO, produced 2004-2006
HBO, produced 2004-2006
What: One of the two or three most ambitious TV series of all time, Deadwood aims to do nothing less than portray the very birth of civilization and the way it slowly rises out of the soup of chaos. The series is the crowning achievement of one David Milch, possibly the greatest television writer in American history. Milch's characters are profane, and they can be bastards, but they operate in a manner that can only be characterized as optimistic and hopeful. Milch believes in the power of a community to do good, to take care of its own, and he believes that sometimes, almost subconsciously, we humans are capable of great good, capable of coming together and finding our way through great sadness or great loss. Unlike most shows on this list, Deadwood certainly isn't an EASY show to watch -- it probably contains the greatest degree of difficulty of any great drama -- but it's an absolutely essential one, painted in the stark poetry of life and death and mud and blood. The series got a lot of guff for its frequent profanity, but those commentators rarely listened, really, to the dialogue, which circled around great truths in its movingly complex monologues. Deadwood is one of the few shows it's wonderful to just LISTEN to, even if the filmmaking is uniformly strong as well. Helped by a terrific cast and Ian McShane in what might be the best television performance of all time, Deadwood does what many films have tried to do and mostly failed at, strip the Western down to its roots and find the simple truths in its dark heart.
Why: I resisted Deadwood for a long time, largely based on early critical reaction to the show, which didn't know how to make sense out of the profanity or the slow-building storylines. I should have jumped in on the ground floor, because by the time Kristen Bell turns up as a young conwoman, the series has marked itself as a great, distinctive drama, and the first season finale (Sold Under Sin) contains one of the most jaw-droppingly audacious moments I've seen in a TV drama -- when a poor doctor's prayer is answered from a very unexpected source. Deadwood is probably my pure favorite of the HBO holy trinity, but it's the least influential of the three and the least stereotypically "great," messy and sprawling and HUMAN as it is. It's so easy to write off Deadwood as so much pretension, based on the fact that much of it is so Shakespearean and much of it seems to be showing off Milch's mastery of 19th century slang. But the show lives up to its pretensions of grandeur by backing all of this up with complex characters who slowly change as they realize that their society has to change to keep them safe (again, a shift that comes in the Kristen Bell episodes). Deadwood, in a way, is the ultimate show for pragmatists, a show about how human life WOULD be nasty, brutish and short if we hadn't invented a way to keep each other safe and warm. Of all of the series I've ever seen, Deadwood most captures the sheer feelings of life, the way that joy and sorrow and everything else get mixed up in one another. Some series aim to portray one small thing very specifically and precisely, and they succeed in this. Though it's messier, Deadwood takes aim at a much larger target and mostly hits it -- America itself. Though a dispute between HBO and Paramount means the series remains frustratingly incomplete, it's well worth your time to watch the three seasons that do exist.
Best season: Season two is the series' finest blend of comedy and tragedy, reverberating with echoes of lost love, a town pulling itself together into a community and a man laid low by illness who finds himself an essential member of that community. We are all parts of a larger body indeed.
Best episode: "Boy the Earth Talks To" closes out the second season with some of the best television I've ever seen, when a funeral and a wedding collide in the dusty little mining camp. The episode concludes with Mr. Wu proclaiming to the heavens, "AMERICA!" and everything that precedes that perfectly summarizes this big, messy land.
Did you know?: The idea that became Deadwood was originally developed by Milch for HBO as a series about cops in Rome. Since the network already had Rome in development, it asked him to consider other historical epochs, perhaps the Old West.
Available on DVD?: The whole run is available on DVD, and if you have a chance, listen to a David Milch commentary. Crazy good stuff.
4) The Wire
HBO, produced 2002-present
HBO, produced 2002-present
What: The best argument for long-form television as the logical successor to the novel came from an unexpected source -- a cop show reluctantly greenlit by HBO when they felt it didn't fit in with their "edgy" identity. Over the course of its four seasons (with the story to be concluded in a fifth season beginning in January), The Wire has slowly expanded its focus, reaching out from its central story of cops investigating the drug trade in the city of Baltimore to become a complete portrayal of the city as a whole, including looks at the cops, the streets, the blue-collar workers, the politicians, the educational system and (in the upcoming season) the media. The Wire's creation of a Baltimore where the system is failing everyone is almost unique in its pessimism about the United States being able to fix what's rotten at the core, and while that sounds like it could be the recipe for a very dry, very boring piece of television (coming as it does from David Simon, a man who finds the issues first, then writes the story to fit them), the writers of The Wire, who include a number of novelists, leaven all of this by creating a whole roster of believable, fascinating human beings who find themselves working and living in the midst of that system. The ways they try to flaunt that system may be blatantly illegal or they may be tiny things done to poke at the edges of the bureaucracy, but everyone in The Wire is drowning in a world of uncaring entities, struggling to find a way to remain human.
