One of the problems I frequently run into as a TV critic (and, yes, I get paid to do it now, so I DON'T JUST CALL MYSELF THAT) is that people get more nostalgic about TV than almost any other medium. I think it's the fact that we make a point of watching these shows week after week, to the point where we feel like these people are our friends. I'm certainly not the first to make this observation, but even I, the cold-hearted cynic, have been touched by this. How hard was it for me to give up Gilmore Girls in that largely awful final season? And I still check in with CSI when I can.
But when compiling a list (even a greatly restricted one) of the best shows of all time, one needs to set aside such nostalgia and look for something of value. So here are ten shows that I was obsessed with at some point in my life and ten reasons these shows didn't make my final list.
10) Gospel Bill
syndicated to Christian stations, produced 1981-1993
and that video has nothing to do with Gospel Bill, but it turned up when I searched for him
Gospel Bill was probably the first television show I watched on a weekly basis (aside, perhaps, from the local CBS affiliate's Captain 11, which served as my first introduction to Looney Tunes and Popeye). Parent-tested and church-approved, Gospel Bill told the tale of a sheriff in a town called Dry Gulch, who came up against a handful of crazy criminals and problems and beat them with the help of the word of the Lord, his good friends and a talking dog (no, really; his name was Barkamaeus). The show was something of a revolution in the world of Christian children's programming, in that each episode had a very basic story that served as a narrative spine for Gospel Bill to sermonize over.
So why isn't it on the list? Because what was probably the best Christian children's show of its time is still a really, really bad show. Gospel Bill is full of the very worst and most unctuous kind of '80s prosperity Christianity, not to mention wooden acting and weak writing. Still, if you want to check the show out, it airs on some Christian networks in most cable and satellite packages. Set your DVR and see the untold wonders I saw as a child.
9) The Wuzzles
In 1985, Disney made its triumphant return to televised animation with two brand new cartoons. One, Disney's Adventures of the Gummi Bears, went on to become a minor hit. The other, The Wuzzles, lasted only 13 episodes, despite a huge marketing push (and the fact that its creator was Michael Eisner himself). While the Land of Wuz resurfaces from time to time on cable, this was the first show I got really attached to that was summarily canceled (and I watched it first run, not on the Disney Channel). While all of my friends were Gummi Bearing it up, I was in love with the Wuzzles and the whole idea of a world where everything was "two-in-one." (Or, as the theme song puts it, "A little bit of this/a little bit of that/and when you add it up/you get a lot of that.") I still have a ton of the Wuzzles crap I bought at my childhood home, where various young relatives happen upon it every so often and furrow their brows, puzzled by what the 80s wrought.
So why isn't it on the list? Well, The Wuzzles also wasn't very good, if we're being honest. The theme song was catchy enough to stick in my mind all this time (even if I never quite learned all the words), but I have to give significant demerits to any show that purports to be all about a land where everything is a freakish hybrid of two already existing things, yet the main villain is quite simply an anthropomorphic crocodile. No thanks, Eisner!
8) Growing Pains
ABC, produced 1985-1992
By the time I was five, my family was watching a small amount of TV together, including The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Who's the Boss and Growing Pains. Which of these shows became my favorite? Growing Pains, of course, which is probably the worst of the four (it's a horse race with Who's the Boss, but that show, at least, had a weird conviction in its characters -- see a later list). I realize the above may make the reader believe I was totally grooving on Kirk Cameron's ultra-Christianity, but I didn't know a thing about it until the late 90s. I honestly don't know now what so appealed to me about Growing Pains, but I think it was the fact that it was so completely safe and inoffensive. I didn't like the discomfort I felt when I would stay up for Cheers with my parents, and they would glare at each other while Sam and Diane cracked wise about the sex they were or weren't having. ("You turn it off!" "No, you turn it off!" they said to each other with forceful glares.) There was no chance that Growing Pains would devolve into such a thing, and I had Kirk Cameron to thank for that, though I didn't know it at the time.
So why isn't it on the list? Didn't you read the above? This show is awful! I'm still a big fan of Alan Thicke, though, and I think he could strike it big on, say, an ABC ensemble drama as the benevolent patriarch. Don't stop believin', Thicke!
