Sunday, December 09, 2007

SDD's Top 100 Shows of All Time: Places #90-81





90) Beavis and Butthead
MTV, produced 1993-1997

What: Mike Judge, one of America's finest practitioners of close, observational humor, had his first major success with this examination of suburban detritus and dumbass kids who have no thought beyond doing stupid things to entertain each other. Profound? No. Or, maybe, it was. The show's minimalist animation style that didn't even TRY to look good created a style that would benefit everything on [adult swim] and South Park in the years to come.

Why: Judge went on to greater things over the years, and the shows that B&B inspired to try greater and grosser things ultimately surpassed it, but the two idiot teens were hilarious and compulsively watchable. Judge was the first to really capture that large portions of adolescence are marked by just sitting around and doing nothing, whether that nothing be watching music videos, wandering around the strip-mall-infested town you live in or working a dead-end job to scrape together a little cash. Beavis and Butthead are complete idiots (and they ignited their share of controversy by portraying a very SPECIFIC type of jackass so incredibly well), and they're not to be emulated, but Judge earns points for really knowing what it feels like to be a teenager with a whole lot of nothing to do stretching out in front of you. The show only aired for four years (which seems way too short) and was the center of popular culture for only a few months, but its influence stretches far and wide. Also, it spun off the ridiculously entertaining Daria.

Best season: Most of the famous segments come from the second season, when the show was still unconstrained by the knowledge that really little kids were watching it.

Best episode:
"Burger World," shown above, is probably the best segment (numerous segments were shifted around from episode to episode, mixed and matched with various music videos), perfectly portraying the mind-numbing hell of fast food work and mixing in the proto-Hank Hill Mr. Anderson (by far my favorite character).

Did you know?: The title characters are the only animated guests in the history of Late Show with David Letterman (watch the interview here).

Available on DVD?: A number of segments and a few music videos are available on a handful of "best of" DVDs, chosen by Mike Judge himself.





89) The Cosby Show
NBC, produced 1984-1992

What: Beloved comedian Bill Cosby made his triumphant return to TV in an unassuming series that saved the sitcom back when few of them were successful and managed to reinvent the format. The Cosby Show is one of the only television series to rank at the top of the Nielsen rankings for five seasons (though the last of those seasons was in a tie with Roseanne), and its gentle stories made it essential family viewing and the last really big hit on network TV.

Why: The Cosby Show eventually got so impressed with itself and its accomplishments (wouldn't you if you saved the sitcom?) that it disappeared up into itself and its own arrogance, with whole episodes that were bizarre dream sequences or plotless affairs where nothing happened and we got to see long, pointless routines from the Cos himself. But in the first two seasons (and sort of the third), the show was a revelation, returning the increasingly silly and gimmicky sitcom format to a place where the characters were recognizable and the stories were so small as to be almost non-existent. The sitcom had gotten incredibly convoluted and unrelatable in the late 70s (sound familiar?), and The Cosby Show deflated all of that by just telling tiny little stories about a family that was full of love and caring for each other. The Cosby Show was a warm, welcoming place, where the viewer felt happy just to hang out with the Huxtables (and what a great name!).

Best season: The Emmy-winning first season was the one where the show was the least self-impressed, probably because it still had something to prove. Most of the famous episodes are from this season as well.

Best episode: "Mr. Fish," the series SECOND EPISODE, is a perfect example of the kinds of small-scale storytelling The Cosby Show did best. The fish funeral is a classic TV moment, one that you instantly recognize when it turns up in a clips package.

Did you know?: In the pilot, the Huxtables only have four children. The character of Sandra was added in the first season's Thanksgiving episode to show that the educational philosophies Cosby espoused could be successful.

Available on DVD?: Most of the seasons are available on DVD; all of them should be available sometime next year.





88) Everwood
The WB, produced 2002-2006

What: One of the few family dramas ever to mix soapy-type goodness with the sort of after-school-special storytelling that family dramas usually engage in, Everwood was a hyper-earnest love letter to the idea of the small town as something that could heal anything -- broken families, strained friendships, dying loves. The show was occasionally corny, but it had a stellar cast and a strange faith in its principles that carried it over the rough patches.

