Wednesday, December 19, 2007

SDD's top 100 Series of all time -- Supplemental List #7: Underrated

(OK. I was driving late into the night last night, so this is going up now. I will try to post two lists in one day at some point to get the final list published on Christmas, as was the plan. -- ed)

This was probably the list I had the hardest time compiling, as I was steadfastly devoted to only listing shows that did not make the list. As I put most of the shows I feel actually ARE the most underrated on the list, this made coming up with ten others a bit difficult. What I WILL say is that you've seen many of the shows I find underrated already (from Green Acres to King of the Hill to, heck, even Friends). What's more, it's MUCH easier to overrate TV than underrate it, largely because the threshold for success on TV is set so criminally low by so many TV critics.

But here are ten shows that are either genuinely underrated or a little misunderstood. Are all of them good? Not really. But all of them are shows that deserve a second look from the critical community.

10) Who's the Boss and Happy Days
both ABC, Boss produced 1984-1992, Days produced 1974-1984

Two ABC sitcoms frequently listed on lists of the worst shows that ever became staggeringly popular really aren't as bad as their reputations. Let's be quite clear here -- both are pretty bad, but both are bad only because they gave in to fatal flaws. In the case of Boss, the flaw had to do with casting. Tony Danza was all right on Taxi as a supporting player, but he just couldn't carry a show, and I've always felt Boss became popular in spite of him. Boss is always the first show I jump to when I think of series that were bad but didn't really have to be -- the concept is pretty good, the characters are sharply drawn, and the scripts derive humor FROM those characters, rather than a long series of lame one-liners, as you find in most bad sitcoms. Indeed, Who's the Boss has spawned hit versions of itself in many other countries (most notably Germany), where local actors are cast in the roles and the scripts are localized but unchanged otherwise. Who's the Boss isn't GREAT, but since Danza holds it back, it's better than its reputation. Happy Days, on the other hand, is a case of a show's creator chasing a big hit to the detriment of his show. The series was filmed in single-camera style in its first two seasons (which are both available on DVD), and the tone of the show was sort of similar to The Andy Griffith Show set in the 1950s among teenagers. It wasn't as good as that show, but it seemed to be putting the elements in place to live up to that promise. Then, Fonzie happened, and the creator tasted a huge hit that might make him millions of dollars. So the show shifted to a "filmed before a live studio audience" format and gave in to its tendency for completely stupid plots and made the Fonz, probably the show's most one-dimensional character, into the ostensible star. The series became a huge hit, but it never really recovered creatively. Too bad.

9) The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
CBS, produced 1959-1963

Most early sitcoms have been forgotten for a reason: Quality was often given second priority to just how quickly something could be thrown together and just how much of it could be put on the air. Shows like The Donna Reed Show or The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet enjoyed long runs, but they weren't exactly what anyone would call quality television. The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis is probably the fourth-best of the early sitcoms that are still readily available to us (after Phil Silvers and two shows that will appear later on the main list), but it's mostly forgotten today, remembered only for the weird beatnik character of Maynard G. Krebs, who can seem almost baffling to modern audiences. But Dobie Gillis is that rare thing -- a thoughtful sitcom about the perils of adolescence and the dawning realization that you are a sexual human being who is expected to pair up with someone else and produce children. Granted, none of this is ever said outright, but the agreeably square performance by Dwayne Hickman gave early television the tame teenager it really needed. Plus, it gave a boost to the early career of Warren Beatty! I don't really know why Dobie Gillis has been forgotten (I even almost completely forgot it when drawing these lists up), but it deserves rediscovery and a good DVD release.

8) Bewitched
ABC, produced 1964-1972

Looking back at Emmy nominees for best comedy in the 60s is always sort of amusing, since so many of them were so awful. You have your occasional Get Smart or Dick Van Dyke Show, but you also run across things like the Batman series or Hogan's Heroes. Bewitched, however, nominated three times, is another matter. Like Happy Days, it was a show that was good in its first two seasons, only to fall off in subsequent seasons; unlike Happy Days, it was REALLY good in its first two seasons, probably the best of the fantasy comedies of the 60s (by a large margin) and an early work of feminist TV. What's more, the series, able to use allegory freely, was one of the more realistic depictions of the trials of a young marriage on television, and it even found room for characters who were divorced (though no one ever came right out and said it). Because the later seasons were so awful (the whole family moved to England for some reason at one point) and because Dick Sargent was not as good as Dick York, the series has gotten a reputation as being ALL bad in recent years, but check out those first two seasons on DVD (sadly, the colorized versions are far easier to find than the B&W ones). They really find a great way to exploit the series' premise as fully as possible, and the first season was the place where Danny Arnold, one of the better television producers of the 70s, first found his creative footing.