Why: I'm not going to pile on the acclaim too heavily here. Watching The Wire is daunting enough as it is, largely because of people like myself, who build it up into a giant piece of monumental television-craft and make it sound like the most intimidating thing ever -- like watching Ulysses a chapter at a time. So I think I'll focus on just what it is that makes The Wire so entertaining. First and foremost, The Wire is a cop show, like any one of dozens you've seen before. Sure, the cops only solve a single case per season, but the series breaks down the process of doing this perfectly, and you get invested in how they're going to gather the information they need to prosecute the crimes. It's very good about giving you a piece of the mystery per episode. Secondly, The Wire is very, very funny. All of the characters have their own unique comedic points-of-view, and all of them are able to crack wise when needed. Thirdly, The Wire wraps you slowly in its story, but once it gets you in, it's impossible to look away. It may take you a while to become fully invested in the story (though the characters should wrap you in right away), but the final episodes are almost guaranteed to leave you shaken, angry at how the system fails people, wondering what would be a better way to do things. In many ways, The Wire rises out of the great journalistic novels of the early 20th century, works by people like Upton Sinclair, who wrote books designed to effect change. The Wire doesn't believe that kind of change is possible, but it's going to force us to take a sobering look at the world we live in.
Best season: Season four seemed like it might be disastrous, since the show's lead character (Detective Jimmy McNulty) was on leave so actor Dominic West could take a break from such a taxing show. Instead, the series centered in on the ways the educational system fails the kids it's supposed to teach and created the series' most moving season.
Best episode: Season three's "Middle Ground" culminates in one of those perfect Wire moments, where tragedy intersects with the completely unexpected that somehow remains completely expected. I won't spoil it for you here, but if you've watched the series from its start, it's devastating.
Did you know?: The series finale will be entitled "The Life of Kings."
Available on DVD?: The first four seasons are available on DVD. Season five begins airing in January.
3) The Sopranos
HBO, produced 1999-2007
HBO, produced 1999-2007
What: The most influential drama since Twin Peaks, if not Hill Street Blues itself, was also a staggeringly great piece of television and one of the greatest achievements of the medium. The tale of a gangster trying to deal with two families (his work family and his blood family) who goes to visit a psychiatrist at first seemed a little too high concept-y to be a great television drama -- wasn't that the premise of Analyze This, after all? But where the movie went to a joke-y and insincere place, The Sopranos was a deeply brooding, darkly humorous series about nothing less than the end of the American epoch (Tony Soprano's grandfather built a church; his father built an empire; he and his children were all downhill from there). The Sopranos rewrote many of the rules of television drama, creating slow-moving story arcs that took their time and allowing the camera to take in silent spaces or the way the trees blew in the wind -- it was television as mass-market art film. The influence of The Sopranos was dissected to death upon the series' end earlier this year, so I won't belabor the point, but while the networks initially copied The Sopranos sex and violence in an attempt to capture the mass audience that watched the show, they soon realized that something else attracted those audience members -- the complexity and respect for the audience Sopranos had in spades. One of the aspects of the series rarely mentioned in post-mortems was its bold casting -- James Gandolfini would never be a lead on a network drama, but HBO took a chance on him and got one of the best performances in TV history out of the deal. To see a perfect synthesis of TV's past and to see a series that points to its future, The Sopranos is essential viewing.
Why: Ranking what I call the HBO Holy Trinity is sort of ridiculous, but I figured if I put all three in a tie, there would be murder on the breath of my readers. So, in the end, I erred on the side of The Sopranos being a complete, terrific story, while The Wire waits to end its run and Deadwood will (sadly) never get to. Plus, that hugely controversial final shot was so audacious and perfect, I thought, that it managed to elevate the whole series from great television to great art. What's easy to lose in discussions of The Sopranos being the greatest TV series of all time is just how entertaining the show is. It's possible to jump into an episode if you've never seen the show and just marvel at the stylish filmmaking and the amusing lines and the performances. But if you have seen everything, the show's episodes take on a weight unlike almost anything on television (that's not The Wire or Deadwood). So why isn't this at the top of the list, when it probably SHOULD be by almost any measure (it's definitely one of my favorites, it was hugely influential and its "greatness" is almost undisputed)? Put simply, I love The Sopranos, but it's also the sort of thing that's perilously easy to overrate, to build up into something intimidating and hard to approach. The two shows I put above it are of a much more modest level of greatness than The Sopranos, but both are more immediately approachable AS TV, not necessarily as a long-form story. All of this is a long preamble, though, to saying that if Hill Street Blues is TV drama's Birth of a Nation (minus the racial overtones), The Sopranos just might be its Citizen Kane. Give it a few decades, and we'll see.