Why: I have a thing for small-town shows, so Everwood may end up being an intensely personal choice, but I think there's a lot of good there that other shows could learn from. At its best, Everwood was like an ever-expanding series of one-act plays, all of them featuring two characters just sharing a room and talking out their feelings. It sounds a little ooey-gooey, and it could be, but Everwood was also one of the better portrayals of how hard it is to work at a relationship, to build it one brick at a time. You fans of Brothers & Sisters can look at this show to see Greg Berlanti learning the way to create believable, emotional melodrama -- it's like a master class in making the audience get the sniffles.

Best season: The third season introduced the essential character of Hannah (the perfect Sarah Drew), who drew out both of the Abbott children in different ways, and it ditched the cloying narration of seasons one and two. It also contained the most surprisingly good storyline in the never-ending story of Dr. Brown and his son, Ephram -- when Dr. Brown tried to keep Ephram's son a secret from him. Like I said, corny, but Everwood somehow made you invest.

Best episode: "Episode 20," from the first season, took on abortion and revealed that many of the characters had surprising takes on the issue. Plus, it introduced the world to Kate Mara!

Did you know?: Greg Berlanti had a seven-season plan for the series that he kept in his head, leading his writers to pitch stories to him that he would reveal would happen in, say, season six. Sadly, we only got to see four of these seasons, as the show was the last canceled in the WB/UPN merger.

Available on DVD?: Only season one is available on DVD. Sad time now.





87) Futurama
Fox/Comedy Central, produced 1999-2003/2008

What: When the Fox network handed Matt Groening what amounted to a blank check after The Simpsons, he created a show that would deflate all of the old science fiction cliches, complete with crazy technology of the future, a wacky robot and an alien who looked like a lobster. Like The Simpsons, Groening mixed in a liberal dose of heart to keep his creation from becoming too airy. Also like The Simpsons, Futurama is almost incredibly dense, though in this case, the episodes are so packed with sight gags and inside jokes to unpack that I'm still entertained by reruns after 10 or 11 times through them.

Why: Futurama took the great jokes and social commentary of The Simpsons and wed them to something that approached continuing storylines. While each episode told a self-contained story, they also held moments that would flirt with changing up relationships on the show forever. The long courtship of Fry and Leela was the most obvious version of this, but the various members of Planet Express would see the ways they felt about each other slowly evolve over the course of the series. The show's universe was big enough to contain every hoary old science fiction trope you could think of, and while that limited the series' potential audience, to a degree, it also let the series sneak in inside jokes catered almost exclusively to math and science geeks, as well as sci-fi aficionados.

Best season: The fourth and final season was the one where the show felt as if it was finally getting a grip on what it could and couldn't do (The Simpsons also had its finest episodes in its fourth season).

Best episode:
There are few people who would disagree with "Jurassic Bark," one of the tear-jerkingest episodes in the history of TV.

Did you know?: Groening and co-creator David X. Cohen bragged about the alien language they had invented for the series, but fans had it cracked within the first airing of the first season. So they invented a second alien language, with a much more complex cipher, which took fans a lot longer.

Available on DVD?: All seasons are available, and a new made-for-DVD movie was released recently.





86) The Amazing Race
CBS, produced 2001-present

What: CBS followed up its reality-competition success with Survivor and Big Brother with this show, which stubbornly failed to catch on for season after season, becoming something of a cult item and the rare reality show that stays on the air thanks to critical acclaim. It eventually caught on with viewers (thanks to airing in the summer), and the Race brought its unique blend of reality show hijinks, travelogue and perfect casting to the screen for seasons to come.

Why: Of all of the Survivor clones, The Amazing Race managed best to master Survivor's blend of great editing, strong challenges and excellent casting, then went one better by sending the show all over the globe and sending the contestants careening off of other cultures. In recent seasons, this has gotten a little predictable (and the ugly Americanism of the contestants gets harder and harder to watch), but for the first handful of seasons (excluding the family edition), there was nothing quite like the Race for an adrenaline rush. And there was more than escapism going on in the show, since it also managed to impart a sense of every country it visited, tossing a weird educational bent into a genre that rarely has one. In its best seasons, the Race keeps a whole lot of plates spinning, all while walking a high-wire at the same time. You almost watch just to see how they'll keep it up. It helps that the two-person teams add a dynamic that make alliances (which dominate other reality shows) problematic at best.