7) Lou Grant
CBS, produced 1977-1982

What is it about newspaper shows? After the drama revolution of the 1980s (led by Hill Street Blues), numerous TV creators tried their hand at doing a Hill Street-style newspaper drama (including no less than David Milch), and to a man, they all failed. Something about the pace of the work lends itself better to the movies than to television, for some reason. Maybe it's just that we don't believe that the reporters on these shows would find big stories week to week. Maybe it's just that we're a lot more cynical about the world of the media nowadays than we were in the days of the great newspaper movies. I don't really know. But Lou Grant was the last great newspaper show and the last of the great pre-Hill Street dramas -- where stories had barely any connection to each other outside of the characters. Unseen on cable since the mid-90s, the show has mostly become one that people barely even remember, despite the fact that it was rather popular during its run. Like any drama before the serialization movement, Lou Grant is awfully erratic, but in its best moments, the show played up both important social issues and the stresses of working at a daily newspaper. The series captures newspapers at their zenith -- before the Internet and cable news would whittle away at the necessity of a broadsheet. Someone looking for the setting for the next great workplace drama (Aaron Sorkin, perhaps?) would do well to take a look at the major metro daily, and Lou Grant would be a good place to start.

6) Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law
Cartoon Network, produced 2000-2007

Produced sporadically (only 39 episodes were aired over seven years), Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law is the perfect mash-up of pop culture for people who spent their formative years eating breakfast cereal in front of the USA Network's Cartoon Express. If the entire [adult swim] comedy bloc (outside of Family Guy, Futurama and, weirdly, Robot Chicken) has mostly stayed outside of the critical mainstream, the barely-aired Harvey Birdman has REALLY stayed outside of the mainstream, despite the fact that it deserved to be more widely embraced. Sure, it's just "spot the reference" TV, but it's really, really smart "spot the reference" TV, blending up Hanna Barbera cartoons with references to obscure '80s thrillers and legal dramas, as well as a strange kind of character-based comedy that requires you to be familiar with Hanna Barbera cartoons, but not TOO familiar (Peter Potamus is basically nothing like his HB incarnation, but it's SO MUCH FUNNIER if you know who he was). Harvey Birdman isn't for everyone, which kept it off this list, but if it's for you, it's something you'll make time for each and every week and track down sporadic showings of whenever you can. (Bonus points for featuring Gary Cole and Stephen Colbert.)

5) Sanford and Son
NBC, produced 1972-1977

I really struggled with which of the successful Norman Lear-produced sitcoms of the '70s (All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude, The Jeffersons, Good Times, One Day at a Time and Archie Bunker's Place) to include, since nearly all of them had SOME good in them, though nearly all of them eventually became erratic and unreliable. Lear's school of television comedy was almost diametrically opposed to the other school of comedy at the time, the MTM school (Mary Tyler Moore, The Bob Newhart Show and Rhoda, most notably), where humor was arrived at via verbal means and the hilarity rarely stemmed from outrageousness or physical humor. The two schools of thought have filtered out to infect every single sitcom on TV (descendents of the MTM school include Taxi, Cheers, Friends and The Simpsons, while the Lear school went on to include things like Soap, The Golden Girls, Seinfeld and South Park), so it's difficult to underestimate their influence. Ultimately, I consigned Sanford to this list (you'll have to wait to see how the other Lear-coms fared), simply because it was a bit too broad for my tastes. But it often unfairly gets lumped in with lots of other bad 70s sitcoms and lots of other erratic Lear-produced 70s sitcoms (including The Jeffersons, most notably). Sanford is an enjoyable look at the bottom rung of the ladder of employed Americans, and in its portrayal of a father and son's relationship, it was surprisingly heartfelt. Lear's willingness to reinvest with the blue-collar roots of the sitcom (see: The Honeymooners) would reach its fullest flowering in the late '80s (and, yes, it's coming up), but Sanford was his first look at the people who are just barely scraping by but are awfully funny at it.

