Monday, December 24, 2007

SDD's top 100 series of all time -- Supplemental list #10: 30 other shows I like

No list is ever complete. We're always watching and learning and remembering. So here are 25 shows that I thought about including on one of the lists but just didn't, along with some brief thoughts on them.

Quickly then!

ABC News World News Tonight with Peter Jennings
ABC, produced 1983-2005

I grew up with Peter Jennings broadcasts, and I always had a soft spot for the guy. For my money, he was the best of his generation of broadcasters, and when he passed away, I was rather affected by it. I ended up not including Jennings because he didn't have nearly the influence of Cronkite, and it seemed like it would be strange to include two evening news broadcasts in the list when one of them wasn't The Huntley-Brinkley Report (which I haven't seen).

ABC, produced 2001-2006

For a while there, I was OBSESSED with Alias and its goofy blend of spy action, romance and comedy. Then J.J. Abrams found other things to be interested in, and the show kind of fell apart in its final three seasons. Still, the first two years are well worth a look. I ultimately left the show off the list because Lost is a better distillation of the Abrams ethos (even if he left that show after seven episodes), and Alias was just too uneven.

An American Family
PBS, produced 1973

The original reality show, An American Family was the button-pushing story of the Loud family of California, featuring someone who would become television's first gay character (son Lance, often incorrectly cited as having come out on the show). The moment when Pat asked her husband for a divorce has become a notable one, and it spoke to an emotional power reality TV would rarely match. That said, I've only seen the series premiere, and I'm uncertain how to define it, as it only lasted one season by design (so wouldn't that make it a miniseries?).

Andy Richter Controls the Universe
Fox, produced 2002-2003

Andy Richter Controls the Universe is easily one of my favorite short-lived shows of the decade and one of those shows that still gives me laughs to this day when I think back on some of its more bizarre gags. But the show was so short-lived that it never quite lived up to its full potential and the title of "short-lived Fox show that tried new things with the sitcom form" went to Arrested Development a year later.

Brooklyn Bridge
CBS, produced 1991-1993

One of my first obsessions with a show that I watched purely for its good reviews was when I took up watching Brooklyn Bridge early in its short run. The warm, sensitive tale of a boy growing up with a large extended family in the 1950s, the show was clearly a Wonder Years homage, but it had its own strengths. Of the three "shows set in the past" from the early '90s (this, Homefront and I'll Fly Away), this was my favorite, but I haven't seen it since I was a young boy, so its quality may have been inflated in my mind. Bring it out on DVD already!

NBC, produced 1971-1978

After Rockford, Columbo is my favorite detective of the '70s and one of the few whose forced quirks still hold up in this day and age. Peter Falk's performance was one for the ages, but the show's nature as a collection of made-for-TV movies had me ambiguous about its nature. Furthermore, the series was a little predictable and formulaic -- not the sort of qualities you look for in a detective series. Falk's work is so great, though, that you should check out at least the second and third seasons, where names like Steven Spielberg and Stephen Bochco cut their teeth.

Curb Your Enthusiasm
HBO, produced 2000-present

Good Curb is the closest successor to Seinfeld we have. Bad Curb is darn near unbearable, as it's close to the most formulaic show currently on television (making it way too easy to predict where things are going when it doesn't do enough to differentiate itself), despite the fact that the show presents itself as one of unpredictable wackiness. That said, the show's warped showbiz universe is terrifically funny, especially in its portrayal of folks like Ted Danson as people who are only out to get Larry David.

CBS, produced 1978-1991

One of the most successful series in the history of television, Dallas hasn't aged all that well (its greatest challenger, Dynasty, hasn't aged well at all), but there's still a lot to like in the big and bold series, especially the performances of Larry Hagman and Patrick Duffy, grounding the show with genuine TV star charisma. I almost threw this on the list (it bounced around in the 90s for a while) based on influence alone, but I don't think it holds up as well as other critics.

