Sunday, December 16, 2007

SDD's Top 100 Series of All-Time -- Supplemental list #6: Blind spots

When making a top 100 list of all-time (or even a top ten list for one year or another), it's impossible to be completely comprehensive. Even if you watched or read or listened to works of art all day every day, you couldn't hope to completely catch up. Who knows which rock you'd find a hidden classic under? So I think it's all right to go into a project like this so long as you admit that you have your blind spots and you're open and honest about them.

That said, it's hard to be comprehensive when it comes to TV, even if you limit yourself to the output of one country, as I have. There's just so much TV, and it's on all the time. Who's to say the greatest series of all time is airing, undiscovered, on A&E at 4 in the morning? How would you even know to tape it? I've seen a TON of TV, first as a kid who had been starved of it when younger and gobbled up as much of it as he could (having always been a fan of serialized storytelling), then as a college student interested in the intersections between the culture and its storytelling, then as a critic, interested in explaining those intersections to others. And yet, I haven't seen everything, and there's a lot of ostensibly really good stuff that I haven't seen.

Some of this is because much of the history of television simply isn't preserved. The earliest television broadcasts were taped on something called a kinescope. While this was a cheap and efficient way to broadcast things, especially in a world where everything was live and the preservation of the shows only needed to be handled in the event of a rerun, it means that almost everything from that era is badly degraded or completely destroyed. The reason I Love Lucy became a classic was both for its innovative structure AND for the fact it was filmed on film, meaning it could be syndicated for decades to come. Television networks thought no one would be interested in their programming, so they threw much of their stored stuff away. Perhaps this is all waiting to be found in some vault somewhere, but we have to assume much of the programming from the early days of television is lost forever (ironically, this has heightened the reputation of 1950s television -- easier to be nostalgic about something that can't prove you wrong). So when I talk about some of these blind spots, I mean they're REALLY blind.

10) 1950s Variety and Comedy Shows
including the Burns and Allen Show, The Jack Benny Show, The Red Skelton Show, etc., etc.

So many shows from the 1950s have largely been lost to the ages, especially some of the most popular programs of the time -- the variety and sketch comedy series that formed the backbone of network programming in the earliest days of television. The original TV hit (the Texaco Star Theater starring Milton Berle) exists only in a handful of episodes and clips, which are sporadically available and some of which you can only view by going to the Museum of Television and Radio in New York or Los Angeles (an essential stop for anyone interested in the medium). Other variety and comedy series fared slightly better -- there are still whole seasons left of the three shows left above, but they tend to be the later seasons, when the shows were showing just how creaky and vaudeville-y they had become. Television's earliest roots are in the live theatre (exemplified through sitcoms and dramatic anthologies) and vaudeville (shown through the variety and comedy series), but by the time these shows started being filmed for preservation, television had gone on to be more influenced (however tentatively) by the cinematic language it had in common with film. So most of the best stuff of all of these shows is almost completely lost. You can find a radio broadcast here or a scrap tossed together from a hole-y kinescope there, but for the most part, these are gone forever. Even if they were preserved, would anyone actually watch them? TV Land aired the Ed Sullivan Show for a while, and that seemed colossally odd to current generations. The variety show is a time-tested format, but it's largely fallen from favor (American Idol is sort of in this tradition, but you'd never see someone spinning plates on the show). Its corny traditions and goofy sketches seem odd to us now, as though we're looking at them through a dusty window.

9) Designing Women
CBS, produced 1986-1993

After Lifetime found substantial success with reruns of The Golden Girls, the same network, which had been airing Designing Women reruns for almost a decade without seeing huge benefit in the ratings, decided to play up that show, another 80s sitcom about four women living in the South. For some reason, Designing Women didn't catch on like The Golden Girls had, and the series left the Lifetime lineup in 2006. It was later picked up by Nick at Nite and TV Land, but never quite took off there either. As the series continues to enjoy a reputation as a sophisticated and witty comedy, why hasn't it caught on? I would argue that the series' close ties to the social issues of the day limit it somewhat (while Golden Girls did the same, its themes were broader), but what would I know? I've hardly seen four episodes of the show, and all of the ones I've seen were seen years ago when my mom let me stay up after Murphy Brown. Given my enjoyment of traditional sitcoms and my love of the cast members in other roles, I think it's likely I would find some value in Designing Women, but it's one of the few long-running sitcoms that just hasn't crossed my radar yet.

8) Cooking shows
including Julia Child and The Galloping Gourmet

Cooking shows are one of TV's oldest informational genres. The idea of watching a master chef prepare one of his or her dishes while you follow along and try to keep up (usually finding it hard to do everything as well or as quickly as the chef) is still an appealing one (witness the Food Network). Wanting to eat good food is one of the most basic of human vices, and these cooking shows offered up food as the height of human experience. A lot of the things that Child and Graham Kerr cooked up would make eyes bulge now (butter? cream? WHOLE MILK?), and the fatty content in them would probably stop a lot of modern Americans' hearts in their tracks, but Kerr and Child's passion for cooking was infectious. From their programs sprung whole networks and other "you, too, can do this at home!" shows. Sadly, both of these shows are only sporadically available in syndication, and there's little reason to release a comprehensive DVD set of either (as it would be prohibitively expensive). Still, in these shows, you can sense the slow birth of mainstream foodie culture.