4) Angel
The WB, produced 1999-2004

The redheaded stepchild of Joss Whedon's cult genre series, Angel is beloved by almost all of Whedon's fans, but the favorite of relatively few of them (and I think I've met all of them). Part of the problem may be that the show seemingly switched genres with every season, starting out as a clean, simple '70s detective show throwback before morphing into a "vampire solves mysteries with the help of an expansive ensemble" show before morphing into one of the most intricately serialized shows in television history before finally morphing into a workplace drama(!) about people trying to change the corporate world from the inside-out. That last incarnation was probably the best, but the show boasted lots of fun throughout, even if it was never the cultural touchstone its parent series (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) was. Like all of Whedon's shows, Angel is about the price of doing good in a world that often would rather you just go along with the flow. Also like all of Whedon's shows, it had a definite silly streak. Unlike its parent show, Angel often offered no pat resolutions (pointing the way forward to Firefly), and this hurt its reputation among fans somewhat (the series ender is essentially a cliffhanger, though it's thematically appropriate with what came before). But I think Angel, newly available in a full-series DVD, while obviously a show that took some time to find its legs, is an underrated allegory about how hard it is to live in a city (especially Los Angeles) and just how much of your soul is sapped away just in the process of being a responsible adult who wants to do good in a mind-numbing urban world. It's sort of The Wire with demons.

3) Murder One
ABC, produced 1995-1997
Yes, I know that video has nothing to do with Murder One, but it's what came up when I searched the show on YouTube.

Murder One is a great example of a two-season wonder where the second season was so much of a let-down that it ultimately removed the show from almost everyone's radar. How often do you hear critics talk about Murder One nowadays, even though both of its seasons are available on DVD and the serialized storytelling it was a pioneer in has become almost de riguer on TV? The series had a fantastic first season, where an intricately plotted mystery slowly unfolded, and fantastic performances from Daniel Benzali and Stanley Tucci drove the twisting plot. The series was beloved by critics, who had never seen anything quite like it, and they quickly pushed for its renewal, despite low ratings (ABC had the idiocy to put it on opposite ER at that show's height). The series garnered a slew of Emmy nominations, and then it quickly fell apart in a second season that wasn't bad but didn't feel at all like the show that everyone had fallen in love with (it didn't help that the series got rid of Benzali for season two, replacing him with a very good Antony LaPaglia, who just couldn't match up to Benzali's gruff dominance). Most notably, the series got rid of the overarching storyline, replacing it with several smaller arcs that made the show feel like just another LA Law clone, if grittier. Murder One has largely been forgotten, which is unfortunate, and the first season is well worth your time.

2) Malcolm in the Middle
Fox, produced 2000-2006

It seems odd to call a show that garnered multiple Emmys and nominations and the praise of critics and adulation of fans "underrated," but Malcolm in the Middle has never gotten enough credit for just how influential it was when it burst on the scene in 2000. Taking the single-camera style of the '80s dramedies (like Frank's Place or Hooperman) and welding it to the sheer zaniness of The Simpsons, Malcolm created something very like a live-action cartoon. While Scrubs and Arrested Development seem to get a lot of the credit for the single-camera revolution of the 2000s, Malcolm is mostly forgotten in these discussions, thanks to the slow deterioration of the show after season two (probably the show's best) and its relative unavailability on DVD (syndication has been kind to the show, but the long string of tiresome episodes toward the end of the show's run cuts into just how popular it can be in that venue). In its first two seasons, Malcolm was an impressively warm-hearted comedy about how even the most dysfunctional of families could keep it together through love. After that, the show sort of fell apart, but that's no reason to ignore just how influential and innovative the show felt when it first debuted.

1) Newhart
CBS, produced 1982-1990

Overshadowed by its predecessor series and its tremendous final five minutes, Newhart's great run has mostly been forgotten, thanks to its relative absence from cable and syndication (as well as DVD). It doesn't help that the series was constantly retooling and bounced around the schedule by its network. Even in its own time, the show was underrated (it was sort of the Newsradio of the '80s), with critics hailing its surreal Vermont setting and well-sketched characters and the Emmys consistently nominating the show without ever giving it a win. Newhart's first season was its weakest (which doesn't predict the best for the series' upcoming DVD release), but it soon grew into a more subdued Green Acres, with some of the more memorable loons in TV history orbiting around the understated Dick Loudon. Newhart is underappreciated even today, and it's one of the few sitcoms with a long run that honestly got better as it went along, training writers who would go on to work on some of the most memorable shows of the 90s.

Today's Christmas tune: It's never Christmas without a little Bing Crosby. Check out his take on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."

Tomorrow: Places 40-31, including my love for quirky small town shows taken to its hilt.


Carrie said...

Quirky small towns taken to the hilt? Could it be my favorite crazy town Twin Peaks? I just got the new box set yesterday and I can't wait to dive into that sucker over my Christmas vacation.

Jason Mittell said...

I agree that Malcolm is certainly underrated, as it is remembered mostly as the show with the screaming mom. But it was both innovative & hysterical for even longer than its first few seasons. And it featured one of the greatest comedic performances in TV history: Bryan Cranston's Hal, in which he demonstrated a complete lack of shame in his willingness to do anything for a laugh. It would fall on my own main Top 100 list.

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