Best season: While all of the seasons are essential to getting the full impact of the series, that first season was like an atomic bomb on the television landscape, blowing everyone away with its sheer inventiveness, audacity and quality.
Best episode: "Long Term Parking" is the turning point for the whole series -- the moment when Tony stops being a potentially savable person and becomes a tragic villain, one who must be punished.
Did you know?: HBO waited until almost the last minute to greenlight a series of The Sopranos, fearing that a series would be too expensive and slow-moving to gain enough popular traction to make the network any money.
Available on DVD?: The whole run is available on DVD. Enjoy.
2) Mary Tyler Moore
CBS, produced 1970-1977
CBS, produced 1970-1977
What: Possibly the classiest show of all time, Mary Tyler Moore (and, yes, that was the technical title) exuded a certain air of importance. In an age of cheesy and corny sitcoms, it and All in the Family (which followed its lead at midseason) created a new kind of relevant, urbanely witty sitcom. The early episodes, indeed, often seem to run too far away from the kind of goofy humor that was popular at the time, as though the show is simply too sophisticated for its own good. But the series quickly settles into a groove and knocks out some of the best television of all time, with a host of terrific characters, played by even better actors. The idea of a show based around a single woman trying to make her way in the world wasn't new (That Girl?), but the fact that Mary Richards didn't NEED a man to be happy was (though she often dated, and one of the most popular original "'ships" was between Mary and her boss, Lou). Mary Tyler Moore wasn't the bold, feminist masterwork it's made out to be, simply because the creation of a strong, feminine hero was more a function of creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns wanting to create an affable workplace sitcom and hitching their star to Mary Tyler Moore, whose husband, Grant Tinker, had started a new production company to provide sophisticated television (the company that evolved into MTM, one of the most important production houses in the history of television -- up there with Carsey-Werner and Desilu). The series rings with the ideas of people trying something new -- what if Mary DIDN'T have a family at home? What if her workplace became her family? Or her best friends? Mary Tyler Moore is all about the wonderful possibility of being young and single and beautiful and living in a great city. It's all about being surrounded by your friends and the people who care about you most. And it's all about sharing some laughs with those people along the way.
Why: For a long time, Mary Tyler Moore, which I watched every episode of on Nick at Nite, was my favorite television show of all time. Its influence has been slightly overstated over the years, but only slightly. If the greatest sitcoms of television's early days were family ones, then the greatest sitcoms of the '70s and '80s (outside of anomalies like All in the Family) were workplace sitcoms or sitcoms about a bunch of friends who liked to hang out. Mary Tyler Moore combined both of those things and made the workplace sitcom (which had had a few failed examples over the years) a viable genre in and of itself when it spun off Rhoda and Phyllis into their own series. While the early seasons were often a case of a show having more potential than actual laughs, the series quickly found a groove and settled into it, especially as it created many more blatantly comic foils for Mary to play off of. Think about it, though. How many sitcoms are there where literally every character is recognizable, even to people who haven't watched the show before? Is there a TV fan out there who DOESN'T know who Lou Grant is? Or Ted Baxter? Or Sue Ann Nivens? Or Phyllis? Mary Tyler Moore didn't invent the workplace sitcom, but it invented almost every piece of what we understand the workplace sitcom to be, setting in place a formula that would hold firm for decades to come. What I'm failing to mention here is just how lovable and funny Mary Tyler Moore is -- the ultimate comfort-food TV. It's obviously great, and it's obviously a landmark television series, but it's also a wonderful, wonderful show full of fun characters, witty scripts and the kind of television chemistry that comes around once a decade (if that).
Best season: The show's strongest seasons were in the middle of its run, and I think season four, the last available on DVD, is a pretty great example of what the show was capable of. It also features most of the series' great characters (not all of whom were on the show for the full run).
Best episode: I won't go against the consensus. "Chuckles Bites the Dust" is a terrific episode, and it's too bad we'll likely never see it on DVD now. The funeral scene is an all-time classic for good reason.
Did you know?: While it wasn't the first last episode (The Fugitive holds that honor), "The Last Show," the series finale, is the one that set the bar for big, cast-hugging sitcom series finales for years to come. I still think it's the best of them all.
Available on DVD?: The first four seasons are, and the first season, in particular, is a great set. There are no plans to release the final three.