Davey and Goliath
syndicated, produced 1960-1964

Davey and Goliath, one of the original religious children's programs, remains the best, largely because it's not in-your-face about its convictions. Like the VeggieTales (the show's most obvious successors), the series aims to teach children gentle moral lessons without pushing too hard or alienating anyone. Davey and Goliath is cheekily wholesome, and the production values aren't all that great, but it's way, way better than you remember.

syndicated, produced 1968-1996

Phil Donahue was an unabashed liberal who caught a lot of guff for using his show to advance his agenda (and for letting that show often turn into a tabloid morass), but he also had people on who were designed to both challenge him and his audience (that's conservative economist Milton Friedman of all people, above). Donahue invented a trash genre, but the original article wasn't as one-sided as its reputation.

ABC, produced 1981-1989

Camp doesn't age particularly well, and Dynasty, which I originally had on the list, has aged worse than many of the other soaps (or even shows) of the time. Still, there's no denying just how fun the show could be, with its cat fights and plot twists and ludicrous cliffhangers. I put it on this list for Joan Collins alone.

NBC, produced 1994-present

Early ER was pretty great, anchored by compelling characters played by an excellent cast and fast-paced scripts that skated by some of the show's implausibilities. Latter-period ER (basically everything after maybe season six) is mediocre in a way that reflects poorly on the original show, pointing out things in the show that had always been flaws but were more easily disguised before. Regrettably, I left the show off the list, though the first three seasons are uniformly excellent.

The WB, produced 1998-2002

Felicity's the ultimate college soap, a show that started out frustratingly self-involved and eventually morphed into kind of a daffy romantic comedy. It's a very good show, and it's handsomely produced, but I didn't put it on the list because it was never a show I was simply dying to see, despite its obvious quality. That said, Keri Russell deserves to be a much bigger star than she is.

First Person
Bravo, produced 2000-2001

Bravo gave documentarian Errol Morris a bunch of money and hired him to make two seasons worth of short subjects about weirdly interesting people from around the country, from a guy with a high IQ to someone who invented a more humane way to kill cattle. Morris' egalitarian spirit ran throughout the series, but it was a mere trifle in the face of his films (which would be all over my top 100 films of all time list). Still, it's a great series, and its spirit lives on in the promising new This American Life series on Showtime.

The Fugitive
CBS, produced 1963-1967

I thought about putting this on the list, but it's not as good as its reputation, which largely resides on the fact that it was one of the first shows to have an overarching "mythology" and the first show to have a series finale (where our main guy caught the one-armed man). Still, this update of the Valjean/Javert relationship from Les Miserables has a propulsiveness and a pace that's unusual for its era. It's worth a look.

PBS, produced 1983-present

Perhaps the best American documentary series and one of the best things PBS has ever done, Frontline aired too sporadically to make the main list, but I wanted to make sure it wasn't forgotten. The series is a terrific look at the big stories of the day, both on a national and international level, and it usually takes a closer look at its subjects than most regular news programs.

LA Law
NBC, produced 1986-1994

My least favorite of Stephen Bochco's big three (Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and this), LA Law still has quite a bit to recommend it, even if its hot-button issue posturing and theatrical stylings made for a show that could often go over-the-top (and even if the show gave David E. Kelley his start). LA Law's blend of bizarre comedy and legal shenanigans was unlike anything else on TV, and it's easy to see why it became such a huge hit, even if it doesn't hold up as well as its cop show cousins.

Late Night with Conan O'Brien
NBC, produced 1993-present

Conan's start was shaky (and his reviews were famously nasty), but O'Brien, sidekick Andy Richter and bandleader Max Weinberg quickly turned the show into one of the more surreal late-night comedy shows on the air, with a host of odd recurring characters. I think Conan's been coasting for a while, but his late '90s stuff was brilliantly funny. Still, he's a damn sight better than Jay Leno, and his inheritance of the Tonight Show chair can't come soon enough.

CBS, produced 1972-1978

The best of the All in the Family spinoffs, Maude is even more outdated than its parent series, but it's got a terrific Bea Arthur performance at its center that makes the show worth checking out if you like Norman Lear-style sitcoms. While The Jeffersons was always more successful in the ratings and in syndication, I think Maude is slightly better, if only because it had stronger character-based writing and acting.

Mr. Show
HBO, produced 1995-1998

One thing I discovered while doing this list is that I actually DO like a lot of sketch comedy, and Mr. Show is a show I really enjoy that I kept off the list, largely because it's such a cult thing -- you either get it or you don't. Many, many people don't, but for those of us who do, Mr. Show is a constant delight, the kind of weird, skewed sketch comedy that's designed to be watched late at night while having a few beers with friends.