Best season:
Season five managed to blend sympathetic characters (the Bowling Moms! Chip and Kim!) with jackasses who weren't TOO big of jerks (Colin and Christie). All that plus, "My ox is BROKEN!" It was the season when the show finally caught on, and for good reason.

Best episode: Season seven's "Houston, We Have an Elephant" offers up a rare example of reality show karma -- where a team is rewarded for doing the right thing after a genuinely thrilling foot race.

Did you know?: Race was nearly canceled, but it was saved by a last-minute victory at the 2003 Emmys, which greenlit the fifth season, the one that gained the show widespread popularity.

Available on DVD?: Seasons one and, weirdly, seven are available on DVD. There are no plans for further releases.





85) Big Love
HBO, produced 2006-present

What: HBO makes its first appearance on the list with a family drama that spun the idea of what a family is on its ear and also offered up a thoughtful rumination on what it means to be a fundamentalist living in modern America -- a land of mega-malls, rampant consumerism and easy sex. By centering their tale of fighting to keep traditional ways of life alive amidst a family of polygamists, creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer were able to tweak fundamentalism and offer thematic parallels with the fight for gay marriage. Oh, and the show was a crazy soap, too.

Why: The show's not perfect in the way other HBO dramas are (for one thing, the plotlines on the compound often make viewers' eyes roll), but its take on an unconventional family trying to make do in modern society managed to better another HBO drama that mined similar territory -- Six Feet Under. The relationships between Bill Henrickson and his three wives are mined for every ounce of humor and pathos they can be, and the show is able to effectively portray a marriage in three different stages -- the first blush of being newlyweds, those days when you hardly recognize who you married and the point when you realize you're comfortable with who you are with this person you married so very long ago. What's more, the truly impressive female cast manages to knock everything its handed out of the park. And the show is one of the few ever to accurately portray just how hard it is to be a fundamentalist in America, where conflicting signals threaten to trip you up at every turn.

Best season: Season two took the ambitious gambits of season one and both deepened them and made them more entertaining. What was an entertaining family drama became a soap that sent its plots flying pell-mell all over the place.

Best episode: "Kingdom Come" offers a compelling plotline in the family dynamic (when Bill wants to take a night off) and manages to make the other polygamist compounds fairly interesting as well.

Did you know?: Olsen and Scheffer, a couple in real life, came up with the idea when they were trying to think of the least-likely-to-be-successful idea they could possibly come up with for a television series.

Available on DVD?: Season one is out right now. Season two is out Tuesday.





84) The Price Is Right
NBC/ABC/CBS, produced 1956-1965, 1972-present

What: One of the longest-running game shows and one of the few to survive the game-show scandals of the mid-50s, The Price Is Right is a game that theoretically anyone can play. If you've ever been to the supermarket or the mall, you can bid on an item, play a wacky mini-game (go, Plinko!), spin the wheel or take part in the Showcase Showdown. Hosted for almost all of its run by the affable Bob Barker, the show was simultaneously the game show that was the easiest to play and the hardest to get right.

Why: It's that dichotomy that makes The Price Is Right so great -- it's just simply great shouting-at-the-TV television. It helps that the contestants are regular people, culled from the studio audience throughout each show. If you go to see a taping of The Price Is Right, you, yourself, could be pulled up there on stage to win a NEWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW CAR or, more likely, a living room set that looks airlifted in from the 70s. Any given episode is like a cross-section of whatever America looked like in the year it was filmed, from the items that people are bidding on to the people that do the bidding. No other show on television takes as much pride in the "just regular folks" it finds to be its contestant. The earlier version of the show was a much more traditional game show, but it's fun to watch, especially since you can see the seeds of the present version being planted. Drew Carey recently took over from Barker as host, and he's doing a fine job in what must be the toughest job on television -- filling in for a national icon.

Best season: This isn't really applicable, but for my money, the show was most entertaining in the '80s.

Best episode: Ummmmmm. . .have you seen that one where they call the woman's name and she doesn't come on down? Well, you can now.

Did you know?: The Price Is Right is the American game show that has been exported to the most countries. The few countries it hasn't been ragingly successful in include Greece and Pakistan.

Available on DVD?: There's a best-of set that's available.