1) The Simpsons
Fox, produced 1989-present
Fox, produced 1989-present
What: At this point, saying The Simpsons is the greatest show in the history of television is either a foregone conclusion (Time, after all, made the same proclamation) or utter lunacy (IT'S NOT AS GOOD AS IT WAS!). I say, simply, that no television show has tried as much, aimed as high or looked at as many facets of modern society as The Simpsons. Matt Groening's cartoon family became the biggest television stars of the last two decades and were used by a long string of brilliant writers (and, OK, some not so brilliant writers) to satirize and lampoon the world at large. While the series has declined since its height in the mid-90s, it's still a very good show, and every episode has a larger number of laughs in it than almost any other show on the air. The only reason we regard recent episodes with such disdain is that the show's height (roughly everything it did in the 1990s) is so high as to be almost unattainable -- who can even BLAME the show for slipping a little? For one simple reason does The Simpsons top this list -- those first ten seasons were unimpeachably great, and the middle of that run (seasons 3 through 8, roughly) were the finest television has ever been -- a whipsmart blend of fast-paced comedy, moving moments and satirical references designed to make the head spin.
Why: Consider all of the things The Simpsons is, and you will come around to my way of thinking on it being the perfect television show. a.) It's perfect comfort-food TV. There's no better TV show to turn on and just zone out to. Every episode has a handful of jokes so perfectly slapstick-y and Mad-magazine-like that they can penetrate even the foggiest of brains. Plus, the colors are bright! b.) It's perfect snob TV. The Simpsons at its best is the sort of thing that you can legitimately watch and say, "Oh, I don't watch a lot of TV. Just THE SIMPSONS." Every episode contains frank satire, great cultural references and lots of envelope-pushing humor (in the sense of making fun of the TYPES of humor of typical television). c.) It's perfect watch-with-your-mom TV. Unlike many of its successors, The Simpsons never forgot that what makes the show work is characters you can care about. Everyone in Springfield (OK, maybe not The Sea Cap'n) is a fully realized human being -- one, granted, who can only live in Springfield, but a character more successful than many live-action characters nonetheless. The Simpsons is essentially all things to all people. You can enjoy it as a time-waster, or you can enjoy it as a commentary on humanity or the United States or whatever you like. I'm going to guess that very little of this was by design, but when James L. Brooks, Sam Simon and Groening met to expand Groening's little cartoon family into a full series, they somehow created a perfect template to provide hour after hour of entertaining television. Yes, the show isn't what it was, but that can't dim its luster, to my eyes.
Best season: I always say season four is the best, so let's go with the equally great season five for now. I mean, you could pick up any of the ten DVD sets out now and probably laugh yourself silly.
Best episode: Definitely "Marge Vs. the Monorail." Or "Mr. Plow." Or "Lisa's Substitute." Or "Last Exit to Springfield." Or Mr. Sparkle! Or "King-Size Homer." Or one of the Treehouses of Horror! Or "Cape Feare"! Or "The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show"! I could go on.
Did you know?: Matt Groening met with James L. Brooks with Brooks thinking that he would use the Life in Hell characters in short interstitial bits between sketches in The Tracey Ullman Show. Groening, fearing the loss of his characters to a giant corporation, quickly sketched the family on the spot, so that he could present them first. So the most valuable characters of the last 25 years were created so Matt Groening would have future financial security. I THINK IT WORKED OUT.
Available on DVD?: The first ten seasons are. The movie is also out.
1) The Simpsons
2) Mary Tyler Moore
3) The Sopranos
4) The Wire
6) Hill Street Blues
7) Buffy the Vampire Slayer
9) The Twilight Zone
10) Freaks and Geeks
11) I Love Lucy
12) All in the Family
13) Homicide: Life on the Street
14) Twin Peaks
15) Sesame Street
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)
23) Playhouse 90
24) Arrested Development
26) St Elsewhere
28) Battlestar Galactica
29) The Honeymooners
30) My So-Called Life
31) Northern Exposure
32) Late Night with David Letterman
33) Barney Miller
37) The Wonder Years
38) South Park
39) Gilmore Girls
40) The Muppet Show
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
52) Mr Rogers' Neighborhood
57) King of the Hill
58) The Larry Sanders Show
59) The Odd Couple
60) Get Smart
61) Saturday Night Live
63) The Shield
64) The Dick Cavett Show
65) Monday Night Football
66) Mad Men
67) The Rockford Files
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
77) The Waltons
78) Friday Night Lights
79) The West Wing
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
89) The Cosby Show
90) Beavis and Butthead
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
Today's Christmas tune: There's no better Christmas album than the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, and there's no better Christmas song than "Christmastime Is Here." Hope you had a merry day, and here's hoping you have a great new year too.
Later this week: I'm going to try to do a post dedicated JUST to comments from this project. Other than that, I think I will be taking the week through New Year's Day off. Expect some wacky theme weeks and some shifts in the blog's focus in early '08.
It's been a pleasure writing this and having you read it. I hope you learned something from it, if only my own opinions on things. And I hope your days always remain merry and bright.