7) Little House on the Prairie
NBC, produced 1974-1983
Little House was a staple of post-school TV in rural South Dakota, and the choice of what to watch vacillated between this and the syndicated "Magical World of Disney," which my sister really enjoyed. Since she liked that and I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, I would often insist that we watch this, for my own enjoyment and to torque her off. (Also, while we're sharing personal secrets, my friends and I used to play Little House on the playground at recess. My friend and I would always fight over who got to be Laura, while another friend of mine would play Pa as a man who was gifted with superpowers by the Holy Spirit. Listen, I grew up in a weird town, and no amount of stories I tell you will make you understand how I grew up into a relatively normal, functioning adult.) Little House had a seemingly endless number of episodes, many of which were pretty bizarre (from a mime that raped Albert's lady love to Mary's husband having his sight restored by an explosion -- and did you know that guy went on to create Malcolm in the Middle? -- to the WHOLE DAMN TOWN BLOWING UP in the series finale). I'm not going to argue that Little House is awful, but it's incredibly dated, and its heartwarming schtick gets a little forced when you look at it now. Family dramas set in other time periods are inherently more believable to viewers than family dramas set in the present (for some odd reason), so there's a temptation to overrate shows like this, but this was, in many ways, the 7th Heaven of its day.
So why isn't it on the list? Despite Michael Landon's quietly commanding presence and despite the fact that this show and the books it was based on made me want to be a writer (right down to my memoir of my childhood -- Big House on the Prairie), Little House is just kind of lame. There's some good here, but not enough to outweigh the many, many years of just plain odd television.
ABC, while both shows were in production for many years, they only aired together from 1989-1991
TGIF was a staple of the life of every kid born between 1975 and 1990, I like to think (and by focusing on these two years, I'm ignoring Step by Step, which was ANOTHER show I really liked for some reason), largely because it was something parents could set their kids in front of for a couple of hours. Cook up a pizza, get out some sodas, and get ready for the weekend. Why, you could even leave the kids alone and go have sex or something. They'd be too entranced by Urkel! TGIF was the last successful programming on Friday nights, and I don't think anyone feels really good about having watched it, even though we all did. For a long, weird period there, Full House was my favorite show on television, and I was always upset that it didn't do very well at the Emmys. Also, during this period, I used to ride around on the lawn mower while mowing the acres of grass on our family farm and sing the Full House theme song to myself slowly and passionately, as I believed a profound piece of music deserved. I really shouldn't have done this list.
So why aren't these on the list? Unless you care to make a reasoned argument for Perfect Strangers (and I don't recommend you do), there's really no reason to even belabor this point. Moving on then.
ABC, produced from 1978-1982
In 1992, I discovered Nick at Nite. Also in 1992, I discovered Robin Williams. (I always think this had something to do with Aladdin, but the dates don't line up, which leads me to believe I came to Robin Williams through the comic stylings of Mr. Dave Coulier -- and be thankful I didn't do one of these entries on America's Funniest Home Videos.) Nick at Nite led me to many of the other shows we'll see on the list proper, but the first show I watched through, start to finish, was Mork and Mindy, embarrassingly. At the time, I was sort of hoping that my wacky impressions and crazy mugging would eventually land me a career as a comedian, but I think it just mostly pissed my parents off. Other collateral damage from being addicted to Mork and Mindy? I got really excited for a short-lived 1992 sitcom called Rhythm and Blues that starred some Robin Williams wannabe. Also, after becoming addicted to Mork and Mindy, I developed a sitcom starring myself as a wacky alien boy who landed in a small South Dakotan town and made everyone laugh with his hijinks. Its name? Tigg from Igg. Sadly, it never made it off the ground.
So why isn't this on the list? Despite Williams' agreeably antic performance (OK, agreeably may be too strong), Mork and Mindy was always reinventing itself for no particular reason, so it never quite found any sort of rhythm that would have made it good. Also, it was pretty awful.