Night Court
NBC, produced 1984-1992

Night Court is the unfairly lambasted "weak link" of the famous NBC comedy bloc (also containing Cosby Show, Family Ties and Cheers), but I think it's an underrated little bit of weirdness, a kind of cross between Green Acres, Barney Miller and All in the Family. Not all of it works, but the show has such terrific characters and bizarre running gags that the series manages to work in spite of itself often.

ABC, produced 1980-present

Presided over by Ted Koppel for most of its run and started as a way to give Americans updates on the Iranian hostage situation, Nightline was a free-wheeling chat show that often pitted various people with different points of view up against each other. It didn't invent the debate format, but it certainly popularized it, and it popularized the idea of people getting something a little sobering before tucking in for the night.

The Outer Limits
ABC, produced 1963-1965

That other sci fi anthology from the '60s is better than you remembered, though it can't quite get out of the long shadow of The Twilight Zone (which hasn't turned up yet on the main list. . .hmmmmmmm. . .). Still, it's a fun show with some great episodes that play off Cold War fears and concerns and manage to make the show a coolly paranoid Wonderland.

Pee-wee's Playhouse
CBS, produced 1986-1990

One of the strangest series to ever hit it big was, of course, a kids show (what else COULD it be?). Everything inside the playhouse talked, and the conversation was laced with jokes for kids and their adults. The show could be a little annoying, as could the manchild played by Paul Reubens, but the series as a whole was such a fun and visually inventive treat that it deserves to be remembered.

The Practice
ABC, produced 1997-2004

After Picket Fences, this is David E. Kelley's finest hour and one of the few shows where he tried to maintain some semblance of reality before going off the rails. The series fell apart there after the third season or so, but before that, it was a surprisingly passionate show about people who wanted to do the right thing and still practice law and the ways those two things came into conflict with each other.

Quantum Leap
NBC, produced 1989-1993

Quantum Leap is essential cheesy television and a surprisingly successful version of a ludicrous concept. A lot of this is due to Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell, who essay the roles of Sam and Al perfectly, but the concept proves to be stronger than it initially seems, and its depiction of the 20th century in America was very well done. Even if the show ended up being pretty bad toward the end of its run, it still managed to get four good seasons.

The Real World
MTV, produced 1992-present

Often cited as the birth of reality TV, The Real World has mostly become unwatchable, but there was a lot about it that was fresh and cool in its first few seasons. I don't really buy that there's anything about this that's at all real (and ain't that always the way?), but I like the way the show turned real people into what everyone aspires to be -- television characters.

Rescue Me
FX, produced 2004-present

In its first two seasons, Rescue Me was compulsively watchable, frequently terrific television. But it slowly fell apart over the course of its next two seasons, so I left it off the list, even though I loved the early stuff. Still, there's a bruised soul to this show that's unlike almost anything else on TV, and the performance by Denis Leary is scary great.

NBC, produced 2001-present

I've never been as big a fan of Scrubs as some, but there's a lot of goofy joy in the show when it's in its zone (as it was for much of its first couple of seasons). Later on, the show became more and more strained as it asked us to believe J.D. was more and more of a manchild, but the show's blend of comedy and drama was a lot like earlier, better series like St. Elsewhere or M*A*S*H. Still, few shows went as far for laughs as Scrubs did, and it could be very funny.

Siskel & Ebert at the Movies
PBS/syndicated, produced 1975-1999

This is more of a sentimental choice than anything else, but Siskel & Ebert were a longtime fixture in my household, and the two introduced me to substantive film criticism. Their discussion of obscure films could push those films into the public eye, and their passion for the medium came through in a palpable way. For a long time, I had Siskel & Ebert at 100 on the list, but I just couldn't justify it in the end. Now, I wish I had left it there.

Today's Christmas tune: Sufjan Stevens' "Songs for Christmas" is my favorite Christmas collection of the last few years. Here he is on the old, underrecorded hymn, "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing."

Tomorrow: The top ten. Have a merry Christmas!

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