83) Sex and the City
HBO, produced 1998-2004

What: HBO arrived at its first truly big hit seemingly by accident, when it put this series based on the columns of Candace Bushnell on the air. A mix of frothy comedy and soapy drama, Sex and the City captured the then burgeoning popularity of chick lit by presenting a version of New York City that was close to reality but just far enough off to leave the show's fans sure that if they lived there, they could have the fabulous lifestyle the show advertised. By distilling its four main characters down to very basic types, the show also made itself a play-along-at-home version of itself. Were you a Carrie? Or a Miranda? (I was a Charlotte.)

Why: To be perfectly honest, I had left this off a very early draft of the list, simply because I've always thought the air slowly leaked out of the show there toward the end and in doing so, the series revealed weaknesses that had always been there but were easily patched over by the show's newness and novelty. Toward the end, though, the series revealed that deep down, like all chick lit, it wasn't really about being the best, strongest woman you could be for the characters; it was all about finding the right guy. Some of these stories (Charlotte's, for example) were touching. Some were ludicrous and forced (Carrie's, in that awful finale). But all of them followed such a time-worn path that the shock of the early seasons (were these women really TALKING like this?) revealed itself to have always been a Trojan horse for a fairly typical storyline that offers diminishing returns on revisits. What's more, the show's beloved "realism" isn't really all that real. Real women don't talk like this. The girls of Sex and the City talk like what a hyper-articulate gay man who's lived in NYC or LA his whole life THINKS women might talk like when they're alone. And real women, grateful to have interesting female characters based on them, would take what they could get. BUT. There's something strangely addictive about Sex and the City all the same. I'm far from the show's target audience, and I found myself drawn in to the storylines over the summer (in the syndicated reruns, of all things). At its best (especially in seasons 2-4), Sex and the City really honed in on exactly what makes chick lit so enjoyable. It's comfort-food TV, yes, but it's really well-executed comfort-food TV. And to deny that it was influential is ridiculous; after all, we wouldn't have Desperate Housewives without Sex and the City, and we wouldn't have half the ABC lineup without Desperate Housewives. So Sex and the City goes on the list.

Best season: Season three was when the show's mixture of heartbreak and humor hit its high point (I checked with Andy, and he agreed).

Best episode: "Easy Come, Easy Go" is probably the best episode the series had at balancing a truly funny and sexy story with one where one of the main character's hearts was breaking.

Did you know?: Darren Star and Candace Bushnell created the series together from her columns (though only Star received WGA credit), but the two found a rift in their friendship soon after the show finished airing. Now, both are prepping midseason SATC clones for separate networks.

Available on DVD?: The whole thing's on DVD, and there's even a complete box set if you want to check it out.





82) Everybody Loves Raymond
CBS, produced 1996-2005

What: The last big sitcom hit was such a straightforward and classicist show that it almost seemed anachronistic to modern-day viewers. Indeed, this might be the most hated show in the history of the Internet, posters across the nation unsure of just WHY this show was such a big hit. And the show IS easy to hate, presenting one of the darkest, most spiteful visions of the American family ever on television -- as a place where no one can escape and the love you feel for each other sporadically is cold comfort. Almost psychologically brutal, Raymond is a show that takes a few episodes to figure out, which could be why it took so long to catch on.

Why: Look. I know, like, five of you like this show, and I know it won WAY too many undeserved Emmys (Doris Roberts was great on the show, but I got sick of her braying self-congratulations at the awards year after year). But hear me out here. Raymond's deliberate classicism and adherence to the traditional sitcom form (one story per hour, usually about something tiny and relatable; all of the characters comment on said story, instead of having stories of their own; broad, farcical acting style) actually speaks to its desire to break that form down, to find the lies lurking inside of it. For the most part, when there's a moment on Raymond when the studio audience goes "Awwww!" it's earned, because the characters are otherwise such intolerable bastards to each other the rest of the time. On, say, Full House, Stephanie might be mean to DJ for a little while, but this was all going to get settled by the end of the episode, and the two would go on loving each other. On Raymond, the individual storyline might get settled, but the war would continue. I don't for a moment think that Raymond's unrelenting bleakness is at all something that is more "realistic," but I admire its tenacity at deconstructing that bleakness, at watching the ways the sins of the father are visited on the son (think of all of the ways the sons try to not be like Frank, only to fail, and then think of how they realize in the final season that Frank broke with his father in a fairly significant way, making him the only character on the series capable of real change -- and he previously seemed the LEAST capable of it). I'm sorry Raymond won all of those Emmys. But the series isn't as bad as it was made out to be when reactionary anger held forth against it. It's worthy of an Internet critical reappraisal.