7) 1950s game shows
including $64,000 Question, You Bet Your Life and I've Got a Secret

For a long while, the Game Show Network aired reruns of old '50s game shows in the middle of the night. Often, when I was working on a paper in college, I would turn on these shows and marvel at just how strange they could be -- often more like talk shows or variety hours and more of an excuse for the host to gab with the contestants or the celebrity guests. 1950s game shows have the feel of attending a really cool party with a bunch of the gang from Mad Men. There's smoking, a little drinking and off-color jokes that were safe for kids to hear. Sadly, GSN no longer shows these reruns, and they only ever had access to some of the less acclaimed series of the time (I've Got a Secret, an enjoyable panel show that had an underrated revival in the early 2000s with John O'Hurley as host, was a particular staple, but it was considered one of the lesser games of its time). I'd love to see more of You Bet Your Life, which reportedly features one of the all-time great host jobs by an irascible and playful Groucho Marx, hamming it up and cracking wise. Some of the hardest quiz shows are mostly lost to time too, including the biggest game show hit in history -- $64,000 Question. We've also mostly lost Twenty One, the show that touched off the quiz show scandals of the 50s, chronicled in the terrific movie Quiz Show.

6) Babylon 5 and Farscape
syndicated/TNT, produced 1993-1998/Sci Fi Channel, produced 1999-2003

Given my love for even awful sci-fi TV, it's perhaps surprising that I've never seen more than a handful of episodes of either of these shows, but both come with an impediment to instantly jumping in and watching them -- extreme serialization. At least with Star Trek (even the mostly serialized DS9), you can sort of jump in at any moment and figure out what's going on. Babylon 5 and Farscape are like just jumping in to a latter season episode of Buffy or an episode of Battlestar Galactica or Lost nowadays without knowing what comes before -- you might be entertained, but you'll also be largely baffled. I've tried to watch Babylon 5 from the beginning, as at the time, it was perhaps the most acclaimed sci fi series on the air by fans of the genre, but I found the limited, syndication-level production values to be a real impediment to enjoying the show (and I've watched classic Doctor Who, so you KNOW it's bad). Farscape has never wrapped around into a place where I could start watching it from the beginning. Considering that I eventually did watch Star Trek in its many iterations, I'm sure I'll make my way back around to these two series that responded very differently to the TV sci-fi juggernaut, but it might be a while. Fortunately, both are available on DVD.

5) One-season wonders of the past
including the original Bob Newhart Show, My World and Welcome to It and many more

TV needs a Criterion Collection of its own. I don't want to argue that TV has as firm and storied a background as film to plumb through, but a good television show (or a bad but popular television show) is an excellent time capsule of the era it aired in. What's more, some of the one-season wonders of the past, just like the one-season wonders of the present, influenced shows that came later -- so the innovations of My World and Welcome to It (from blending live action with animation to doing stories that weren't obviously recognizable as comedic) influenced programs that came later and so on and so on. A Criterion-esque company would preserve these shows so we could more accurately trace the evolution of the art form. Many of these shows may be lost, but most of the memorable one-season wonders hail from the '60s or later, so they should be still around. Right now, you have to wait for a channel like TV Land to randomly air, say, The Tony Randall Show or Paul Sand on Friends and Lovers. Shout! Factory is moving toward this, and Bravo's "Brilliant but Canceled" line did a LITTLE of this, but both companies could stand to broaden their horizons some.

4) General Hospital of the late 70s/early 80s (the "Luke and Laura" era)
ABC, mostly from 1978-1982

I spent a lot of time trying to find a daytime soap to put on this list, but the two that are generally accepted to be the best are two I've never seen, and I wasn't about to put Passions -- The Timmy Years or Days of Our Lives -- When She Was Possessed by the Devil on the list. The first is Santa Barbara, a character-based soap that garnered critical acclaim and low ratings in the '80s, and the second (and more acclaimed) is General Hospital from the years when the long saga of Luke and Laura (he raped, then married her -- yeah, don't think about the sexual politics of THAT too much) was at its height. General Hospital was so big and so popular that even my mom -- who HATED soaps -- watched Luke and Laura's wedding. In that highest-rated week in the show's history, it attracted 30 million viewers, enough to easily win any week of this primetime season. In DAYTIME. The doomed love between Luke and Laura and the chemistry between actors Anthony Geary and Genie Francis drew audiences in and kept them hooked. After Geary and Francis left, the series' ratings went down the toilet, but the years the actors were present were the height for the program. Sadly, I've seen very little of these years, so I decided not to put the program on the list, even as a representative. Consider its position on this list as a stand-in for all of the soaps I never watched.