ABC, produced from 1991-1999
HERE we go. Home Improvement was the last show my family really watched together as a family. It's also probably the first time I was really aware of a difference between my opinion and the critical consensus. Despite the fact that Home Improvement had its critical champions (Rolling Stone, of all publications, was a big fan) and despite the fact that Home Improvement was nominated for Emmys, the opinion of the show overall has not improved with time (and it wasn't all that hot to begin with). The show was THE show there for a little while (and everyone -- including myself -- was perfecting a Tim Allen-type grunt), though its run atop the Nielsen charts was stopped rather quickly by the Seinfeld juggernaut. I loved Home Improvement, but I also ran into criticism of it and was surprised to find that I sort of agreed with what the critics had to say about it (it was kind of repetitive? Well, yes it was. . .it was kind of unoriginal? Dammit. . .that was true too). Still, for the first three seasons or so, Home Improvement was it. I lost track of it after that, as I entered adolescence in earnest and moved on to other shows (which will turn up on the list proper). The last time I ever saw Home Improvement was in its next-to-last season when it was on at the hospital where I went to visit my grandmother after she had the surgery to stop her breast cancer, the surgery that largely left her a shell of herself. It's weird the way we attach innocuous things to important moments in our lives, and I, apparently, attach television shows to them. Terrific.
So why isn't this on the list? Eh. . .it's not all THAT bad, but it's still pretty bad. And when you reflect on how popular this show was, it just seems so WEIRD, you know? I mean, Tim Allen was THAT popular? Odd.
NBC and CBS, produced from 1987-1999
Unsolved Mysteries scared the crap out of me as a kid. It's also perhaps the most durable show on this list. I was still watching it when I was in college, finding the Lifetime reruns to be the perfect break between classes (to the point where I would occasionally miss a class to watch them). Unsolved Mysteries isn't particularly great television, but it's an entertaining enough format, and I'm not surprised that Spike TV has resurrected the show for broadcast in 2008.
So why isn't it on the list? Because, despite its durability, this is nowhere near one of the 100 best shows of all time, even with the heavy restrictions I've placed on the list. Also, the acting in the reenactments was pretty bad. That said, I'm still frightened by the story of the couple that drove by the guy who was shoving a bloody corpse into a basement or somesuch.
NBC, produced from 1996-1997
Woo! Dark Skies! Even when I was watching this as a teenager, I knew it was pretty terrible television. But, to be honest, I'm still impressed by just how much the writers would lay it all on the line to keep their complicated alien conspiracies a-going. They were happy to ditch storylines that weren't working, kill off characters, send other characters to the dark side and do whatever was necessary to keep the plot twisting. The storyline behind the show (the last 50 years of human history were a lie) was impossibly convoluted and stupid, but the character stories the show told within that framework were pretty impressive. Since the characters the show had weren't that great, this is all less impressive than it sounds, but I actually learned a lot from Dark Skies about how a television show can take an audience up to a point where it says, "Oh, they'll never do that," and then actually DO it. The moment when the main character (see, I can't remember his name!) lost his lover to the alien menace is still stamped on my brain.
So why isn't it on the list? Because, all things considered, the alien stuff was just too stupid and time consuming.
Fox, produced from 1994-2000
(And by now you've realized this list was roughly chronological, right?)
Party of Five is probably the best show on this list of ten, but it wasn't good enough to make the top 100. Its first three seasons are really solid family soap stuff, nicely detailed and hyper-focused, to the point where you wondered if the producers were aiming at making a twentysomething version of thirtysomething. The last three seasons kind of lost the plot after that, what with the show deciding that every season needed to have some sort of MAJOR CRISIS (to complement Julia's pregnancy and Bailey's alcoholism from seasons two and three respectively). The characters were compelling enough still, but the show felt like just another show instead of the slightly dark and offbeat thing it had been. Still, it was my introduction to the wonders of serialized television that DIDN'T have aliens in it, and for that, I'm thankful.
So why isn't it on the list? Honestly, it was on my initial list, but it missed the cutoff for the top 100. It probably would have made a top 200 though!
Every day, also, you get a Christmas song, many of which might end up on the SDD Christmas compilation, coming a little closer to the holiday. Today's is "Imagine Santa."
(If you enjoy this at all, please link to it. And though this is intended to be vaguely scholarly, I hope you'll share your favorite memories of the TV you watched as a kid in the comments.)
Tomorrow: The top 100 begins with places 100-91.
Thursday, December 06, 2007
CBS, produced 1985
6) TGIF (the Full House/Family Matters years)
5) Mork and Mindy
4) Home Improvement
3) Unsolved Mysteries
2) Dark Skies
1) Party of Five