Best season: Season six, where the show's acid relationships finally burst forth in vitriol in a number of ways. After this, the show was too mean much of the time, making it tiresome to watch. But man, that season was great.

Best episode: "The Angry Family" is just a terrific look at the ways we influence our children when we're unaware of it (and also a snide comment on what might be the TRUE biggest influence in their lives).

Did you know?: In its early seasons, when the show was not a hit, critics begged and begged for the Emmys to take notice of it, but ATAS never did. Pity, too, as Peter Boyle, the only cast member to never win an Emmy for his work on the show, was the best in those seasons.

Available on DVD?: Every season is on DVD, and a complete series set is also available.





81) The Bob Newhart Show
CBS, produced 1972-1978

What: The Bob Newhart Show was the first commercially successful attempt to put the affable but flustered Bob Newhart into a television show (an earlier effort in the 60s was more of a variety show -- it won the Emmy but only lasted a season). The producers were wise to avoid pushing Newhart too hard to act or create a character, instead coming up with an occupation that would fit his persona (psychiatrist). They surrounded him with strong actors (especially Suzanne Pleshette) and unleashed the definitive series about the weirdness of living in the 70s.

Why: What's great about Bob Newhart is that there's a fairly easy formula to use to get great comedy from him in a sitcom-type setting: surround him with as many crazy people as you can and see what happens. Newhart is the perpetual straight man in a world of crazies, and while The Bob Newhart Show wasn't the first sitcom to mine this premise, it was the first to do so in a relatively normal setting (that of young marrieds in Chicago). Bob Hartley spent most of his time dealing with his bizarre patients, but he also had to put up with insecure neighbors, preening lotharios at work and a wife who seemed too sexy for him by half (the producers stated that they way they saw to make Newhart seem sexy was to have Suzanne Pleshette play his obviously-crazy-for-him wife). The Bob Newhart Show seems almost staid by today's standards, but in its time, it was the fastest-paced, wackiest sitcom around, the perfect capper to the best night of comedy of all time.

Best season: The show's best years were 3-5, and four was the best of these seasons. Those were the years when a change in showrunners really allowed the writers to cut loose with the crazy people they surrounded Bob with.

Best episode: "Over the River and Through the Woods" is one of THE great Thanksgiving episodes of all time, featuring Bob and his friends getting sloshed (Newhart was great at playing drunk) when Emily leaves Bob to fend for himself over the holiday. They call out to order Chinese food in one of the funniest scenes of all time.

Did you know?: The decidedly atypical pilot (which was all about Bob and Emily wanting children -- something Newhart insisted the show proper not be about) was aired ninth in the series. Despite attempts to make the show fit more with the other episodes, it still stands out as jarring.

Available on DVD?:
Seasons one through four are on DVD, and there are no plans to release the other two, which is too bad, as season five is a great one.

The list so far:
81) The Bob Newhart Show
82) Everybody Loves Raymond
83) Sex and the City
84) The Price is Right
85) Big Love
86) The Amazing Race
87) Futurama
88) Everwood
89) The Cosby Show
90) Beavis and Butthead
91) Firefly
92) Leave it to Beaver
93) Alfred Hitchcock Presents
94) Picket Fences
95) Veronica Mars
96) WKRP in Cincinnati
97) Project Runway
98) How I Met Your Mother
99) The Adventures of Pete and Pete
100) Aqua Teen Hunger Force

Today's Christmas tune: Never heard the Old-Time Radio shenanigans of The Cinnamon Bear? Well, you're in luck, as today brings the weird serial's first installment.

Tomorrow: Ten specials, made-for-TV movies and miniseries, including two big seasonal favorites.

2 comments:

Carrie said...

Everwood. How I love that show. More distressing than the fact that they aren't planning on releasing any more DVD sets (due to weak sales) is the fact that ABC Family bought the syndication rights, ran the entire series only one time, and then replaced it with 7th Heaven. I keep my ABCF Tivo season pass for that fateful day they bring the reruns back, but I'm not holding my breath. It's been over a year. :(

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