3) On the Air
ABC, produced 1992

Riding high after the initial success of Twin Peaks, David Lynch sold ABC on the idea of a sitcom based on the early days of television. Each week, a group of talented people would get together to put on The Lester Guy Show, but the whole thing would fall apart. It was Lynch's own take on the comfortability and familiarity of the sitcom genre, only instead of heartwarming togetherness, you would get outright disaster every week. After Twin Peaks' ratings fell apart, Lynch became less of a hot property at ABC, and the network scheduled the sitcom for Saturday nights in the summer, then aired only three episodes before pulling it. The series aired all seven of its episodes overseas, but it's acquired something of the air of a show that almost seemed dreamed into existence, even if the clips of the show on YouTube suggest that it wasn't as stereotypically Lynchian as Twin Peaks. Most critics panned the series at the time, but its odd qualities have formed a small, vocal cult of fans and an even larger group of people who would like to see the full run of the show and not have to watch it in low-quality video in a tiny little box on their computer screens. Is On the Air any good? I have no idea, even though one of its episodes made the TV Guide 100 Best Episodes of All Time list. I'd love to find out, though.

2) Upstairs, Downstairs
PBS, produced 1971-1975

At first I struggled with what to do with Upstairs, Downstairs, a highly acclaimed, influential drama series (from the 70s no less) that I had never seen. Then I realized it was British, and I could just shove it on a supplemental list. All kidding aside, Upstairs, Downstairs is one of those HUGE blind spots that I could easily just rectify by buying the DVDs, but since they come in the full series set, I never have the money to spend. Regularly cited in the reviews of Gosford Park, Upstairs, Downstairs feels in many ways like a predecessor to Mad Men in its unflinching devotion to accurately portraying its era and its willingness to skip across eras to show how the characters' lives changed over the years. While the series won two best drama Emmys in the 70s, it's rarely cited by critics as one of their favorite series anymore. Does it deserve this treatment? Someday, I'll find out, I suppose.

1) Gunsmoke
CBS, produced 1955-1975

In its earliest days, TV's biggest dramas were Westerns -- Westerns like Maverick and Have Gun, Will Travel and Bonanza. Indeed, the longest-running dramatic series in the history of television is a Western, and it's Gunsmoke, which ran for 20 seasons, first as a half-hour show, then as an hour drama. The series is split into three syndication packages, meaning that its middle years (often regarded as the best) are almost never seen, even when the show IS syndicated, which is rarely. Despite all of this, the series is regarded by many critics as one of the finest dramas in the history of television, combining Western action sequences with simple morality plays, designed to teach lessons to the show's large child audience. Still, the series stands as the first Western on TV meant for adults. It can be hard to find on television now, even though it aired on TV Land for several seasons. The first season (of the half-hour version of the show) is available on DVD, I've just realized, so maybe I will catch up with this one yet. Still, my utter failure to see TV's longest running drama is easily my biggest blind spot.

Today's Christmas tune: "In the Bleak Midwinter" is one of my favorite unheralded Christmas songs. This version, by Dan Zimmerman, is off this year's Sounds Familyre compilation, available here.

Places 50-41, including rock 'n' roll, robots and a great film director.


Todd said...

OK. I know I Love Lucy wasn't on the list (because I've seen all of it), but that picture was one of the few I could find of Milton Berle in drag. Hence.

asta said...

I remember almost the whole student body of my university coming to a grinding halt during the zenith of the Luke and Laura story line. The funniest was seeing the football team hunkered down in front of the common room TV.

Jason Mittell said...

You should definitely check out On the Air, especially if think Twin Peaks crossed with Marx Brothers would be an enjoyable treat. I got a bootleg copy online based on the Japanese laserdisc, and the quality was solid. Worth hunting it down...

Andrew said...

Another good list. I feel a need to clarify your first entry, though, which implies that Burns and Allen and The Jack Benny Program were variety or sketch comedy shows (which is fairly accurate for Red Skelton). Nothing could be further from the truth. Benny and Burns and Allen had honed their format and evolved for decades on radio, so by the time they reached TV, they were effectively early sitcoms, just of the kind where the stars played versions of themselves, showbiz personalities. Burns and Allen in particular basically predated the format of I Love Lucy (a husband and his wacky wife, their neighbors, hijinks ensue), but Gracie had an illogical logic, rather than just being zany; it broke the fourth wall with George walking on to the set, narrating, watching the show on a TV, and so on. Some of the early episodes broke in the middle for a song or dance group as an intermission, but it was basically a sitcom, and actually a decent chunk is available. The problem is its in the public domain, so apart from being poor cinescopes, they're on cheap DVD discs that you have to hunt through racks for. Much the same applies to Jack Benny, which again was a sitcom, with Jack portraying himself as a vain, perpetually 39 year old miser. Episodes such as the fairly famous Christmas show, in which Jack drives clerk Mel Blanc to madness by changing his mind, were reworked almost whole cloth from the radio scripts, but with added sight gags and giving full range to the facial expressions of Benny and Blanc.

In general, on this topic of hard to find shows, I think you'd be interested in the Museum of Broadcast Communications, based in Chicago but currently with a building under construction, so they've digitized a vast amount of their archive (including first episodes, last episodes, and a very good chunk of Jack Benny and others). It's streaming only, and requires registration (e-mail and password), but it's free: